Lesson one: girls want to have sex

Sex education in British schools is a poor preparation for adult life. But before teachers and parents rush to tell teenagers what to think, try to remember what it feels like to be 14. By Jojo Moyes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
How do you stop young girls having sex? Take it from someone who was one - you can't. Young women don't have sex because they don't know better. They have sex because they want to know better.

At my school, there was feverish speculation among girls just out of their teens about who had done what. Knowledge about the mechanics was, with hindsight, surprisingly well informed. The language in which it was couched was, frankly, disgusting.

Girls who had "done it" tended to be those who had reached puberty early, and whose breasts and hips made them ready targets for sexual attention. Those with childish bodies were left launching themselves at spotty 16- year-olds at school discos so that they wouldn't be "left out" of the race to womanhood. Yesterday's research from the Economic and Social Research Council has again focused attention on Britain's "inadequate" sex education, reporting that many who have under-age sex wish they had waited. This is true of most of the young women I know. But it ignores the fact that many of them initiated that sexual experience themselves.

Much of the current debate on sex education implies that young girls are passive creatures who need to be informed in order to say no. This ignores one of the fundamental features of puberty - the phenomenal sense of power that comes with sexual awakening. I can remember sitting on a bus, a tomboyish 14, and suddenly realising that I could influence the way the man opposite looked at me. The transition from the invisibility of childhood to the acute awareness of puberty can be a heady journey. It takes experience to learn that with power comes responsibility.

It also ignores the fact that in many parts of Britain, that particular rite of passage is going to be the only one available. Researchers found that those most likely to become pregnant came from inner cities with large numbers of single-parent families, high unemployment and over-crowded housing.

Is this a surprise? When young women's parameters are set from an early age, they may see their only measure of social status defined by the partners they choose; their only chance of a home of their own decided by their early motherhood. They may also, like millions before them, feel pressured into it. Without the sense of self that comes with a good education and a stable, loving family, they might not have the resources to ensure that it is on their terms.

Family values campaigners have done their best to hijack the debate, working on the premise that the more information and contraceptives are made available, the more likely young people are to have sex. The latest research shows that in Amsterdam at least, this may not be the case. Comparison of British and Dutch teenagers showed that those in Holland, where teenage pregnancy rates are much lower, had earlier and more open sex education. They were also more able to discuss sex, contraception and the dangers of HIV with potential partners and had more close friends of the opposite sex.

But the British have long had a rather ambivalent attitude towards sex education. Government guidelines in maintained schools say that it must be provided "in such a manner as to encourage young people to have regard to moral considerations and the value of family life". They add, however, that parents may withdraw their children from "all or part" of the sex education provided.

Researcher Dr Roger Ingham, of the University of Southampton, said the latest research clearly showed that young people's confidence about sexual matters depended largely on "how able parents and schools are in discussing these issues openly". But any culture that still widely uses the phrases "slap and tickle" and "birds and bees" as euphemisms might not be best placed to pass on informed advice. Many teenagers who say that they hoped they could turn to their parents if they had a problem say they would be "horrified" if their parents tried to initiate a conversation about sex.

In this respect, independent and free advice is vital. Alison Hadley of Brook Advisory Centres said yesterday that the research confirmed her organisation's view that if teenagers are given easy access to welcoming and confidential advisory centres, the rate of unwanted teenage pregnancy will fall.

"Until 1990, only 50 per cent of health authorities provided such a service," she said. "Since 1991, however, an unprecedented expansion of services has begun to show results, with a 13 per cent drop in the pregnancy rate among 15-19-year-olds and 18 per cent reduction among the under-16s," she said. "Britain has long adopted the ostrich position when it comes to teenage sex. Slowly, we are lifting our head out of the sand and taking a rational approach."

Despite such admirable advances, society is ultimately presenting teenagers with a schizophrenic message. We present them with information on how not to have sex, while the rest of society becomes ever more sexualised, giving out a message that sex is fun/desirable/necessary - and most of all, that everyone is doing it.

Family values campaigners attack the "overtly sexual" content of teenagers' magazines. But teenagers do not read only what is meant for them; they soak up information from television, newspapers and advertising hoardings. Their generation has grown up thinking ice-cream is something you eat while having sex, that all underwear is about "Hello Boys"- or "Loin King"- type seduction and that all news information comes with free "how to" guides to better sex. The Spice Girls preach "girl power" while encouraging their man to "be a little wiser baby, put it on, put it on". Safe sex, yes. But sex all the same. And how do you convince young women not to have babies when they are the decade's most potent fashion accessory?

Perhaps young women themselves can still provide the best deterrent, backed up by official resources, simply because adolescence itself is characterised by the belief that no-one except other adolescents could possibly understand.

Pioneering schemes such as one at the University of Exeter, where older girls help teach younger girls, have achieved some success. Teenage school- leavers help with assertiveness training and dispel myths about sex. Doctors or nurses provide accurate medical information on the biological side, on sexually transmitted diseases and contraception. Classes use role-play to help teenagers handle real-life situations.

Results published in the British Medical Journal showed that teenagers in schools without the programme were one-and-a-half times more likely to have lost their virginity by the age of 16 than those on the programme.

In yesterday's ESRC research, one fact stood out clearly. One that, had it been known by girls at my school, might have affected many future sexual relationships. It showed that teenage boys and girls gave very different reasons for losing their virginity: girls emphasising love and relationships, while boys were motivated by curiosity or - horrors - peer pressure.

This one fact, if widely publicised, might provide one of the most effective pieces of contraceptive advice for years. It is one thing to do it in order to have something to tell your mates. The thought that their partners might be doing the exactly same thing ought to have young girls running for the netball courts