Leading article: The case for sex on television

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The Independent Online

The proposals to allow advertisements for pregnancy advisory services to be aired on television and radio, and for condom adverts to be shown before the 9pm watershed, have reactivated a familiar debate about the official approach to sex education in this country.

Proponents of reforming the advertising codes argue that this would help to educate ignorant young people about how to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and to practise safe sex. They feel that such liberalisation would help reduce Britain's stubbornly high rates of teen pregnancy and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among the young.

Opponents argue that this sort of advert will merely encourage younger children to experiment sexually and have no impact on those children whose behaviour really needs to be reformed. They believe the official emphasis should be on curbing the "sexualisation" of the media, rather than encouraging it.

The problem with the latter argument is that countries which have a more comprehensive and less inhibited regime of sex education in their schools and media, such as the Netherlands, also tend to have lower rates of teenage pregnancies.

Moreover, the present minimalist system of sex education in the UK is plainly not working. Last month this appeared to have been vividly illustrated by the case of Alfie Patten, a 13-year-old from Eastbourne who believed he had fathered a child at the tender age of 12 with his 15-year-old girlfriend.

It is true that allowing abortion and condom adverts on television would probably have a minimal impact on individuals with such chaotic lives and unstable family backgrounds. But if such measures were combined with broader sex education for children and pressure for parents to take their responsibilities more seriously, there is every reason to believe they would help.

High rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are a sign that we are getting something very wrong in the way we educate our children about sex, relationships and responsibility. It is time for a new approach.