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12 December 2022

Why Rishi Sunak should be talking about condoms

Free contraception will be available to all under-25s in French pharmacies. British politicians should take note.

By Marie Le Conte

Can you imagine Rishi Sunak addressing the nation and saying the word “condom” out loud? He would hide behind the lectern, mumble it without making eye contact with the camera. It would be undignified.

Liz Truss probably would have gone too far the other way. She would have said it and winked, with that unnerving smile of hers. Tasked with discussing contraception with the great British public, Boris Johnson would have almost certainly made a joke in Latin then stuck a condom on his ear. It is, after all, unclear that he knows how they are meant to be used.

In short: it is tough to imagine a British prime minister discussing safer sex practices without either them or the audience yearning for the sweet release of death. It is a shame.

Last week Emmanuel Macron announced that condoms will be available for free to under-25s in French pharmacies. The change will represent “a small revolution for contraception”, the president explained. Though some details need to be cleared up – will you need to show ID to receive your government-issued rubber? – the idea is undoubtedly a good one.

After all, sexually transmitted diseases disproportionately affect young people. In 2020 15- to 24-year-olds accounted for 32 per cent of all new STI diagnoses in England. Trying to get those numbers down should be a no-brainer. Given the crumbling state of the NHS, it could also take pressure off oversubscribed services.

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Another, more long-term benefit could be to shape the future behaviour of those young people. Surveys have found that 70 per cent of British men and over 85 per cent of women are classified as having had unsafe sex in the past year. Getting new generations to use adequate protection in their formative sexual years could make them behave more responsibly even as they get older.

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As we know from academic research on elections, “young voters who vote once are more likely to turn out in future elections as well”. You can make your own joke about the moreishness of inserting ballots here.

More seriously, the availability of free contraception is only one side of the equation. Free condoms can actually be found in contraception and GUM clinics in the UK, as well as some GP surgeries and some young people’s services. To know this, however, you would have needed to scroll all the way down the NHS page on “condoms”. Other services such as Brook’s C-Card provide lists of providers by area but, again, if you do not know about them, they can be hard to stumble upon.

In this context, high-profile political interventions can be hugely beneficial. Even if the teenagers themselves do not see the original news story, information usually finds a way to filter down, be that through parents, teachers or whichever school or university friend happens to sometimes read the papers.

Oh, and if politicians find the idea too mortifying to contemplate, they should perhaps take comfort in the advice often given to young people anxious at the prospect of having sex for the first time: it may be awkward and oddly stressful and you probably won’t enjoy it very much but, once it’s over, you’ll be glad to have done it.

[See also: The City’s favourite strategist says Rishi Sunak’s fiscal policy is “lunacy”]

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