How sex terrifies children

Observations on education

John was watching a TV programme in which someone died of Aids. He became terrified he would get it and die, too. Only his sister was in the house, but she was unable to console him, so he called a counsellor to get advice. The counsellor talked to him and agreed to stay on the line until he eventually calmed down.

John was not sexually active and hadn't been using needles. He wasn't even HIV-positive. In fact, he was a nine-year-old boy calling ChildLine.

John is one of an increasing number of young children growing up terrified of sex and Aids. In 1993, ChildLine designated Aids as the primary reason for its calls. Children, many under the age of 11, ring up crying: "I pricked my finger in needlework and I'm scared of Aids" or "I kissed someone and now I feel sick. Could it be Aids?" Last month, a survey by Marie Stopes International UK and NOP Family said that 66 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds were worried about getting Aids - substantially more than were concerned about bullying or doing well at school.

The survey questioned more than 1,000 children from a variety of backgrounds, rich and poor. Over half the respondents didn't know condoms could prevent HIV and STIs, and only a third were confident in their knowledge of contraception. The survey pointed to an overwhelming anxiety over adult issues. Tony Kerridge of Marie Stopes concluded: "There is a sense of paranoia. There are young people who must be feeling very vulnerable."

Sex education is a hot topic, and there are plenty of people exchanging views over the national curriculum, government targets and alternative foreign models. The debate will go on; what is new is a worry that we are bringing children up in a climate of fear. A recent report by ChildLine called Can You Get it From Toothpaste? concludes: ". . . it is clear from our study that some under-11s are confused, fearful and influenced by myths and horror stories about HIV and Aids".

It's not just Aids. The way the messy world of sex is forced upon children can confuse them. And that's even before they get told about it in school (from age 11 at the earliest, according to the national curriculum). Charities and support groups advocate different approaches. Brook Advisory Centres, for example, believe in the open discussion of sex. Jan Barlow, Brook's chief executive, says: "Young people are afraid of where to go for reliable information - they think they might be judged. We believe that education is the way to go."

Others would argue that exposing children to sex too young will create that very climate of fear. These include Family and Youth Concern and its director, Robert Whelan. "People make fantastic claims about what can be achieved with sex education," he says. "The main determinants of sexual activity are family background and family structure. The real question is why are so many children sexually active?"

Head teachers often blame the outside world, particularly the media, for creating unhelpful ideas. Irene Dalton, the head of Wombwell High School in Barnsley, says: "What concerns me are the things that put enormous pressure on young people. You know that 11- and 12-year-olds are reading magazines meant for 18-year-olds, saying how to satisfy your man and things like that. Sex is pushed far more than it ever was - it's [treated] like having a game of tennis, really."

According to Professor Frank Furedi in his controversial book Paranoid Parenting, parents in Britain have become neurotic, whether it's about letting children out to play, what to feed them, or how to educate them. He calls on parents to insulate themselves from "the pressures that bear down upon us" - and, above all, for a "balanced perspective". A perspective that will create no need for unfortunate young children like John to call ChildLine about their spurious traumas.