'They never tell us the things we really want to know'

We discuss sex education - how much, what sort, and at what age - endlessly. But what do teenagers themselves think?
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The Independent Online

We hear an awful lot about teenagers these days. According to the tabloids, they are lazy, feckless and ignorant. According to just about everyone, including the Office of National Statistics, they are having too much sex. According to some experts, we have only ourselves to blame. If teenagers are benighted, it's because we have left them in the dark.

We hear an awful lot about teenagers these days. According to the tabloids, they are lazy, feckless and ignorant. According to just about everyone, including the Office of National Statistics, they are having too much sex. According to some experts, we have only ourselves to blame. If teenagers are benighted, it's because we have left them in the dark.

The only way forward, everyone agrees, is to give them better guidance and education, especially in the area of sex and adult relationships. But what sort of guidance, and when? The stakes are high, and so, too, are adult fears. Everyone agrees that there is a danger that the "wrong" sort of education could lead to more teenagers having too much sex too soon.

In the four months since the Social Exclusion Unit published its shock-horror report on teenage pregnancy, the divisions between the sex education progressives and the family values warriors have grown sharper and sharper. And the more political the debate becomes, the harder it is to grasp the facts.

Take, for example, last week's storm over an article by Dr Trevor Stammler in the Postgraduate Medical Journal. The article took issue with the idea that better information and easier access to contraceptives would bring down our teenage conception rate. Dr Stammler claimed that sex educators were not giving teenagers the full picture. In their zeal to present a positive view of sex in general, they often underplayed the fact that underage sex came with health risks. They did not warn children sufficiently about the danger of contraceptive failure; condoms in particular have a high failure rate, especially among inexperienced users. He also pointed out that under-age sex exposed children to the full range of sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, a major cause of female infertility.

It was hard, said Dr Stammler, to find a place for this sort of bad news in a sex education package that aimed to stress the positive. He went on to give a partial endorsement of "fear-based" sex education programmes. These programmes steer away from the "wait until you're ready, but when you do it, this is how" approach, and concentrate instead on giving children lots of practical reasons why they should not have sex full stop. They are very big in some parts of the US.

Dr Stammler is a trustee of a conservative "family values" lobby organisation called Family and Youth Concern. It was thanks to this organisation that his modest article found its way into the national press. It got picked up not because of its subtler arguments, but because it used the word "fear." The word figured in each and every headline. And what fearful responses it has provoked from the opposition!

Sadly, the real argument got lost in the shuffle: Dr Stammler does not think it is ever right for parents to "lay down the law and punish their children." He believes that children in the transitional age, between 14 and 16, need careful, sympathetic handling. While they are often not in a position to follow the advice they get, it is, he says, still important that they get good advice - and in his view, advice is not good unless it is clear about the risks.

Over the past week, I've been talking to an assortment of teenagers to find out what they think about sex education. Although most have serious worries about how sex happens, and how they will manage or are managing their own sex lives, the thing that puzzles and worries them the most is the sex-related anxieties they pick up in adults.

We often wring our hands about the explicit sexuality to which children are exposed every time they pick up a magazine or newspaper or turn on the television. We forget that they are also listening and watching when we argue about sex education. How it affects them depends very much on how old they are and how much "experience" they've had. But all the teens I talked to were offended by it. One normally highly articulate 13-year-old girl was so appalled by the idea of fear-based sex education that she could hardly speak. "Please excuse me, but that is a load of shit. If you scare teenagers about sex, they're going to be too scared to have children, and then the human race will die out!"

She did think it was important to let children know about the risks of teenage sex. "Every teenager should know that it's illegal for under-16s. So you should say sex is not wrong if you are over 16 but it is wrong if you are under 16 because it can wreck your education and you haven't developed your maternal instinct by then."

Her main feeling about the rather dry, fact-based sex education she had had in school thus far was that it "didn't teach us what we want to know." What did they want to know? "Relationships. Why some girls have confidence. I don't have confidence, and I think, oh my god, am I ever going to have a boyfriend? Will I spend my life alone?" But it was not just a question of having confidence in herself: she was having a harder and harder time having confidence in some of the adults she saw around her. "For example, there's this friend of my father's who's fallen in love, and his personality has completely changed. He only talks about her, he seems entranced, and I think why?"

She thought she might have less trouble with all this were she not in an all-girls' school. But I spoke to another 13-year-old in a mixed sex school who voiced many of the same concerns. "They teach you what they hope people do and not what people really do. And they don't teach you what you really want to know." Worse still, they taught the wrong things at the wrong time. "In year eight in science, they had this whole table of contraceptives, a whole table, and told you how to use them. They put condoms on test tubes, and then passed one around and said things like, 'this one smells rather fragrant, don't you think?' and you just sat there cringing. I thought: 'I don't need to know this now, it's not relevant to what I'm doing.'"

She did concede that she had some classmates who did need such information. "But that's the same problem. Relationships. These girls don't have a clue. Everyone's doing this girlfriend-boyfriend thing, and they have no idea what they're doing. I mean, it's not like anyone wants to. It's like, everyone is saying, that is what you're supposed to be doing, and then the teachers come and tell you, don't."

And if you're not suppose to be doing it, where can you go with your questions? "There is this girl in my tutorial group, and last weekend she got really drunk and had a dirty threesome, and then the boys nicked her clothes and threw them out the window, and everyone's so shocked about it. But I don't even know what a dirty threesome is!" She has no idea, either, if this is normal adult behaviour. "Because that's what these teachers never tell you. They tell you all this stuff but they never tell you how they do it themselves."

The older teenagers I talked to had similarly jaundiced views about the "glaring hypocrisies" of their early sex education. The 16-year-olds were more confident that they had a grasp of "the basic physical facts" - at the same time, they were exasperated by the "saturation-level" lectures. "It's over the top sometimes," one girl complained. "All this stuff in every single magazine and problem page. And it's changed so much since I started reading them. When I was 13 and 14, it was 'wait until you feel you're ready,' but now it's 'sex is absolutely terrible if you're 15 and you shouldn't do it because it's illegal.' But that's so stupid." A boy in the same group agreed: "If you tell them it's bad they're going to do it because they want to be rebellious. I mean, some boys race to lose their virginity by 16 or else it's legal and that's not going to be much fun, is it?"

At the same time, this group thought it was important to spell about the health risks that came with underage sex. "It's no good telling teenagers that sex is wrong, because they have the final decision anyway, but if you tell them about the problems you might have if you're too young, they'll care more because these things will affect them."

What they wanted, they said, was the whole truth, the good with the bad. And not just about biology, which was, they all agreed, pretty boring. When I asked what they wanted instead, the answer was always the R word. Why was it so hard to have a relationship? Why, for example, when a girl and a boy did the same "bad" thing, the boy was looked on as a hero by his friends, and the girl got a bad reputation? Why could a girl be madly in love with you one minute and the next minute be madly in love with your best friend? Why was all this so hard, when it was supposed to be fun?

"All they told us in school was what goes where. But what we wanted to know was how to do it and how to make it nice." The 15-year-old who told me this was not just talking about sex. She was talking about growing up, and trying to find a way out of her growing fears and into some notion of adult happiness.

This has always been my understanding of what progressive sex education is all about. It is also, at least according to Dr Stammler, what a more conservative brand of sex education is about, too. The two sides might have different ideas about how one goes about achieving that end, but the fact remains that the end is the same.

The tragedy of our current political debate on teenage sex is that we always start from the differences, never from the common ground. And how often do any of these experts take the part of the teenager? If they did, they would immediately see how insane it is for us adults to pretend we are even capable of offering guidance and instruction when we're so confused ourselves.

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