First Major Irish Study Of Sexual Health And Relationships Launched
Minister Describes Report As Pioneering Study
92% SUPPORT SEX EDUCATION FOR YOUNG PEOPLE ON SEXUAL INTERCOURSE, SEXUAL FEELINGS, CONTRACEPTION, SAFER SEX AND HOMOSEXUALITY
“The Irish Study of Sexual Health and Relationships”, the first major report of its kind in this country, was launched today by the Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney TD. The study was commissioned by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency and the Department of Health and Children and publishes key findings on Irish sexual knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.
The study surveyed 7,441 adults, aged 18 – 64. The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RSCI) carried out the fieldwork in 2004. Topics covered included sexual knowledge, attitudes and behaviours; attraction, sexual identity and sexual experience; heterosexual intercourse, partnerships and practice; homosexual partnerships and practices; risk-reduction practices and experience of crisis pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections.
Speaking at the launch of the report, Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney TD said: “The National AIDS Strategy Committee (NASC) recommended that a national survey be undertaken of sexual knowledge, attitudes and behaviours in Ireland. Such a survey is in line with research in other European countries. Its purpose is to provide useful information on attitudes and behaviours and to provide a benchmark for evaluating the impact of our policies and practices in relation to HIV and other STIs and in relation to our overall sexual health.”
Olive Braiden, Chair, Crisis Pregnancy Agency, stated: “The Crisis Pregnancy Agency became involved in the project because international evidence confirms that aspects of sexual health, such as contraception, crisis pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections should be examined jointly in order to have a robust evidence base for the development of sexual health services”.
Ms. Braiden added: “The study builds upon the already extensive level of research conducted by the CPA since its establishment. The sexual health sector needs robust and comprehensive data to effectively plan sexual health policies and strategies and to inform effective approaches to promoting positive sexual health messages. The findings of this report will be used in planning and development by a wide range of agencies and will inform the strategic direction of the CPA’s work in reducing the number of crisis pregnancies.”
One of the most significant findings in the study was that 92% of people supported sex education in the home and at school for young people on the subject of sexual intercourse, sexual feelings, contraception, safer sex and homosexuality. 90% of people thought that sex education should be provided at school and 80% said that it should be provided in the home. 53% of men and 60% women have received some sex education at home or in school. The highest recipients are those aged 18-24, with 88% of men and 93% of women having received sex education, compared to 49% of men and 59% of women in the 35-44 age group and 12% of men and 19% of women in the 55-64 age group.
The most common topic of sex education received is basic biological information on sexual intercourse. Education about sexual feelings, relationships and emotions is the least likely topic to be covered. Only 34% of those surveyed received sex education regarding contraception and 30% on safer sex and STIs. Just over half of individuals who reported receiving sex education said that it was “helpful” or “very helpful” in preparing them for adult relationships. Those under 25 were significantly more likely to report that the sex education they received was “helpful”.
Crucially, the survey found that when parents talk to their children about sex, they increase the likelihood that their teenagers will delay their first sexual experience, that they will use contraception and that they will have greater confidence in negotiating sexual relationships.
The research showed that men and women with low levels of education are less likely to have received sex education in school or at home and are less likely to use contraception at first intercourse and on the most recent occasion of intercourse. Those with low levels of education are less likely to be able to identify the time of the month when women are most fertile and this group have low levels of knowledge regarding the time limits for the use of the emergency contraceptive pill. This group is more vulnerable to becoming sexually active before 17, which is in turn linked to a series of negative outcomes.
Approximately 12% of women report having vaginal sex before age 17. The study shows that these women are almost 70% more likely to experience a crisis pregnancy and three times more likely to experience abortion. Men and women who have sex before 17 are three times more likely to report experiencing an STI.
Commenting on this finding, Ms Braiden said: “It is vitally important that these findings are responded to. Thorough sex education, in the home, in school and in sexual health services is the most effective way to address this issue. Research shows that the best way to prevent sex before 17, teen pregnancies and STIs, is to encourage teenagers to delay their first sexual experience. Accurate information about fertility and contraception will help them to make responsible decisions.”
Reasons for not using contraception vary significantly across age groups. In the 18-24 age group, over 90% used contraception at last intercourse. Of those who did not use contraception, 20% said that “drinking alcohol/taking drugs” was a contributory factor, followed by 18% saying that “no contraception available” and 16% saying that sex was “not planned” and 15% saying that they “didn’t think to use” it.
Contraception use among women aged 35-44 was low with 19% not using contraception at last intercourse. This was due to an ambivalence to pregnancy; a belief that they were post menopausal and a negative attitude towards the contraceptive pill. 14% of women who reported a crisis pregnancy were over 35 and 4% were over 40.
Commenting on these findings, Ms Braiden said: “Qualitative research shows that young people often feel reluctant to deal with their contraceptive needs. Lack of specialised services, concerns about confidentially and cost are significant factors contributing to this. Young people in rural areas and towns are particularly vulnerable. The National Framework for Contraceptive Services, which was developed in partnership by the CPA is a model for the wider availability of a range of contraceptive services and methods. We hope that the wider provision of specialised services will encourage young people to attend for contraception and advice. We hope that the choice of different methods will encourage women over 35, who do not wish to become pregnant to use contraception.”
The report also finds that younger men and women report substantially higher numbers of sexual partners than older respondents. 46% of men and 76% of women aged 55-64 have only ever had a single partner. In the 18-24 age group, 65% of men and 50% of women have had two or more partners in their lives to date.
Low proportions – 2.7% of men and 1.2% of women identified as homosexual or bisexual. However, 5.3% of men and 5.8% of women reported some same-sex attraction. This leads the authors to suggest that sexual expression may be characterized as a spectrum which includes a range of same sex and opposite sex attraction, rather than considering heterosexuality and homosexuality as two distinct categories.
Over 90% of respondents thought that emergency contraception should be available in Ireland. 52% of men and 42% of women thought that it should be available over the counter. However, only 21% of men and 42% of women know the correct time limit for the use of emergency contraception.
The report shows that the mean age for crisis pregnancy was 19 in the 18-24 year old age group, compared to 32 in the women aged 55-64. This decrease in the age at which women experience crisis pregnancy can be linked to men and women becoming sexually active at an earlier age than those in the older age groups. It is also linked to the fact that contraception is not used consistently by 10% of people in the 18-24 age group.
However, the report finds that women, especially women with a third level education, are more likely to define their pregnancy as a crisis than women in the older age cohorts who may have experienced a pregnancy at the same age. This is largely due to increased opportunity in the workplace and in education and an increased level of importance women place on their careers. The CPA has identified the need to improve family friendly workplace policies and ensure parenthood is compatible with further education and training.