TEENAGE lifestyle magazines, once condemned for over-sexualised content, are to play a key role in the battle to reduce the number of schoolgirl pregnancies.
Barely four years ago the glossy publications were being blamed for increasing the pressure on youngsters to have sex. The outcry prompted publishers to establish a self-regulatory body.
Today, things are very different. As part of a pound;60 million drive to persuade young people to be careful about sex, ministers want the magazines to carry advertisements bearing the slogan "Sex, Are You Thinking About It Enough?"
And, at a recent seminar on teenage pregnancy, sexual health and behaviour, organised by the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel, Government officials applauded magazine staff for dealing responsibly with the concerns of their adolescent readers.
But this new-found enthusiasm is not shared by all. The Catholic Church remains highly critical. Last year it issued a report claiming that the magazines were pornographic and encouraged promiscuity. And there is widespread concern that they are read by children as young as 10, well below the target market of 14-plus.
Phillip Hodson, author of What Kids Really Want To Know About Sex and a former agony uncle for the News of the World, believes that commercial pressures often lead to columnists being forced to include more items about sex. "That is exploitation," he said. "These columns can get youngsters to surf too big a wave, so that they go too far, too fast."
The adverts, telling youngsters that girls, on average, lose their virginity at 17, boys at 16, will appear alongside tales from those who are already trying to come to terms with their sexuality.
"I had sex with my teacher," confides a 14-year-old in this month's J-17. "I didn't say no because I was so surprised and because he is my teacher." In Bliss, a 15-yar-old wonders if she will be arrested if she goes to a clinic for contraception.
Another wants to know why people's hips wiggle when they have sex in films. "I don't have a boyfriend yet, but I'd like to know for the future so I don't look silly." And, under the headline "Handy Hints", a 15-year-old asks what "tossing off" means. "I've just started seeing my first boyfriend and I need to find out what it means in case he asks to do it."
In all cases, the girls are given frank and uncompromising answers: "Your teacher is abusing you", and details of other agencies to contact are carried on the pages.
Health experts and editors argue that these columns make up for poor sex education in Britain's schools, and are a sad reflection of a generation left largely uninformed about relationships.
"There is no subject in which we are so negligent," says Dr Fleur Fisher, chairman of the arbitration panel. "More care is taken about teaching young people to drive before letting them loose on the road than teaching them about sex."
Until there are open, honest sex education classes in Britain's schools, like those in Holland, Germany and Sweden, the panel had to acknowledge reluctantly that these magazines were playing a crucial role, she said.
"We are very aware of our educational role," said Maria Coole, deputy editor of Bliss. "We try to build up readers' self-esteem. It's about being confident about who you are.
"Every time we do talk about sexual matters we are very aware of talking to people under the age of consent."
Their mailbag was testimony to the teenagers' gratitude for advice provided in their own language.
Lysanne Sampson, editorial director of Sugar both in the UK and Germany, said:
"In Germany, you can say whatever you like about sex, and yet they have one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe. It's just seen as another part of life.
"In this country, we still have that 'Carry On' curtain-twitching attitude to sex."