Share via Email Fingers crossed: Rui Faria for the Guardian 'So… wait," I asked my friend Hayley, over some overpriced wine in my local one evening, "you don't use any contraception, at all? She's no teenager, and I have to admit I'd thought she would know better. At one point or another, we've all had it haven't we? And I have no idea how we, well educated in the dangers of unprotected sex and way past our teens, have got to this stage. I am shocked, when canvassing my friends, that in taking the contraceptive pill I am in the minority.
They are just styling it out. I'll admit, I've been lackadaisical with contraception myself Dad, if that isn't enough to make you stop reading now, then I don't know what is and have taken the morning-after pill six or seven times perhaps that? In the UK, sexually transmitted infections are on the rise among all age groups, as is the abortion rate. Public Health England acknowledges that this is in part to due to improved data collection, but also warns that "the continuing high STI rates in England suggest too many people are still putting themselves at risk through unsafe sex, especially young adults and men who have sex with men".
That young people engage in risk-taking behaviour will be a surprise to no one, of course, but what is interesting is that we're seeing such behaviours in those who are mature and responsible in other parts of their lives. We pay our rent and bills on time, we hold down careers — but responsible contraception use seems to be a stumbling block.
We don't have the excuse of a lack of education to fall back on. While there are problems with the way sex education is taught, vagueness about contraception and the mechanics of sex does not appear to be one of them many people I spoke to recall the infamous cartoon Johnny Condom song, a source of much classroom hilarity.
Some even claim that twentysomethings are the poster demographic for unprotected sex. As monikers go, I have to admit it's not my favourite, but it does resonate.
Most of my friends have admitted to having used this fallible and messy technique to avoid pregnancy, while some rely on it as their only method of contraception. They see orgasms as a right, not a privilege. In my group of friends, it seemed to be something that occurred accidentally or due to poor organisation.
I was interested to find out whether or not we are seeing a more conscious shift away from hormonal contraceptive methods in favour of the pull-out method. But that was more than five years ago. Could it be true that women are being turned off the pill and condoms, too?
Among the many twentysomethings I spoke to from all over the UK, it would appear so. Alex, 24, a charity worker, says that unprotected sex is something that she and her partner go through in phases, "depending on how sensible either of us is feeling at the time", and that a dislike of condoms is a factor.
She has relied on the withdrawal method in the past and has had chlamydia , gonorrhea and one pregnancy scare. She has made a conscious decision not to take the pill: Perhaps it's the fact that they can change your mood. Elise, 32, uses withdrawal with her long-term partner and is similarly laid-back. She is perhaps what you'd call "pregnancy ambivalent": I couldn't settle on one and had to keep going back to the doctor with bleeding.
I ended up saying I'd take a break and never went back. Although she says she was worried about getting pregnant, she did have unprotected sex at least five times. It was, she says, a period "characterised by carelessness and drunken decisions at a time where I didn't feel anything bad would happen to me. I think some of the men would rather I had insisted we use a condom but didn't speak up themselves.
I think she thought my reaction was inappropriate. But it's not just youth that can make you feel invulnerable, as Danni, 32, a communications manager, explains: I've had unprotected sex with about 15 men, in relationships and casually, and I can say I've used a condom about three times.
Guys seem to hate them, and sometimes, I'm too drunk or turned on to care. Gina, 29, an IT helpdesk supervisor, has had unprotected sex while drunk but says she wouldn't do it now, having once contracted chlamydia.
I can understand young people in their teens feeling too embarrassed or intimidated to broach the subject of condoms, but I expected women who are a bit older to feel more confident and assertive when it came to contraception. Rui Faria for the Guardian At times, the young women I spoke to seemed to resent feeling that they had to take responsibility for contraception. A failure to communicate was a common factor, which makes me question whether British sex education — which focuses very much on the mechanics — might have a lot to answer for after all.
I also wonder if porn — not renowned for its on-screen condom use — might play a part. Sex educators seem hellbent on convincing young people that condoms can be sexy and often provide them with tips and tricks to make the experience more erotic.
