Statistics out today confirm a significant decline in England's teenage pregnancy rate over recent years, yet we nevertheless continue to top the tables of adolescent conceptions in Western Europe. At the most acute end of the problem, for the last year data's available, it's estimated that approximately 6,000 under-16 year-olds became pregnant. Our pregnancy rate for under-16s is one of the highest in Europe as a whole.
Whilst there has clearly been strong progress on tackling teenage pregnancy in this country, part of the jig-saw is persistently missing. There has rightly been a rigorous focus on the associate social deprivation around teenage pregnancy - stark regional variations strongly linked to unemployment rates are prominent - as there has been on access to contraception. There remain key gaps, however, in the very basics of sex education: the simple mechanics of sex and reproduction and the underpinning of an understanding of sex with 'waiting until you want to'.
Central to last week's debate on the age of consent was the fact that a third of young people now have sex for the first time under 16. The issue with this reality is not whether this is 'too young' or not but that we know a high proportion of these youngsters wish they had waited longer before having sex. To give you an idea, in the last National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles almost half of the 16-24 year-old young women, and one in five of the young men surveyed wished they hadn't started to have sex as early as they did. For those whose first sexual intercourse happened when they were under 15, the proportion wishing they'd waited was twice as high.
Teenage pregnancy and the high rate of young people first having sex under 16 and regretting it, link to the same problem: weak sex education. Perhaps counter-intuitively, in particular to those worried that sex education promotes sex, one of the key components of strong sex education in countries considered exemplary such as the Netherlands is the information gathered and the confidence instilled that enables young people to postpone it. It is not coincidence that estimates show the average age of first intercourse to be at least a year older in the Netherlands than in England. Equally, the staggeringly widespread lack of understanding about the relationship between having sex and getting pregnant amongst young English teens, is far less prevalent amongst their Dutch counterparts.
Crucially, good sex education need be neither controversial nor radical. The important bit, and what seems to be missing in many an education in the UK, is clarity and consistency. The common sudden and arbitrarily focussed lesson in how to not get an STI, delivered by an awkward English secondary school teacher, is woefully inadequate and often actively confusing. Sex education in Holland isn't extraordinary, it is simply better established: literally so through a building-block approach starting in primary school and moving up incrementally to secondary school.
Ultimately, the relationship between sex and reproduction, and respect for one's body and for consent, cannot reasonably be considered contentious topics and therefore avoided. What is more, we're hearing from charities like TeenBoundaries, whose work strives to plug the current gaps in sex education, that a lack of basic information on sex is sending young people to pornography for the answers. That, surely, is far more alarming than arming young people with the facts of life.
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