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The UK Is Making Bold Moves to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

image source: thinkstock
image source: thinkstock

Last week my son came home from school and asked me if I wanted to see how a “man and woman kissed.” He proceeded to make his fingers into a circle on one hand and then used a pointed index finger to gesture insertion. I balked. “See,” he said. “Kissing!” He had learned this gesture from a friend. I immediately raced online to find a book about the facts of life and am now waiting for the right moment to begin “The Talk.”

Oddly enough, this happened the very week that the Conservative party in the UK was accused of putting children’s health at risk by refusing to make sex and relationships education compulsory in primary schools. This does astound me, as surely one of the most important subjects that kids should be educated vastly on is sex. Moreover, in an age where (sadly) kids are one click away from stumbling onto porn sites, don’t we have an obligation now more than ever to teach children about self-respect, the ins-and-outs of relationships, and how to use technology wisely?

Back when I was growing up in the ’80s, we learned about the birds and the bees in biology class at the age of 12. It was all very clinical with diagrams and awkward giggling. There was no mention of unwanted pregnancies, the maturity needed to be in a sexual relationship, the importance of self-respect, or what to do when you’re pressured into having sex. According to my school, sex was basically something people did to have children — end of story. Looking back, I think this was woefully inadequate. The more we shroud sex and all the issues around it in secrecy, the more taboo it becomes, and the less prepared our kids are to venture into this unknown territory in a safe and healthy manner.

Meanwhile, in various programs across England, children aged 13 and up are being offered free condoms. Teens can sign up for the “C-Card” program at schools, libraries, health centers, and pharmacies. In doing so, they are required to have a one-on-one discussion with a health professional or trained youth worker and are encouraged to talk with their parents before being given the free condoms. Officials said underage children would be assessed and given a C-Card only if they were at risk of having unprotected sex. Those aged 16 or over could use the card six times before it had to be renewed. The idea behind the initiative is to limit unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Opponents of the C-Card say that this positively encourages children to have under-age sex (in the UK, the age of consent is 16) and therefore the programs are not in the best interests of the teens. While of course the idea of having sex at such a young age isn’t something that I want for my children (or wanted for myself), to say that all kids will abstain at such a tender age is unreasonable. I remember a childhood friend who lost her virginity when she was 12. I found the thought terrifying, but it proved to me that just because none of my school friends were having sex in their early teens, it didn’t mean everyone was the same. If a young teen decides to press ahead with a sexual relationship, then at the very least they should be educated about the risks involved — both emotionally and physically.

Is a 13-year-old emotionally mature enough to handle the complexities of sex and how to enjoy it? Of course not. But to simply say that kids under the age of consent shouldn’t be having sex is blindly avoiding the problem. Since when did teenagers abide by rules? If teens want to have sex, they will, and at least such a program offers them a place to talk in confidence to a trained professional and get information about the age of consent, their risk of pregnancy, STDs, and their own well-being. Perhaps this conversation alone may deter them from having sex after all, something that would have never happened had they not been given the information.

Here, I will confess that at 17, I went on the pill without my parent’s knowledge. After school one day, I went with two friends to a local family-planning clinic where I signed up for the contraceptive pill. I hadn’t started having sex yet with my steady boyfriend, but I remember wanting to be prepared should I feel ready. I was very aware I wanted to go to college the following year to study journalism, and under no circumstances did I want to get pregnant. I couldn’t talk to my mother about it; I didn’t want her judgment and we had a very volatile relationship at that point. There was no one I could turn to or trust. This was pre-Internet, so I had even less information, save for a few old library books that had been published in the ’70s and a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever.

The clinic, while helpful, was very “medical” about my contraceptive choices. They offered free condoms and mentioned HIV, but didn’t in any way discuss whether or not I was emotionally ready to take such a big step. There was no mention of how to cope should the relationship end, if I was feeling pressured into sex, etc. Of course being 17, I was over the age of consent, but still. If I’d been educated more about sex and relationships in earlier years at school, I would have been much wiser.

All of this is to say that I’m thrilled the Commons Education Committee has called for sex and relationships education to become mandatory in primary and secondary schools with kids aged 11 to 18. They also suggested that we shouldn’t call it sex and relationships education, but relationships and sex education. This is perfect, as the whole biological act of having sex is only a tiny fraction of all the other things that come along with it: self respect and respecting others; knowing comfortable boundaries; coping with peer pressure, breakups, and smeared reputations; sex and social media; online predators. There are so many issues our kids need to be educated on. And while I’m counting on the book that I bought to help me start the conversation with my own son, I’m also hoping that his school does their part, too. Of course I’ll always be here to answer his questions, but if he feels more comfortable talking to someone who isn’t his parent, then I’ll take comfort in knowing he has a place to go to get the information and support he needs.

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