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How the condom became a metaphor for caution

In promoting ‘barrier’ contraceptives to the young, the British government is spreading a risk-averse message: Think Before You Act!

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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The UK government has spent £4million on an advertising campaign to encourage young people to carry condoms on a night out. Using pictures of men wearing underpants that read ‘I’ve got chlamydia’, and other such unsavoury images, the campaign’s aim, according to public health minister Caroline Flint, is to make ‘carrying and using a condom’ among 18- 24-year-olds ‘as familiar as carrying a mobile phone, lipstick or putting on a seat-belt’.

Well, isn’t that nice? Another few million pounds of taxpayers’ money (apparently a further £46million has been pledged to the campaign over the next two years) spent on another tawdry and fruitless campaign encouraging teenagers to treat their sexual activities with the same degree of thought and planning as the university admissions process.

Flint points out that ‘some STIs [sexually transmitted infections] like chlamydia are on the increase among 18- to 24-year-olds and it is vital that we deliver strong messages about using condoms to prevent them’. But what is the deal with chlamydia, and what exactly are the government’s ‘strong messages’ trying to say?

Chlamydia is an unpleasant, often symptomless little disease that people can carry without knowing it, and it can be transmitted through sexual intercourse. It is easily treated through a course of antibiotics. Many argue that, if left untreated, chlamydia can lead to fertility problems for women in later life – although this effect is often exaggerated, and some, such as the fertility expert Lord Robert Winston, have disputed this link altogether. Chlamydia may well be on the increase among young people, but it is hard to know how much of this is due to increased awareness of the disease, through countless government-sponsored chlamydia-awareness campaigns, and the fact that there has been a national screening programme for chlamydia in place for the past few years.

There’s nothing about chlamydia itself that makes it a public health menace. But the symbolism of chlamydia as a public health message has grown year by year.

Over the past few years there have been numerous public health campaigns seeking to achieve what the Great AIDS Panic did in the late Eighties, and popularise the notion that Casual Sex Kills. Young people soon got wise to the fact that AIDS was not going to strike down British-born heterosexual teenagers, and as the predicted epidemic failed to materialise health authorities found that they could no longer make use of those attractive tombstone leaflets and other dire warnings of doom. So they focused on chlamydia instead – something that doesn’t kill you but might, just might, make you infertile if you’re a woman and fail to use a condom, and can spread silently, without your knowledge. It’s classic disease-as-metaphor stuff – chlamydia being the metaphor for the risks of casual sex, and condoms being the metaphor for how you protect yourself against those risks.

But in boosting the metaphorical cache of chlamydia and condoms, government campaigns subvert certain realities. For example, as Ann Furedi, chief executive of the abortion and advice service bpas has pointed out, as a form of contraception condoms are relatively unreliable, and promoting the use of condoms could possibly lead to a rise in unwanted pregnancies. ‘Historically, whenever there has been a shift away from hormonal contraception like the pill, towards barrier methods like condoms, rates of unplanned pregnancy have risen as a result’, says Furedi.

Unwanted pregnancy is a more immediate problem for young women than chlamydia – it isn’t symptomless, you cannot ignore it for longer than nine months, and dealing with an unwanted pregnancy is a much bigger deal than getting treatment for a bog-standard sexually transmitted infection. In this respect, condoms are not necessarily the responsible choice – and for the government to promote this form of contraception over all others is in many ways quite irresponsible.

Does this bother the health authorities? No. Because this is not a real health campaign so much as a symbolic moral campaign. And from AIDS onwards, condoms have suited the moralism of governments much better than effective contraceptive methods like the pill. The pill retains its aura of sexual liberation, of being ready for the moment – you take it every day so that a spontaneous sexual encounter will not be a problem. Condoms, on the other hand, might sometimes be rubbish at stopping pregnancies but they are a great symbol of the need to Think Before You Act – taking them with you on a night out, stopping mid-fumble to put them on.

Furthermore, the category of ‘barrier contraceptive’ sums up the attraction of the condom for our risk-averse times. A condom is a barrier between you and your sexual partner, symbolising your suspicion that the person sharing your bed is about to infect you or somehow hurt you. If your sexual partner is not wearing underpants reading ‘I’ve got chlamydia’, the condom assumes that the message is there.

When the government talks about popularising ‘strong messages’ to prevent diseases like chlamydia, the message it is promoting is not awareness of chlamydia, but fear of intimate relationships with other people. There is a shoulder-shrugging recognition that young people today sleep around, and while nobody in authority these days has the bottle to say that casual sex is wrong, nor can they accept that casual sex is all right. So they bombard young people with grotty little ad campaigns and insidious warnings of disease and danger, in the vague hope that when people do get laid they will do it with the requisite amount of doubt and guilt.

‘Improving the nation’s sexual health is a key government priority’, says Caroline Flint. Fine, when it means access to sexual health services to treat problems like chlamydia or an unwanted pregnancy. But when a significant part of ‘improving the nation’s sexual health’ means official warnings about what might be in our partner’s underpants, we should get our knickers in a twist.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and now works as a writer and editor in Kent.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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