In an anonymous forum post from 2009, a woman identifying herself as being in her early 20s asks a digital Cupid whether she's "a freak" for using a banana "as a penis". A guy friend had been sexting her when she was bored at home, she says, and she became mildly turned on. She put a condom on the banana first, she writes, "just to see how it felt. What does that make me? Was that a good idea?"
Most of the encouraging responses emphasised how important her use of the condom was, since she could have ended up with an infection or a bit of fruit stuck inside her body. "Never use a hot dog," another anonymous poster helpfully suggested. "A girl I KNEW of did that and it broke off inside and had to get it surgically removed." Lovely stuff.
We're not all as keen on condoms as this young woman, which may be why Coventry University has piloted Chance 2 Change, a new scheme to promote safe sex. Across the UK, young people below 25 are more likely to be living with an STI, with chlamydia emerging as most common bacterial STI across the UK, and genital warts the most common viral STI. A 2013 study found that 16 percent of 16- to 25-year-olds reported having sex with at least two people without using a condom – the highest out of any age group in the country.
The team behind Chance 2 Change thus saw a need. But their project was criticised last week, after the uni reportedly put out a casting call for three couples, inviting them to have sex on-camera in "tastefully shot" educational videos for £400. The lesson? Condoms can be sexy, guys!!
First, off, why the £400 fee? "We have commissioned safe-sex educational company The Pleasure Project, who promote safe sexual health, to complete the filming for us," said a Coventry Uni spokesperson. "Based on their experience working in this area they advised us of the fee for volunteers." In response to the idea that the uni would be turning its own students into amateur adult film performers, the spokesperson added: "We are looking to produce tasteful films using real couples from any walk of life aged between 18 and 25 in consenting relationships – they do not have to be students and are unlikely to be our own students."
So, on to the videos. The couples would be filmed at it in what the people behind the campaign see as "natural settings", like cars and student halls. The goal is to show, through the video and other initiatives, that putting condoms on before penetrative sex isn't a total mood killer and obviously helps prevent the spread of STIs. As well as the couple sex videos, the project also hopes to pilot a pair of headphones with a "secret pocket" for concealing condoms and some videos of fully-clothed people talking about how condoms are generally great.
Someone from parenting group Parents Outloud spoke to The Telegraph about how being filmed having sex in the videos could ruin some students' future employability prospects. The spokesperson replied that the "videos will be shot in a tasteful way and, should anyone taking part in the filming request that their face isn't featured, then this would be taken into account and so it wouldn't be shown or included in any of the videos."
Chance 2 Change cites a Family Planning Association stat that estimates the NHS spends £620 million per year on STI treatment. Coventry Uni's plan is to use this set of interventions – the videos, schemes to discreetly post condoms out to people, a condom trial box – to target people who seem to be most at-risk of not having protected sex. This trial will be available on a site where people access chlamydia self-testing kits, the logic being that if you're already worried you might have chlamydia, the project's can turn the STI test request into what the team describe as a "teachable moment."
"We believe that someone who is seeking STI testing is likely to be particularly receptive to the messages around condom use," said Dr Katie Newby, the project lead, "and we hope to convince them that condoms needn't be awkward, embarrassing or an obstacle to enjoyable sex." The videos were designed to "offer the right message (ie: that condom use can be a pleasurable part of sex)," the spokesperson said, "delivered in the most appropriate way for our target audience, while also ensuring the anonymity of those taking part."
All of this basically leads to one question: why are we so put off by condoms that a university feels the need to step in, armed with videos of students having, and talking about, sex? The idea of being embarrassed about carrying condoms, as cited by the Coventry Uni project, seems like something you'd grow out of by the time you were about 15 years old. By 16, we generally know about condoms, STI testing, and how to say "nope, we're not doing that until we've both been tested."
Mostly, as with anything that relates to mortality or thinking about the long-term, not every single young person behaves in the same way. That's obvious. Some people use condoms all the time, some as much as they can, and others tend to lapse when they've been drinking or taking drugs. What we can't quite argue is that we're among an age group less likely to wrap up every time – and as long as that happens, well-meaning researchers are going to try and do whatever they can to inspire condom use, for both economic and public health reasons. Some of us clearly could do with a nudge in the direction of both testing and safe sex best practices. Then again, for those who aren't so sure, there's always Dear Cupid and his devoted group of sympathetic forum members.
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