Monday, 26 September 2011

Sex: What do you know?

In a study published today, 43% of sexually active 16-19 year olds admitted to having unsafe sex. As the Guardian points out, this is up 9% since 2006. Looking through statistics while researching for this piece, it hit me just how likely you are, as a "sexually active" teenager in modern Britain, to end up in bed with someone who has an STD or STI. Young people are more than twice as likely to get chlamydia than 25+ year olds. Rates of gonorrea, syphilis and genital warts have all increased in the past decade. And it's hardly surprising, when you discover that 23% of young people said that they didn't use contraception because their partners didn't like it! 1 in 6 said they it was because they were too drunk. Even worse: 16% believed that the "withdrawal method" was an effective method of contraception.


This data has been released on the same day as an avalanche of articles about primary schools being "forced" to provide sex education; in The Mail and The Telegraph, Norman Wells, a Family Education Trust director, is quoted spitting the words "liberal" and "permissive", in a style identical to that of the American right. After his tirade against liberalism, Mr Wells proceeds: "the Healthy Schools programme is undermining the healthiest message of all, and depriving young people of learning about the physical, emotional and social benefits of keeping sex within a lifelong and mutually faithful marriage." ...Well, that sounds like the way to tackle Britain's rising teenage pregnancy rates, rising STI rates, and certainly the way to encourage young people to trust and respect the sexual advice of authority: keep your legs crossed until he's proposed!

I'd like to believe that this is the extreme end of the spectrum, that the number of people who believe that "Just Say No" is an effective way to prevent teenage pregnancy are simply a tiny minority. Personal experience, and anecdotal evidence (two of the, er, most reliable and scientific forms of research) say otherwise. At a relatively liberal, highly academic secondary school in the South East, I've managed to encounter a surprising number of teenagers who firmly believe in abstinence; even among those who aren't quite so fervent, there's a commonly held view that those sink-estate teenage mothers we hear so much about - thousands of miles from our middle-class centre-ground school - are at fault for getting pregnant. Why don't they use protection? Why don't they just buy a (£30) morning after pill? Why don't they have an abortion? Maybe they're just slags?

The point is that these young mothers and infected teens are, to use a slightly wince-worthy cliche, victims of society. Sex education is dire; ask any adolescent, and they'll paint a picture of blushing Biology teachers gesticulating with condom-clad bananas, government- or charity-employed lecturers with a painful can-do attitude and no inhibitions whatsoever...even, for one excrutiating morning, a 60 year old woman in Nike dunks and a mickey mouse jumper, who told an auditorium of 200 giggling thirteen year olds that "sex is great; really, really great" and showed pictures of pubic lice. If that's the state of sex ed in well-funded, liberal, middle-class schools, god knows what's going on elsewhere; privileged children have the safety net of parents who, by and large, have the luxury of time and the support of a partner, unlike many low-earning single-parent households. The privileged can arrange to educate their children themselves; the lack of good sex education in school is, like all of these kinds of problems, bound to hit the lower-classes hardest.

Scandinavian countries like Holland and the Netherlands have very low teenage pregnancy rates, and there's a plenty of evidence plenty of to show tha it's partly down to the high quality of their sex education. They start young: Anastasia de Waal, writing in the Guardian, intimates that this is because "the early years of primary school are particularly important as this is the time when children are very curious about where babies come from"; furthermore, she cites the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, pointing out that 40% of 16-25 year olds who had lost their virginity before they were 15, said that they wish they had waited. This corroborates the idea that young people are ill prepared for sex, and worryingly ill informed. You can't prevent teenagers having sex - that would require legislating with a view to fighting adolescent hormones, which is a losing battle if ever there was one - so, instead, young people need to be properly equipped for dealing with sex. Biological, scientific reproductive education is paramount; making awkward, often unrelatable teachers lecture young people on relationships, affection, etc. is a sure way to have them fidgeting and humming in their heads; you merely reinforce the idea that authority is detached from this issue, undermine respect for the teachers, and push adolescents deeper into self-imposed ignorance.

If this government and its successors don't turn their attention to the abysmal state of sex education, the ranks of teenage mums in Britain will swell even further; in turn, the numbers of unwanted, even unloved, children will grow - the kind of children who are consigned to growing up in under-performing comprehensives, who end up being sucked into gangs or drugs. Society's view of their family's and their percieved failures lock these young people into that well-documented cycle: taught from an early age that they're second class citizens, they absorb the sentiment and are gradually disempowered by a lack of self-belief. It's more than tenuous to suggest that bad sex education is the source of society's ills, but it's definitely a contributing factor. If you give young people the knowledge to opt out of having unwanted children, you free up young women, who'd otherwise be stigmatised and stuck on benefits, to pursue their own education, to become confidently independent, to mature in their own time. This is something we can improve without too much effort; it's that rare thing: an achievable government objective. Now...achieve.

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