Following the release of Britain’s first TV commercial for abortion, new NHS guidelines recommend that pharmacies should offer the morning-after pill in advance of sexual interaction for people under the age of 25.
More should be done, says the NHS report, to make teenagers in particular aware of the need for condoms and other forms of contraception in the prevention of sexually transmitted infections.
Relying on easy access to condoms and morning-after pills to bring down the unacceptably high levels of teen pregnancy is like relying on a band-aid to reduce the spread of cancer. The government may think it is acting for prevention, but as long as it focuses on the mechanics of preventing pregnancy without talking openly about underlying relationship issues, any action will be largely cosmetic. Yes, using condoms will help keep pregnancy and STDs down, but it won’t dissuade very young people from having sex in the first place, which is surely the more important issue.
To deal with the problem of teen pregnancy, we must deal with the deeper causes of promiscuity. The first contributing factor is often an economic one. There is good evidence to suggest that rates of teen pregnancy are much higher in Britain’s more economically deprived areas. Young teens in these regions often become sexually active out of boredom. They want to experience something that’s emotionally intense and a little mysterious, to break with the hum-drum existence a lack of opportunity offers them.
Others in these poorer areas may turn to sexual promiscuity to make up a love deficit. They engage in sexual activities they often don’t enjoy all that much, to try to find the love and respect they crave in an environment that seems only to show them indifference or antipathy. This, of course, isn’t restricted to poorer young people.
For others, there is the age-old adolescent need to proclaim one’s independence. At some point all teens, not only those from deprived backgrounds, will crave adult freedom without really understanding what adult freedom costs. Yet for those in poorer areas this can become a downright dangerous proposition, with the increased likelihood of violence or abuse.
Finally, some young women in deprived areas, a minority, will actually pursue pregnancy as a way to gain government financial assistance. Sadly, there are more than a few stories of women who started with this mindset when young and have kept it going through the years, to the point where they are now feeding five or six children on government aid, without ever having to go to work.
A second major contributor to teenage promiscuity is lack of education. It is vital that young people are given accurate information about the mechanics of sex and its emotional power, especially when they face so much misinformation in the form of distorted media and new media representations of sex. However, some commentators would have us believe that this is the primary reason for sexually promiscuous behaviour among young people. If only they’re better educated, the argument goes, they will behave more responsibly. If we could show more young people how to use contraceptives, we’d have fewer calls for abortions.
The facts don’t bear this out. Since 1999, most young women in the UK have used at least one method of contraception, yet abortion rates have increased. Today, almost half of all pregnancies among 15 to 18 year-olds will lead to an abortion. Teen promiscuity is not a result of knowing too little about sex, but knowing too much that’s communicated in the wrong way, or out of its proper context. Part of the problem relates to the notion, popular in some educationalist circles, of ‘value-free education’. The idea is that you can educate a child, or teen, without passing on to them any value system, or moral code. You can ‘coach’ young people in different forms of sexual behaviour, without advocating that they engage in them.
The idea that education can ever be value neutral, or value free, is absurd. To educate is to teach, to impart knowledge and the ability to use knowledge in constructive ways. Yes, education is also about training a child or young person in how to think for themselves – but that requires that they’re given a set of guidelines for thinking. Not necessarily an ideology, or a dogma, but at least a set of sound principles – and, yes, values – from which they can tell truth from falsehood and wisdom from error.
C.S. Lewis, author of the celebrated Narnia books for children, once said something to the effect that value-free education simply makes a person a ‘very clever devil’. It might make us smarter in terms of facts, but it won’t help us use them constructively. It may even turn us into anti-social beings, who value only what we want, when we want it.
Sex education ought to be redubbed ‘relationship education’ and retooled to teach young people more about the benefits of long-term commitment, as the proper context for sex. The potential benefits of this are clearly demonstrated in studies of various kinds. There are benefits for parents – in better health and longevity of life – and for their children, who will generally suffer fewer developmental problems, particularly if commitment is modelled in the home.
Our approach to sex education ought to do more to favour parents as the primary providers, rather than governments, schools or charities. In preteens and early teens, children differ markedly in their rate of development – not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally. This is true even within an individual family. How much more true would it be in a high school class?
The most important aspects of sexuality need to be communicated to a child one-on-one, in a context where there can be adequate assessment of the child's readiness to engage. Parents are the best people to gauge when their child is ready to receive sensitive information and to engage the attendant emotions. Schools should definitely continue to play a support role, but not the primary role. With economic pressures taking us away from home more than ever, most parents need and welcome support from governments and other groups.
There is, of course, no way for bureaucracies or governments to police parental involvement in giving sex education in the home – without, that is, impinging on civil liberties. A lack of any role for the State is problematic for some left-wingers in educational circles, because their ideology suggests that government knows best. Some of them will throw their hands in the air and say, ‘We can't trust parents to do the job properly! They haven't been trained for it and most would rather someone else did it for them.’
Doubtless, there are some parents who would prefer not to talk to their children about sex. It’s never an easy subject to broach, particularly as each child in the family will arrive at the same questions at a different stage and in dissimilar circumstances. But it’s this unpredictability is that makes each parent-child or carer-child relationship special. Most parents, I think, accept that the all-round development of their child is their responsibility; that they are the primary educators on things that really matter.
For its part, governments could do a lot more good by making it more difficult for children to see inappropriate and highly sexualised images in movies, particularly at the cinema. Or by taking a tougher line on TV broadcasters who claim to be living within the letter of the watershed convention while flouting the spirit of it. It could also do more to dissuade the use of children in sexualised poses in magazines or child ‘beauty’ pageants and the display of raunchy magazine covers and content where children can easily access them.
There is a third factor in play when it comes to high rates of teen pregnancy. It is, in some ways, the hardest to address in this pluralistic, relativistic age. It is the moral or ethical dimension. I refer not so much to the ethics or morals of teens who engage in sexual activity, as those of parents, carers and other adults who preach one thing while doing something completely different. Children have inbuilt Tupperware detectors – they can smell plastic a mile off. They’re always the first to spot adults who can talk the talk but not walk the walk. None of us are perfect, but hypocrisy is especially hard to defend before children.
Perhaps the least ethical adults are those who encourage promiscuity in young teens, simply because they find self-discipline so difficult themselves. It’s disingenuous to say to teenagers that abstinence is impossible for them, when what we really mean is that self-control is too costly for us.
If, as many claim, it is too difficult for modern teenagers to say ‘no’ to their hormones, we should pause to ask who it is that’s creating and sustaining the cultural milieu that makes it so tough? It’s not generally the teens who generate the money to pay for over-sexualised magazines. It’s not the kids who refuse to use their combined consumer power to send irresponsible broadcasters or publishers to the wall.
Teen pregnancy is a complex problem, which will require debate on a range of issues. Yet we will never get anywhere with this costly problem – costly emotionally, economically and in terms of the damage it does to our social fabric – unless we are prepared to put the well-being of the children above personal ideologies, market interests or phobias about addressing morality.