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Raising sexually responsible teenagers in France and in Britain
When I moved to the UK, my mother reminded me of all the usual recommendations. Although I stopped paying attention at the age of 10, one struck me this time, “Beware of STDs”. This recommendation was stuck between “Don’t get in the car with someone you don’t know” and “Beware, they drive on the left”… I thought this was odd but who knows, no doubt she had read something in the press in the same vein as I did on Metro this week: “Britain is HIV king of Europe”. In 2007, 7,734 new HIV cases were recorded in Britain. France was a long way behind with 4,075 and 2,752 in Germany. The gap is huge, not to mention that there are about 5 million more people in France and 10 million more in Germany… True, the article points out these figures are increased by massive African immigration but still, what is the matter with British people and sexual behaviour? How differently is sexuality approached in France and in Britain?
Forget the cliché of uptight British people never having sex, the truth is Britons are not only number one in the STDs league but also for teen pregnancies. How can one forget the scandal of Alfie Patten? Aged 13 (but looked closer to 8), he was presumed to have fathered a baby at the tender age of 12 with his 15 year old girlfriend. The Sun broke out the scandal, showing pictures of him and his presumed daughter, happy as hell: “I thought it would be good to have a baby. I didn’t think about how we would afford it. I don’t really get pocket money. My dad sometimes gives me £10.(…) I will be good, though, and care for it.” More recently another article caught my attention. It was about the peak in school girl pregnancies soon to be expected. Why? Due to the school closures at the beginning of February because of the heavy snow. The London Paper explained without making any fuss that school was a good way to avoid teen pregnancies. This could almost be funny if the consequences were not so tragic: rise of teen pregnancies but also of STDs…
The figures are alarming. Since 1998, there have been approximately 7,500 children conceived per year by under 16 year old girls and about 40,000 by under 18s (Source: Office for National Statistics and Teenage Pregnancy Unit, 2009). More worrying still, according to The Observer, “8 out 10 British teenagers lose their virginity when they are drunk, feeling pressurised into having sex and/or are not using contraception” (survey of 3,000 London secondary pupils aged from 15 to 18). It is up to you to be shocked, to denounce this “broken society” like David Cameron but one thing is certain though: there is an urgent need to raise the awareness of the risks associated with unprotected sex, and to do so as quickly as possible.
What about the French? Do they differ that much in their attitude and behaviour patterns? Can we offer some wise advice to our neighbours or are we all to be put in the same bag? Indeed, France is well-known for having been one of the last western European countries to recognise Aids as a non-shameful disease and to promote condoms publicly. In 1992, French humorists “Les Inconnus” even made a sketch called “European condoms” parodying European ads and showing that French people were the only ones who cannot say “condom” out loud. And yet, French teenagers seem to be better guided at the beginning of their sex-life. In comparison, it is estimated that there are 10,000 pregnancies in France by under 18 girls (75% less than in Britain) per year and 6,500 of them end in abortion.
For British teens, having an abortion is less systematic. This is surprising since the UK was one of the first in the world to get this right in 1967 and French unmarried mothers used to cross the Channel to get rid of their problems… According to the Daily Mail, 2008 is the first year when more teens have preferred abortion rather than motherhood. Until the mid-Nineties, fewer than four out of ten opted for it. Why? Having a baby before 18 in the UK is more common because there are more teens who drop out school at 16 than in France. Since being a student and a mother at the same time is almost impossible, French teens tend to choose termination. In the UK, teen mothers often work and they get financial support from the government. As an example,16 and 17 year old parents who cannot live with their parents, are supervised in a semi-independent housing with support since 1999. Some girls choose to live this way, benefiting from the system but we can still hardly say that being a teen mom is an easy option: only one out three gets a high school diploma and nearly 80 percent of single ones end up on welfare. Therefore, the infernal spiral of teen pregnancies has to be stopped quickly, so as not to increase social exclusion.
Even if the situation looks better in France, French teenagers are also confused when it comes to sex, contraception and STDs. For example, one out of ten teenagers between 16 and 25 considers taking the pill as a protection against STDs, too many still do not use condoms and their knowledge about safe sex is often nebulous. Protection is one thing, but if it is not done properly it does not change anything.
Why are our teenagers still so lame when it comes to safe sex? Why is it worse in the UK? What other solutions do we have? Should we keep sexuality a taboo for as long as possible to protect young and naïve teenagers or should we, on the contrary, inform them and prepare them so as to begin their sex lives without too many risks? Answers to this question are of course extremely personal and deal with deep convictions. Both France and the UK have faced burning debates and strong opposition when they decided to introduce sex-education classes in school programmes, especially from religious and conservative backgrounds. However, most agree today that prevention is better than cure! All the sources of authority have a role to play in helping young adults to be sexually responsible. School, State leaders, family: so who is failing?
Public powers seem to have understood what is at stake and this is currently a hot topic in the UK. The government has just announced plans to make sex education compulsory from 5 to 16 as a part of a new course called PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education). The aim is to escort children in the discovery of their sexuality from the very beginning to decrease unsafe or unconscious behaviours in the early adolescence. Some cry foul-play denouncing a seizure of parental prerogatives, some express their fear that such a class encourages early sex encounters but what scares me the most is that faith schools will be allowed to do it according to the “context, values and ethos” of their religions. That means that these schools will have the power to condemn sex before marriage, the use of condoms as well as homosexuality. Besides, in the UK, if parents decide their child should not attend sex education classes then their child will not.
France cannot stand such differences in education and sexual classes maybe less developed, it gives the very basis to everyone, regardless of faith or gender. Whatever it might be, it seems that education classes in general are inappropriate. Teenagers often think that their teachers simply do not speak the same language as they do. They also declare being lost because of the mass of contradictory messages they receive about sex and the lack of information concerning the people and organisations they can contact. In fact, is school really responsible for informing children about sex? Many professors complain that school is currently asked to resolve all of society's wrongs, which cannot be possible.
Health services have a major role to play as well and, on both sides of the Channel, advertising campaigns are launched regularly and are increasingly more explicit and accessible. On the other hand, sadly, young people are often unaware of public structures which can help them if they have troubles with their sexuality. As a result, they can easily feel isolated and let situations that could have been fixed get worse.
Parents are also responsible or should I say the most responsible for that type of education. And the thing is sex seems to be more taboo in the UK than in France. No surprise there : there was no Mai 68 in the UK and France has always been the country of “libertinage”. It is a funny thing to notice that, in a lot of languages, French words are often used to speak about sex… Well, if British parents feel more at ease speaking about “préservatifs” than about “condoms” , it could not make it worse!
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