British teenagers lead the world in their sexual activity - why?

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CONGRATULATIONS!

Britain leads the world in something! It's a long time since we've been able to say that. But "We should hang our heads in shame," said the Sun newspaper yesterday, reacting to the news that not only does Britain have the highest rate of unmarried teenage mums but our teenagers are the most sexual active on the globe.

The percentage of unmarried women who are sexually active by the age of 19 is 86 per cent. The US manages a measly 75 per cent in second place. The first thought that springs to mind is: can this be true? Are all the old stereotypes out of date? Remember that sneering by famous Latin lovers? "Continental people have sex lives. The English have hot water bottles," said George Mikes. Or Byron: "What men call gallantry and gods adultery/Is much more common where the climate's sultry."

The English have long been seen as one of the most sexless nations in the world, yet according to the study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York - which analysed data from 53 countries - British teenagers are top of the bonking list. Cue howls of outrage. "Our world record of shame," said the Mail. But are we really so surprised?

British society has changed. In a survey conducted for the Birth Control Trust, researchers found that while in 1983, nearly three in ten people believed sex before marriage was always wrong; by 1991, this had fallen to less than one in five.

British teenagers are just having a good time. It's surely no accident that the two countries which have the highest rate of sexual activity - Britain and America - are also the two that have the strongest youth culture. Around the world it is British and American pop stars, film stars and designers who are forming how we look, what we wear, what we do. It's something our Prime Minister is always reminding us we should be proud of.

And what makes youth culture so vibrant? Well teen icons and pop stars are mainly motivated by sex. Just think of Elvis at the beginning of teenage culture in the Fifties. The Cool Britannia that Tony Blair is so proud of and likes to be identified with includes performers such as the Spice Girls (who put a safe sex message - "be a little wiser baby, put it on, put it on" - in their lyrics). Today's youth are targeted by the advertising guru Trevor Beattie (most famous advert the Wonderbra poster with the catchline "Hello Boys") and successful clothing companies such as French Connection (logo: fcuk).

What we've seen is a very successful commercialisation of teenagers. They're held up as an ideal, and used to sell everything and anything. It's hardly surprising that teens go out and experiment. We've come a long way from the imagery of Cadbury's Flake advert. Now you'd be forgiven for thinking that ice cream is something you eat to accompany sex.

Sex'n'shopping is everywhere. On television or in the cinema you can watch an advert where a woman appears to be in ecstasies dancing with a man in a nightclub - until he finds out its her pager vibrating in her pocket. Or the jeans advert where a girl strips off and into a pair of denims in front of a "blind" man (he's only holding the white stick for someone else).

In some of the soaps it's a real surprise when an episode goes by without someone ending up in bed with someone else. Switch off the television, but then teens can't open any magazine without being given ten top tips to the best sex ever. Yesterday in an editorial, The Sun pronounced sanctimoniously: "The more sexually aware our children become at too early an age, the more they are tempted." This will be the same newspaper that prominently displayed pictures of a topless Scary Spice canoodling with her boyfriend on pages 1, 4 and 5.

Ironically, it was Blair's heroine Margaret Thatcher who helped encourage a go-get it attitude to sex. She might have been straight-laced herself - she refused to fund an influential sexual attitudes and lifestyle study in the 1980s and even last year was said to be horrified that William Hague was sharing a suite with his fiancee Ffion at the Tory party conference.

But it was no point expecting everyone to keep zipped up and behave when, in all other realms of society, she was encouraging us to act on our desires. Greed was good, in the Eighties, and you could and should go out and get what you want. When capitalism is king the other codes by which we could live our lives don't stand much of a chance.

Combined with this influence, the family in Britain (unlike many other European countries) no longer has much of a hold. Thanks to geographical mobility families are split up, and there are fewer extended families living together and keeping a watch on younger generations. And if you don't have a parental rod of iron threatening to descend on your shoulders there isn't the same fear about breaking moral codes.

So we shouldn't be surprised that teenagers are having sex. We're all at it (Bill Clinton's practically made a career out of it). We know that what the old-style moralists are saying does not fit with what most adults are doing. And for all the tut-tutting teenagers aren't rushing into sex with abandon - the average age for first intercourse is still 17 and family planning clinics report that teens generally do not feel coerced or rushed into sex. They give good reasons why they want to experiment and look askance when told to wait. For marriage? Like all the adults they see around them? Yeah right.

Rather than condemning the fact that 86 per cent are indulging in sex, the real problem is that there is still such a high number of teenage mothers, due to poor sex education, ignorance and a lack of clinics where teenagers can seek contraceptive advice without fear. Earlier this year it was revealed that 1996 (the most recent figures available) had seen the highest number of schoolgirl pregnancies for ten years. Having a baby in adolescence means the chances of a good education or a good job are significantly lessened.

Health Minister Tessa Jowell said in March that she would be enlisting the help of teen magazines to educate girls on underage sex. "This is not about advocating sex, it is recognising the reality of life," she said.

The reality is that British teenagers are having a lot of sex. That may not be a bad thing in itself - social attitudes have changed - but the result is that British adolescents are also having a lot of unplanned babies. That's not good. "Be a little wiser, Baby. Put it on."

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