It’s 4:30 in the morning at the 10-11 on Austurstræti, as a night of steady drinking, sweaty dancing and anonymous groping comes to an end. Couples slobber and dryhump through the aisles, clutching sandwiches and Coke to power-up for a night of sloppy fucking and awkward re-introductions in the morning. At the check-out line, the display rack of condoms and lubricants is practically untouched and ignored.
For the most part, Icelandic culture is more open and accepting of casual sexual activity than most places in the world. This cultural aspect has been popularised overseas to the point that the country’s leading airline managed to advertise ‘Dirty Weekend’ trips for years and Reykjavík is now a classic stag party destination for hooting British males. What the airline’s marketing campaign did not divulge to horny tourists was that ‘dirty’ should be taken quite literally and they might go home with more than they bargained for. The condom is not very popular in Iceland.
The pink elephant on the island
The condom is in fact so unpopular that the country is known as “the Nordic champion of Chlamydia,” according to Guðrún Sigmundsdóttir at the Icelandic Directorate of Health’s statistics department. In 2008 alone, 1834 people were diagnosed with the infection—that’s 0.6% of the population—and the number looks the same or worse for each year of the preceding decade. Infections of Gonorrhoea are also on the rise, with a sudden jump from single to double digits in the past five years and while HIV and AIDS are still relatively low in numbers, they are growing globally and should be taken seriously locally.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a steady problem that few people outside of the medical profession are willing to acknowledge. I spoke with several sexually active young Icelanders about their attitude towards using condoms and found that most didn’t even consider STIs when deciding whether or not to wrap up. “Everyone is on birth control so we aren’t really worried about getting pregnant,” said Ragnheiður*, 20-years old, when explaining why she does not use condoms. If this seems like f lawed logic, it is, since there has been an average of 4394 births per year in Iceland since 2000. Presenting her with the question of infections, she replied that people date within their circle of friends and think they would know if anyone caught anything. “Everybody knows each other. I think it’s only with foreigners that you get worried.”
A more relatable explanation came from 21- year old father-to-be Míkael*. “They are just too expensive here,” he said. “I was living with my girlfriend last year and of course we were having a lot of sex. We were both pretty broke, so of course you buy food and pay for rent first. After there just wasn’t enough left to buy condoms. Now there’s a baby on the way.” A quick trip to the protection section at a pharmacy is astonishing—no less than 2500 ISK for twelve latex condoms. This of course raises the issue of much one values their sexual health and future in order to budget for it. Unplanned pregnancies and children are much more expensive in the long run, after all.
No glove, no love
None of the young people I spoke with had any reasonable explanation for why there is such a pervasive aversion to slapping on a jimmy-hat and seemed apathetic to think of one. I turned to Sigurlaug Hauksdóttir for answers. Sigurlaug is a social worker at the Icelandic Directorate of Health and holds a Masters degree in parental sexual education. Her view is that condom use in the country is, indeed, insufficient, attributing it to several factors. “One reason is people here start to have sex very early, especially girls,” she told me. “European research has showed that Icelandic girls are the third youngest to start having sex, behind Greenland and Denmark. When kids start having sex very young, they are very vulnerable. It’s harder to assert themselves, say no and insist on using a condom.”
The problem is greatest with youth aged 15– 25, although sexual education is supposed to be taught in school at the primary level. Sigurlaug does think that an investigation into how sexual education is being taught is in order, as well as continual education at the secondary school level. “Teachers think it’s a difficult area to teach, but a lot teachers and especially nurses have been doing a great job,” she said. “It is important to know as much you can, so you can have a sex life that’s as interesting and healthy as possible. We need to have a better discourse.” She also praised the work of the sexual health clinic at the hospital in Reykjavík’s Fossvogur district where people can receive anonymous care and free medications.
Other factors she addressed are an overall negative view of condoms—that they take away the pleasure or show a lack of trust in one’s partner— as well as the issue of price, saying that people should use their money more wisely. “It would be nice not paying at all, but going to the movies or buying chocolate, for instance, costs more and is less important, yet we always seem to have money for that,” she argues. “People should use condoms with a more positive mind. There are many types of condoms that vary in taste and colour and shape and texture. Figure out what you like best with your partner and have fun with it.”
Blame your parents
Her main concern in the struggle to increase condom use and sexual education in Iceland is the involvement of parents in their children’s health and lifestyle as they transition from young children into adolescence. “They have a good relationship until they hit puberty and then the relationship drops,” Sigurlaug told me. “We have to change our practices with our children, talking more and doing more together.” She does understand that talking to one’s children about sex can be incredibly awkward. “I know they can be very insecure about discussing it. They didn’t grow up having these discussions in their homes,” she commiserated. “Parents should be offered more education and support to make them more confident about talking to their kids about sex. I think most parents would be interested in that because they care so much about their children in every way.”
Always wear rubber
In the end, it seems as though the problem needs to be attacked from every angle—from young peoples’ attitudes and assertiveness to a more open discourse in the general media. Iceland is exceptional in its open nature towards sex, but denial of the problem of condom use and passing it off as a non-issue creates an environment of sexual irresponsibility. “I think it is good that people can go to the sex clinic and receive STI medication for free, but people could be more responsible about getting checked up,” Sigurlaug contends. “There could also be more discussion about it in the mass media, to help teach our children to be more critical about pornography and the pressure to have sex. There is so much sex everywhere and it creates a lot of pressure on young people. We need to stress more that condoms are the only way to prevent diseases. We have easy access to condoms in nearly every store or by ordering online. There is no reason not to use them.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities