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'My boyfriend and I are both 12'
Updated: 2004-04-13 23:19

As the row over teen pregnancies intensifies, Gaby Hinsliff and Jo Revill ask whether anything can be learnt from American celibacy groups.

"My boyfriend and I are both 12," begins the plaintive message posted on the popular children's website. "We would both like to have sex. We are both mature enough to understand. What can we do? "

Its anonymous author is not alone. Crowding the inbox of www.teenagehealthfreak.com -- set up by two doctors to offer "cringe- free" advice to anxious teens -- are the 14-year-old, who has taken the morning after pill once and had unprotected sex again; the girl of 13, whose friend got drunk and cannot remember what happened "but when she woke up she didn't have any knickers on;" and the underage boy whose girlfriend wants sex but fears making "a fool of myself."

Questions like these form the battle lines in a new war over teenage sexuality, which erupted last week following a report from Valerie Riches -- a retired British social worker and head of a pro- marriage think-tank -- denouncing the UK Government's strategy to reduce underage pregnancies as "ineffective," attacking sex education and praising US-style programmes advocating chastity until marriage.

The ensuing furore obscured some crucial facts: far from soaring, teenage conceptions fell in England between 1998 and 2001 by a startling 9 per cent. They rose again slightly in 2002, but were still lower among 14, 15 and 16-year-olds than in 1992. As for America's virgins, a recent study reveals almost nine in 10 of those who signed chastity pledges broke them -- and when they did, were less likely than non-pledgers to use contraception.

Now academics and family planning campaigners are fighting back. They believe that what is needed is more sex education not less and they regard parents' roles as pivotal. They point out that children who can have an open and frank discussion about sex with an adult have a far more mature attitude, and are far more confident about saying "no." When they do start having sex, they will be more likely to use contraceptives, and use them in the correct way.

Kaye Wellings, professor of sexual and reproductive health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has been commissioned by the government to review its teenage pregnancy strategy, launched in 1999. Its approach reflects teenagehealthfreak's advice to those 12-year-olds: never rush into sex, remember it is illegal underage, but if you must do it at least get contraceptive advice. And Wellings believes it works.

"We're evaluators: we don't have to say things are working if they're not, but we have got absolutely no evidence that they're not," says Wellings. "It does not help when things get undermined as they were last week. The will is there in relation to this strategy and I think it would be a great shame if that was lost."

Far from contraceptive messages failing, she argues, the recent fall in teen pregnancies probably reflects more teenagers actually using protection.

Pill use soared by more than a third among girls aged 16 and 17 between 1998 and 2002, as confidence returned after reports in the mid-1990s linking certain brands to a risk of fatal blood clots: "It's quite likely that we have been seeing to some extent a correction of a rise in the (pregnancy) rate around 1996, which was in response to the Pill scare."

Another optimistic sign is the weakening of the myth that "everybody else is doing it" -- the warcry of teenage boys to their girlfriends. Before the strategy began, only 35 per cent of teenagers knew that around two-thirds of under-16s are actually still virgins. By last summer, that rose to 40 per cent.

"This is an important indicator that young people think that they're not out of line, and so they won't be so reluctant to delay sex until the time that they feel it's right," says Wellings.

As for the 2002 rise, with relatively tiny figures involved -- a little under 40,000 under-18s conceive every year -- small variations can trigger a blip, she argues. Pregnancy rates still fell across 80 per cent of the country, rising in London and some other areas with no immediately discernible pattern.

One possible factor, however, is localized poverty. Working class teens are up to 10 times as likely as girls in the highest social groups to get pregnant.

Roger Ingham, director of the centre for sexual health research at the University of Southampton, argues that working class boys' attitudes may be at least partly responsible.

"The men (may be) more macho, they put more pressure on these women to have sex. Put baldly, middle-class (liberal) men are much less likely to put pressure on," he said.

Lessons from Americans

In the Netherlands, famed for its low conception rates, boys tend to be "more respecting of mutuality, the reasons they have sex for the first time are much more to do with commitment and love."

Yet even Holland recently suffered a surprise rise in teenage pregnancies, albeit apparently concentrated among recent immigrants.

Could it be that the Americans do have something to teach us?

A century ago this year, a young Welsh coal miner called Evan Roberts, who felt called by God, began urging local youths to forego "doubtful habits." Today, he is remembered in prayer as the inspiration of America's True Love Waits movement, which has persuaded more than 2.4 million teenagers to promise "God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children" to abstain from sex until marriage.

The True Love Waits empire now extends to Canada and South Africa -- and it boasts of planning seminars in Britain.

