Why anything goes between the covers: The young deserve better than a trendy, hedonistic sex manual published by a quango, says Susan Elkin

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The Independent Online
Your Pocket Guide to Sex would have been very different if I'd written it. It would have had another title for a start: perhaps 'The Question of Sex', 'Talking of Sex' or something suitably tentative for the widely varying needs and knowledge of young people. What the Health Education Authority (HEA), a government-funded body, actually chose and decorated with a drawing of Cupid astride a condom, screams 'everybody's doing it so don't be left out and here's how' before you even open the covers.

And inside? What do young adults need to know? Surely they learn that new feelings and interests accompany pubescent body changes. You may - but it's not invariable - experience certain urges, but there's nothing wrong with you if you don't and there's certainly no hurry. I have known - haven't we all? - people who remain celibate well into middle age before meeting someone who changes their lives.

The mechanics of sexual intercourse and reproduction may be linked with some basic contraceptive information. Every statement, however, needs to stress that satisfying sex is inextricably linked with lasting commitment in relationships. People who flit from one partner to another are rarely happy. And immature teenagers whose views are unformed, their experience of life limited, by definition, are entitled to be told so boldly by adults.

Then there is the question of appropriate language. Young people and children (because, make no mistake, however much the HEA protests that Your Pocket Guide to Sex was targeted at 16- to 23-year-olds, children will inevitably get hold of it) certainly deserve to be addressed with the dignity of standard English. It is grotesquely insulting to fob them off in the patronising 'I'm getting down to your level' tones of the pop-culture comic-ese that people who claim to be 'in touch' with teenagers regard as appropriate.

The use of junk-language trivialises something that is actually too important and too special to be lightly rubbished. It also affronts the intelligence and sensibilities of the reader. The language need not be pompous or difficult, just straightforward. And that is what I would have tried to achieve in such a sex education book for the HEA but, alas, it wasn't to be.

Two non-executive directors of the HEA, both highly experienced in working with young people, approached me last summer for informal discussion about my possibly writing something for publication. We talked at length about youth and sex and discovered that we were all broadly in agreement: if divorced from lasting love, sex is rather ugly and undesirable.

Any information given to the young about sex must therefore be framed by an explicit notion of love and commitment, which often means marriage. And that seemed to us to preclude perversions involving inappropriate bits of the body and unsavoury 'sex aids'. Neither of my hosts was in the least prudish and we laughed a great deal. But there was serious concern that young people are being sold short by the anything-goes-but-use-a- condom brigade.

A few weeks later I was informally interviewed over a nice Italian lunch by someone on the staff at the HEA. Clearly, however, a moderate, happily married 46-year-old mother of two, with 25 years' first-hand experience of dealing with teenagers and all their problems and concerns in schools, was not what the inner circle was seeking.

Evidently, I fell seriously short of the politically correct criteria that a powerful group at the authority sought to impose. I imagine there were other contenders and I suppose they too were deemed 'out of touch' with the young. The job went, as we all now know, to Nick Fisher, an 'agony uncle' on the magazine Just Seventeen, who seemed to think young people should be tutored (under the auspices of a public body) in anal and oral sex, and the use of vibrators in blatantly hedonistic language.

The rest is history. Last week Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Minister for Health, ordered that the 'smutty' book be withdrawn from circulation and sale. The future of the HEA may even be in doubt.

Various questions remain unanswered. First, the expense. Although the book was initially commissioned and financed by the HEA it was destined for high street sale with the expectation that it would pay its way in time. As things are, it won't. Dr Mawhinney was certainly right to cut losses and ban the book but a large (undisclosed) sum of public money has been written off as a result. A costly and irresponsible piece of mismanagement on someone's part.

Second, last week's debacle raises the question of whether it is actually appropriate for quangos such as the HEA to be using public money to publish books for the commercial market in the first place. Surely projects involving dubious mass-market sex manuals - because that, however worthy their intentions, is what has actually been produced in this instance - should go through ordinary publishing houses? Had Your Pocket Guide to Sex not carried an implicit seal of government approval it would probably have sunk unnoticed into oblivion. Best place, too.

Third, no official body should get away with making decisions calculated to disturb, anger or embarrass some members of its governing body who have not been informed or consulted. The whole purpose, surely, of such panels, boards and committees is to act as a brake: a force for the moderation of excess.

So that leaves a final question. Where does the HEA go from here? It is currently under ministerial review and there are dark murmurings about its being wound up or drastically changing direction. Yet to abolish it might yet be an over-reaction, for it has done much splendid and sensitive work - especially in the field of drugs, smoking, and disease prevention under its respected retiring chairman, Sir Donald Maitland. It has also produced some excellent material for use in primary schools with emphasis on respect and caring as well as facilitating valuable research. For the Government to scrap all that would probably be to jettison the baby with his murky bathwater.

I am persuaded that there is still scope for some sort of Health Education Authority but there must be safeguards: a clear brief, tighter guidelines and carefully chosen personnel to monitor activities, with a strict code for consultation. Publishing books for sale should not be among its activities. Every care should be taken to encourage attempts to nurture a caring status quo based on self and mutual respect in matters of sex and other branches of health education.

Meanwhile if anyone wants a common-sense teenage sex education book written, I'm still open to offers.