The furore over an NHS 'condoms-for-children report' reveals how all
sides inflate the dangers of teenage sex, says Jennie Bristow
Blowing up condoms
'Report urges child access to condoms', stated the Guardian on 15 February. The Daily Mail put it more strongly - 'Outrage over calls for condoms at 11' - and reported 'a key government adviser' say- ing that 'children as young as 11 should be given free sex advice'. As images of respectable politicians and health advisers promoting child promiscuity rush through the readers' minds, you realise that this would be truly shocking news. If it were true.
In fact the latest row over sex education, based on a report published in February by the NHS Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, was an exercise in sensationalism. The report, 'Preventing and reducing the adverse effects of unintended teenage pregnancies' is, in truth, a straightforward and rather boring review of different methods of teaching young people about sex and contraception.
The report surveys Europe and America, to compare different educational approaches to the prevention of unplanned pregnancy and the provision of contraceptive services. Nowhere does it mention, even in passing, that condoms should be given to 11-year olds. This issue was only introduced into the discussion under media pressure. The report concludes that the most appropriate time to start sex education programmes is before teenagers lose their virginity, and that sex education is most effective when it is combined with easily accessible, confidential contraceptive services. In response to media queries about precisely at what age it might be sensible to start this process, the report's co-author, Trevor Sheldon, candidly stated that 'In some areas of Britain, some kids are sexually active at the age of 11'.
Once Sheldon had made this indisputably correct point of fact, the moral minority could let their imaginations do the rest. 'Preventing and reducing the adverse effects of unintended teenage pregnancies', with its emphasis on safe sex, metamorphosed into an unadulterated advert for under-age sex and the corruption of innocents. The press were in such a frenzy to drag out the usual rent-a-moralist gang of politicians and family-values campaigners to denounce the 'evil' report, that it seems they all forgot to read the document, or to listen properly to its spokesman.
In fact, 'Preventing and reducing the adverse effects of unintended teenage pregnancy' is the last thing old-fashioned moralists should be railing against. Far from preaching immorality and promiscuity to children, the report is simply an argument for the most effective ways of telling young people to 'just say no' to sex.
Such is the strength of moral conservatism today that all sides of the sex education discussion share a common assumption. This is clearly shown in the 'controversial' report's survey of different approaches to sex education. All of the sex education programmes accept that teenage sex is undesirable and potentially damaging, and all have the aim of trying to prevent young people having sex for as long as possible. The area of disagreement is limited to which approach works. While the likes of professional moralist Victoria Gillick insist that young people must be taught that sex is a sin, providers of young people's services, such as Brook Advisory Centres, insist that this simply does not work.
All sides agree that an effective sex education programme should not just educate young people about sexuality and reproduction, it should seek to delay the age at which teenagers start to put theory into practice. The 'just say no' lobby (which advocates sex education policies based on encouraging young people to resist their sexual urges) and the liberal 'let it all hang out' brigade (who call for confidential contraceptive advice for all) are in complete agreement that young people should be dissuaded from having sex until they are ready for responsible, long-term relationships.
For example, the NHS Centre report criticises the self-consciously reactionary 'abstinence' programmes, originating in the USA, which insist that sex should be saved for holy matrimony. The report's complaint, however, is not that these schemes are prudish, but that they do not work in putting young people off sex. When compared to 'the usual sex education' programmes, the report notes, abstinence programmes 'were not found to have any additional effect on either delaying sexual activity or reducing pregnancy'.
Concluding that sex education programmes based on old-fashioned moralism will fail, the report draws on its findings from northern European countries to suggest that 'openness about sexuality' is an important component of effective education programmes, because it helps teach young people, in particular young girls, how to fend off sexual advances. The implication is that the trendy 'pass the condom round the classroom' lessons are more effective in fulfilling the moralists' aim of stigmatising casual sex among teenagers.
The shared agenda was demonstrated in an exchange between crusty Lady Olga Maitland and the head of the Family Planning Association on Radio 4, on the same day as the press furore over the sex education report (Today programme, 15 February). Lady Olga insisted that 'The very best contraceptive is a very simple word: "No"'. Anne Weyman of the FPA countered that the most effective sex education programmes give young people the social skills to 'negotiate' and say 'no'. Conspicuous by her absence was the sexual health professional supporting young people who want to negotiate their relationships and say 'yes' to sex. She does not exist.
Nobody, but nobody, argues that if teenagers want to have sex that is their business. The shared assumption at the base of all the arguments about sex education is that sex is in some way harmful or damaging to young people, and that a successful programme is one which stops it. This is a contest to see who can do most to put young people off sex. 'Sexual health professionals' will use every available platform to reassure us that liberal sex education does not encourage teenage sex, and that there is no evidence to show that talking about sex with young people encourages them to do it.
But why should we assume that teenage sex is necessarily damaging? Teenage pregnancy may be an undes-irable outcome - but that can be prevented by the effective use of contraceptives, and countered by the availability of abortion. Sexually transmitted infections can be harmful, but then youngsters enjoying their first inexperienced fumblings are at considerably less risk of contracting an STD than those with a longer and dodgier track record.
It is often said that young people who start to have sex in their mid-teens have lower self-esteem than those who delay. This may be true. But it does not follow that having sex is a cause of low self-esteem. And it is likely that just as older people with problems find solace in sex, so do younger people.
Yes, young people have limited emotional experience to deal with the heartache and drama that invariably goes with the making and breaking of relationships. It is also true that teenagers experience their emotions particularly intensely and take rejection hard - but that is the case whether they have had penetrative sex, a grope, or a snog behind the bike shed. Besides, we learn through our experiences, bitter and sweet alike. That is one reason why we are (one hopes) better at dealing with relationships in our twenties than in our teens. Those who are cosseted from the experiences of life for too long might well find their emotional adolescence running over into adulthood.
In the end, the row about sex education is a non-debate. Regardless of what the various experts do or don't teach, a lot of teenagers are always going to have sex. Ironically, if 'Preventing and reducing the effects of uninte- nded teenage pregnancy' really had called for condoms for 11-year olds, it would have been one of the report's more sensible proposals. At the age of 11, nobody wants children, and Durex make a severe dent in your pocket money. It is unlikely that this proposal would prevent many pregnancies, however, as few 11-year olds are capable of fathering a child. But at least they would have something to stick over the exhaust pipe of their teacher's car after the sex education class was over.
Reproduced from LM issue 99, April 1997