The UK’s multiple lockdowns have effectively imposed a sex ban on those not living with a significant otherOLIVIA LISLE

Content Note: This article contains discussion of consent, and brief mention of rape and sexual harassment.

Sex. Let’s face it, the UK is not exactly known for its openness on the topic. The British are infamously prudish when it comes to sex and relationships, topping a 2020 survey of 12 European countries in terms of our reluctance to discuss our sex lives. Sex and nudity remain embarrassing, taboo subjects, generally discussed only behind locked doors and in lowered voices in awkward sex-education classes, or after a lot of drinks.

A PowerPoint presentation of STIs and a teacher-led demonstration of how to put on a condom does not exactly enamour a classroom full of teenagers to feel sex-positive. Instead, it furthers embarrassment and restricts discussion of sex to cold practicalities, such as how not to get pregnant. And if you happen to be a member of the LGBT+ community, you can forget sex education altogether. The UK may have ruled that sex and relationship education must be LGBT+ inclusive from September 2020, but the pandemic means that almost none of these lessons have yet taken place.

Many young people thus enter the world of relationships with only a basic knowledge of contraceptives and STIs, and, if they are fortunate enough to have fairly open parents or guardians, an awkward family conversation or two for reference. This is not enough. Sex happens in many different forms, between straight couples, gay couples, queer couples, alone. It happens between young people, old people, and everybody in between. A couple might only have sex after a year or more of dating, or immediately after they meet. But these nuances are all lost in the quiet, clinical way in which sex is discussed in the UK.

“Sex is silenced, and pleasure is punished.”

Refusing to talk about sex outside of the classroom not only makes young people’s first relationships confusing, even terrifying, but actively increases sex-shaming. While being infected with a cold virus is not in the least bit embarrassing, catching chlamydia, HIV or any other STI is still highly stigmatised. It is often assumed that only those who “sleep around” will catch such infections.

The fact that phrases like this still exist and carry such negative connotations in our vernacular proves the point perfectly: according to society, having sex outside of an exclusive relationship is sordid and inexcusable. Sex is only acceptable in a tried and tested formula: in private, between two people in an established relationship, between a man and a woman. All forms of sex that take place outside of this heteronormative formula are hidden away and looked down upon. In short, sex is silenced, and pleasure is punished.

The pandemic has only reinforced this trend; the UK’s multiple lockdowns have effectively imposed a sex ban on those not living with a significant other. This policy is outdated in the extreme: the idea that sex should only be allowed between cohabiting individuals echoes archaic traditions of no sex before marriage, and completely undermines sex positivity. But it also means that the government has effectively enforced abstinence upon swathes of society, mainly the young, who must now prepare themselves to re-enter the dating game for the first time in over a year, and possibly far longer depending on personal circumstances.

So, now more than ever it is vital that we talk about sex - how to have it safely, and how to recognise if something is wrong. Sexual health services have been decimated by the pandemic, with 54% of clinics closing completely during the first lockdown as staff and resources were reallocated to other areas of the NHS. According to a PHE report, in 2019 468,342 diagnoses of STIs were made in England alone. The same report states that local sexual health services “need to be made available to the general population”, highlighting the struggle to find and access such services even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. It confirms that early detection and partner notification could drastically reduce the number of infections, something which is currently hindered by the stigmas surrounding STIs.

“Platitudes ... are useless if not backed up by more serious conversations about how to ensure your sexual partner is consenting.”

As sexual health services get up and running again, we have a unique opportunity to educate ourselves about the symptoms of STIs and how to recognise them. Equally, there is the chance to improve the perception of sexual health services within the UK and fund them as the essential service that they are, rather than viewing them as a place of shame and fallen morality.


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As the sex ban is lifted, it is also essential to have serious conversations about consent. Last month a survey revealed that 97% of UK women have been sexually harassed. Rape culture is clearly still pervasive in UK society, and until discussion of sex is normalised, education on consent will continue to be neglected. Platitudes such as “no means no” and the facetious, if well-meaning, “cup of tea” video are useless if not backed up by more serious conversations about how to ensure your sexual partner is consenting, that they feel safe and are fully in control of themselves. If we want to prevent rape and create a society in which sexual harassment is not the norm, we need to emphasise the importance of sexual communication and respect.

As the UK once more begins its journey out of lockdown, to quote Salt-N-Pepa, let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about all the good things: love, desire, pleasure, orgasms. Let’s address consent, STIs, and the need to reform and modernise sex education. Conversations about sex shouldn’t reinforce taboos of secrecy or brand sex as any one particular thing, but teach young and old alike that sex can happen exactly as you want it to, when you want it to, as long as you are respecting your partner(s). Will it be easy? Of course not. Will it be awkward? Probably. But that’s why we need to start now, to create change as soon as possible. Let’s talk about sex.