Will you end up swiping right ... on syphilis
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Will you end up swiping right ... on syphilis

My single friend sighed and laughed good naturedly at my incredulity. "So, your phone’s location brings up people who are nearby and then you choose the ones you think look decent in their photo, like flicking through a catalogue?" I ask. "Yep, and then if they swipe right on you, you can start messaging and take things from there," she explains. Despite the deceptively simple interfaces of apps such as Tinder and Grindr, I admit to being dazzled by their efficiency in hooking up casual encounters with people you would otherwise never have met.

One study shows over 35 per cent of men and 21 per cent of women have had more than five different sexual partners in the previous year.

One study shows over 35 per cent of men and 21 per cent of women have had more than five different sexual partners in the previous year.

Photo: Simone de Peak

And therein lies one of the most likely causes of Australia’s alarming rise in STI rates – the ease with which people can hook up for casual sex with complete strangers. And these rates are across all age brackets, in fact infections such as chlamydia have more than doubled for women aged between 40-64 years. And now syphilis is making a comeback, with the tragic death of an unborn baby in Victoria.

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One study shows more than 35 per cent of men and 21 per cent of women have had more than five different sexual partners in the previous year – the most influencing predictor of this was whether they found partners online.

We can now neatly sidestep the traditional slow and awkward process of finding out if a person is available and interested, and instead swipe quickly to create a list of potentials for that day and even prearrange dalliances by setting your location to where you’ll be tomorrow.

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Sometimes, my friend tells me, it’s just for the more traditional coffee or beer, but other times, well, it’s for a bit more than that. And all power to the web for opening up choice and making connecting with someone easier for people, but the buzz may be drowning out the killjoy reminder of safety.

Those of us of the right vintage would have strong memories of the AIDS bowling alley ads – they had me convinced I was going to die of something, I was a bit young to know of what or how, but it certainly took the shine off bowling! And the ad with lot of couples in lots of beds which pondered "do you know how many people your partner has slept with?" drove home the safe-sex message, along with latent school sex education classes. But people over 50 were of a generation who received scant sexual education and studies find they feel embarrassed to ask a GP what they feel they should already know.

A NSW STI campaign from last decade.

A NSW STI campaign from last decade.

Photo: Supplied

It is time for a new generation of memorable advertising on the importance of safe sex and regular health checks (many of which are simple urine or blood tests, not the white glove flicking, invasive experience you might imagine). Statistics recently showed that only 35 per cent of single heterosexual males used a condom in their last casual encounter – men over 50 being the least likely to have cracked the packet. Even for those men who did attempt using one, more than 50 per cent said they experienced slippage or breaking, so Australians clearly need to revisit the banana/condom lesson.

My friend laughingly remembers the '80s ads too and assures me she always comes prepared. But to those of you who perhaps haven’t – yes, it’s fun to have a roll in the hay, but please do it safely and with consideration not only for your own health, but for all the partners you are going to swipe right on in the future.

Nicola Philp is an Age columnist.