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16 October 2000

Let’s think of sex as the Dutch do

Young people in the UK still don't know how you get pregnant, reports Yvonne Roberts

By Yvonne Roberts

“VIRGIN ON THE RIDICULOUS,” read the Sun‘s headline, “MEDDLING ministers unveiled a £2 million crusade telling teenagers it’s cool to be a VIRGIN.”

In truth, the campaign – a combination of ads in teenage magazines, information on contraception and a helpline for parents – is not preaching (female) abstinence until marriage. It is simply a clumsy attempt to sell an otherwise worthwhile message: the value of postponing intercourse until teenagers are ready and willing to have sex on terms they don’t later regret; more a case of “later” rather than “no”.

The campaign is based on ten years of research which shows that teenagers are pushed into sexual activity as much by ignorance and peer pressure as they are by curiosity, drunkenness, bravado or love. At a recent Wellcome Trust conference on adolescent sex education programmes, Dr John Tripp, one of a team at Exeter University responsible for the research, said that 80 per cent of 14-year-olds thought most teenagers have had sex by the age of 16. In fact, on average, boys have sex for the first time at 16; girls a year later.

The Exeter team have devised a programme called A Pause (Added Power and Understanding in Sex Education), in which teenagers are trained to talk to younger children about the importance of respect and mutual understanding in relationships, as well as the basic facts of life. For paradoxically, in a society that peddles sex so remorselessly, misinformation is rife – teenagers regularly report that sex standing up prevents pregnancy and that the Pill offers protection from sexually transmitted diseases.

Schools in the Devon area that have adopted A Pause have been monitored over several years. Those pupils not on the programme were one and a half times more likely to have had intercourse by the age of 16 than those who were.

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This holds up a little hope in an otherwise pretty bleak scenario. Britain’s abysmal record on teenage pregnancy – the highest in western Europe – forced Tony Blair, a year ago, to announce a £60m campaign to halve the pregnancy rate by 2010. A third of young women become pregnant before the age of 20; around 40,000 teenagers annually have an abortion.

To date, government efforts have concentrated on sex education. Yet evidence is beginning to emerge which shows that a great deal of poorly prepared sex education makes little difference at all to the way in which the young behave. The reasons why are obvious. Sex education is often taught by the embarrassed and ill-equipped, too little (a handful of lessons) and too late (13 years old is the norm, when at least 5 per cent of children have already had sex and a number of the girls have been menstruating since eight or nine).

In primary schools sex education is limited to the science elements of the national curriculum. And, given the retention of Section 28, there is excessive anxiety at every level about what can and cannot be mentioned in the classroom. Parents can still withdraw their offspring from lessons and school governors decide on what should be taught – while too little attention is paid to the differences dictated by religion, culture, sexual preference and the way in which boys influence boys and girls goad on girls.

So how do other societies manage the issue of teenage sexuality effectively?

The Netherlands is often trotted out as an example of how sex education can be handled better – but there the cultural context is profoundly different from our own. The Dutch, since the Seventies, have become a people at ease with their libido. The average age for the first experience of intercourse is almost 18, when 84 per cent use contraception; 93 per cent of young people say they always use contraception; the pregnancy rate is only 4.2 per 1,000, as is the abortion rate. Both are among the lowest in the world.

At the Wellcome Trust conference, Doortje Braeken, of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Utrecht, explained that the key words in Dutch sex education are: rights, responsibility and respect. Studies show that girls take the initiative as often as boys. In this country, boys say curiosity, alcohol or the pressure of others led to their first experience. In Holland, boys and girls both say a main motivation is affection for a partner.

The Dutch, Braeken pointed out, are a mix of the religious and the puritanical, the pragmatic and tolerant. In the Seventies, teenage pregnancies and abortion rates began to rise – so contraception was immediately made available to those in school. Now sex education weaves its way through most subjects, in both primary and secondary schools; teachers do not have to fear that the tabloid press will doorstep them if a carnal word passes their lips – and parents are very much involved in the process of education, too. Sex, in short, is not regarded as the darker side of humanity, but as a normal healthy activity – ideally, delayed until a young person is grown up enough emotionally and psychologically.

A Pause believes that the Dutch example proves that we need nothing short of a cultural revolution. And, in order to effect it, the campaign needs to address adults, and their attitudes to sex, rather than concentrate exclusively on young people. Adults, after all, continue to peddle double standards: good girls don’t, while real lads get their leg over. This runs parallel with an undertow of disapproval towards any sexual interest at all on the part of the young.

Yvette Cooper, the public health minister, has put £2m into a national advertising campaign that asks: “Sex, are you thinking about it enough?” The answer is a resounding “yes”. The problem is, what do we do about it?