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Oh dear! World Contraception Day celebrity spokeswoman gives really bad sex advice

September 30th, 2008

Dr Petra

I’m all in favour of promoting contraception – and I think annual events like World Contraception Day that takes place in September can be a great way to increase awareness of contraception choices.

However, if you’re going to have a spokesperson for your event it might be an idea to ensure they can promote key sexual and reproductive health messages, otherwise it can do more harm to your campaign than good.

Each year World Contraception Day invites a celebrity to act as an ambassador. This year the role has gone to Kelly Osbourne. It’s a good choice as Ms Osbourne is known within the media for being outspoken and frank. She has been known to previously tackle charity and health messages and is respected within media and healthcare for this.

But today all the papers are full of quotes from Ms Osbourne about her views on sex, relationships, and sexual health. In the context of her ambassadorial role she is mentioned in numerous papers with quotes like “I go three, maybe four times a year to get tested (for sexually transmitted infections) and most of the time I don’t even need to. I just go for peace of mind.” Currently the story is running in over 100 newspapers and websites worldwide, many leading with headlines around being tested four times per year, or Ms Osbourne speaking out on getting tested.

Surely advocating regular testing is a good thing, isn’t it?

Well, no. If you are needing to get tested up to four times per year it means when you are having sex (presumably with different partners) then you are not routinely using condoms. While the pill or other forms of contraception can protect against pregnancy they do not protect against STIs and that’s why we recommend using condoms. If you’re a spokesperson for contraception you need to be able to explain this message.

Moreover in the UK our sexual health services are often overstretched, so if people rely on having a ‘sex test’ every few months it takes up staff time within clinics and lab time for testing. Also if you do pick up an infection in between a clinic visit you can be passing that infection on to other people, and leave it untreated yourself. While some infections like chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics and if caught early are not serious, others like syphillis or HIV can have more serious implications for your health. And let’s be honest, if we can avoid having any infection it’s a good thing.

Rather than relying on testing as a means of ensuring your sexual health is okay, our key current message is that people can manage their own sexual health – meaning we encourage people to obtain and carry condoms (and educate them to use them).

In media coverage Ms Osbourne is brave to say that she hadn’t used condoms when drunk, which is something many people will identify with. We definitely know that alcohol can lead to people not feeling able to use condoms effectively, forgetting to use them, or not taking another form of contraception correctly (for example being sick after drinking too much and hampering the effectiveness of the pill). All of which can expose people to unplanned pregnancy or STIs. However relying on regular testing to cover you for all the drunk and unprotected sex you’ve had in between testing is not good health advice.

It’s great where celebrities speak frankly about sex and relationships but only if they give correct messages. We’ve seen numerous stars suggesting that regular STI tests are a good idea. This can be for several reasons. If you live in the US for some or all of the time, the private health care system can encourage regular tests (after all, you have to pay for them). In the past we did recommend regular testing (although we don’t do this now after finding self management messages are more effective). And if you can afford private care a regular test is no problem for you.

But taking health messages from folk who’re not living the lives the rest of us do can mean we’re given the wrong information. At best it excludes those who can’t afford or simply don’t have access to sexual health clinics. At worst it can mislead people into thinking they don’t have to worry about protecting against STIs but can rely on an occasional test to show they are ‘clean’.

I’m shocked that these messages have been released around World Contraception Day. To me it suggests the celebrity ambassador has not been correctly briefed nor supported to stay on-message on a very important issue. This should be investigated by the charities behind the event and their PR people. I’m sure that Ms Osbourne takes her role seriously and would not want to give incorrect information to the public. Unless this was the message they wanted giving out for World Contraception Day.

But I think this also shows us just how little journalists know about sexual health. Most of them didn’t seem to notice, or care, that regular testing is not good sexual health advice. So we need to think about better sex ed for journalists so they don’t make such errors again. Perhaps it’s because it’s about sex and the fact people don’t see it as having much science behind it. After all I’m sure if a celebrity spoke out as an ambassador for heart disease and said something like ‘I eat fried breakfasts several times a week but I see my doc four times a year for a health check and so far I’m okay’ then a journalist might ask the question about whether this is the best way to manage your health. Why not the same awareness for sexual health?

And finally I think this shows us again how sexual health messages are not being clearly delivered to the public – whether that’s through media campaigns, school sex education or other reports or support services. If we’ve changed our view on how we manage sexual health we need to let people know this so mixed messages don’t slip out and confuse the public.

It’s very easy to shoot the (in this case celebrity) messanger – but this sexual health gaffe says a lot more about how we don’t know how to talk about sex and how many agencies and individuals are all at fault for giving out poor advice.

So what is the best advice around contraception and sexual health? You can get condoms for free from GU and family planning clinics and some GPs. Keep your condoms around the home and take them with you when you go out. Practice putting them on and negotiating using them with someone. If a partner doesn’t want to use one then remember they’re probably not very confident or experienced sexually – and you don’t have to sleep with someone who doesn’t value themselves or you. Managing your own sexual health is not particularly difficult a concept to grasp, and it’s a whole lot safer and sexier than relying on a doctor to test you every few months. Testing should only be for situations where you think you have a genuine problem, not a fall back. And you can greatly reduce your need for ever getting tested if you use a condom.

For more information about using condoms, your nearest clinic, and STIs check out Condom Essential Wear.

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