Let's think about sex

25th January 2008 at 00:00

Our teenage pregnancy and abortion rates are worrying. Kairen Cullen investigates the effects of carefree sexual behaviour.

Something needs to be done about sex education. The existing provision - or lack of it - is increasingly held responsible for some frightening figures. Every year, more than 55,000 teenagers become pregnant and increasing numbers have terminations. Even more develop and pass on sexually transmitted diseases and a sizeable proportion have serious emotional and relationship problems.

According to recent research by the UK Youth Parliament, more than half of the 20,000 teenagers surveyed said they had not received adequate sex education at school and would not know where their nearest sexual health clinic was. Most young people of 17 and over had experienced no teaching about personal relationships at school.

At least the idea that schools could, single-handed, tackle the complex issues involved by going through textbook accounts of puberty and reproduction appears to be well on the way out.

Practical information about safe sex is now emphasised. Schools are encouraged to include sex and relationships education as part of their PSHE programmes and to collaborate with parents and carers. But learning about relationships, the most vital element, is still not compulsory. And it starts too late, when children have already formed views from influences such as TV soaps and reality shows.

A better understanding of the neurological basis of sexual behaviour could help us prepare our young for sex and relationships.

The brain structures predominantly involved, the limbic system, are located deep within it. They are responsible for behavioural and emotional expression and strategies for survival: fight, flight, reproduction and care of the young. It is like an air traffic control centre, continuously receiving sensory information and using it to inform all aspects of the individual's everyday function and emotional state. However, it is outside the individual's conscious knowing. It is not reasoned and considered in the way that academic and conscious decision-making (frontal lobe activity) is. A lot of sexual behaviour is impulsive, emotional and unreasoned. The fact that it is often of a habitual nature makes it even harder to change.

For example, Eve, a bright 15-year-old pupil in care, was pregnant for the third time. Her previous pregnancies had been terminated, mainly for health reasons, as she was clinically underweight, but this time she was determined to have her baby. Eve often talked excitedly about the sexual relationships she learned about in reality TV, soap drama and gossip magazines. She was intrigued, a little envious and also held some very romantic ideas, believing that one day she would find "true love".

She was the central character in her own soap, but had no understanding of the effects of her own sexual behaviour, even though her mother had become pregnant as a young teenager.

Cost and lack of information are blamed for rising rates of unprotected sex. But a recent American study (Bauman, et al., 2007), suggests that other reasons lie behind the fact that about one in three young people do not wear condoms.

It found that girls and boys were using their capacity to exert power - girls through getting pregnant, boys through enforcing their will and prowess as sexual predators - as a way of establishing and securing relationships. Another interesting and romantic motivation for both sexes was a wish for "the perfect moment", not compatible with stopping to sort out the practicalities of contraception. This supports the idea that deep and unconscious processes are involved.

Providing information is all well and good, but is likely to remain at an intellectual level unless the individual is made aware of their own assumptions, beliefs and expectations. This work to support personal development and relationships needs to start early and to take place at individual, small group, school and community levels.

It should involve parents and carers, specialist sex and relationships educators and adult role-models.

Stimulating good discussion and challenging the contradictions apparent in the media and the world at large would result in better, deeper and more reasoned thinking by young people - and fewer "mistakes"

Kairen Cullen is a chartered educational psychologist.


United Kingdom Youth Parliament report on Sex and Relationships Education: www.ukyouthparliament.org.ukcampaignssreAreYouGettingIt.pdf

On intentions and contraceptive use among teenage and adult mothers: Macdonald, I amp; Skuse, T. (1996) in Educational and Child Psychology Vol. 13, No. 1 pp 69-80

On reasons for lack of condom use among adolescents: Bauman, L.J., Karasz, A. amp; Hamilton, A. (2007) Journal of Adolescent Research Vol. 22 No. 3, pp 248-274

Helpful account from National Children's Bureau on role of schools in sex and relationships education Highlight no.229 (2006), available from library and information service of Sex Education Forum: www.ncb.org.uksef.

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