Every year more than 3 million people from London are affected by sexually transmitted diseases and sexual health problems. This demonstrates a worrying lack of understanding and knowledge about sexual health within the capital, which is potentially threatening the wellbeing and safety of millions of people.
Sexual health problems are rife throughout the city, with 23 of the 33 London boroughs suffering from a higher rate of sexually transmitted disease diagnoses than the national average. Worryingly more than 1 in 10 Londoners admit to having 'unsafe – not even safe-ish – sex', leading to potential health problems for them and their partners.
As figures and rates of sufferers of HIV, chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhoea continue to grow faster in London than anywhere else in the UK, the team at CNWL (Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust) are striving to spread sexual health knowledge in a bid to reduce the startling figures and the sexual health risks taken by Londoners.
Christopher Knibb, Associate Director of Communications at CNWL, has kindly gone public with answers to some of the more common questions he and the rest of the team are asked on a daily basis – hoping this will remove any confusion surrounding sexual health, and safe sexual practices.
1. For younger audiences, what is the official legal consenting age of sexual intercourse?
The age of consent is the age that you're allowed to have sex – including penetrative sex, oral sex or masturbating together. In England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales you have to be 16 or older to have homosexual (gay) or heterosexual (straight) sex.
2. We hear this phrase a lot but, what actually constitutes 'safe sex'?
Everything we do in life has some risk attached to it. That includes sexual activity, so what we try to do is reduce the risk of transmitting infections. By taking some precautions, such as wearing condoms or femidoms during penetrative or oral sex, you can make sex 'safer'.
3. Are condoms the only way to prevent pregnancy?
No, there are a wide variety of contraceptives available free on the NHS, not just condoms, femidoms and pills. Some methods contain hormones and some do not. All methods of contraception have a small failure rate, nothing is absolutely 100% even sterilisation. But some methods have a lower failure rate than others, your contraception doctor or nurse will discuss this with you so you can choose which method is best for you. Generally the most effective non-permanent methods are classed as LARC, Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives.
4. Are condoms the only way to prevent STIs?
Condoms and femidoms, if worn properly, are the best devices to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
5. What does STD stand for exactly?
Sexually Transmitted Disease – a disease that can be transmitted from one person to another during sexual contact – but nowadays we refer to these as sexually transmitted infections, or STIs for short.
6. Do all STIs have obvious symptoms?
No, you could have an STI and have no symptoms – this is common with a lot of STIs. Even though you have no symptoms, you're still at risk of passing the infection on to your sex partners. That's why it's important to use protection, such as a condom or femidom, during sex. Chlamydia is the most commonly acquired STI in England and only about 25% of women and 50% of men get symptoms.
7. Can both parties catch STIs if one of them has it?
Yes, anyone with an STI can pass it on to their sexual partner. If you discover that you have an STI it's important your sexual partner is tested and treated too. Otherwise you could keep passing it to each other.
8. Is it just penetrative sex that transmits STIs?
No, any form of sexual contact – whether that be rubbing genitals (sometimes known as frottage) or oral sex – can pose a risk of transmitting STIs.
9. What goes on at a sexual health clinic?
We have a lot going on at our clinics. Some people are there looking for the best contraception for their lifestyle, including emergency contraception (otherwise known as morning after pill), while others have tests for a variety of STIs. Many people come along on a regular basis, just for a quick check up and test. Many woman come to our clinics for their cervical screening.
10. Why should people go to a sexual health clinic regularly?
As we've said many STIs don't have symptoms, so it's best to get tested because some STIs can have long term effects if they're not treated.
11. How do you get tested for HIV?
HIV tests are available at many of our clinics which are all easily accessible and close to a tube station. Call us on 020 3317 5252 to book an appointment. We offer three types of test. The first uses a drop of blood and gives you a result within five minutes and the second requires a blood sample which is then sent off to our lab. The third test is new and is being trialled at our Archway Centre clinic. Again, this involves using a drop of blood with the result being available in minutes. After we have completed our trial we hope to be able to offer this test for people to do at home.
12. What actually is HIV?
HIV is a virus which attacks the immune system and is most commonly caught by having unprotected sex. It can also be passed on by sharing infected needles and from an HIV-positive mother to her child during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. Currently, there isn't a cure for HIV, but there are treatments to help most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life – similar to those with diabetes.
13. For those shy and unsure people, is time spent at the clinic anonymous?
Yes, you don't need to tell anyone that you are attending one of our clinics. We will never pass on your details to anyone without your permission – that includes your GP or any other health professional. Many people choose not to give their real name as this gives them extra assurance.
14. Do you have ongoing support for those who do have an STI?
Our staff offer a range of support services from providing practical care, treatment and testing for people with ongoing conditions to counselling those with sexual-related problems or concerns.
15. Can you get treatment at the centre on the very same day?
In most cases we can treat patients the same day as they first attend the clinic. But for some, more complicated cases treatment may depend on the diagnosis and may be long-term.
16. What other services, if any, does the clinic offer?
Wow, where do we start! We offer contraceptive advice and treatment. As well as treatment for sexually transmitted infection, rapid tests, information and advice about sexual health,Hepatitis A, B and C tests and Hepatitis A and B vaccinations. We provide free condoms, femidoms and lube, emergency contraceptives, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEPSE) treatment (available within 72 hours of sexual exposure to HIV) and psychological assessment and counseling for problems related to HIV and sexual health! We also offer cervical screening.
17. Can you get free condoms at the clinic?
Yes, free condoms, femidoms and lube are available from our clinics.