The chances of getting an STI are probably lower than you think, but here’s why having safer sex is still a very good idea.
STIs are probably less common than you think
Whenever we see statistics in the news about STIs they are often using the actual numbers of cases, because these actual numbers look quite big. People want to make the numbers look big because:
- it makes a juicy scary news story blaming all these ‘naughty irresponsible people over there’ for not wrapping up;
- or, less commonly, to make a point about the dreadful under-funding of sexual health services and outreach services;
- or, even less commonly, to make a point about how drug companies need to be investing more in drugs to treat/cure these infections but they won’t because there isn’t a great deal of profit in making new antibiotics.
Annnnnyway, so they make the numbers look big. Public Health England reported that 144,000 young people, in England, were diagnosed with Chlamydia or Gonorrhoea in 2017. That is a lot of people: too many people. However, it’s probably not as many as you think when you realise that there are 6,935,586 young people in England. So even though I did my GCSE in Maths in 1991 I reckon that means that around 2% of young people have chlamydia or gonorrhoea. Other studies suggest that the actual rate of Chlamydia in young people might be around 3% (ie, not just those that have been diagnosed).
Gonorrhoea is much less common than Chlamydia, with 11,261 young people being diagnosed with it in 2017. So that’s more like 0.16% of young people living in England – which is still too many young people, but it’s not an epidemic. There were 278 cases of Syphilis among young people. Check out the others here
If the chances of getting an STI are low, why bother with safer sex?
Obviously, if everyone decided to stop using condoms, getting tested, or having safer sex then these numbers would go up. One reason that we should try to have safer sex that we are taking part in a social practice to reduce social harms. Just like sneezing into a tissue or covering our mouth when we cough. It’s good and nice to take care of ourselves and other people, so let’s keep trying to do that if we can.
Our chances of getting an STI vary enormously and it’s kinda random
Also our chances of getting an STI vary enormously and it’s kinda random. We can only get a sexually transmitted infection by having unprotected sex with someone who has a sexually transmitted infection That person would have got their STI from someone else they had sex with, that person would have got their STI from someone they had sex with etc etc. Because a lot of people have sex with someone that they live near (particularly young people), and young people are more likely to change partners, then outbreaks of STIs are often very local.
Where there are outbreaks over a bigger geographical area, for example in a big city, then it’s because people travel to have sex. So it might not be geographically local, but they will be part of an IRL social network of people who are shagging each other. Often we either know other people that other people are shagging, or we know of them — one or two cases of an STI in one of these groups makes the chances of getting an infection a lot higher. It won’t affect a huge number of people in a city, but in that social network of people it will.
So although there might be a 0.16% chance of getting gonorrhoea in England, the truth is that in some areas it will be 0% chance (because no-one has it) and in other areas it might be more like 5-10%, because loads of people, who might have sex with each other, have it. So it could be your estate, your village, your workplace, your community, your college, your Uni, that club that everyone goes to, that holiday resort…. We don’t really go about saying ‘yeah this Uni has a gonorrhoea problem’, but if a sexual health service shows up and gives you condoms and information about where your local services are then you should probably listen.
Why is it important
Well I think it’s important to give factual correct information — call me old fashioned — and to base our decisions on that. As I’ve explained above, we don’t always know what our actual risks of getting an STI are so it’s important not to be complacent about safer sex practices.
We should not be complacent about safer sex
As I’ve explained in this blog about the chances of getting pregnant, if people are taught that their risks are way higher than they actually are then it can have a counterproductive effect. This is what happens:
- people have unprotected sex a few times;
- think ‘nothing bad has happened, I must be infertile/immune to STIs*’;
- so they don’t get into the habit of safer sex; and then they get an STI, or have an unplanned pregnancy. (*that’s not how STIs work btw)
The other thing that panicking about STIs does is to put people off going to sexual health services. Making STIs seem a lot worse and a lot more common than they are creates a stigma that puts people off going to clinics. I’ve written more about that at my blog for sex educators (please stop showing pictures of infected genitals thanks). Because many STIs don’t have symptoms, the only way that we might find out that we have an infection is by having a check up. Not getting tested means that we might be infecting other people, creating our own social network of risk. If we also have an STI without getting treatment then we might run the risk of getting serious infections. So getting tested is super important.
So let’s have an appropriate level of concern about how common STIs are. I’m not saying chill and don’t bother using condoms/having safer sex. I’m saying let’s make our decisions about how to look after our sexual health based on all the facts.
© Justin Hancock, 2019