It was revealed last week that Britain has the world's third highest proportion of sexually active teens. The study, published in The Lancet medical journal, also found that England had the fourth highest number of teens who had been drunk by the age of 13, and that Britain ranked in the middle of high-income countries for adolescent death.
Most of the media reported these three findings in the same breath, "teen sex" apparently as deadly as its bed mates. Of course, the rates of teenage pregnancies and STD diagnoses is a cause for concern, but generic media coverage of "sexually active teens" – an apparently homogeneous bunch of pram-pushing victims – is unhelpful in instilling a positive attitude to sex among young people.
There is no doubt that the focus has shifted in schools: sex education is now less about prohibition, and more about good practise. And yet last year, Brook – a sexual advice service for young people – carried out a study that found "47 per cent of today's secondary school pupils say Sex and Relationships Education doesn't cover what they really need to know about sex". "Sexually active teen" is one of those vague phrases perfect for awkward PSHE lessons, a crutch for teachers who want to avoid the issues teens really want to talk about. How are they sexually active? Are we talking full sex here, third base? Are they being safe? And, most taboo of all, are they enjoying themselves?
I remember myself at 13, fumbling with adolescent boyfriends and talking about sex endlessly with friends. It's embarrassing to look back on this child who thought she knew what was sexy, and probably fell victim to all sorts of societal pressures from peers and the media and TV. But on the other hand, children – and that's what we were in those early years of secondary school – need to explore sex in whatever capacity they feel comfortable with, whether that's comparing thongs in the girls changing room or becoming "sexually active". And, like it or not, it's inevitable that they will be influenced by the increasingly sexualised culture around them.
The only thing adults can do to make sure more children make it to adulthood unscathed, as I did, is encourage a positive dialogue about sex. The media's almost fetishistic attitude to "teen sex" detracts from efforts to do this. No amount of scaremongering is going to stop children experimenting.
Therefore adults, both at school and at home, must work to remove taboos, letting children know that not only is sex enjoyable, but that they should be talking about it and having their questions answered.
The writer is a third year English student at Leeds University
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