Sexually transmitted infections – the new ‘normal’

The Chief Medical Officer for England has proposed a radical solution to the escalating crisis in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – “normalise them”.

Speaking to the Women and Equalities Committee on the prevalence of STIs among young people, Professor Sir Chris Whitty claimed: “Lots of people get them who have incredibly conventional sexual and romantic lives”. He also argued that the time had come to accept them as just “an ordinary part of life”.

Perish the thought that the transmission of gonorrhoea should be ‘stigmatised’, or that anyone should feel “bad” about passing chlamydia on to their partner, or any “other people they may have sexual relationships with” for that matter.

Increasing harm

By his own admission, all these diseases have “long-term implications” if left untreated – some “very serious”. Yearly diagnoses only hint at the scale of the problem, with many carrying the infections without symptoms, but long-term trends show a continued rise.

There’s also been a recent hike in the number of people diagnosed. Figures from 2022, the most recent to be published, show that there were 199,233 cases of chlamydia (nearly 40,000 higher than the previous year’s figure), 82,529 cases of gonorrhoea (up 50.3 per cent on 2021), 24,910 of herpes simplex (an annual rise of 13.8 per cent on 2021), and 8,692 cases of syphilis (the largest annual number since 1948).

The Chief Medical Officer’s approach is clearly not morally neutral, it is not simply ‘following the science’, as we heard him say so often during the pandemic. Captured by the spirit of the age, Prof Whitty is recycling the hackneyed argument used in other contexts – that making something bad ‘acceptable’, ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ will somehow result in a positive outcome.

The reasoning goes that opening drug shooting galleries so that addicts can inject without fear of arrest will result in fewer deaths. Exposing children to explicit sex education means they will engage in ‘safer sex’. Relabelling prostitution as ‘sex work’ and destigmatising it will empower women who degrade themselves for the entertainment of strangers. By that same reasoning, taking the stigma out of catching an STI should see the rates fall, because people will feel more comfortable seeking treatment.

The Chief Medical Officer’s approach is clearly not morally neutral, it is not simply ‘following the science’.

This philosophy is superficially appealing because it has a desirable goal – the reduction of harm. But in reality, harm reduction approaches create an atmosphere of acceptability that encourages more people to engage in harmful activity and actually stigmatises those who remain opposed to it.

A better normal – marriage

Prof Whitty seems not only to want to normalise having a sexually transmitted infection, but also favours normalising the behaviours that are almost certainly driving the rise in rates, such as having multiple sexual partners or being sexually unfaithful within a ‘committed relationship’.

From a Christian perspective, harm reduction strategies grease the tracks of sin. The Bible clearly teaches that the only context for sexual activity is within lifelong, one-man, one-woman marriage – a far more radical approach to the rising tide of sexual chaos and its associated medical, moral and social consequences. A much better ‘normal’.