World Contraception Day: myths, rumours and rubbish

Two young people in sex education class

Crocodile faeces, honey, dates, hot mercury, fish, opium, half a lemon, disinfectant, diet coke, animal intestines, weasel testicles, a hare’s anus and the toxic sludge from a blacksmith’s workshop. Sounds like the contents of Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen cupboard.

In fact these ingredients, in various combinations, have all been ingested, inserted, digested or applied as contraceptive measures over the years. Few of them worked. Many resulted in death.

Wednesday 26th September is World Contraception Day. This is a day of campaigning for a world in which “every pregnancy is wanted”. Its mission is to improve awareness of contraception amongst young people so that they can make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health (SRH).

Times have moved on since the days of such weird concoctions. Over 20 different methods of long-acting and short-acting hormonal and barrier contraception are now available, many of which are 99%+ effective.

But strange superstitions live on. Take the pill, and you’ll gain weight, grow a beard, become infertile and smell funny. HIV and STI cells are so small, so the story goes, that they can slip through the walls of a condom.

You can’t get pregnant if the girl’s on top, if you jump up and down afterwards, if you don’t have an orgasm, or if you have sex in a hot bath. (How hot? What size bath?). Cling-film works as well as a condom, toothpaste is an effective spermicide, and of course, no one gets pregnant the first time.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, of course. But if your only access to information is peer-group-led internet-chat and street-corner gossip, if your mum, dad, and teachers consider sex totally taboo, if your doctor doesn’t approve, and you can’t get hold of advice or supplies … well, basically, you’re stuffed.

There are people who say young people shouldn’t have sex until a relationship is seen to have some kind of social or religious legitimacy. There are people who say whether you like it or not, many young people will have sex regardless of such strictures.

Either way – whether sex takes place on a wedding night, or before – it seems sensible to take the simple precautionary measure of ensuring that young people (or any people for that matter) know what they’re doing and are aware of the possible complications which attach. That applies whether people see it as a procreational duty, as a way of expressing love, or as something which is simply fun. Whatever way people choose to look at it, sex is an essential, enjoyable and rewarding aspect of being alive. (Well, isn't it?).

Look at it like driving. You can’t suddenly jump in a car one night and drive off safely if you don’t know the rules of the road, you've got no insurance, and you haven't got the foggiest what the different pedals, switches and controls are all designed to do, or where they are. So why do we expect anyone (whether on their wedding night or not) to suddenly jump into a sexual union and head off safely into the sunset?

The earliest known illustration of a man using a condom is in a cave painting in France. It’s reckoned to be 12,000 to 15,000 years old. Clearly, this is where Stone Age students gathered to take part in the world’s first Comprehenisve Sexuality Education programme.

Have we moved on from the Stone Age?

(Discuss. To be handed in on Friday. Two sides of A4, please).