Socialist Worker

Ignorance is the wrong prescription

by Louise Rathbone
Issue No. 1856

LAST WEEK'S headlines in the mainstream press showing a large increase in the rise of sexually transmitted infections will come as no surprise to anyone who works in the area of sexual health. Sexual health workers, many with great expectations of a Labour government after years of the Tories and their back to basics morality, have been lobbying the government consistently over crippled resources and a steady rise in infections. The Sun's shock warning 'Sex could kill you!' laid the blame at the feet of irresponsible young people. It also blamed asylum seekers for the rise in HIV. A cursory glance at government policy gives a truer picture.

When we first became aware of HIV in the 1980s it was accompanied by a moral panic. Epidemics, such as we see in parts of Africa and Asia, were predicted in Europe and America. But the reason the disease was taken seriously was because of grassroots campaigning that came often from those first affected by HIV.

They sought to understand the disease and explode the myths that accompanied it. This allowed people to protect themselves by being more open about sex and discussing how to play safely rather than the 'have sex and die' approach of the Tories.

Funding aimed at fighting the disease did follow and was 'ring-fenced' to prevent it being used for anything else in the health service. This year the government has scrapped dedicated funding despite the fact there is a new generation of very expensive drugs that help prolong the lives of many with HIV. Grassroots campaigners are left to beg for money.

NHS services often have three times the amount of patients with fewer staff than they had in the 1980s and 90s. Today there is little HIV prevention or community work being done and almost all of it is carried out by charities.

The 'epidemic' which was predicted did not happen. But rather than learn the lessons of what worked in HIV prevention, funding was cut amid a general consensus that HIV had never been the threat predicted and was not an issue for the vast majority of people. The Guardian ran an article two years ago which claimed that HIV campaigners had been 'victims of their own success'.

If HIV was no longer a threat then safer sex no longer needed to be the priority it seemed. It is hardly surprising that there is a sharp rise in the number of sexually transmitted infections in general. The Sun is not alone in using shock headlines and then splashing images of scantily clad women all over its pages. Sex is all around us as a means to sell newspapers, cars and lifestyles, but there is little frank discussion of sex and sexuality. Good sex education at school is very limited.

Projects that give young people access to information, advice and practical health services - such as contraception based within schools - have a real impact on both teenage pregnancy and infections.

The government is piloting these projects but it will be interesting to see whether they will have the courage or are prepared to provide the resources to roll out a national programme.

As a sexual health worker, I find it encouraging that once young people are armed with accurate information they are capable of making safe and responsible choices.

Many of us are left with no information and only consider our sexual health when something goes wrong. Sex should be fun, celebrated and ours.


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Sat 21 Jun 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1856
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