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Why is British sex education so terrible?

My solitary sex ed lesson took place when Britain had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Europe. The overwhelming focus was on how to avoid getting yourself knocked up.

Illustration: Michelle Thompson/Handsome Frank

My one and only sex education lesson at secondary school involved a white-haired deputy head teacher, a jumbo pack of condoms and a large bottle of baby oil. Mr Wise – by name but perhaps not by nature – felt that addressing a group of post-pubescent adolescents on the topic of sex would be less humiliating if a bit of humour was injected into proceedings, especially as rumour had it that most of the kids in the class were already engaging in acts which, for his generation, might have been considered “niche”.

Thus we were all instructed to blow up the prophylactics, which we duly did in the hyperactive, bulgy-eyed manner of those balloon animal men you encounter at children’s parties (that is, as if we were freaky cast members of The League of Gentlemen), and then slathered them with baby oil. This led to the condoms bursting and coating the already shiny, oily faces of the assembled Year Tens in a thin film of yet more shiny oil, but nonetheless it did serve as a lesson to us on the importance of never using oil-based lubricants with condoms.

My solitary sex education lesson took place when Britain had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Europe (as it still does). The overwhelming focus was on how to make sure you didn’t go and get yourself knocked up, which as far as we were taught meant remembering that you were not to substitute K-Y Jelly for other liquids. Getting pregnant, we were told, was The Worst Possible Thing That Could Ever Happen To You, and we believed it, even though a couple of girls in the year below seemed to be coping all right and had loads of help from their mams.

I don’t remember being told about any of the contraceptive options other than condoms (my mum took me to the doctor when the time came to go on the Pill), and abortion came up only during RE as part of a classroom discussion chaired by an extremely Christian teacher who seemed to think that an attractive wall display featuring pictures of fully developed foetuses juxtaposed with quotes from the Bible was the way to approach the subject. As for the morning-after pill, in our rural community, it was easier to get your hands on Ecstasy. The word I would use to describe my experience of sex education is “patchy”. And sadly, from talking to the generation below mine, it seems very little has changed.

The latest National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles shows that we are having more sex than ever. The average number of sexual partners for British women has risen from 3.7 in 1990-91 to 7.7 in 2010-2012, and from 8.6 to 11.7 for men. The research, based on a representative sample of over 15,000 Britons aged 16 to 74, also found that a third of men and women aged 16-24 had had underage sex, and that across all age groups one in six pregnancies is unplanned. Most shockingly, one in every ten women reported that she had been subjected to sex against her will and of these women only 42.2 per cent had told anyone about it. Just 12.9 per cent went to the police.

Despite such findings, coupled with a rising moral panic about internet pornography, slut-shaming, the sexualisation of children and sexting, a British schoolchild is still most likely to encounter the topic of sex as part of a statutory science lesson informing you that “human beings and other animals can produce offspring and those offspring grow into adults”.

Germany has had sex education on the curriculum since 1970 and it has been mandatory since 1992. This includes teaching children not just about the biology of reproduction (though the course is very thorough – some schools even give details of sex positions), but also about sexual violence, abortion, child abuse and various forms of contraception. In Sweden, sex education has been mandatory since 1956 and is usually incorporated into lessons from the age of seven onwards; some schools instruct children from age five or six. The Netherlands, which has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world, made sex education compulsory in primary and secondary schools in 2012.

In June 2013 the Labour MPs Stella Creasy, Sharon Hodgson and Lisa Nandy put forward a proposal to make sex and relationships education (SRE) part of the National Curriculum, and particularly information on the issue of sexual consent. “In a world of Snapchat, Chatroulette, sexting by ten-year-olds and UniLad, little wonder many are worried about the messages the modern world gives about what is acceptable in relationships,” Creasy wrote. She stressed that “putting sexual consent on the agenda in our schools is vital to empowering young people to make healthy and respectful choices for themselves and each other when it comes to extracurricular activities”.

Creasy said she hoped the proposed reforms would be “uncontroversial”. Disappointingly, the amendment to the Children and Families Bill which would have made sex education compulsory was defeated in both the Commons and the Lords.

Despite Creasy’s efforts, the most up-to-date legislation concerning how we are taught about reproduction is in the Education Act 1996 and the Learning and Skills Act 2000: from an era before most of the big social networks were dreamt of.

Maintained (state) schools must teach some parts of sex education, with a focus mostly on the mechanics (for instance, the biological aspects of puberty, reproduction, the spread of viruses and so on), and no such obligation exists for academies. Michael Gove’s championing of free schools has complicated matters, the schools’ relative autonomy essentially making them a law unto themselves. In an echo of the Tories’ homophobic Section 28 legislation, the free school model funding and academy model funding agreements stipulate that the schools “ensure that children at the Academy [be] protected from inappropriate teaching materials and . . . learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children”.

