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The Sexual Culture

The Sexually Transmitted Infection surveillance in Northern Ireland 2017 published by the Public Health Agency makes for some interesting reading. In general it shows that new diagnoses of chlamydia, gonorrhoea, genital herpes simplex (first episode), genital warts (first episode) have increased from previous years. Within the female population it was women in the age group of 16-24 who were consistently the worst affected, whereas in males it tended to be those in the 20-34 age bracket.[1]

This data coincides with the FPA’s data on sexual practices of young people published a few years earlier in 2014, which shows that of a representative sample of 14 – 25 year olds over 50% have had sexual intercourse. 36.7% of that number had sex before the age of 17; 27.4% before the age of 16; 42.6% of young men and 33.6% of young women said they were drunk when they first had sex; sexually active respondents had had on average six sexual partners with young women having an average of five partners, and young men eight; not only that, the majority of these young people claimed it would be easy to access contraception.[2]

I say that all this makes for interesting reading not because it is fascinating and it can expand our horizons in the way that good literature, science, philosophy etc can do. It is interesting in the sense that it should arouse our interest to the fact that young people, young women especially, are caught up in a sexual culture which is damaging them. Set aside issues as to one’s self valuation in having many sexual partners, or the moral integrity of making use of another person (several persons) for one’s sexual gratification; focus more on the fact that the sexual culture within which young people are entrenched is one that is damaging their physical health. Consistently in the female population it is the 16 – 24 year olds who are the worst affected. This is despite the fact that the majority of the young people considered in the FPA’s factsheet said they would find it easy to access contraception.

There is no safe sex in these circumstances; there is only more or less dangerous sex. Often greater access to contraception is suggested as a means of controlling the damaging side effects of such sexual behaviour. But the majority of young people engaging in sex said it would be easy to access contraception, and a sizeable proportion of young respondents said they were drunk when they first had sex. This sexual culture is not one of responsibility, but of irresponsibility whereby sex is seen to be nothing more than an enjoyable past time (something to do when drunk) as opposed to an extremely potent relation that unites two people at their deepest and most personal levels. Bombarding this situation with more contraception is not going to turn an irresponsible outlook into a responsible one; since contraception promotes the outlook that one can engage in sexual intercourse without having to take responsibility for the normal circumstances surrounding that activity.

These young people are engaging in sex at a young and quite formative age. Given the STI stats above, it is during those years whereby they are forming themselves as young people ready to embrace the world that they are being quite physically damaged by sex, especially young women, to say nothing of their psychological or moral outlook. All of this is a symptom of a wider problem whereby sex is not seen as an activity uniting two people; rather it is seen as something that two individuals do for themselves for their own reasons – each to their own. Viewing sex as something that only accidentally unites two people, like enjoying an amusement ride with one’s friend only on a grander scale, divorces sex from any deeper relationship. But sexual intercourse unites us at our deepest and most personal levels, in which case if there is not already a deep personal unity between the persons in the form of a relationship, sex has very little significance.

The deeper and on-going tragedy of such a rampant sexual culture goes beyond the physical damage that it is causing in our young people, it goes to the heart of society insofar as we are failing to encourage young people to form deep and lasting relationships which will in turn provide the context of a deep and lasting sex life. To take responsibility for one’s sex life is not to take some artificial measure for avoiding the typical consequences of sex and hopefully the atypical consequences in the form of STIs; rather it is to take responsibility for one’s personal relations with others, and in particular with that other to whom one feels the deepest affection and closest bond, anything else just devalues sex and makes it less enjoyable than it actually is.

To use another for one’s own sexual gratification is quite a problematic activity since it fails to recognise the human dignity of the other than one is using. When such use is reciprocal, that is a tragedy, since neither recognises the dignity of the other that they are using. If we as a society feel that we can use each other in the deepest and most profound way simply for our own good, rather than striving to work for the other’s good and setting our sights on that, then we are failing as a society; for we are not seeing others as the rational beings that they are and with whom we form relations (and hopefully relationships), but as mere objects subject to our own desires. Bringing about a responsible sexual culture is not simply about preventing pregnancy or STIs, it’s about seeing sex as a relation in which each works for the good of the other and thereby binds the two together in working for each other’s good. When we strive for the good of the other, we are taking responsibility for the others in our lives, and that responsibility applies to all our relations, not only sexual.

[1] Public Health Agency, Sexually Transmitted Infection surveillance in Northern Ireland 2017 (http://www.publichealth.hscni.net/sites/default/files/STI%20surveillance%20report%202017%20_0.pdf).

[2] FPA factsheet, Sexual Behaviour and Young People (https://www.fpa.org.uk/sites/default/files/northern-ireland-sexual-behaviour-and-young-people.pdf).