Too late to worry about promiscuity

13th July 2007 at 01:00
Recent reports suggesting that young girls should be vaccinated against cervical cancer have raised concerns in some quarters that this could encourage children to become sexually active.

But rather than criticising the organisations which are trying to stem the rising tide of sexually transmitted infections and our high rate of teenage pregnancy, we should be more concerned about how we encourage the sexualisation of children from a young age.

It begins in the pre-teens. Provocative "mini-adult" clothes are de rigueur at the Year 6 disco, along with make-up and a growing obsession with appearance that is geared to attractiveness to the opposite sex.

By the start of secondary school sex is already on the unofficial curriculum for many and in most schools teachers can tell you who is sexually active in Y8-9. In the respectable middle-class area where I live, a 12-year-old boy approached my daughter, 11, at a party with the suggestion that they had sex together. In a nearby town, 13-year-olds use the public toilets for sexual adventures.

Sex sells retailers, advertisers and editors all know that. When they've finished with Harry Potter the kids move on to the numerous glossy magazines which target the young and impressionable.

Next time you are in a newsagents, pick one up. You may find a feature about the latest pop "heroines" who attend events wearing no underwear, with photos of their naked genital areas as evidence. What you won't find is much advice about restraint, maintaining virginity or about how many sexual partners it is OK to have.

So either blatantly or subliminally, the message is conveyed. Forget romance or even getting to know one another, sex now comes at the beginning of the relationship.

If it is acceptable, therefore, to have our children growing up in this sort of society, why is it wrong to say, if this is what you are going to do, then this is how you should protect yourself?

My theatre company performs a play to senior schoolchildren about sexual health, unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Afterwards we talk to the pupils about the issues.

When we ask: "When should you start having sex?" only the Muslim children answer: "When you get married."

We've had 13-year-olds approach us afterwards, anxious because they have had unprotected sex and are worried they might have caught something. A Cardiff health visitor has told us of her distress at the number of 12 and 13-year olds attending her clinics seeking abortions. Then there was the 14-year-old boy who had "only had sex with three girls this term" but wasn't sure how to use a condom properly.

It is desperately sad that we have to talk to kids of this age about these issues when we should be encouraging them to go out and climb trees and revel in the fact that they are still kids. But talk to them we must, not just about contraception but about how they will feel in 10 years' time when they have lost count of their sexual partners.

We need to stress that teenage parenthood isn't a career option, that real life isn't the same as that of the celebrities who get away with a profligate and promiscuous lifestyle. And that the "right time" is when they can cope with the responsibilities that go hand in hand with a sexual relationship.

Those of us who fear contraceptive advice and immunisation will encourage youngsters to be sexually active are too late. They are already "doing it", and the message they are receiving is that there is something wrong with them if they don't.

Julie McGowan is co-founder of the Is It Theatre company

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