In 2012, a Channel 4 sex education film for primary schools called Living and Growing, which showed cartoon characters having sex in different positions, was withdrawn following complaints that it resembled “a blue movie”. The previous year, the Daily Mail had run an article complaining about explicit teaching materials, under the headline “Is this what you want YOUR five-year-old learning about sex?”, drawing attention to several apparently objectionable and pornographic books for children. One of them (Let’s Talk About Sex by Robie Harris) explained an orgasm, quite sweetly, as “a gentle tingly sort of tickle that starts in your stomach and spreads all over”. In the same book, curiosity about members of the same sex was described as “a normal kind of exploring”.

When teaching materials are being restricted in schools where sex education is mandatory, what is the likelihood of free schools and academies tackling sex education progressively?

“The problem with free schools and academies is that we have seen how easy it is to lose oversight of them. Look at al-Madinah [the Derby free school placed in special measures in 2013],” says Melissa Benn, the journalist and author of What Should We Tell Our Daughters?. “Given that free schools and academies do not have to have trained teachers at all, it’s likely that this problem will get worse.”

State comprehensive schools are at least required to cover the scientific basics. The more general sex and relationships education, which covers the emotional aspects of sexuality, should “equip children and young people with the information, skills and values to have safe, fulfilling and enjoyable relationships and to take responsibility for their sexual health and well-being”, according to the Family Planning Association.

In practice this seldom happens, as Simon Blake of the young people’s sexual health charity Brook explains. “SRE in schools is patchy in quality and continues to be too little, too late, and too biological,” he says. Even then, it is not compulsory in state schools but is contained within the non-statutory personal, social and health education (PSHE) recommended by the National Curriculum, together with such titillating topics as “leisure and tourism” “enterprise” and “citizenship”.

Essentially, the sexual education of any British child is at the mercy of his or her individual school and the teaching professionals within it.

At my comprehensive in north Wales, it was a modular, haphazard affair, the unpredictable rotation of the subjects and teachers leaving entire classes of pupils to roam the corridors like disorientated lemmings, without a clue where they should be going or who should be supervising them. I was lucky enough to avoid the “parenting” module (an appropriate moniker, considering that by leaving age 10 per cent of my year group would be parents), which I suspect was probably intended to fulfil the SRE recommendations. This class involved an ill-fated “flour baby” experiment, an American import whereby pupils were required to draw a face on a bag of flour, name it and carry it around for an entire week as though it were a real baby. It resulted in mass infanticide.

Photo: Corbis

A schoolfriend of mine fondly recalls how she left her flour baby in the care of a classmate while she nipped to the loo during history. She returned to find the baby disembowelled: it had been stabbed repeatedly with a gel pen, and its white entrails lay liberally scattered across the desk. Another “baby” met its end by being thrown from the top deck of the double-decker school bus by its father’s mates, while another classmate returned for the final lesson having baked hers into fairy cakes stored in Tupperware (she’s now a young mum with a cake-baking business).

The experiment, during which flour fights broke out all over the building, with Year Sevens liberally coated in the stuff and drifts accumulating like snow in the maths corridor, was a lesson in how not to teach children about the consequences of unprotected sex. I had always assumed that my school, which once had to recall hundreds of out-of-date tampons that had been handed out to us in “goody bags”, was simply a little bit rubbish. It wasn’t until I started talking to other people about their own experiences of sex education that I realised mine was not an isolated case.

I’ve heard tales of stuttering and embarrassed teachers, strange anthropomorphic VHS cartoons and contradictory, often scientifically inaccurate advice about pubes – and that’s from those who, like me, were lucky enough to receive a single, 50-minute lesson. A straw poll of Twitter (what better way to reach out to the other digitally literate twenty- and thirtysomething casualties of the state education system?) uncovered hilarious and disturbing tales of inaccuracy and incompetence, ranging from a teacher who conducted an entire lesson while obscured behind a screen, through one who said that it was wrong to have more than one sexual partner in a lifetime, to another who showed assembled pupils a video that announced, “Some of your bits ain’t nice.”

Common complaints – in a real-life parody of the infamous sex education scene from Tina Fey’s film Mean Girls (“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die”) – included being made to watch videos of women giving birth, or being shown enormous, zoom-focus slides of the pus-ridden symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, both of which seemed to preclude any discussion of the act itself (perhaps for ever, judging by how traumatised some of the participants seemed).

