Friday, 19 September 2008

Sex is everywhere but knowledge is limited: an analogy for society?

By Dr Andy Zieleniec

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I sat down in front of the TV in mixed company (two teenagers of either gender) and watched Channel 4’s latest public service contribution to the nation – The Sex Education Show (Tuesdays 8pm) hosted by Anna Robinson .

It cannot have escaped many peoples attention that when it comes to sex we have a problem. Actually, when you think about it we have a lot of problems. Of course, I am not speaking about myself. Yeah right – that’s what everybody says, at least when we are willing to talk about it all. When we do what we find is a huge amount of misinformation, ignorance and downright stupidity.

Sex is everywhere: on TV, papers and magazines, books, music videos, advertisements and of course the internet. Without looking for it we are confronted with full-frontal nudity and with what appears like an endless stream of advice on how much we should be having, how to do it, with whom: what’s in and what’s out so to speak. And yet, when it comes to sex and the consequences of sex, Britain has some serious problems.

The evidence is stark.

We have the worst ever rate of sexually transmitted infections among young people. Almost 400,000 Britons were diagnosed with diseases from Chlamydia to gonorrhea last year - the highest number since current records began three decades ago. Overall, around half of the infections were in under-25s, despite this age group accounting for only one- eighth of the population.

In 2007, 397,990 sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) were diagnosed in those who had previously been free of infection. This compares to 375,843 in 2006 a six per cent increase and represents the eleventh year in a row that STIs have risen year-on-year.

  • Genital herpes saw a 20 per cent rise.
  • Rates of Chlamydia and genital warts increased by seven per cent.
  • The 16 to 24 age group accounted for 65 per cent of Chlamydia cases, 55 per cent of genital warts and 50 per cent of gonorrhea infections.
  • Almost 75 per cent of cases of Chlamydia and gonorrhea in women occurred among those aged between 16 and 24.


Professor Peter Borriello, the director of the Health Protection Agency (HPA) centre for infections, blamed the rise among young people on the prevalence of unsafe sex: "It's increasingly the case that among young people a casual shag is part of the territory, it's part of life," he said. "Increasingly a shag now stands for syphilis, herpes, anal warts and gonorrhoea."

It’s not just STIs. Britain also has the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe. As the Department of Health’s published statistics make clear our knowledge and use of contraception both to prevent pregnancy and protect against STIs is sadly lacking despite promotion and education campaigns.

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In 2006, for women resident in England and Wales:
  • the total number of abortions was 193,700, compared with 186,400 in 2005, a rise of 3.9%
  • the abortion rate was highest at 35 per 1,000, for women age 19.
  • the under-16 abortion rate was 3.9 and the under-18 rate was 18.2 per 1,000 women, both higher than in 2005


But it's not just a youth problem: STIs have doubled in the over 45s in less than a decade. So far I haven’t even mentioned AIDS and HIV for which, despite large scale publicity campaigns is on the rise in both heterosexual and homosexuals or the panic of pornography and paedophilia, all of which relates to our ideas and practices concerning sex.

We could, as some attempt to do, put the blame on the rise of the permissive society, on the decline in religious morals, or the lack of parental responsibility, or the inherent hedonism of a rampant individualism that is not only undermining traditional values but is threatening the health of a generation.

This, however, doesn’t get us very far. It is looking at the causes instead of looking for solutions (see the storm of protest over suggestions that appropriate sex education should begin for children as young as four). What all of this suggests in addition to the fact that despite sex being seemingly everywhere and advice and help on contraception, safe sex, and relationships being available in some form for most, we are incredibly ignorant of the potential consequences of sex as well as how to engage in it safely.

It strikes me that there is a corollary here with society.

We are bombarded with references to society: the idea of society doing this, or that or being at fault, or guilty of this or that, or being responsible or under threat or there even that there is no such as society. But, what do we mean by society? There is a commonsense understanding and usage of what society is and what it is for, mostly as some amorphous yet all-encompassing ‘thing’ that hovers over us and has enormous power to influence or affect our lives.
However, there is often a lot of ignorance as to what exactly society means as a concept as well as its origins in a complex of historical, social, political, economic, cultural and geographic factors.

The history of sociological theory is littered with attempts to define society. Marx, Durkheim, Simmel and Weber all had very different conceptions of what society was that underpinned their sociological approaches (see Frisby and Sayer’s 1986 short introductory book on the subject). We also have numerous and varied definitions and descriptions of for example, The Affluent Society (Galbraith); Risk Society (Beck and Giddens), Disciplinary Society (Foucault), The Surveillance Society (Lyon), Post-Industrial Society (Kumar), Global or Network Society (Castells), etc. etc.

In both cases, in sex and in sociology, what is needed is more of an emphasis on education and understanding of contexts and concepts as well as experience. That is, to put more time and effort into explaining and facilitating knowledge and understanding of what are two key areas of our lives – being intimate with others and living socially with others. That is, to find out and learn how we can and should interact and be with each other in safe, mutually respectful and productive ways.

This is perhaps as true for private sexual relations as it is for public social relations, the stuff of sociology.

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