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Teenage sexuality

Britain had the highest proportion of unmarried teenage mothers of any country in the world, according to a survey of sexual activity in young women, covering 53 countries, by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York. Although the number of 14 and 15-year-olds going to family planning clinics to obtain contraception has trebled in recent years, Britain's teenage pregnancy rate is twice as high as that for Germany, four times that of France and seven times that of Holland.

A report by the Public Health Laboratory Service said one in four girls and almost one in three boys lost their virginity before the age of 16 - the legal age of consent - compared with one in 100 girls in the 1940s and one in 20 in the 1970s. A separate national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles presented to the House of Commons health select committee claimed a third of girls under 16 were sexually active.

A study by the Family Education Trust, published in 2000, based on information from more than 2,000 pupils in 21 English schools, said 17 out of every 100 young people from 13 to 15 were sexually active. It said home background and choice of friends had a great deal to do with whether teenagers under 16 were sexually active. Twice as many children from one-parent homes were sexually active as were children from two-parent families. Only one in 25 youngsters who did not have sexually active friends were sexually active. Those who had sexually active friends were 10 times more likely to be active themselves.

Under-16s who were sexually active were likely to have been brought up to believe that single motherhood was normal and pregnancy at a young age acceptable. Seven out of 10 youngsters disagreed, however, that marriage was no longer relevant, and nine out of 10 wanted to marry at some stage.

A report by the Family Matters Institute presented to the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group pointed out that teenagers from broken homes were more likely to have under-age sex than children who had married parents and said there needed to be a strong emphasis on marriage as the ideal type of family unit for raising children.

According to a 2005 report by Christian Research, the number of children who have had sex before their 15th birthday has more than doubled since the early 1990s. The figure was now 12 per cent.

Dangerous infection

Despite the fact that there has never been as much sex education as at present, there have been alarming rises in the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among young people. New cases of gonorrhoea, syphilis and chlamydia more than doubled between 1995 and 2000. Children of 11 and 12 are now regularly being treated for gonorrhoea, chlamydia or genital warts in clinics throughout the UK. According to the latest figures, something like a million people are catching a sexually transmitted disease each year. NHS services dealing with sexual diseases are at breaking point, and there is a serious shortage of nurses trained to deal with sexual health matters.

Chlamydia has become the most common sexually transmitted infection. Chlamydia is particularly dangerous because it does not produce symptoms in most people who have it. Its long-term effects include infertility, ectopic pregnancies and chronic pain. It is responsible for about a quarter of all cases of infertility and almost half of all ectopic pregnancies. It has been linked to cervical cancer, and research suggests it could almost double the risk of ovarian cancer. New cases of chlamydia rose from 30,877 to 81,000 between 1995 and 2002. One in 10 people between 16 and 24 are now believed to be infected. One in five men in their early 20s and one in seven sexually active girls under 16 are thought to have it.

Sex education programmes and the provision of free contraceptives have failed to make any sensible reduction in teenage pregnancy and abortion figures, but the Government insists that more sex education and contraceptive provision is the answer. This is despite evidence, contrary to what might be expected, that increasing the availability of contraception leads to more pregnancies and an increase in the abortion rate. According to a study reported in the Lancet, during the course of a year condoms have a 13 to 15 per cent failure rate, and a near 20 per cent failure rate for teenagers.

Dr David Paton, of Nottingham University, claimed the Government's strategy to reduce the teenage pregnancy rate may be increasing the number of pregnancies and abortions. He says the number of under-16s attending family planning clinics in England and Wales rose by 143 per cent between 1992 and 2000. During the same period prescriptions for the morning-after pill for under-16s rose by 248 per cent, and for 16 to 19s, by 321 per cent. The conception rate fell by only 1.2 per cent.

In an attempt to reduce teenage pregnancies in Britain, the Government has legalised the sale of the morning-after pill over the chemist's counter without doctor's prescription to women of 16 and over. In pilot schemes in various parts of the United Kingdom, however, the morning-after pill has been provided over the counter free of charge and without age limit. It has been provided to girls as young as 13. It was agreed these schemes would continue on a permanent basis where local NHS trusts decided to finance them.

Early abortion

Despite there being no tests on the effects of the morning-after pill on young girls and despite the fact that school nurses did not have access to girls' medical records, morning-after pills were also being given out free of charge in some schools, without parents or the children's GP being informed. They were being made available to girls as young as 11. To be effective, the morning-after pill has to be taken within 72 hours after sexual intercourse has taken place. In fact morning-after pills cause an early abortion by preventing the new embryo from implanting in the uterus.

In an effort to cut teenage pregnancy rates, the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology said morning-after pills should be available from school nurses and sold at petrol stations. But Professor Anna Glasier, NHS clinical director of sexual health in Lothian, said the wide availability of the morning-after pill had encouraged young girls to view it as an alternative method of contraception.

The UK Government insisted that teaching sexual abstinence to children is not a viable option. Preaching at teenagers, it said, is not effective. But there is evidence that abstinence education works. A 2003 study in the journal Adolescent and Family Health found increased abstinence among 15s to 19s in the United States accounted for a 67 per cent drop in teenage pregnancy rates. A 2004 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found a 53 per cent decline in teenage pregnancy rates could be attributed to decreased sexual experience among 15 to 17-year-olds.

In America, when abstinence teaching was promoted and funded by the Government, teenage pregnancy figures fell. The rate of teenage births was at its lowest since 1940, and abortions were down by 44 per cent over a period of 10 years.

Sex education policies in UK schools are currently set by school governors, and parents have the right to express their concerns to governors and to withdraw their children from sex education lessons they consider inappropriate.

The Government launched a review of sex and relationships education in February, 2008. Organisations appointed to advise the Government pushed for sex education to be given to primary school children from the age of four and for parents no longer to be able to withdraw their children from sex education lessons. Later in 2008, the Government announced that sex education would be made compulsory in all English schools for children from five to 16 years old. Children would learn about body parts from the age of five, sexual intercourse from the age of seven, and contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and homosexuality from the age of 11.

An attempt to make sex education lessons part of the national curriculum in schools for the first time failed in 2010. The Children, Schools and Families Bill would have provided for children to be taught about sexual activity, human reproduction, pregnancy, sexual diseases, homosexuality and how to obtain contraception and the morning-after pill. Parents would have lost the right to withdraw children from sex education lessons when children became 15. Because of some opposition to the proposals, the Government withdrew them in order to get the remainder of the bill into law in the limited time available before Parliament was dissolved for the 2010 General Election.

In Wales, sex and relationship education was already part of the curriculum. It is a legal requirement in Northern Ireland. There is no legal requirement in Scotland.

Image is in favour of sex education being given to children, but sex education appropriate to their ages - and sex education that is within a moral framework. Image supports organisations going into schools demonstrating the advantages of saving sex until marriage.