With the exception of a friend of mine whose attractive young female teacher, later sacked, opened the lesson by saying, “Look, girls, I have had many, many lovers, so ask me anything you like,” almost everyone recounted sex education lessons pervaded by an air of embarrassment, most frequently on the part of the teachers.

This led me to question whether teachers are the right people to be imparting such important information to the next generation of sexually active young adults. Judging by the number of my acquaintances, past and present, who have never discussed sex with their parents, that category of grown-ups cannot be relied on, either.

But what about volunteers? The national voluntary organisation Sexpression:UK has 28 branches at universities and runs workshops for young people to talk about sex. Most of its volunteers are trainee medics. Nick Batley, who is training to become a nurse at King’s College London, thinks this is one of the most effective methods of sex education. “We are closer to the pupils’ age; it wasn’t that long ago that we were going through the same things,” he says. “Also, we’re trained to do this. At KCL, we train around 50 new volunteers a year, and having someone who is trained and clearly enthusiastic about the task is far better than an underprepared teacher who is a bit embarrassed and doesn’t really want to be there.” He adds: “I still cringe whenever I think of the fact my newly qualified English teacher had to teach me about ‘golden showers’.”

Melissa Benn agrees. “I think this whole part of the curriculum should be taught by people coming in from outside. It is not good enough to have a supply teacher or underemployed physics or PE teacher brought in to put a condom on a banana . . . This needs people trained to know how to talk about it, deal with diverse cultures [and] manage all the overt silliness that accompanies such a tricky, delicate, complex area.”

Another common complaint was that the sex education had come far too late, by the time many of the pupils were already sexually active (nowadays, the children will almost certainly have been exposed to pornography). I remember being horrified at age 13,when a girl informed me in the loos that she had been fingered by an older boy. I knew roughly what the process involved, but couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to go through such an ordeal, or what they might enjoy about it, yet some of the kids were doing it. Even the most explicit teenage magazines such as Bliss and J-17, ordinarily so vocal on such subjects as discharge or “funny feelings down there”, were silent on this topic. I remember my mother being somewhat perturbed when she found I’d been reading a magazine that explained in detail what 69’ing was, but where else would I have got the information from, save the playground? My parents were unusually open about matters of reproduction but there were still certain things I’d be too embarrassed to ask them about.

Sex had been a whispered topic of discussion at school ever since I was seven, when I was asked if I was a virgin and, imagining it was something horrible and responding with a disgusted “No!”, I was met with looks of horror. By the time I was 15 I was in the grip of my first pregnancy scare. I had been put on the Pill, but a local doctor put the fear of God into me by telling me that unless I was doubling up with condoms as well, I almost certainly would get pregnant. Thankfully I managed to pluck up the courage to speak to my lovely dad, who calmly reassured me that a pregnancy would not mean an end to my life and that he loved babies and would happily look after mine if I wanted to go to university. Eventually I went to the school nurse to find out if I was packing heat, so to speak, and discovered an orderly queue of young women in a similar predicament outside her door. I wasn’t pregnant – but any sex education at that point would have been far too late coming.

Because of this, it did not surprise me when one young woman described how, during a sex education lesson, a female classmate of hers had put the condom on the plastic penis prop using only her mouth. When you leave a generation of young women to source their sexual information from Cosmo and Eurotrash, what do you expect? Now that youngsters are turning increasingly to pornography as their main point of reference for everything sexual, it’s safe to assume that they’ll already be clued up on the mechanics, not to mention everything from “anal” to “milfs” to “cream pie”. A scene from Beeban Kidron’s 2013 documentary InRealLife shows two teenagers giving her a run-through of all the various types of porn. “Rough sex,” says one, “is like, manhandling a girl around.” Suffice to say, a lesson that stops at a diagram of a vagina just isn’t going to cut it any more.

Although magazines were perhaps the most helpful sources of information available to teenage girls in the 1980s and 1990s, they had their limitations. Much of their advice seemed to boil down to: “Now listen, little lady. One of these days, a man is going to try and have sex with you, and you’re not to be pressured into it. Here’s how to say no.” A useful bit of counsel, certainly, but there was no advice on what to do when really you wanted to say, “Yes, yes, yes!” And what if you wanted to consent to sexual activity with someone of the same gender?

The teaching of consent is one of the most important aspects of a young person’s sex education, and I don’t mean just implying that sex is something that men want and women acquiesce to, but teaching young people of both genders what “yes” and “no” can look like.

