I don't remember my officially-sanctioned sex education being all that great. All it consisted of was watching a hideous film presented by Sarah Kennedy and having a group talk with our PSE teacher, Mr White, about wet dreams (the girls spoke to fifth formers about periods). You couldn't think of a more hideous and inadequate way of going about it. But it worked, if you count "working" as the low number of gym slip pregnancies. In my school year there was just one pregnancy. That wasn't to say kids weren't having sex, but it does suggest that despite our sex "education", the contraception message the government were pushing at the time had got through. For our young and impressionable minds the hard hitting AIDS campaigns of the time had sunk in.
If you believe the commentariat's frequent sexual moralising, teenage pregnancy is at an all-time high and hundreds of thousands of people are busy between the sheets, passing on all manner of sexually transmitted infections. The tone is people, generally speaking, are just too "uneducated" to have sex. Is there any truth to this?
The accepted way of measuring the success or failure of sexuality governance in Britain are the number of teenage (i.e. 13-18) pregnancies and diagnosis rates of sexually transmitted infections. On the former, according to the Every Child Matters government agency, teenage pregnancy statistics for under 18s between 1998-2005 shows a declining trend, from 46.6 per 1,000 (total 41,089 in 1998) to 40.4 per 1,000 (total 39,003 2006). There was a weaker decline in under 16s - 8.8 per 1,000 (total 7,855 in 1998) to 7.7 (total 7,296 in 2006). Legal abortion for both cohorts - from 42.4% to 48.9% for under 18s and 52.9% to 60.3% for under 16s over the same period. The government are looking for a 50% cut in the pregnancy rate by 2010 from 1998, and have only managed an 11% reduction so far. They may be a long way off target but it hardly fits the popular narrative of spiralling numbers of "children having children".
STI rates, however, are heading in the wrong direction. According to the HIV/AIDS charity, Avert diagnoses are way above the height of the 1980s AIDS panic. Throughout the 90s figures fluctuated within the 2,000-3,000 range, climbing above the latter for the first time in 1999 and peaking at 7,692 diagnoses in 2005. Since then they have declined to 7,276 (2006) and then 6,393 (2007).
Here are some more figures from the Health Protection Agency:
# An overall rise in the number of new diagnoses seen in GUM clinics of 3% in 2005 compared to 2004 (from 767,785 in 2004 to 790,443 in 2005)Where STIs are concerned, something needs to be done. Education has to be part of the mix, but in these neoliberal times we can't have the state taking up the cudgels. Into the breach comes more calls for sex education, and tonight Channel 4 did its bit with the launch of a new six-part series, The Sex Education Show. Anna Richardson (pictured) describes the reluctance to be more communicative about sex as a "peculiar British disease". So let's talk some more about it!
# Genital Chlamydia remains the most commonly diagnosed STI in GUM clinics with an increase in diagnoses of 5% (from 104,733 in 2004 to 109,958 in 2005)
# Primary and secondary syphilis diagnoses increased by 23% (from 2,282 in 2004 to 2,814 in 2005)
# Genital warts increased by 1% (from 80,055 in 2004 to 81,137 in 2005)
# Genital herpes increased by 4% (from 19,073 in 2004 to 19,837 in 2005)
# Gonorrhoea decreased by 13% (from 22,321 in 2004 to 19,392 in 2005). This follows the 10% decrease seen between 2003 and 2004
Tonight's episode cast a wide net, covering porn, sex commodities, body image and contraception - and no forgetting a close up of male genitalia. On contraception, Anna went and spoke to the mighty Long Ashton football team. Depressingly, of the 11 players only three of the guys admitted to regularly using condoms - and reported that slippage/breakage was one of the main reasons why (according to SES research, 35% of surveyed men had experienced this at some point). Returning back to the studio. one woman said they were a passion-killer in her experience, and so didn't bother, while others had a more sensibly cautious view. A poll of the audience found 22% of women and 40% of men did not always use a condom with new partners. All grist to the Daily Mail mill.
The short feature on porn revealed 58% of 14-17 year olds had seen it and five per cent viewed internet porn every day. Anna speaks to three 15 year old boys about their habits and very quickly the conversation starts talking about the extreme things they've seen. Judging by the description they gave, they talked about the infamous 2 Girls, 1 Cup (don't worry, it's a link to the Wikipedia entry!) ... she then went and viewed it with their parents. Understandably, they were disgusted, shocked and scandalised by the very, very "specialist" content. But this seemed to miss the point, as far as I was concerned. The implication was that millions of teenage boys are getting off on this content, when in fact for the overwhelming majority it is a gross out meme used to shock and amuse their friends. And this is nothing new - when I was at school and college, fetish magazines and literature were passed around to the same effect. (Erotic Horse and Dog Orgy, anyone?)
What was interesting was the recognition of the ways the ubiquity of porn is affecting teenage perceptions of the body. SES reported that 92% of teenage girls were not happy with their bodies, nor were one in five comfortable with the appearance/size of their genitalia. Small wonder really: the boys were shown a sequence of flaccid penises and were asked to select the one they thought corresponded to the British male average. All of them chose two that were 4.5 and 5 inches long. They were genuinely surprised to learn the average was three! A mixed group was then shown a parade of breasts and select what corresponded most with their "preferred" pair. Unsurprisingly, the round, pert and evenly spaced pair, i.e. the surgically enhanced pair, got the thumbs up from boys and girls. As one lad put it, it's not surprising the fake is their norm because, in porn, you have nothing else to go on. Small wonder so many teenagers are unhappy with their bodies.
One strong undercurrent was the message that if you want to improve your sex life, you have to be willing to spend money. Anna describes her sex life as not being particularly adventurous or torrid, and goes to see how she can spice things up a bit. It means a trip down to the beauticians to keep up with the latest hair removal fashions. The beautician 100% guaranteed that a full Hollywood wax would improve her sex life. "Men find it exciting" she cooed. But not only men, increasingly women too seem to prefer a "tidier" look on them, which probably explains why 92% of the female and 60% of the male studio audience "style" themselves. If that is or isn't your bag, sexy undies can add a sparkle to bedroom goings-ons. And how about a bit of tantric sex training at £100 a throw? In the name of investigative journalism, Anna tried the lot and appeared to have had a raunchy night in with her partner.
As this is a six part series I expect SES and Channel 4 will cover all the permutations and complexities of human sexuality in their customary depth. Pictures of willies and mimsies before the watershed will generate some outraged publicity too. If some people pick up on the information around contraception and body image and helps them lead safer, more fulfilling sex lives, than that's all for the good. But I can't shake the thought that SES is more geared toward navigating the world of contemporary commodified sexuality than anything else.