Lessons in sex

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The Independent Online
Did sex education at your school diminish your youthful libido? Or was the consequence of all those diagrams and grainy films to stoke the fires of your burgeoning lust? The answer may be at hand. According to an article in this month's British Medical Journal, studies in Devon indicate that boys who were given "good sex education" (ie, sex education that was good, not education about good sex), were more likely to be virgins at 16. The incidence of early sexual activity in girls, however, was unaffected.

You do not have to be Victoria Gillick to question this claim. What exactly, one wonders, is the causal relationship between more sex education and reduced sex? For most boys, sex cannot come too early or too often. Nor is this anything to do with societal pressure and advertising - it is a matter of hormones, instinct and perpetual tumescence. As our religious affairs correspondent put it to me, "the only thing that stops teenage boys having sex is teenage girls". "Yes," chimed in a woman colleague, "and the only thing that stops teenage girls is their mothers."

Ms Gillick, of course, is part of the anti-instruction lobby. She once famously opined that teaching children about safe sex would lead them to say "if it's so safe, I'll go off and do it". Those of her persuasion are certain that such instruction encourages early sexual experimentation. Just last month, the Family Education Trust (FET) highlighted the fact that teenage pregnancies had risen at the same time as schools had embraced sex education. The implication was that this had happened because of (rather than despite) such instruction.

The FET's director, Valerie Riches, also expressed disgust at the spectacle of teenage girls practising putting condoms on carrots, presumably concerned that this might lead to an outbreak of vegephilia, or the wholesale violation of greenhouses. The boys were probably more worried that the carrots might create unreasonable expectations on the part of the girls.

Though they are easily mocked, this lobby has had some successes. Take, for instance, their recruitment of Hillary Clinton. In one of her Mom to the Nation episodes last month, she ventured the view that it might be better for youngsters to wait until they were, say, 21. Teenagers should learn to honour their bodies, she felt, seemingly unaware that pubescent boys have been giving specific parts of their bodies a good honouring for centuries.

But whatever their views on sex education, both pro and anti do agree on one thing - that, if possible, teenagers shouldn't do it. One argues that the best way to dissuade them is through more knowledge; the other through keeping them ignorant. So both, in their different ways, express the continuing deep fear that adults experience when contemplating child and teenage sexuality. The reactions this week to the new production of Wedekind's Spring Awakening are instructive. This play, either banned or severely cut over the years, deals with the repression of adolescent passion. It reminds us of what a powerful, dark and driven business first love and sex can be. Some critics chronicled very openly the sense of unease that the drama aroused in them.

This is hardly surprising. The last time that child sexuality began openly to be discussed, it was hijacked by paedophiles to justify their own pitiless exploitation of children. That had to be stopped. But it does leave many adults with an extraordinarily naive view of what their children are going through.

Actually, all they have to do is remember. It was only in casting my mind back to my own sex education at school that I began to understand the Devon phenomenon. When I was 13, and attending a London comprehensive, the big day arrived. Deputed to share his insight with 35 horny schoolboys was the nerdish chemistry master, Mr Godfrey. His eyes swimming behind Thunderbird specs, Mr G began with the testes - "Although", he volunteered generously, "you may say `balls' ". So we did - all at once. He was furious. "How dare you laugh at something that is precious to me and my wife!" he exploded. Suddenly sex lost all its allure. When it was dirty, furtive, passionate and naughty it was the prize to be sought, sans pareil. But who the hell could manage passion with the mental image of the Godfreys being precious together indelibly printed on their mind's eye?