Hey, union, leave us kids alone!

The NUS’s offer of free alcoholic drinks to students who agree to have STI tests reveals its prudish anti-sex tendencies.

Shane O'Neill

Topics Politics

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When did Britain’s National Union of Students (NUS) become such a bunch of prudish, sex-averse bores?

This month, as thousands of young men and women headed off to start their first year at university, the NUS announced that it would be offering free alcohol as an incentive for students to take sexual-health tests. The idea was greeted with disdain from politicians and journalists, who argued that giving students booze if they drop their trousers for a nurse would only further inflame the culture of undergraduate binge-drinking. But I was more shocked by the NUS’s belief that it is part of its role to lecture students about sex and disease.

The student body finds itself stuck between two patronising views. On one hand our supposed representatives, our union, see us as disease-carrying nymphs – and on the other hand, pundits see us as potential alcoholics to whom cheap alcohol – or, God forbid, free alcohol – should not be made available. Both views unnecessarily problematise the casual sex and alcoholic indulgence which, like it or not, have been part of students’ lives for decades.

When word got out about the NUS’s sex-test liquid incentives, it wasn’t long before everyone was having their say. Sexually repressed Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe said: ‘Using alcohol to bribe youths into testing is… unsuitable, as we’re trying to curb binge-drinking not promote it.’ But how big a problem is student drinking? So-called ‘binge drinking’ or ‘irresponsible drinking’ is defined by the government as drinking ‘above the recommended limit’ – the limit is 21 units per week for men and 14 units per week for women. And recently, a survey of 5,895 British undergraduates, conducted by the University of Leeds, reported that 52 per cent of male students and 43 per cent of female students reported drinking ‘above the recommended limits’.

This statistic is indeed shocking. Why? Well, when one considers that a pint of beer counts as two units and a small glass of wine also counts as two units, then a man need only drink 10 pints of beer and a woman eight small glasses of wine over an entire week in order to be drinking ‘irresponsibly’. The shocking thing about the Leeds survey is this: who on Earth are those 48 per cent of male students and 57 per cent of female students who are not ‘drinking irresponsibly’? Has British university life been invaded by alcohol-avoiding young religious puritans?

Alongside discovering the non-shocking fact that some students ‘binge drink’ – but only because ‘binge-drinking’ is so ridiculously defined these days – the Leeds survey also discovered that where 52 per cent of male students and 43 per cent of female students claim to drink above the recommended limits, amongst non-students aged 16 to 24 the numbers are lower: 37 per cent and 33 per cent respectively.

This tells us something about why the authorities are so freaked out by student drinking – students seem more out-of-control and cut off from the authorities’ diktats than ‘normal’ young people. But then, students do tend to live a more leisurely life than non-students, certainly than working non-students, which is one of the attractions in the first place of withdrawing from the world to study, to think, and not work. It is students’ unwillingness to play by the rules of normal society, to drink the ‘right amount’ of alcohol and to go to bed early in order to get up at 7am for work, that winds up the powers-that-unfortunately-are. Hence all the grief we get over ‘binge-drinking’.

The Leeds study also revealed that ‘students reported consuming significantly more units of alcohol per week at Year 1 than at Years 2 or 3 of their degree’. So why all the fuss? We all know this stuff anyway: as Freshers we go a bit overboard as we embrace the liberty and abandon that comes with leaving home and becoming a student, but then as the years pass we settle down, drink less, study more and become a bit more sensible. All those who accuse the NUS of promoting yet more ‘irresponsible drinking’ amongst ‘irresponsible students’ should really get their facts straight.

However, worse still than pious politicians’ obsession with students’ drinking habits is the NUS’s obsession with our sexual habits. The NUS itself has, in the past, warned against the dangers of binge-drinking; ‘we urge students to drink and act responsibly’, it pronounced in 2002. So it is far from being ‘pro-drink’, as some of its critics claimed. Rather, its booze-for-STI-tests initiative is built on the idea that a) students are at great risk of sexually-transmitted infections and b) the easiest way to get the stupid and fickle student masses into the testing booth is to float cider under their noses. Well, how else do you expect to get us disease-carriers to comply with STI-testing regimes?

The reason the NUS has launched its new campaign is because it wants to rescue the sexual health of the British public, which apparently has ‘continued to deteriorate so quickly’. The facts don’t bear this out. For example, a survey of 850 students at Oxford recently revealed that a mere five per cent of students claimed to have a sexually transmitted infection. It also discovered that 59 per cent of students had never been tested at all. This was taken as evidence by some that students are ignorant about STIs, but presumably these students hadn’t experienced any symptoms and weren’t, er, ill. The same survey also showed that students who had sex no more than once a month were more likely to obtain a first. Well I want a good degree, too; but that much?

A study by the University of East Anglia, presented to the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in September 2007, reported figures that directly contradicted the priggish views of the NUS. According to the report, cases of chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhoea all fell amongst the general population, including young people, in the East of England. This is borne out across the country – a survey by the HPA for all of the UK, published in 2008, shows that while diagnoses of STIs did increase amongst the general population from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, they have actually tailed off or stayed the same more recently. Between 2006 and 2007, the rate of diagnoses for gonorrhoea fell by one per cent while for syphilis there was no change. Chlamydia rates, however, rose by seven per cent between 2006 and 2007.

But this is far more likely to be down to more diagnosis rather than more actual disease. Students, for example, are constantly pestered to get tested for non-fatal, non-dangerous STIs such as chlamydia. No visit to the toilet at a British university or student union bar is complete without seeing a poster reminding you that your balls are about to fall off lest you get tested. My college has dedicated a whole week to sexual health. The deceivingly named SHAG (Sexual Health Awareness and Guidance) week encourages students to think twice about having unprotected or thoughtless sex, with various makeshift information stands dotted around our campus warning us of ‘the dangers’. Organisations come in to give talks on the dangers of STIs and how we can detect them. To be honest – and please forgive me, Ann Widdecombe – I’d rather be out getting pissed.

The NUS should focus on its main roles in student life: helping to keep us financially secure, ensuring the highest possible level of education, and persuading Topman to keep its student discount at 15 per cent all year round. It should avoid patronising and lecturing us on the way we choose to live our private lives. The student body is that small group of people who have very few responsibilities for three years – and to waste such an opportunity by ‘drinking responsibly’ and avoiding having sex would be a crying shame. Lots of students are, in Widdecombe-speak, ‘promiscuous drunkards’ – that is, they have sex and they drink a fair bit – and no union suit is going to change that any time soon.

Shane O’Neill is a third-year physics student at Imperial College London.

Previously on spiked

Suzy Dean reported that some London students were terrified of having their drinks spiked. Robin Walsh confessed that he was a student binge drinker. Emily Hill characterised childish campus politics as a breeding ground for the politicians of tomorrow. Elsewhere, Lee Jones attacked the moralistic myth of the demon drink. Or read more at spiked issue Modern life.

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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