Young Australians shun condoms due to 'social norms': survey

Many young Australians are having sex without condoms and skipping STI checks, but researchers say peer perceptions, not a lack of information, is to blame.

According to the National Debrief Survey, conducted by UNSW's Centre for Social Research in Health in 2018, 75 per cent of young Australians who had sex in the past 12 months did so without a condom at least once.

Of that group, 24 per cent did not use condoms when having sex with casual partners. A person's likelihood of consistent condom use decreases with the number of casual partners they had: more than 66 per cent of people who had five casual partners or more over the year reported having not used a condom.

The survey, of more than 2300 Australians aged 15 to 29, also found only 58 per cent had ever had an STI test.


Lead author Dr Philippe Adam said the survey showed young people were quite knowledgeable about sexual health. He attributed the behaviour to "social norms".

"Not all young people think that their peers would expect them to use condoms,” she said.

Over 92 per cent said someone should use a condom with a new sexual partner, however the number who thought their best friend would want them to use a condom was closer to 62 per cent, and only 23 per cent strongly agreed that condom use with new partners was common among people their age.

The statistics were similar for regular STIs checks: 67 per cent said they felt strongly that people their age should test for STIs, but only one in five said their best friend would feel the same way, and just one in 10 believed this was a common behaviour.

Women were more likely to have had an STI test, both in their lifetime (63 per cent, as opposed to 51 per cent of men) and in the past 12 months (40 per cent versus 31 per cent). Rates of testing among those who identified as LGBTQI+ were also higher than those who identified as heterosexual (65 per cent had previously been tested, compared to 55 per cent); researchers noted this was largely due to the more frequent testing practices of young gay men, who are largely the target of HIV awareness campaigns.


Dr Adam said use of other contraceptives could contribute to low condom use in heterosexual partnerships.

"Young women who are on the pill are certainly less likely to use condoms but the pill doesn't protect against STIs," Dr Adam warned.

Dr Deborah Bateson, medical director at Family Planning NSW, said condom use is relatively normal among the young people she sees in clinic, noting these statistics indicate whether a young person will take a risk and not use a condom once, rather than their regular behaviour.

"From my clinical experience, there's more awareness of the need to use condoms, but there can be that disconnect … when it comes to the reality of the situation it doesn't always happen," she said.

Close to 97 per cent of respondents in the UNSW survey believed an STI could affect anyone who was sexually active, over 66 per cent said they were unlikely to have one, and roughly one in five did not know an STI could have no symptoms.

"There still is that lack of awareness about STIs mostly not having symptoms… you can't tell if someone has an STI or not," Dr Bateson said. "If [a partner looks] trustworthy, that doesn't mean they don't have an STI … the best way to do that is to use a condom, and we've got to enforce those messages."

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