When it comes to teenagers and sex, on one point all are agreed: too many of them are having too much of it, too often and too young. The number of underage pregnancies shows little sign of declining, with the slight drop in live births explained by a rise in abortions; life-blighting sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia are epidemic; and it would be better all round if the little blighters would dally longer with their innocence.
There, however, consensus ends. So when it was proposed last week, by the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health, that children as young as 11 should have compulsory sex education, the usual camps predictably squared off. On the one side was the knowledge-is-power lobby, in favour of "the younger the better"; on the other the self-styled "pro-family" groups who prefer not to sully small minds with smut.
Equally predictable is the eventual uneasy compromise between the two: that if we are to teach sex, it should only be within the context of caring, committed relationships. A noble enough desire, but as the statistics show, it isn't working. Which leads one to wonder whether our continuing failure might be inherent in the compromise itself; indeed, whether we might be better off teaching all the brutal mechanics of sex, even to the very young, without a whisper of romance, pleasure or love.
There was no such confusion when I was taught these things. Our lessons eschewed the convivial in favour of the strictly clinical; rows of us grimaced at grotesque wall-charts, while a teacher's cane showed us how this bit here, tap-tap, went into that bit there, tap-tap, and then.... Our muttered groans stopped only when 12-year-old Jane Tudor dropped to the floor in a dead faint.
When asked if "it" hurt, the poor spinster – like most of our sensibly shod teachers, she had never got over the fiancé killed in the war – curled a contemptuous lip: "I wouldn't know. Ask your parents." Thus, she managed to convey the ickiness of the act, yet also remind us that our very own mothers and fathers... Oh God, no!
The basic biology, stripped of all sentiment, seemed undignified, ridiculous and repulsive – which, come to think about it, it still does. And the revulsion lasted a good while. More than a year later, a women's magazine reference to the "consummation" of a marriage propelled a bunch of us towards a dictionary and a shock: it said "make legal" and we were incredulous. "That means," I spoke for all, "you've actually got to do it?"
The conclusion we reached, left to ourselves, was that you'd have to have a damned good reason even to think of doing such a gruesome thing. Sex, viewed coldly and from a distance, is at best absurd. It is we, the old guys, parents and teachers, who are making it attractive by introducing roses and romance as integral and inevitable accompaniments. As if. A little less of this idealised "context" and a little more crude science might not solve much for long. But it might buy us, and it might buy our children, at least a couple of extra years of grace.