There are some excellent resources online showing how to tell if someone is uncomfortable with an intimate situation (for instance, if they say “I don’t like it” or “That hurts”, or if they look frightened) yet there still seems to be a great deal of confusion about what constitutes rape. A 2010 survey conducted by the sexual assault referral agency the Havens found that only 77 per cent of young men between the ages of 18 and 25 (against 92 per cent of young women) thought that having sex with someone who had said “no” constituted rape. And now that porn has taken over from teen magazines as the medium through which teenagers glean information about sex, proper education is needed more than ever, especially because in some kinds of pornography consent can seem a grey area.

It’s hard to predict what the impact on the next generation will be, but as someone who runs a frank blog for young women, The Vagenda, I am hearing, anecdotally at least, that seeing a woman struggle or resist sex constitutes “foreplay” in the minds of some boys and I hear young women expressing anxiety at being expected to mimic certain acts.

One of the lads from InRealLife, a 14-year-old called Ben, describes how the girls who agree to do such things are immediately labelled “slags”. Film footage or images of young girls stripping or performing sexual acts which were then “sexted” to their boy of choice have in some instances been distributed among the student body – or, worse, used to blackmail the girl into further sexual activity.

In the very worst cases, this leads to suicide. Teenage girls remain the group most at risk of abusive relationships; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that a third of girls aged 13-17 have experienced physical or sexual violence in relationships. Women’s Aid says 18 per cent of 16-to-18-year-olds are unsure whether slapping counts as domestic violence. And in 2002 the Department of Health said that at least 750,000 children a year were witnessing domestic violence at home. Teaching both genders what a healthy relationship looks like is a matter of some urgency.

Justin Hancock, who runs the sex education website Bish Training, says that students are crying out for this. “What they really feel was lacking from their sex and relationships education was any relationships education at all,” he tells me. “They want to know how to make relationships work, how to argue, how to negotiate independence and togetherness, how to deal with big-time feelings, how to deal with friends with benefits, what a coercive or abusive relationship looks like, how to start relationships, how to end them . . . in short, they want to learn what many of us want to learn.”

Why have there been so many setbacks in making sex education a part of the National Curriculum, when young people are insisting that they need it so much? I wonder if there’s a feeling that if we don’t teach children about sex they won’t find out about it – an unrealistic hope, in a world of smartphones and internet porn.

I imagine that the hysterical right-wing newspaper articles about putting 13-year-old girls on the Pill and making toddlers watch porn are also persuasive to some people, but then neither does any minister want to champion sex ed and end up being known as Mr or Ms Banana Condom. “No government has wanted to touch it, because it’s a bit of a political hot potato,” says a source at the Department for Education. “There’s no way they can make any changes at all to it without pissing off one demographic or another. The Claire Perrys and Nadine Dorrieses of the world [both Tory MPs] seem hell-bent on keeping any desperately needed progress in that area at bay. Plus Govey’s education reforms giving schools the freedom to govern themselves mean it’s not impossible that there are children in school now who might never receive adequate sex education.”

On 28 January, the House of Lords rejected the bill amendment backed by Stella Creasy that would have made SRE – including teaching about same-sex relationships – compulsory in schools. It received the support of 142 peers but 209 voted against it after it failed to pass in the Commons. The basic Tory position is that sex education is at the discretion of individual schools: the children’s minister Liz Truss argues, “Teachers are best placed to understand the needs of their pupils and do not need additional central prescription.” Her Liberal Democrat coalition partners disagree – as Nick Clegg told a Terrence Higgins Trust event in January, “All the people around the cabinet table don’t quite see eye to eye on this, but I am absolutely clear that we haven’t modernised the guidance. We need to do so . . .” The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has also condemned Gove’s department for “dragging its feet”; the Education Secretary’s response is that “changing social mores” will only make any updated guidance instantly obsolete.

But the battle isn’t over. The forces ranged against Gove are varied, and strong. As Maggie Jones, a shadow education spokeswoman in the Lords, told me: “The Girl Guides, Mumsnet, the head teachers, the Mothers’ Union and many other campaign groups [are] calling for the education guidance on sex and relationships education to be updated.” She adds, “We are failing young people if we don’t give them the insight and skills to navigate the internet, social media and smartphones safely. It seems that Michael Gove and [the schools minister] Lord Nash are stuck in the last century and increasingly isolated on this issue.”

I am inclined to agree. Gove, a man who seems to embody the “some of your bits ain’t nice” sex ed philosophy more than any other minister, may want teenagers to send love poems to one another rather than sexy selfies, but what about fingering, or the morning-after pill, or even the dangers of using baby oil as lubricant? If children don’t get their information about sex from school, they won’t magically lose all their curiosity; they’ll just find out in the playground, or from porn. All of a sudden Mr Wise, with his condom balloons, is starting to seem quite the revolutionary.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is the co-author of “The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media” (Square Peg, £12.99)

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

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Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war