Lucy Mangan

"The problems with under-age sex"

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I see people below the age of consent have been having sex. Tsk! Will they ever learn? Except that, it seems, some of them have learned something.

Picture credit: Rex Features

About 770 of them have learned to access the sexual health clinic programmes recently rolled out across nine schools by the Solent NHS Trust. Thirty three of them were fitted with contraceptive implants, and at least one of them was just 13 years old (the patient, not the implant). It was, naturally, this patient, on which the subsequent furore focussed. Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, summed up the objections of those ranged against the NHS Trust, describing its actions as “fuelling the flames of the sexual health crisis with schemes that treat parents and moral principles with contempt.”

Ah. So many issues, so little time. But let’s do what we can. Let’s think, for example, who is likely to be having sex in their very early teens. Remembering from my own school days, the girls who fell into this category and even more so the thousands of examples which reached my ears during later years courtesy of my mother (a family planning doctor for 35 years in some of the most deprived areas of south east London), the evidence is that such early-onset sexual activity is rarely a sign that everything has gone superbly right for the girl in question. It tends not to be the case that she has accrued so many sociocultural, intellectual and emotional benefits in her short life that she is genuinely free, genuinely willing and genuinely able to make the decision to have sex and to comprehend and cope with any emotional or physical ramifications it might have. It really tends to be quite the opposite. If a 13-year-old is having sex, it is generally a sign that many things have gone wrong.

If a 13-year-old is having sex, it is generally a sign that many things have gone wrong.

A contraceptive implant (which can last up to five years) or injection (required every three months) is not another burning log on the promiscuity fire. It is a chemical holding pen that can prevent one of the most common and (if you’re a child yourself) devastating side-effects of unprotected sex – a baby. It is a respite from further mistakes, not an additional one. Wells’ attitude is emblematic of what used to be called ‘the moral majority’. They comprise all those who would simply prefer things to be different. They like to engage in idealistic whimpering about how children should be children, occasionally interspersing this completely helpful philosophy with pointless moralistic assertions that young people shouldn’t even be thinking about sex, not unless they’ve done two years’ National Service and can quote eight yards of Churchill while whistling Mairzy Doats and preserving ancient woodland – at which point they usually have a small seizure and you can safely slip away. If you’re feeling generous you can call an ambulance, but I wouldn’t bother. They’re depressingly robust.

The hard fact is that children today are prey to more and more potent influences than even the most protective parents can deflect (and another hard fact, of course, is that a lot of parents aren’t protective) and they are growing up in a more heavily sexualised world than ever before. I’d actually be all for a concerted effort to turn back the tide and return, at least the juvenile population to a prelapsarian – or failing that, a pre-Gossip Girl – innocence, but I suspect this would be doomed to failure. We can only seek to mitigate the damage while we try to come up with the answers. It is a struggle, because all the answers to teenage pregnancy take time, money and political will. Ambition, for example, is one of the best forms of contraception. But it’s hard to be ambitious if you’re trapped in poverty in a country in which social mobility has all but vanished. Self-esteem is a good one too, but that’s hard to shore up when you’re being battered not just by hormones but endless images of airbrushed perfection and celebrity extremes held up as the norm. I imagine that a campaign as loud as the ones against girls being given contraception aimed at getting boys to stop pronging themselves up any and every vagina might also help the issue, but I’ve never heard such a suggestion, so it’s impossible to tell.

What do you think? Do you agree with Lucy? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @lucymangan