By Gerry Byrne
The Sexual Offences Bill, brought in on a wave of concern about paedophile activity, seems set to remove one of the sources of advice for teenagers who can't talk to their parents about sex, or are not getting sex education at school.
Teenage magazine advice columnists fear that the Bill will make it impossible to give advice to young people about the emotional aspects of sex. There is specific provision for medical advice about avoiding pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and physical harm, but, oddly for a bill which places the emphasis on consent, non-medical advice about the personal and social aspects of relationships may be outlawed.
Britain has the highest level of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe, and concern is being expressed about rampant sexual disease (one in ten women in younger age groups is infected with chlamydia). And at the moment those most in need of advice are least likely to get it.
Underage sex and teen pregnancy is closely linked to class and educational attainment: the poorer and less educated you are, the younger you are likely to have sex and babies. Ofsted has just reported 10,000 pupils "disappearing" from the education system. These are precisely the young people most at risk.
Many young people turn to magazines because they are anonymous and seem to speak their language. Cosmo Girl editor, Celia Duncan:
"We get about 500 texts, emails and letters a week. They ask things like, 'How do you know when you are ready for sex? Does it hurt? What does it feel like?'
"We did a survey and 73% said they didn't feel comfortable talking to anyone about these issues. They write to us because it's anonymous."
Magazines, governed by commercial interests, will play safe, fearing malicious prosecution by right-wing moral campaigners. They are not the ideal medium, but at the moment they are filling a gap in the education and healthcare systems. Sex education in schools is enormously variable. The expansion of faith schools can only make this worse, offering religious prescriptions in the guise of sex education, rather than impartial advice.
The idea of the Bill seems to be that abuse can be stopped by regulation rather than education. But you can't watch children and young people all the time. They have to be equipped to make their own decisions, based on a sense of their own worth as people. The way to stop adult predators and coercive relations is for young people to be confident that they can meaningfully give or withhold consent, for them to understand what is involved in a sexual relationship and to know their wishes will be respected.
In a society based on authority, where the education system reinforces the idea of giving over control to "elders and betters", this is never going to be fully realised. Disaffected young people are not going to take seriously advice from those they see as oppressing them. At the moment, there are few sources of non-commercial advice that relate to the concerns of young people, rather than being seen as part of the system of control.
"In 2000, 26% of women and 30% of men aged 16-19 report having had first intercourse before age 16. Some convergence between men and women can be seen in these data. The gap between men and women narrows with respect to the proportions reporting intercourse before the age of 16. Compared with women, the proportion of men who initiated intercourse before 16 is higher in all age groups, but the ratio of men to women who experienced inter-course before the age of 16 has narrowed from 7:1 in the oldest group, (55-59) to 3:2 in the youngest (16-19)."
(Teenage Sexual and Reproductive Behavior in Developed Countries, Country Report For Great Britain)