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Research Briefing: Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

Research Briefing Sheet

Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

Condom Use is a Question of Trust, According to New Research

New Zealand has increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), Chlamydia in particular. World-leading market researcher and specialist in human behaviour, Tracey Rankin, has interviewed young, sexually active New Zealanders to help understand what the barriers are to using condoms, the most effective protection against STIs, when having sex.

Commissioned by condom manufacturers, Ansell, Tracey Rankin's qualitative research findings about the sexual habits of young Kiwis (aged 18 – 24) provide an interesting insight.

Though her research Ms Rankin identified the three primary reasons Kiwi youths are not using condoms:

1. False sense of trust – “my partner is clean”

Trust is a major issue when it comes to safer sex. Not using a condom, during either a one-night encounter or in a newly formed relationship, is seen as a gesture of trust in the other person that he or she is “clean”.

Young people naïvely believe they can trust their intuition and instincts when deciding if someone has a sexually transmitted infection. This decision is frequently based on looks and personality as opposed to any real information about their sexual history. People trust that a sexual partner will be honest and upfront and therefore mention whether they have an STI unprompted, so they just don’t ask.

Examples of this false sense of trust include a woman having unprotected sex with someone who she perceives as being a “good, clean” guy and her instincts telling her he has relationship potential – or at least that he might call her tomorrow! A man may have unprotected sex with a woman based on her “nice clothes, pretty face and wholesome behaviour”. Anyone can get an STI if they have unprotected sex. It is a misconception that they happen to certain sorts of people.

Additionally, there is fear associated with raising the subject of condoms and STIs due to embarrassment, seeming insulting, being perceived as promiscuous, ruining the romance of the moment or missing out on sex. As such, sex is often used as the icebreaker (getting to know one another better), with the talk about sexual history and health coming later. This is obviously too late (my point is that no one is going to raise the topic of their sexual past at the beginning of a relationship, it’s just not realistic), as the Family Planning Association asserts that people can get an STI even if they have unprotected sex only once. Therefore, the message is to play it safe and use a condom until you have know each other better and have both had an STI check.

2. False sense of security – “it won't happen to me, especially in New Zealand”

A false sense of security and invincibility exists between both sexes. This is exacerbated by the belief that STIs aren’t very common in New Zealand – “they happen to people in other countries”, when in fact the statistics show the opposite is true.

This is also partly because people don’t tend to talk to others about any STIs they may have contracted, so they’re not so obvious (as opposed to pregnancy).

A theory exists in New Zealand that the descriptions used in tourism about New Zealand – clean and pure – also exist in people’s perceptions of others. The reality is that people of all ages, backgrounds and lifestyles can get STIs. This widely accepted denial about New Zealand’s STI epidemic is compounding the lack of condom use and effectively intensifying the problem.

3. False sense of safety – “she's on the pill so we're sorted”

Pregnancy is often considered the worse thing that could result from unprotected sex. The research highlights that people believe condoms are usually used for preventing pregnancy and they are far less likely to consider STIs (some people do). So if a woman is on the pill, or any other form of contraception, they think a condom is not required.

Unwanted pregnancy is seen as a long-term consequence, whereas an STI is seen as easily treatable. This reveals a lack of understanding of the long-term effects of some STIs, says Dr Gill Greer, executive director of the Family Planning Association.

“While many STIs can be easily treated if diagnosed early, many have silent symptoms and go unnoticed. Left untreated in the long-term, some STIs can lead to severe illness, infertility and in the case of HIV/AIDS, be life threatening,” says Dr Gill Greer.

“Tracey’s research gives us important insight into Kiwi youth’s’ thought processes and rationale about not using condoms. We must encourage an environment of trust where young Kiwi’s feel comfortable discussing and practising safe sex.”

What needs to happen?

Researcher, Tracey Rankin comments on her findings: "I was surprised at how open young New Zealanders were talking about sex and their sex lives generally, yet the reality is no one’s comfortable bringing up the issue of their own or their partner’s sexual history, especially just before having sex, and especially with a new partner!

“So we know and understand you don’t want to talk about sexual history, but play it safe, be prepared - keep condoms with you, and don’t hold back from using them.”

Dr Greer says the first step to addressing these issues is creating an environment for better communication among young Kiwis themselves about using condoms, and from those who deliver sexuality education.

“Better communication will ultimately lead to a safer environment. People need to understand what STIs are, that they can happen to anyone having sex and how to best protect themselves. Both men and women need to respect themselves and their partners and insist on condoms every time – until both have had an STI test that shows they don’t have any infections. In addition we need to be open and honest and create an environment where it is socially acceptable for women to carry condoms and for both sexes to feel comfortable using them and talking about them.”

“While avoiding the subject and not using a condom often leads to an underlying sense of concern or discomfort, people who address the issue upfront and use condoms tend to feel safer, more comfortable and ultimately have a better experience. They don’t feel nervous, guilty or kick themselves the next day! Given that many people desire being considered a ‘good lover’ this can only help.”

Let’s talk about sex:

This new research provides a platform for debate and discussion. We invite you to interview the researcher and Family Planning’s Executive Director.

Tracey Rankin, Director, Yellow Door Research

World-leading market researcher and specialist in human behaviour, Tracey has been interviewing people for 15 years all over the world, including Latin America and the USA, the UK, South East and North Asia, India, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand.

Tracey understands people of all types, ages and persuasions and believes that everyone has a story to tell. She provides a comfortable and non-judgemental atmosphere in order to encourage uninhibited discussion. Her passion is bringing people’s stories alive and her role is to act as a conduit for their voice to be heard and to objectively deliver her findings.

Dr Gillian Greer, Executive Director, Family Planning Association

As leader of this non-profit organisation for the past six years, Gill is a respected voice when it comes to sexuality and reproductive health issues in New Zealand. Part of FPA’s role is to raise awareness of sexual and reproductive health issues. The FPA supports talking about the important issues raised in Tracey’s research and Ansell’s desire to encourage safer sex with condoms in New Zealand to prevent STIs and unplanned pregnancies.

Additional relevant statistics:

- New Zealand STI rates are high compared with other developed countries. Chlamydia statistics are five times higher in New Zealand than in Australia.

- Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) statistics track a steady increase in the number of confirmed chlamydia cases from Family Planning, Sexual Health and Student and Youth Clinics. This pattern closely mimics what has been seen with the laboratory surveillance data for the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Auckland regions where rates of the STI have increased from about 350 per 100,000 to about 650 per 100,000 (1998-2003).

- The highest rates of chlamydia in New Zealand are found in females aged 15 to 24 years. This is three times higher than the males for the same age group.

Source: Institute Environmental Science and Research STI Surveillance Reports,


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