This wide consensus in society for maintaining sexual restraint had broken down by the end of the sixties, swept away by the rising tide of 'permissiveness' and the availability of the birth control pill. As a result, in a very short period, sexual activity broadened from a pleasure largely confined to marriage, into one that many thought could reasonably take place after the most casual acquaintance, for example by a couple who had just met at a party. This change was reinforced by films targeted at young people, such as Alfie or Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, that portrayed male predatory sexual behaviour as a normal recreational activity with women as willing, albeit passive, participants. Although mainstream television programmes took some time to catch up, they too started to introduce story lines, tentatively at first, but gradually more explicitly, which sent out the signal that casual sex was entirely natural and that there would be no consequences, either physical or emotional, to such promiscuity.
The link between promiscuity and STIs is one that seems to have become very blurred in our society. The standard mantra, endlessly repeated, is that 'safe sex' is a defence against all risks. Naturally, if safe sex was practiced on all occasions, and preventative measures always worked, it would be a sound defence. But the inescapable fact is that STIs have continued to rise, despite all the propaganda for safe sex, and the reason can only be that a significant number of people are ignoring this message and 'sleeping around' without taking precautions. This trend is mirrored in the rise in the number of 'teenage pregnancies', a modern euphemism for illegitimate children, a term now considered derogatory. Back in the 1950s there was no lack of teenage pregnancies and no one thought it a problem, since the vast majority of teenage mothers were married, at a time when marriage generally took place at an earlier age than today. What appears to be forgotten, in sex education, in magazines aimed at young people, in tabloid newspapers and in films and TV drama is that promiscuous sexual activity can be a highly contagious, and sometimes even lethal, activity. But, quite the reverse impression is given, that sexual activity between near strangers is perfectly natural and risk free and that to condemn it is to be judgemental.
So can anything be done to address the rise in STIs, principally AIDS, the spread of which is fuelled by promiscuity? Although pornography can be both offensive and degrading, it provides a fantasy view of women which few men are likely to regard as realistic. The same cannot be said for TV soaps, films, magazine or newspaper articles which promote or portray casual sex as normal and acceptable behaviour. It is this normalisation of promiscuity in the mainstream media that is so pernicious, particularly to young people many of whom will lack the maturity, experience and/or judgment to resist the plausible message that sleeping around is fun and cost free. However, measures to tackle the problem are likely to be controversial since they will require some form of censorship. Until the late 1960s casual promiscuous behaviour was never portrayed positively in films, TV drama or magazine articles due to the rigid censorship regime which included an element of self-censorship. One option available would be for the government to sponsor a voluntary code of conduct in which the media agrees not to promote promiscuity. However, such voluntary self-restraint is unlikely to be successful as it will be resisted by the liberal media as 'right wing' or 'authoritarian' and by the popular media because it is likely to diminish sales or viewers since 'sex sells'. So without a more responsible attitude by the mainstream media the problem of STIs and teenage pregnancies is not going to go away anytime soon.