Next year will mark the 70th birthday of the NHS. For the vast majority of us who are born in the UK, our first interaction with this system sees us wrapped in a blanket and placed in the arms of our parents. I don't believe it to be untrue to say that as a nation, we are pretty good at putting up the bunting to celebrate the birth of newborn, yet when it comes to talking about how this little one came to be or wider sexual health issues for that matter, it's very much mum's the word.
I was recently in a busy NHS sexual health clinic in central London, having decided to undertake a regular sexual health screening. The waiting room was filled with people from all ages, and backgrounds. For anyone who has visited a sexual health clinic, you will know that every minute spent in the plastic coated chairs, watching the clock tick by and pretending to get a signal on your phone, can be a painstaking experience. When compared to the relative ease of waiting in the optician or dentist reception, an hour locked in a room with Piers Morgan can be preferable to a sexual health clinic. There is often a sense of guilt, maybe shame and an overriding sense of anxiety.
My wait in this particular clinic was made more interesting with two teenage friends having a conversation that the entire waiting room was made privy to," I just don't want to have it", "Have what?", "HIV, obvs.". It took all of five seconds for a stranger to pipe up, "What are you so worried about, you know things have changed with treatment now?". This was the first time I had witnessed people engage and discuss sexual health in public and what a refreshing moment it was. I left thinking if only more of us were as confident to challenge such stigmatising attitudes towards sexual health, such experiences attending clinics would be better for everyone.
My history of sexual health education in school was limited to say the least. I learned nothing about what to expect when accessing a sexual health clinic, let alone where they were located. Most of my understanding of sex, in particular gay sex came from staying up past my bedtime watching shows such as Queer As Folk and Sugar Rush. Information about HIV was confined to learning about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, not the modern-day realities of the virus.
A survey by the National Union of Students in 2015 found that more than half of students use porn to find out about sex. Relying upon porn to form an understanding of a healthy relationship and what sex involves is like thinking you can pass your history exam by binging on episodes of Game of Thrones. There is one thing I did learn in school about sex that has stayed true: everyone has sex, rich and poor, young and old - it's pretty much something that unites us all. Yet, we continue to feel nervous speaking about it.
The good news is that from 2019, all schools in England will be required to teach relationships and sex education; getting this right through robust guidance for teachers will underpin the success of this legislation. 99% of young people in a study by the Terrence Higgins Trust thought the subject should be mandatory, with 97% believing it must be LGBT inclusive.
But it's not just about getting sex education right in schools, it's also about ensuring that we have a life-long learning approach to educating ourselves about sexual health. Confirmed cases of syphilis are at their highest level in England since 1949, the World Health Organisation has issued a warning over drug-resistant gonorrhoea, all this combined with sexual health services being described as at a 'tipping point'. Addressing these major public health challenges will not be possible unless as a society we become more at ease with discussing sex. The consequences of staying silent are clear to see. For example, it's estimated that there are 13,500 people living with HIV in the UK who are undiagnosed, without access to treatment these people will not only put their own health at risk but also the health of other partners. Accessing sexual health services must become as routine as an eye test or dental check-up.
As our NHS gears up for its next 70 years, now is time to shake off the attitudes towards sex that our grandparents had. Let's have a grown up conversation about what happens under the sheets and access the services we need.