| 9.8°C Dublin

Padraig O'Morain: Why are our teens so coy about safe sex?

Even in our liberated era, sex education still has a long, long way to go.

That much is clear from a survey of teenagers who, it appears, would rather get pregnant than damage their image by having a condom.

And if they got a sexually transmitted disease, they would tell nobody about it -- not even the person who gave it to them.

Again, fear of embarrassment is the culprit.

It's not as if these are shy and retiring people. Most claimed they first had sexual intercourse at 16 or 17 years of age and some at 15. A sizeable number had had one-night stands or more than one sexual relationship -- or claimed to.

The in-depth research was carried out with focus groups of 18-20-year-olds in Dublin, Galway and Cork. It involved a range of organisations including Pfizer, the Department of Education & Science and Dublin City University.

The findings are a monument to the destructive power of embarrassment and they suggest that sex education in our schools needs to be geared up to combat this.

Untreated sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can have a range of serious consequences including infertility. But that's not what concerns young people -- what they really fear is their friends finding out about it.

The social stigma of contracting an STI, according to both male and female teenagers, would be worse than that of an unplanned pregnancy.

Hardly surprising, then, that they wouldn't tell anybody about it. What I found startling, though, was that they would not even confront the person who passed on the infection to them. Why? Because he or she might talk about it in public and might even blame them as the source.

Makes sense in a way, but the public health implications are horrendous. Is it any wonder that the number of STIs notified to the authorities trebled between 1995 and 2006?

All the more reason, you may say, for carrying condoms. There are a couple of problems with this, though.

First, teenagers (and adults) sometimes have sex when they are drunk and condoms may be the last thing on their minds.

Second, most girls said they would not carry a condom because they worried about the message they might be giving out.

And they might be right, about the message at any rate -- lots of the male teenagers said they would see a condom-carrying girl as an easy lay. As for school-based sex education, many teens viewed it as "too little too late." Can parents make up for this?

Even if parents were inclined to encourage their kids to carry condoms, parents surveyed said that very often their children will "disengage" if they try to talk to them about sex. I reckon "disengage" is putting it mildly.

Looks like it's back to the schools -- and that they, or the Department of Education and Science, had better up their game.

Padraig O'Morain is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.