Copycats in the US include the Silver Ring Thing roadshow, which deploys laser light displays, Hawaiian luaus (feasts) and Christian rap music to encourage teens to pay US$15 for a bible and a silver ring symbolizing chastity.

Pledged teens choose an "accountability partner" -- a friend to back them up -- and go on weekend "group dates" to distract them from temptation. The only precaution Silver Ring Thing rejects is contraception as followers are told "there is no such thing as safe sex."

Such messages, according to recent research from Colombia and Yale universities, may delay first sex but only ensure that when pledgers inevitably stray they are less likely to use contraception.

"If you have an abstinence programme which doesn't deal with contraception, or which deals with it in a negative sense, then when people do break the pledge they are not confident or informed enough to use it," explains Ingham.

In fact many US states -- anxious to access the US$120 million earmarked for abstinence education by President George W. Bush -- have now adopted so-called "abstinence plus" programmes, urging teens to resist sex, but crucially teaching about contraception too. Other countries promoting abstinence have followed suit -- even in Uganda, whose ABC abstinence programme is praised by Riches. The "C" crucially stands for Condoms.

Do more than advocating abstinence

So if abstinence alone is no miracle cure, what has delivered the staggering 28 per cent fall in US teenage pregnancies between 1990 and 2000?

According to Wellings, the answer lies in much the same changes as influenced the recent fall in British rates. "They've simply stabilized the age of first intercourse, as we have, and have a higher rate of contraception now among teens." A recent US study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute attributed around a quarter of the fall to chastity, largely among religious teens; the rest was due to better contraception.

That has not stopped politicians in Britain flirting with abstinence education. Tim Montgomerie, head of the Conservative Party's Renewing One Nation policy unit, is an advocate.

But there is likely to be little serious enthusiasm for True Love Waits in Britain. Although the Christian education charity Care has developed its own pro-marriage sex education pack for schools, Evaluate, project officer Sue Lindars insists it preaches delaying sex rather than chastity.

"If you get young people to make pledges you are setting them up to fail," she says. "We are saying there is always a new beginning. If someone has made a choice they've regretted, you can make a fresh choice from today."

But what about girls with no apparent regrets? Courtney Cassidy, the 17-year-old mother of three plastered across the British tabloid newspapers last week, told the paper she deliberately got pregnant at the age of 14 because she wanted "a baby of my own." She waited, she said, "until I felt ready."

Stories like hers are not unusual, says Gill Frances, vice-chair of the government's independent advisory group on teenage pregnancy. "If I was a young woman growing up now, I am not saying this would be conscious -- but if I thought 'I am not going to get the GCSEs (school exams), I am not going to get a fantastic job and the only way that I am grown-up is to be a parent,' then that is what I would probably do."

Her view is that adults have to start taking a much greater role in educating their children about the risks. "The things parents are worried about are their kids being safe on the street, getting pregnant or taking drugs. Yet even if people are terrified about it they don't talk about it."

And, amid the bravado, there were signs of wistfulness from Courtney, who says if school sex education had taught her about the consequences of pregnancy: "I would have taken my exams and have a good job by now."

Sarah Cunnion is very keen on consequences. The 15-year-old from Staffordshire in the English midlands will this week address a national conference to discuss how teenagers see sex, following her experiences as part of a working group on what children want to know about health.

She blames TV soaps for failing to deliver information.

"You might see someone getting pregnant on EastEnders (a BBC soap), but you won't see them in great pain from pelvic inflammatory disease. I don't know why the TV people don't do more to put the other side of sex, the downside."

That aside, Sarah believes there is little substitute for parental chats. "It really depends on whether you get on with your parents or not. A lot of my friends never ever talk to their mum or dad about sex, let alone about what contraception they might be using."

This is backed up by the Teenage Pregnancy Unit's research, which found that more children want to hear the facts of life from parents than actually get information from them.

Too many, it seems, are still mumbling about the "birds and the bees" rather than the issues aired on teenagehealthfreak.

Pearline Storer hopes to change that. Daunted at the thought of telling her two-year-old daughter where babies came from despite her midwife's training, she enrolled in a class organized by the Family Planning Association to learn how to broach the subject. Two years on, Storer now trains other parents.

"Parents will say 'if you talk about contraception aren't you giving them the go-ahead to sleep around?.' But what you are actually saying is 'if you do do this, I want you to be safe,'" she says. "Television pushes the physical side of sex all the time. It's the emotional side I want my daughter to know about."

When her daughter grows up, it may be the old-fashioned emotional matters that count. The Teenage Pregnancy Unit's latest survey of 750 teens found the overwhelming majority were confident they could say no to unwanted sex or negotiate using a condom. The only task almost half were too shy to manage was actually asking someone on a date. Britain's teens may be more innocent than their parents think.

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