Skyrocketing rates of sexually transmitted infections, coupled with hook-up enabling technology and youthful hormones, spells danger for students and other young people. The 16-30 demographic now face frighteningly high odds of picking up much more than they bargain for when they have sex.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have blown out in Victoria by staggering amounts over the past decade. Cases of chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis have risen by 103 per cent, 690 per cent and 253 per cent respectively over the past 10 years, a report released last September by the Victorian Health and Human Services has found. National data (see graph below) also records a huge escalation in chlamydia over the past 20 years, and rises in gonorrhoea and syphilis.
Much of the burden falls on younger people. With regards to chlamydia, 80 per cent of the cases in Australia occur in people under 29 years of age, while 75 per cent of gonorrhoea cases occur between ages 15 and 34.
What’s behind the rise? There is some expert disagreement on that score.
Dr Brett Sutton, the Victorian Department’s deputy chief health officer, says that changing sexual behaviours are partly to blame. He singles out in particular “social media, dating websites and apps, which are altering the way we interact”.
While the spike in infections could also reflect increased testing deriving from awareness, Dr. Sutton says, he and other experts believe that the internet is also contributing to the worrying picture.
But Dr Basil Donovan, head of the sexual health program at Sydney’s Kirby Institute, takes a different view. “There have been no major changes in sexual behaviour, including condom use, among heterosexuals,” he says.“Sexually adventurous people often use dating apps, but they were adventurous before the apps came along.”
What is not disputed is that frequently changing sexual partners increases your risk of contracting STIs. Australian surveys show that the 16-19 years age range is the most likely to report multiple partners in the previous year, followed by the 20-29 years demographic. Using protection in these encounters appears to be off the radar with many young people, with only 43 per cent of Australian secondary students admitting to always using condoms.
Internet dating has become widely popular in Australia. A study conducted by market researchers, YouGov, found 53% of Australian millennials and one-third of all Aussies participate in internet dating.
Online dating not only allows students to have frequent casual hookups, but also the opportunity to engage with people from differing social groups and demographics, increasing the opportunities to contract STIs.
A recent University of Melbourne Health Promotion student needs assessment found that only 31 per cent of students reported “always” using a condom during vaginal intercourse, and 19 per cent reported “never” using a condom.
The Citizen surveyed a number of students about their experiences and concerns using dating apps.
“I saw the [dating] apps as a way to meet people I could have casual sex with,” said Ben, a University of Melbourne student, who started using Tinder and Bumble during his first year of studies.
Dean, a graduate student, who identifies as gay said, “for gay millennial men I would say that most have engaged in hookup culture fairly regularly and most guys aren’t looking for long term partners or can’t find any.
“I use protection every time I have anal [sex] but I never use protection for oral sex, which has led to me contracting both syphilis and gonorrhoea in the past,” Dean said.
“Sometimes I have as many as five dates a week, most of them ending in sexual intercourse” said Rachael, a university law student, who uses Bumble, an app where the women have to message first.
“I’m not looking for anything serious because school is so busy, so Bumble is great for hookups.”
Rachael says she has contracted both chlamydia and gonorrhoea after sleeping with several people she met from online apps without a condom, because it “just happens in the moment”.
Ben similarly admits that he doesn’t always use condoms, “and I’ve never been tested”.
For Ben and many others, the prospect of getting an STI does not loom as the frightening threat it did for students in the past, due to most conditions including HIV being seen as manageable if not curable. This is why he hasn’t been tested, he said.
This kind of rationalising or risks is one Dr Donovan says he is familiar with, “particularly in gay men,” who no longer regard HIV as a scary random killer, the spectre that loomed large – and effectively – in public and sexual health campaigns in the past.
“Gay men and inner city heterosexuals no longer see their friends becoming sick and dying.”
But he and other experts warn that while there have been significant advances in managing and curing many STIs, they nonetheless remain serious health risks, carrying risks including infertility and dementia.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that STIs such as herpes and syphilis can “increase the risk of HIV acquisition three-fold or more”, while infections like HPV, which causes 528,000 cases of cervical cancer, leads to “266,000 cervical cancer deaths each year.” .
Dr Bruce Bolam, chief preventive health officer of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, says the best protection remains prevention, by using condoms.
But “condoms do not protect against all STIs,” Dr Bolam said. He suggests all sexually active people get an STI test “at least every 12 months, with some needing to get tested more regularly”.
Even though, STI research and testing have increased, the lack of conversation on university campuses about safe sex and getting tested is a major concern, with experts at WHO citing “long-standing stigma” as a big barrier around getting more effective use of intervention methods such as education and counselling tailored to the youth.
“There should definitely be more of a conversation around these issues,” said Ben. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for getting tested at uni.”
The University of Melbourne has attempted to tackle this matter by piloting a new initiative called the Condom Fairy Program, which provides students with free contraception, including male and female condoms, dental dams and lubricants.
The program cited the recent STI increase, particularly in youth aged 12-24, as one of the main imperatives for the initiative.
Some of the goals at the forefront of the program include increasing the availability and accessibility of safer sex products to students, reducing barriers to accessing safer sex products, educating students about the importance of sexual health and safer sex practices, and encouraging health seeking behaviours, including testing for sexually transmitted infections.
After serving 170 students in four weeks, the pilot program is currently being assessed. “If these outcomes are positive, the program will be available university-wide in 2019,” said a University of Melbourne spokesperson.