Taboos: Young sex - an old story
Ann Bradley thinks the government should face the shocking truth that teenagers will have sex whether the prime minister approves of it or not
There seems to be something a little perverse in this government's obsession with teenage sex. The Tories' periodic attempts to promote 'Victorian family values' were nothing compared to the Blair government's efforts to focus concern on the sexual behaviour of youth.
For more than a year the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU), a special Home Office taskforce that reports directly to the prime minister, has consulted interested parties on teenage parenthood. The aim has been to draft 'joined-up' policy recommendations with implications for health, education and welfare services. With SEU recommendations imminent, the government has further committed itself to developing, over the next two years, a specific sexual health strategy with particular reference to the young.
Socially aware people now seem to accept the need for more government action on teenage sexual health as readily as they endorse the need for more government attention to be given to the elderly or the homeless. There appears to be a consensus that 'something must be done about teenage sex' - even if there are different views as to what that 'something' might be. Younger, more liberal MPs, like the earnest Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, insist that young people should be better educated about sex, while veteran moralists like Tory health spokeswoman, Ann Widdecombe, believe they should be denied access to contraceptive services and instructed on how to say 'No'. But 'the fact' that there is a 'problem' with young people having sex is accepted across the board.
A recent Department of Health circular motivating the need for a campaign to be based on the forthcoming SEU report reminds us that:
A recent survey suggested that 33 percent of girls, and 37 percent of girls aged 15 and 16, said they had had 'full sex'. Such investigations are, of course, utterly unreliable - people lie about sex more than anything else - but the results seem to square up with what common sense suggests: that more kids have sex earlier than they used to.
- the UK has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in western Europe
- there were 90 000 teenage conceptions in 1997. Nearly 8000 of these were to girls under the age of 16, of which almost half ended in abortion
- girls from the poorest backgrounds are 10 times more likely to become teenage mothers than girls from the wealthiest, but even the most affluent areas of England have high teenage birth rates compared to other European countries
- the rate of sexually transmitted infections has risen by more than 50 percent between 1995 and 1997
- the death rate for babies of teenage mothers is 60 percent higher than the national average, and their birth weights are more likely to be lower than for older mothers.
The government seems to believe that this provides a compelling case for intervention, and has declared its intention to launch initiatives to inform young people about 'the costs and consequences of sex, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and parenthood'. Boys are to be especially targeted with projects to 'encourage greater responsibility among men and communicate their parental responsibilities'.
Already we are seeing examples of the initiatives to be inflicted on the nation's youth. Some are unobjectionable - school crèches to allow teenage mums to remain in mainstream education make sense, and if the leaked proposal to allow school nurses to prescribe the pill is adopted, it would be of real benefit to teenage girls.
But to be of any use, practical initiatives will require an assumption that teenagers are likely to be sexually active, and that this is normal. The best 'sexual health interventions' are those that provide young people with the knowledge and services necessary for them to have their fun without coming to harm. These initiatives also require the knowledge that, while it is true that teenage sex is the cause of teenage pregnancy, teenage pregnancy does not have to be a consequence of teenage sex.
The low rate of teenage pregnancy and abortion in the Netherlands and Denmark is discussed to death by liberal journalists trying to make a case for better sex education and contraceptive provision in the UK. But one little-discussed statistic from the many surveys is that the rate of sexual activity among Dutch youth is about the same as ours. Dutch youth have sex but they do not get pregnant - they use contraceptives reliably and abortion is seen as a pragmatic, sensible solution when things go wrong. Teenage sex is not necessarily a bad thing
That is why it is a little alarming to hear that the government intends to prioritise informing young people about the costs and consequences of sex. It could be that the government is to come clean and let teenagers into the secret shared by us oldies - that sex costs you nothing (unless you visit a prostitute) and great sex can have great consequences for your relationship and self-esteem. But one suspects that this is not what Tony Blair has in mind.
In fact, should it have crossed your mind for one moment that the government might approach this issue with the maturity that many 15-year olds employ when obtaining condoms, then a public health initiative launched by the Health Education Board for Scotland (HEBS) should put you safely back on-message. A 40-second television commercial to be broadcast after the 9pm watershed shows a pair of giant tortoises mating, with the phrase: 'Think about it.' The £250 000 ad then cuts to mating damselflies, followed by garter snakes and rhinos. The final scene shows a female tropical fish laying eggs, which her male partner covers with sperm. A voiceover explains that these animals 'don't love each other. They don't form relationships. They don't care how many partners they have. They don't express emotions. They don't take precautions'.
This might be a useful counter to the usual anthropomorphic TV twaddle that tries to present animals as having human characteristics and values, but it is an appalling insult to young people - most of whom cite being in love as one of the reasons why they have sex with somebody for the first time.
The aim of the campaign is to persuade teenagers to be aware of the supposed emotional dangers of having first sex at too early an age. HEBS claims that it wants young people to realise the problems that can be caused later in life through anguish and regret. But why assume there will necessarily be anguish and regret? In these days of 'evidence-based' recommendations it is worth asking for the evidence that teenage sex is damaging in itself. And if it is not the sex that is damaging, merely its unintended consequences, why not concentrate solely on preventing these, by making it easier for young people to get contraception and by motivating them to use it?
Confidential contraceptive services are currently provided for young people in Britain - but policymakers seem less inclined to promote them than to apologise for them. It is hardly surprising that a young woman might be reluctant to ask for contraceptives, if she thinks that the health professionals she is about to approach will assume she has the morals of a garter snake and the sexual appetite of a rhino.
Of course, making it easier for adolescents to enjoy sex without fear of pregnancy and disease won't save teenagers from 'anguish and regret'. But surely to be teenage is to be anguished and regretful? I remain to be convinced that the intensity of anguish in teenage relationships is directly related to the progression of the sexual relationship. Other things matter to teenagers, too - like whether you said you loved him, whether he was two-timing you, and what happened to the embarrassing Valentine card that you really knew you shouldn't have sent. Yes, sex matters and young people who have explored sex together may feel more vulnerable when the relationship breaks down. But the traumas of teenage life are training for the emotional complexities of adulthood, and the lessons we learn in our teenage years stand us in good stead later in life.
The HEBS TV commercial and the euphemistic dark mutterings about consequences of sex seem a big backwards from the elderly family doctor who, 22 years ago, prescribed the pill to me at the age of 16, with the warning that I shouldn't expect the Earth to move until I had had quite a bit of practice, and the advice that I should always keep in mind that by the time I was 30 I would probably find it hard to remember the names of the boys who meant so much to me then.
Tony Blair probably thinks he has compelling reasons to tread well-worn moral ground in warning young people that sex is fraught with difficulties and dangers and is best avoided. It is an argument guaranteed to achieve a rare degree of consensus between the Daily Mail readers of Middle England (who would prefer their daughters to be reading Romeo and Juliet than playing out their own version), and sexual health professionals concerned about the incidence of pregnancy and infection.
But in trying to maintain such a consensus and keep his aura of moral responsibility intact, Blair misses an opportunity to promote the contraceptive services that young people need. He also misses the opportunity to turn the spotlight on to the issue of how teenagers could be better motivated to use them.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999