Sex education without the prejudice

Why the Government-sponsored sex-education campaigns have had no impact on the UK's high rate of teenage pregnancies
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High-profile controversies about Government-sponsored sex-education campaigns obscure the fact that these interventions have no impact on the rate of teenage pregnancy in Britain.

High-profile controversies about Government-sponsored sex-education campaigns obscure the fact that these interventions have no impact on the rate of teenage pregnancy in Britain.

Back in the 1970s, the UK had a rate of teenage births similar to other European countries. But as a recently published Social Exclusion Unit report, "Teenage Pregnancy", notes, while other European countries "achieved dramatic falls in the 1980s, the rates in the UK remained stuck". It appears that the numerous campaigns and initiatives have been a complete waste of money and time. According to a recent systematic review of randomised trials and observational studies published in The Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, sex education programmes fail to impact on teenage pregnancy rates.

Do not expect to hear very much about work that draws such conclusions because they do not back the message that the Government wants to peddle. The research reports that dominate this field have little to do with the disinterested pursuit of truth. Its objective is to mobilise arguments that justify official and professional intervention into the domain of teenage sexuality.

Government ministers, health professionals and educators claim that they do not preach abstinence or a particular moral outlook. Yet, even a cursory reading of the relevant studies indicates that these initiatives are driven by a negative, if not hostile, perception of teenage sex.

"I don't believe young people should have sex before they are 16," writes the Prime Minister, in his foreword to the Social Exclusion Unit report. His view appears to be shared by officials charged with managing sex education. However, their lack of confidence in the viability of a sex-negative moral message dictates that they adopt a more flexible compromise approach and present their argument in the language of science and research.

In the past, the language of morality provided the vehicle for the stigmatisation of teenage sex. Today, "evidence" based on research is used to problematise it. Report after report argues that large numbers of teenagers do not want to have sex but are compelled to engage in this activity due to pressure from their peers. The main justification for the Government's Action Plan on teenage pregnancy is that "too many young teenagers are being pressured to have sex, rather than really choosing to".

According to the Social Exclusion Unit study, helping adolescents to "deal with the pressure to have sex too soon" will contribute to the reduction of the rate of teenage pregnancy. Helping teenagers resist peer pressure so that they can delay having sexual activity is the perspective that dominates the field of sex education.

This point is reiterated in the DfEE's recently published statement, "Sex and Relationship Guidance (SRE)". These guidelines define effective sex and relationship education as one that "enables young people to mature, to build up their confidence and self-esteem, and understand the reasons for delaying sexual activity". And the aim of this education is to give young people a "clear understanding of the arguments for delaying sexual activity and resisting pressure".

The proposition that adolescents are not so much choosing but are pressurised into having sex is regularly highlighted by published research. Such surveys are based on questionnaires and interviews with adolescents. So how objective is this research? There is little doubt that the professionals involved in this field try to design research instruments that provide objective information.

But the very manner in which such research projects are mounted is likely to yield data that confirms the initial assumptions of the research workers. Projects that assume teenage sex is a problem and that many adolescents are pressured into it, will tend to find confirmation of their initial assumption.

Take a study on the "Extent of regretted sexual intercourse among teenagers in Scotland", published in the British Medical Journal in May 2000. The survey claimed that 32 per cent of the girls and 27 per cent of the boys reported that they regretted having sex too early. Moreover, 13 per cent of girls and 5 per cent of boys indicated that "it should not have happened at all". These figures, which suggest high levels of regretted sexual intercourse, are to some extent produced by the survey itself. Questions that focus on "the right time" to have intercourse, and which implicitly associate this activity with "regret", are likely to produce information that validates the thesis of peer pressure.

In any case, when youngsters talk to adults about sex, they rarely disclose their intimate thoughts. Most likely, they frame their answers in a language they believe to be consistent with adult expectations. Teenagers know that most adults see teenage sex as a problem and, when discussing the issue, are likely to mirror this. Children who sound like adults are often cited in these reports as proof that they need help to resist peer pressure. One survey cited in the Social Exclusion Report indicates that pupils showed that "they believed that learning to say 'no' was the most important, and the first thing they should learn in SRE". That such statements are cited as objective is testimony to adults' capacity to believe what they want to hear.

Anyone who has been a teenager, or who engages with them today, knows that most teenagers regard sex as an exciting, life-affirming experience. It is true that sex - teenage as well as adult - like any human relationship, often involves a degree of pressure. But the representation of this pressure as the defining feature of teenage sexuality can only lead to adult confusion about what is going on.

Worse still, the problematisation of peer pressure represents a patronising invitation for adult intervention into a troublesome area. Peer relations constitute a precious informal network through which adolescents make sense of the world. Adults and professionals need to resist the temptation to colonise this network.

But what does all this have to do with teenage pregnancy? Policy-makers need to understand that the real problem is not teenage sex but unwanted teenage pregnancy. So long as teenage sex is stigmatised and held responsible for high rates of pregnancy, the problem will not go away. Sadly, British policy-makers have drawn the conclusion that the way to reduce teenage pregnancy is through an interventionist campaign of sex education. Yet, societies that have successfully tackled this problem - for example, Holland - have conspicuously avoided going down this road. Britain has a rate of teenage sexual activity comparable to that of Holland but a rate of teenage birth that is six times the Dutch rate. Holland has achieved this feat without devoting much time to soul-searching about the content of sex education.

Teenage sex is quite simply not stigmatised - and because it is not seen as "a problem", it can be openly discussed. There isn't even the need to ghettoise it into a lesson. Teenage contraceptive use is seen as sensible not shameful. Openness towards an important fact of life means that teenagers can learn for themselves how to regulate their fertility, and confidently obtain contraception without fear of disapproval.

Teenage pregnancy initiatives with a "you shouldn't really be having sex" approach will at best be ignored and at worst fuel young people's fears that when they ask for the Pill they'll be given a lecture. It's hard to see how that will bring teenage pregnancy rates down.