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Naked flesh exposes our silence over sex

The recent furore over the Opium advert with Sophie Dahl lying on her back, legs apart, wearing just stiletto heels does not surprise me. When this image of Dahl gagging for it is enlarged to billboard size, it shocks even the most seasoned child of the Sixties. I gasped at London's Old Street roundabout when this giant pornographic image filled the windscreen.

Instinct number two was to protect the children, but when I turned round, they were far too busy thumping to the beat of their personal stereos - so a quick talk placing the image within the context of gender politics and the use of female sexuality to sell products was not necessary, thankfully.

The advert has now been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority, but the highly sexualised culture which considers such an image suitable to sell perfume goes on unabated. Sexuality surrounds us and is used to sell everything from jeans to ice cream.

Kissing in the rain, naked flesh, dating and sexual innuendo are common themes in television advertising. In films and television soaps people fall into bed in unreal time and without the rudiments of contraceptive planning.

Pop lyrics and videos scream sexuality, with children happily singing "if you wanna be my lover" or "suck on my chocolate salty balls" as they wiggle their hips provocatively with only the faintest glimmering of what those words really mean.

Videos rated 18 and X are freely available from video rental shops and are watched without parental supervision by the uninitiated, which means that they learn about sex from pornographic and violent imagery rather than from real people.

Jerry Springer and Oprah reveal secrets such as adultery and wife-swapping in family viewing time, without any explanation as to how relationships develop, change and can be destroyed.

Open discussion with children about sex and relationships is absent or limited even in the most liberal of homes, because it embarrasses parents. Silence is justified by the fact that they are either too young to understand or that they know it all from the telly or their friends anyway.

Sex education in Britain is not considered as essential an aspect of growing up into a healthy adult as reading and writing. It is not compulsory in primary schols and only the key aspects of reproduction are taught in the national curriculum.

Yet children have never been in greater need of honest and thorough information about sexual relationships. Puberty increasingly starts at primary school and 4 per cent of girls, that's one in 25, still have no knowledge about menstruation before they begin their periods. One third of boys and a quarter of girls have experienced intercourse before the age of 16.

Only half of under-16s and two-thirds of 16 to 19-year-olds use contraception when they start to have sex, compared to 80 per cent in Holland and Denmark where sex education is far more detailed. Rates of pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases have thus risen dramatically in Britain in recent years. HIV is now spreading faster among heterosexuals than within the gay community.

Our need to perceive children as sexually innocent and therefore kept in ignorance sits uneasily within this highly sexually- charged culture. Children can grow up confused and curious about sex when they are not treated seriously, with honest and regular chats about relationships.

We cannot return to the days of chastity and no sex before marriage. What children need is accurate talk about sex from an earlier age to balance the fantasies purveyed by the media. Young people say they want more sex education at home from their parents. They also want better sex education at school, focusing on the emotional conundrums of relationships, rather than just the basics of reproduction.

Children build up sexual knowledge in a haphazard way. One quick discussion about the birds and the bees will never suffice. They need regular conversations that fill in the huge gaps in their knowledge until the jigsaw puzzle is complete.

They need to grow up understanding how to treat others with respect to get the most out of relationships, and how to enjoy sex as something natural and precious. But maybe that is only truly possible within a culture where sex is not considered something dangerous and dirty, the source of smutty jokes and Page Three girls - the culture that spawned the Sophie Dahl poster in the first place.

Kate Figes is author of "Life after birth". Her book on adolescence is to be published next year

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