Young Irish adults believe that the social stigma attached to contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is worse than the stigma of having an unplanned pregnancy, a new report has found.

Furthermore, while young people’s awareness of the term STI is relatively high, their knowledge of specific STIs and their respective symptoms and consequences remains low.

The report, The Voice of Young People - A Report on Attitudes to Sexual Health, includes research conducted on 18-20-year-olds and the parents of 14-16-year-olds.

It reveals that, even in comparison to five years ago, Irish teenagers are now having sex at an earlier age. The majority of young people who took part in the research reported having sexual intercourse for the first time between the ages of 16 and 17, with a minority reporting having sex as young as 15 years old. This was contrary to what most of the parents felt was an appropriate age to start having sex, with many indicating that they did want their children engaging in sexual intercourse before the age of 18.

The report found that overall, the primary concern among young people when it came to STIs was not the potential health consequences, but the social embarrassment that it might cause if their friends found out.

Both males and females reported that the social stigma of contracting an STI would be worse than that of an unplanned pregnancy. Given the high level of social embarrassment associated with becoming infected with an STI, almost all respondents reported that they would not tell anyone if they got an infection.

They also said that they would not confront the individual from whom they contracted the infection out of fear that he/she might discuss the issue in public and even blame them as the source of the STI.

The report noted that a notable number of males and some females have had sex on more than one occasion without using a condom. In such circumstances, many indicated that they were drunk at the time.

In the event of casual sex, condoms were viewed by all to be a necessity, but the reason for this was out of fear of having an unplanned pregnancy rather than protection against STIs.

In addition, women carrying a condom were seen by many of the young men as confirming that they were ‘seeking sex’ or ‘easy’. Similarly, although a significant number of young girls reported that it was acceptable and even responsible to carry a condom on a night out, only a small minority chose to do so, saying that they worried about the message they may be giving out.

“STIs give rise to illness, infertility and death and early detection and treatment is important to protect people’s health and prevent spread. This research indicates that although young people’s awareness of the term STI is relatively high, their knowledge of specific STIs and their respective symptoms and consequences, remains low. This lack of awareness and understanding is putting their health at risk,” commented Dr John Lambert, a consultant in infectious diseases and genitourinary medicine at the Mater and Rotunda Hospitals in Dublin.

Also commenting on the findings, Dr. Shirley McQuade, medical director of the Well Woman Clinic, emphasised that ‘people think an STI won’t happen to them’.

“But the message is clear - anyone can get an STI and having unprotected sex increases the risk. An STI may lie dormant in the body with no symptoms. The individual may be completely unaware that it is causing long-term damage to themselves and to those with whom they engage in sexual activity,” she explained.

For example, one of the most common STIs is chlamydia, which if left untreated, can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility. However if identified in time, chlamydia may be successfully treated with antibiotics.

“If you take a risk and have unprotected sex, get tested afterwards. And if you are about to start a new relationship and begin to have unprotected sex, both partners should get tested beforehand. Don’t put yourself at risk,” Dr McQuade said.

Meanwhile, the report also noted that teenagers felt uncomfortable discussing the subject of sex with their parents due to social embarrassment, a desire for privacy and differences in values between them.

In general, parents acknowledged that they played a role in the sex education of their children but cited difficulties in discussing sex, as very often their children would disengage when the topic was brought up.

Many parents said they were concerned about the appropriate age to educate their children on sexual issues, while others acknowledged a lack of the required skills to approach the issue in an effective way. As a result, many felt the issue was best addressed in school.

The report was carried out by Drury Research on behalf of Pfizer.

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