Tuesday, January 20, 2004

It's better over there 

The Telegraph has an indepth expose of the teen pregnancy problem in England:
In the past decade, the number of teenage pregnancies in America has decreased by 30 per cent, with the past year's statistics indicating a historic low of just 43 births per 1,000 teenage girls.

The strategy has been acknowledged as a success, and we, on the other side of the Atlantic, look on in envy. In Britain, the Government has adopted a vastly different approach - that of dishing out condoms and morning-after pills, making sex education compulsory in secondary schools, and inundating our teenagers with explicit information on sex. Sex education in our schools is aimed at increasing sexual knowledge and encouraging contraception to combat teenage pregnancy, rather than condemning underage sex: preventing pregnancy rather than preventing sex is the Government's aim.

While it is a strategy that is lauded in liberal circles, it is also a strategy that has not worked. We have failed utterly to reduce the numbers of gymslip mothers. For the past 12 years Britain has been the pregnancy capital of Europe. According to Unicef's latest figures, in 2002 some 41,966 British girls under 18 became pregnant. Of those, 5,954 were 15; 2,011 were 14, and 450 were under 14.


In Britain, surveys indicate that for many teenagers becoming pregnant is an aspiration: the benefits and cheap local authority housing available is seen by some as a reason to become pregnant - especially for teenagers from impoverished or broken homes. A recent poll by the Family Education Trust indicated that 45 per cent of single pregnant teenagers had either wanted to conceive or "didn't mind" that they had. The introduction of £5,000 worth of free nursery care to enable pregnant teenagers to return to school is seen by many as a "perverse incentive" to attract young girls into parenthood.


Katie, 17, from Swindon, may have been unaware of her local authority's approach, but her life reflects its ethos. At 16 she gave birth to Brandon: father unknown. "We did loads of sex education at school," she says. "I used the morning-after pill a few times, but, you know, you forget . . ." She shrugs. "I was hanging out with boys from when I was 13. My mum knew. She put me on the pill. She thought, 'Better safe than sorry.' To me it was like saying go out and sleep with boys. And I would forget to take that too." Though she has not been given local authority housing Katie receives income support, which entitles her to a host of other benefits.

From her pocket she pulls out a battered pamphlet. Published by the Brook Association, the Good Grope Guide is part of its schools sex manual which is directed at 13-year-olds. One of her friends has another, this time a Family Planning Association booklet aimed at 14-16-year-olds. "Abortion," it assures its readers, "is nothing to worry about."

"We are not like your generation," her friend says. "We get taught how to do it. When I was 14 we were shown a video in school that told us all about sexual positions. And it said that we should consider oral sex if we were a bit unsure about going all the way."


Cindy, 16, a member of the True Love Waits chastity group, was born when her mother was only 16.

"One of the things she has told me many times is that things are very, very different these days," Cindy says. "Not just Aids and sexually transmitted infections, but in how you are treated," she says. "When she had me she was given an apartment and she wasn't expected to go back to high school or work. She tells me all the time that it is not like that now. If I had a baby I would have to get job training to get a nursery grant. And I couldn't just opt not to work. I do know there are financial perils," she says solemnly.

In Swindon, Katie listens to what her American counterpart has had to say. "I think I'd get laughed at if I was to go round my friends telling them to save themselves for their husband," she says akwardly.

"We have been brought up with the impression that sex is normal in your early teens. That what you had to do was make sure you didn't get pregnant. But when you start to be sexually active very young, it is hard to think you might have to deal with the consequences if you forget to take your pill or don't go to the chemist for the morning-after pill.

"My mum says my generation live the saying that familiarity breeds contempt. She's right."
Well, it's better if you're a teenage boy.

Call me muddled, but I believe in sexual education and in abstinence education. I think the one thing both sides miss is educating teenagers about the emotional impact sex has on a relationship, especially on young immature people.

For me it's about what kind of responsibility you require of the students. Condoms shouldn't be passed out to everyone in the cafeteria as part of Friday's lunch menu, that's far too permissive. It's a genuine don't-ask-don't-tell policy. Condoms for everyone means no administrator has to be in the awkward position of knowing which 14 year old is having sex with her boyfriend.

Condoms should be available in school, but a student should be required to go to the Nurse's office and actually ask for them.

And I'm disgusted by the idea that fourteen year old kids are taught that they have a right to fully enjoy a casual sex life. College kids should get laid regularly, high schoolers should have to work for it.
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