Better safe than sorry

Better safe than sorry

Dating websites and applications have profoundly changed the way couples meet and interact. Traditionally, we were more likely to date people who lived in the same community or shared the same interests, or people linked to our group of friends.

However, ever since the pioneering website was launched in 1995, followed by OkCupid and later by applications such as Tinder and Grindr, people have been able to engage with someone they barely know, anywhere in the world.

This has revolutionised the norms of how couples meet, and has given rise to a host of new types of relationships -- open relationships, "sugar" relationships, friends with benefits, booty calls, ONS … you name it.

These new relationship definitions have also led to a change in the patterns and frequency of sexual activity. It is becoming more socially acceptable, certainly among younger people, to have multiple sex partners. This casual attitude has given rise to equally casual attitudes about the necessity of contraception and condoms.

While most of us are well aware of the danger and risks of unprotected sex -- from unwanted pregnancy to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) -- many still engage in risky behaviour to fulfill fleeting desire.

A recent World Health Organization report pointed out that each day, there are more than 1 million new cases of curable STIs among people aged 15-49 years. This amounts to 376 million new cases annually of four infections alone: chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis and syphilis.

These infections have a serious impact on the health of adults and children, especially if untreated or treated improperly. Some can lead to serious health effects such as neurological and cardiovascular disease, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirths, and increased risk of HIV. Worse, STIs are still a taboo topic in some countries.

However, in this age of instant and ubiquitous digital information, we no longer have the excuse of lack of education to fall back on. Information about reproductive health, safe-sex practices and the risks associated with infectious diseases can easily be found online.

Still, it is common for people today to engage in unprotected sex, even with someone whom they've just met randomly online. The typical excuse is that condoms take away spontaneity, reduce sexual pleasure and are a mood killer with an unpleasant taste and smell.

Condom use is sometimes seen as a declaration of distrust or infidelity, a sign of promiscuity or fear of being identified as a stigmatised group (such as LGBT or people who inject drugs).

Sometimes risky behaviour is down to sheer ignorance, apathy and irresponsibility. If a couple try unprotected sex once with no consequences, they lose their fears and it becomes the norm.

In some cases, giving information about condoms is equated with encouraging minors to have sex. A few years ago in India, the government prohibited television channels from airing condom advertisements between 6am and 10pm.

Sex education has proven to overcome the perceived barriers to condom use and to increase the likelihood of people practising safer sex. A higher rate of condom use tends to go hand in hand with a reduction in sex partners and anonymous sexual encounters, as well as more education and discussion of human sexuality and disease prevention.

Government support and social marketing campaigns must continue to increase awareness, accessibility and acceptability of condom use. In the past, properly crafted campaigns and intervention programmes have proven to resonate better with citizens and brought about changes in behaviour.

A good example would be Thailand's "100% condom use" programme in the early 1990s, which aimed to curb the rapid spread of HIV among sex workers. It was so successful that it was widely emulated. Government-sponsored condoms were distributed to brothels and massage parlours. Establishments were required by law to comply with a "no condom, no sex" rule for all sex workers and their clients.

However, after the 1998 Asian financial crisis, government funding for free condoms was cut back and the spread of HIV infections and STIs has gradually increased over the years.

Lastly and most importantly, positive family support and parent-child communication can help protect younger people from engaging in early sexual activity that could put them at risk of disease.

Prevention is the most effective cure, and given how dramatically the dating environment has shifted, it should be a duty of young people -- both men and women -- to carry condoms to protect themselves and their partners.

Tanyatorn Tongwaranan

Asia Focus Writer

Asia Focus Writer

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