Drawing a line between sense and sensuality

TEENAGE SEX: what should schools teach children? Debating Matters series Institute of Ideas in association with Hodder amp; Stoughton. pound;5.99.

Sex and relationships education undermines young people. It turns friendships into "peer group pressure", makes intimacy a matter of nasty diseases, and tells them that only adult "experts" can solve their relationship "problems".

Much better, argues researcher Stuart Waiton, to give them the facts and let them get on with it in the time-honoured way that teenagers always have - by talking to their friends, trying things out, making mistakes, learning from them, and generally pursuing a self-adjusting course towards maturity. That way you end up with a muscular, authentic, free-range product, rather than its flabby, feeble, battery-fed alternative.

This is one of very few interesting ideas in Teenage Sex: what should schools teach children?, which is a pity. This is the first title in a series, Debating Matters, published by the Institute of Ideas in a bid to shake up "a culture that seems to shy away more and more from confrontation and the clash of ideas".

The problem is that many of the arguments in this slim volume of essays have been around the block so many times that they have long lost the tread from their tyres, and they aren't likely to shake up anyone.

Peter Hitchens, right-wing columnist for the Mail on Sunday, sees sex education as part of a campaign against morality and the family. In his view, no one has clean hands on this, not even the infant General Teaching Council, with its directives to teachers to respect differences between people, including those of sexual orientation. And the consequences are clear, he argues, in rates of abortion, illegitimate births, one-parent families, divorce, rape, and sexual diseases. "All decent people," rants Hitchens "should be allies against the disaster that has overtaken family life in this country."

The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, on the other hand, wants more and more of it, a whole ABC of sex education. There is, he argues, "a moral obligation on schools to challenge sex-shame pathology", which causes nothing but misery and abuse, and teenagers should be taught that sex is natural, wholesome, fun and healthy. Pupils should be told that condoms not only reduce the chances of infection but "enable men to keep going longer and stronger". Teachers must challenge the idea that sex equals penetrative intercourse and encourage healthier and fun alternatives such as oral sex and mutual masturbation. And it goes without saying that all sexualities - homo, hetero and bi - must have a fair crack of the whip.

Between these poles are a handful of middle-ground contributions - all worthy, all earnest, all, it has to be said, quite dull. There's a look at how things are in the United States, including the rise and rise of abstinence education, and some material about the current legal and curricular framework in Britain.

The basic arguments represented in the book are that: a) sex education is essential to provide young people with a good, but non-judgmental, framework of values; b) young people need to be given strict moral guidelines; and c) young people should be free to find their own way to adulthood.

The editors, Ellie Lee and Tiffany Jenkins, conclude that until we know more about the efficacy of sex education programmes we should "err on the side of caution". Which probably means inhabiting the kind of safe middle ground that most schools stand on anyway.

Debate, anybody?

No, thanks. I've got a headache.

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