Ireland has experienced huge changes in society over the last thirty years. While traditionally Ireland was a predominantly catholic and conservative country, attitudes and behaviours around sex are changing and with a more liberal contemporary Irish population emerging, our sex lives have transformed along with this.
The National Medicines Information Centre says, “A recent Irish study found that there was a lack of awareness amongst young people (17-34 years) of symptoms suggestive of STIs, and that there were significant levels of high risk behaviour.”
In 2006 the Crisis Pregnancy Agency and the Department of Health and Children published research on The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships by UCD. This study analysed the behaviours and attitudes of a group of Irish people in relation to sex, sexuality, contraception and sexually transmitted infections.
The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships by UCD say “There is a great deal of evidence from research that sexual culture in Ireland is undergoing immense change and moving closer to that of the UK and continental Europe.” With these changes, awareness and education surrounding the dangers and challenges faced with unprotected sex needs to be addressed in a more vigorous way, particularly for young adults.
The study revealed that younger people’s attitudes are now more liberal “Between 1973 and 2005, the proportion of Irish people agreeing that sex before marriage is ‘always wrong’ fell from 71% to 6%. Attitudes among younger Irish people have become more liberal at a faster pace than those of older Irish people.” The change in attitudes has impacted on average number of sexual partners for Irish people, which contributes to the higher levels of STIs in young adults. “Although 29% of men overall have had a single partner over lifetime, this proportion increases across age cohorts: 46% of men aged 55-64 reported a single partner compared to 23% of those aged 18 to 24.”
While the rates of partners have increased the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection increases with that. Ireland’s change in attitudes and behaviours surrounding sexual activities may not reflect their knowledge and practise. DIT students Louise Casey, 22 years old and Zoe Kinsella, 20 years old, both reveal they first received sex education in fourth year of secondary school but fail to remember any significant information given on STIs. “Just a few scary pictures, that was it” said Zoe Kinsella. Louise Casey remembers an ‘ice-breaker’ with a condom and a banana but admits she “was still a bit foggy on the STI details”.
The first year students feel female contraception methods such as the contraceptive pill impact on the use of condoms. “I think lads definitely rely on the girl to be on the pill and they look at it like it is so handy” says Louise Casey. “I feel like if you are in a relationship and both of you have been checked then you are free to have sex without a condom if you are on the pill but besides that, if you are having sex with random people and you are like ‘well I am not going to get pregnant so that’s fine’ but you can still catch loads of STIs because if that is your attitude, how many other people have that attitude?” says Zoe Kinsella.
The girls see alcohol as a huge factor for unprotected sex rates. Casey says, “When you are drunk nothing matters. You are so much more impulsive, if you want to do it you are going to do it, there is nothing stopping you.”
Chlamydia being the most prevalent STI in Ireland, reveals the highest rates in young adults. According to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre in regards to the 2013 annual report, rates of chlamydia in 2013 were 6,262 with the highest age specific rate in 20-24 year olds. The rate in females (1,060 per 100,000) was almost 1.5 times greater than in males in this age group (687 per 100,000).
Femi Bankole, DIT’s student union welfare officer believes that education is key and thinks it is down to maturity as teenagers leaving secondary school and entering college start experiencing a lot of new things and experiences while education helps navigate young people towards safe sex. Bankole ran a sexual health campaign within the first six weeks of the first semester to ensure new students receive the most knowledge as early as possible.
“Drink and drugs are a huge factor,” says Bankole. On a positive note Bankole sees a rise in the rates of young people who are choosing to get checked out after unprotected sex and an increase in students desire to learn and educate themselves on STIs.
According to The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships by UCD, the most common reasons for non-use among respondents aged 18 to 24 are: drinking alcohol/taking drugs (20%), no contraception available (18%), sex not planned (16%) and not thinking to use contraception (15%). A further 18% of those aged 18 to 24 report ‘no contraception available’, 16% that sex was ‘not planned’ and 15% that they ‘didn’t think to use’. The results suggest that, for the 18-24 group at least, unpreparedness and situational factors such as alcohol and drugs are the major reasons for failing to use contraception.
Overall STI annual rates in Ireland have increased from 2,228 in 1989 to 12,753 in 2013. Alcohol and drugs, access to contraception and freedom are all factors when it comes to the rates of STIs amongst the under 25s. While Femi Bankole, welfare officer in DIT, sees a rise in student’s awareness and education around safe sex, there is still a long way to go in regards safe sex education in the early years, provided in an accessible way. As Zoe Kinsella states, “The most information I have ever received was from the back door of the girls toilets in DIT where they say 80% of women with chlamydia do not know they have it.”
By Rachael Hussey