Teenagers divided over the morality of under-age sex

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FOUR out of ten teenagers believe there is nothing morally wrong in having sex before the legal age of 16, according to a Mori poll published yesterday. And only 3 per cent would think less of a teenage friend who became pregnant.

The figures, from a poll commissioned by Reader's Digest to explore the attitudes of 16- to 19-year-olds to teenage sex and pregnancy, come after a study in 1990 by the University of Exeter's Institute of Population Studies found that 30 per cent of girls admit to having had sex before the age of 16, against just 2 per cent in 1964.

The Mori findings showed that 40 per cent felt it was morally wrong to have sex before 16. But, on the other hand, an equivalent number of teenagers interviewed believed the reverse. Only 9 per cent felt it was morally wrong for unmarried people to have sex, and 56 per cent believed the state should support the children of unmarried mothers.

Only 18 per cent of those interviewed believed the state should not play a role, but the teenagers - a mix of boys and girls - also felt strongly that unmarried fathers, or their families if the boys were still at school, should support their children. More than 70 per cent favoured that proposition.

The survey revealed that many teenagers believed sex education started too late at school. Only 45 per cent felt it was taught at about the right time; 37 per cent said it began too late and 12 per cent said they received no sex education at school. Girls, in particular, felt sex education began too late.

Whatever happens in practice, three-quarters of the teenagers questioned - including 65 per cent of the boys - said they strongly believed contraception was not solely the girl's responsibility.

While more than 60 per cent of the teenagers questioned believed that it was better for a child to be brought up by both parents, more than one in five - 22 per cent - disagreed with that; with boys believing more strongly than girls that both parents should be involved in bringing up a child.