Rejoice: people are having more sex (and more fun)

I suspect some of the whipped-up hostility towards the attitudes of younger people to sex is based on fear
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hah! Women who sleep around are being punished. These wanton hussies are being stricken with chlamydia, an infection that can leave them infertile. Chlamydia rates were discovered this month to have more than quadrupled in the last decade. Well, serves them right. They should have waited for their wedding night.

Hah! Women who sleep around are being punished. These wanton hussies are being stricken with chlamydia, an infection that can leave them infertile. Chlamydia rates were discovered this month to have more than quadrupled in the last decade. Well, serves them right. They should have waited for their wedding night.

That, at least, was the ugly subtext in the recent tabloid reporting of the increase in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among young people. One in 10 16-year-old girls, it seems, is carrying the (easily treated) chlamydia bacteria. Nothing gets the "Have we all gone mad?" hyperbole of the right-wing press frothing more than evidence that young women are having (and perhaps even enjoying) sex. Every year, journalists discover - oh, the peaks of investigative reporting! - that the hundreds of thousands of young people who have flocked to Ibiza are shagging around and that this is, of course, A Bad Thing.

Whenever a horrifying rape occurs on the island (as they do in every part of the world), these papers present that attack as the logical result of lots of women "flaunting themselves". They glory in the post-Ibiza pregnancies and STDs, and promote them as a sign that our society has turned into a latter-day Soddom and Gomorrah that can only be cured by the lash of abstinence education.

You really have to wonder about the psychology of grown adults who dedicate so much of their energy to trying to prevent teenagers and young adults from enjoying their sexual peak. Much of the commentary by middle-aged journalists on this topic boils down - when you strip away the hyperbole - to the fact that they don't like the thought of their kids (and especially their daughters) having sex.

I can't help but suspect that some of the whipped-up hostility towards the attitudes of younger people to sex is based on fear. The bile that was spat last year by ageing pot-bellied male journalists at the young women who appeared on Club Reps, ITV's documentary about the Rhodes resort of Faliraki, was repulsive but revealing. Terrified by a generation of sexually active women who were not afraid to seek - indeed, demand - sexual satisfaction, these hacks derided them as "slappers" and "sluts".

The gloating over the high rate of STDs now inconveniencing these women is a way for threatened straight men with waning libidos to slap down young women who enjoy sex. Recently, the Daily Mail even put on its front page a picture of an attractive young woman adorned with the headline: "Did having sex give this woman cancer? (and could it happen to you?)". See, you whores? Enjoy sex and you will die! Die, I tell you! I could almost hear Lynda Lee-Potter cackling in my newsagent.

Part of the reason for increased STD infections is obvious: as silly sexual inhibitions are being worn away, people are having more sex with more partners than before. For the Taliban activists at the Daily Mail, this is a reason for grief; anybody who is finding pleasure beyond the confines of a suburban marriage, a patio extension and bashing asylum-seekers is inherently suspect. For me, it seems like a mostly positive sign. It is proof that a lot of people are having a lot of fun, and beneath the apocalyptic headlines, that fact seems to be easily forgotten.

Of course STDs are unpleasant and, at extremes, even life-threatening. But there is a very easy way to deal with them: contraception, and widespread public education. The facts are fairly stark. In the Netherlands, which has extremely frank and open sex education beginning in nursery schools, there are 4.1 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. In the United States - where a third of schools now teach abstinence over and above contraception - there are 49 births per 1000. The rate of HIV infection in the Netherlands among teenagers is eight times lower than that in the US.

There has been an attempt by social conservatives lately to claim that the Dutch vision is a myth. They argue that in fact there is no single national model in the Netherlands for teaching about sex, and that some of the Calvinist schools have fairly repressive sex education. It is rather a conservative family structure and relatively mean benefits for single mothers that cause the low pregnancy rate.

This argument is flawed. The Dutch government does explicitly subsidise an ultra-liberal "Long Live Love" programme, and Professor H Roling, of the University of Amsterdam, explains that the radical approach to the subject has been "widespread" since the 1970s and "extremely strongly encouraged by the government since 1993". Even the schools run by the Catholic Church emphasise the positive aspects of sex, and almost all Dutch kids see popular television shows that explain how contraceptives work. The Dutch model stands, despite these assaults, as clear proof that liberal sex education works.

Compare this to the barking mad approach of the US right, which commentators like Melanie Phillips want to see imported into Britain. The main US abstinence education websites are far more creepy than even the most hardcore porn sites that flash up when you search for "sex" and "abstinence" on the Net. They tell teens that they should "take Christ along on every date as a chaperone."

Check out www.days.org, a typical site that encourages teenage girls to plan their weddings and honeymoons now (erm, before they meet their husbands); to think about the "sanctity" of their unborn, unconceived children; and "to face your husband on your wedding night with a clear conscience".

The site even, weirdly, tells girls that they should ask themselves: "How can I assist my parents in their goal of attaining sexual purity for me?" The odds that these women - tutored to think of sex as "impure" and shameful - will ever develop enjoyable sex lives are, I fear, slim. But that, it seems, is part of the tabloid agenda: a woman who fears her sexuality and confines it to a once-a-week dose of the missionary position is unthreatening and supine.

And, anyway, abstinence programmes just don't work. A study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in the US found that they had no effect at all on teen pregnancies or STDs. A recent Canadian study found that abstinence programmes actually increase pregnancy rates, because they leave students ignorant about condoms and other contraceptives.

The proponents of abstinence education venerate a society that was far, far sicker in its attitude to sex than we are. The idea that Victorian England had a desirable attitude towards sex is so deranged that it is hard to believe that these conservatives want to recreate it, but they are apparently not being ironic. The Victorian sexual psychosis took the form of twin extremes: on the one hand the Victorians thought that table legs should be covered up because they were deemed to be indecent, and on the other they abused child prostitutes on a scale that is unmatched today, even in Thailand. There is no society in human history that I am aware of that had a more poisoned and destructive attitude towards sex.

Given a choice between the world we live in now, where we have sexual freedom resulting in the occasional regrettable disease, and the sick conservative world of endless repression and self-hate, I know where I prefer to live.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

Comments