Too much danger and disease

Fears are being exaggerated by a style of sex education that is having a negative impact on a generation, Stuart Waiton argues

One of the biggest studies ever conducted on the impact of sex education in schools has found that the new SHARE (Sexual Health and Relationships: Safe, Happy and Responsible) sex education programme does little to reduce teenage sex or "risky" sexual behaviour among young people.

Part of the study, carried out in non-Catholic schools in Scotland, looked at pregnancy programmes in Canada and the United States and similarly found that these had not delayed sexual intercourse, improved birth control or reduced teenage pregnancy.

But it is questionable whether sex education is having no impact - on the minds if not the activities - of young people and it is even more questionable to assume that the old Aids campaign had a positive impact on young people.

Rather, I would argue that the exaggerated sense of danger and disease that makes up today's sex education classes has a more negative impact on young people than many of us think. Growing up at the height of the Aids awareness campaign in the early 1990s, my cousin Simon was hyper-aware of the dangers of Aids - between the ages of 14 and 16 he refused to touch a door handle with his bare hands in case of infection.

This may be an irrational response, as Aids cannot be caught from a door handle but, unfortunately when there is a panic surrounding a disease, it is likely that people will react accordingly.

School-based sex education prides itself on being fact-based, "open and honest". Schools today are required by law to teach young people about the dangers of Aids, but in which school are young people taught that outside of the high- risk groups, only 171 people have contracted the Aids virus via heterosexual sex?

The latest disease panic being targeted at teenagers is that of chlamydia. The Health Education Board for Scotland (HEBS) has a cartoon advertisement that shows a spotty teenage girl lecturing her "ned" boyfriend about the danger of infertility from this disease which he's never heard of. In fact, the board has lied in its advertisement to try and get the message home to young men whom they see as the biggest problem when it comes to teenage sex.

Similarly, however, the message going out in leaflets and to schools that chlamydia can make women infertile is true but not the whole truth. Talking to a Glasgow-based specialist in sexually transmitted infections, he told me that the chances of becoming infertile from catching chlamydia are about 100 to one. It is also a disease that can be treated very easily - something that, in attempts to scare young people, is often left out of the "education" they receive.

At a time when young people are often seen, not least by politicians, as being out of control, there is a tendency to paint the bleakest picture possible about sex in an attempt to control behaviour. This approach is also evident in what is becoming an increasingly important part of sex education - education about relationships.

Today sex educators are increasingly attempting to "teach" young people about how to have a correct relationship. Often based on the assumption that bullying boys are pushing each other into having sex and subsequently pushing girls into having sex "too early", these relationship experts want to lend a hand. Girls, we are told, need to be taught to be assertive, while boys need to admit to themselves that they need help so that they can express their real emotions, preferably to a counsellor.

Perhaps the reason that sex education has not stopped young people from having sex is because they are doodling on their jotters and laughing at the embarrassed teacher who is fumbling with a condom and a banana. For their sakes, let's hope so.

Stuart Waiton is co-author of "Teenage Sex: What should schools teach children?", published by the Institute of Ideas and Hodder and Stoughton.

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