Perhaps they'd be better off encouraging better conversations. It wasn't that anyone I spoke to didn't know how to use condoms, or that they were one of the few methods that protected against STIs, it was that they didn't feel they had the language to talk about them.
Gina said she felt unable to bring up the topic: Never in my whole time of sleeping with guys has one of them done it or offered. Four of her friends have also had abortions following unprotected sex. Male distaste for condoms isn't the only reason unprotected sex takes place. There's also the fact that the side effects of the pill are too much for some young women to bear. Like many of the young women I spoke to, Harriet's reasons for using withdrawal or having unprotected sex were partly as a result of male pressure not to use condoms, but also because of a genuine discomfort with the possible side effects of hormonal contraception.
There was a definite change in my moods and when I wasn't sleeping, I was screaming or crying… it put me off for good," she says. The thought of putting anything hormonal back in my body scared me but he refused to wear condoms.
Every time I'd get a period it would just be like a green light saying, 'You're not pregnant! I had the op" — meaning an abortion — "and at the same time had the implant shoved into my arm. Six months of what can only be described as hell followed. I was constantly bleeding and I went into a deep dark depression. In January, doctors were advised by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to warn patients taking "third generation pills" including Yasmin, Femodene and Marvelon, that they are twice as likely as older medication to cause life-threatening blood clots.
It's no wonder that women are hyperconscious of potential side effects. It was when she started a blog on the topic that she realised other women felt the same way. I struggle to envisage myself taking the time out of freshers' week to check my cervical mucus. From my conversations with women in their teens, 20s and 30s, there is certainly a sense of dissatisfaction with the contraceptive options available. For every woman who says that she felt pressured by men into not using condoms, there's another who says that she dislikes the sensation.
Many, like Frieda, 27, are also wary of the pill. I didn't like that I had been altering my natural state for so long. Luke, 25, told me a similar story. It was quite stressful as a year-old.
Several of my friends avoid the pill because of concerns about weight gain, despite the fact that studies reveal it to be minimal. Others, like Harriet, find the mood swings unbearable. Having had an abortion and been fitted with the implant, she finally had it removed and went back to relying on the pull-out method. Earlier this year the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence Nice recommended that young women should be allowed to keep a supply of the morning-after pill at home in case they need it.
So has the pill liberated us? On the one hand, I am of course relieved that I can have regular sex and not get pregnant. And that is apparently fine. We've been led to believe that the choices women have are hormonal birth control or pregnancy and nothing in between. Harri Wright, 25, exams officer, in a long-term relationship Harri Wright: Felicity McCabe for the Guardian I've had unprotected sex probably hundreds of times.
I've been in a relationship with my boyfriend for eight years, and more often than not we don't use any form of contraception. I had been on and off many different kinds of pill — because of moving around during my university years I wasn't able to settle on one.
The hormones always made me feel a bit weird and later on I started experiencing nausea. In the end my partner and I were happy for me to stop taking the pill. We've never consistently used condoms as neither of us like the feel of them. Pulling out is our main method of contraception. I keep an eye on my cycle and we avoid peak times or use a condom.
We would prefer to plan a pregnancy, but a surprise wouldn't be the end of the world. We wouldn't have made the decision for me to come off the pill if we didn't feel we could handle the repercussions. Jess Tyrer, 23, travel advisor Jess Tyrer: Felicity McCabe for the Guardian As a teenager I was vigilant about my sexual health, but after a couple of years, my friends and I became more lax with contraception.
We were being irresponsible and testing our limits. I've had unprotected sex quite a few times, and I used the pull-out method with my former partner.
Looking back, I don't think we even discussed it. Naive as it sounds now, I didn't really have any worries about STDs or pregnancy. Unprotected sex happens for several reasons. It may be that you don't want to stop to put a condom on, sometimes you may be embarrassed to ask your partner, or they may think that you have an IUD or are on the pill.
Obviously if you have been drinking, that increases the risk. Emma Alfonso, 26, business owner, single Emma Alfonso: The other two were casual. It starts when you are a teenager and your loving boyfriend suggests you don't use a condom, because he'll lose sensitivity.