Not sick, just young

24th March 2006 at 00:00
How far are adolescents sabotaging themselves, and how far are stereotypes and poverty the villains, asks Gerald Haigh

Sex, Drugs and Young People: international perspectives Edited by Peter Aggleton, Andrew Ball and Purnima Mane Routledge pound;21.99

Consider your reaction to the title of this book. Did you not automatically register as entirely natural, indeed almost comfortable, the way its three elements - sex, drugs, young people - are conjoined? Would you have so readily accepted without comment "Sex, Drugs and the Women's Institute?" or "Booze, Broads and Brass Bands?" In a sense, that assumed relationship is what the book is all about. As the editors state in their introduction: "In combination, the three terms - sex, drugs and adolescence - have laid the foundations for early 21st-century understandings of young people."

In truth, we've come not so much to an understanding as to a state of Schadenfreude-fuelled enjoyment. The television footage of half-dressed girls puking in the freezing streets of Newcastle, and mouthy lads bragging to camera in the pub about their condom-free exploits: it's all wonderful stuff for us grown-ups to despair over next day. "But where did such ideas about young people come from?" ask the three editors. "And do they offer a reasonable portrayal of young people's lives and needs?"

Their answer to the first question makes interesting reading, calling as it does on early psychological writing such as that of G Stanley Hall who, in 1904, "not only established 'adolescence' as a unique stage of development, but also imbued this period of life with negative and problematic characteristics".

That stereotype clings on, clearly difficult to shift. This wide-ranging book, however, makes a good stab at it, first by reminding us that adolescents are found the world over and second by trying to show us what they're getting up to, with supporting evidence.

Thirteen chapters are provided by 24 distinguished contributors: physicians, researchers, movers and shakers working in world and national health, in the areas of HIVAids and drugs, alcohol use and abuse, sex education and sexual health. Given that expertise, there's plenty of material waiting to catch the eye, much of it depressing, particularly on the sheer global ubiquity of the drug-sex-HIV axis of evil.

As you read this absorbing study - or dip into it, for either approach works -three distinct themes emerge. One is that "no drugs and no sex"

policies are futile. Medical anthropologist Carol Jenkins, in her chapter, "Ethnicity, Culture, Drugs and Sex", commenting on government attempts to improve health by promoting abstinence, writes: "There is little in human history to support the notion that there will ever be drug-free or, for that matter, sex-free, young populations."

The other persistent strands are gender and poverty, and both show up in a telling chapter by Rita Melendez and Deborah Tolman, researchers into sexual behaviour at San Francisco State University. They compare two 15-year-old girls, one poor, in rural Nepal, the other relatively well off, in suburban United States. The Nepalese girl, Renu, tricked in her search for work in the big city becomes, in effect, a sex slave in Mumbai. By contrast Janet, the relatively privileged all-American girl, is, surely, happy, free and confident? Well, no, she isn't. She has an older boyfriend who is verbally and physically violent and expects sex from her, which she gives without pleasure or full understanding. "Partly, she did not resist Martin because she knew how much he wanted to be with her and she didn't want to lose him."

It's difficult to escape the conclusion that there are many brands and degrees of sexual servitude and that more western secondary school girls than we suspect, apparently so clued up and in control, might be in relationships like Janet's.

Poverty and Aids, particularly, are pernicious soulmates, as the chapter "Young People, Poverty and Risk" explains. They quote a survey of global Aids which reveals: "The most powerful factor restricting people's abilities to make sound choices about sexual practices and substance abuse is poverty."

This is a reminder of something that governments like to push aside; that initiatives designed to improve any aspect of life - general health, diet, education, crime - are built on sand if there isn't also a determined drive to eradicate poverty. The book busts some myths and provides timely reinforcement of truths that world governments would rather avoid. It offers some ways forward, and reminds those of us who are too ready to sideline young people that they are fellow citizens.

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