Friday, 16 December 2011

On underage sex, bad science and pearl-clutching

Batten down the hatches folks, we're in for a good ol' fashioned moral panic!

This week the NHS published the results from their annual Health Survey for England, which is a study that looks at general health among the population. Usually this would pass by without much of a fuss, other than the predictable sneering from some sectors of the media about rising obesity levels, but this year they decided to take a break from that and focus on the fact that teenagers are having sex.

I know, right? Unbelievable, isn't it? Teenagers. Having sex. With each other. Someone best pop over to the grave of Mary Whitehouse with some chalk and a silver dagger because this is some big shit.

What the survey actually found is that 22% of men and 27% of women aged 16-24 were aged under 16 when they first had sex. Cue the media exploding, both left and right, to use these statistics to promote their personal agendas.

The survey seems to have some problems with it (the methods used for gathering data may be seen here). Firstly, this is a self-report study. This means that the researchers have no idea whether someone is telling the truth or not. The obvious problem with this is that when people answer questions about their sex life, they might give what are known as socially desirable answers - for an example of this, see the fact that men in the study reported a mean of 9.3 sexual partners and women only 4.7 - who are all the men fucking?

A second, linked problem with this study is that there is no satisfactory definition of sex. I mean, yes, there's the very heteronormative idea that sex occurs when a man puts his winkie in a lady's vajayjay - but I can think of several lesbians I know who would be both insulted and confused by the insinuation that they'd never actually had sex, contrary to what they thought they'd been doing. Sex really isn't that simple - last night on Twitter, @interarma linked to this great flowchart from Autostraddle:

Other problems I have with this survey directly relate to the under-16s figures, and they are that the report doesn't tell us how much sex these teens are having - they might have had four partners but only slept with each one once, or they might have had one partner but spent the best part of a year holed up fucking away like demons. Also, the survey didn't ask these teenagers their reasons for having sex - which is why newspapers have been able to sell us their pet peeves as explanations. 

So, first into the dock is the Guardian, who use an article titled "Quarter of UK women had underage sex, report finds" to blame their bête du jour - the 'pornification' of society for these statistics. Here's a fun fact: if you search for 'pornification' on the Graun's site, you get 42 results. It's not even a real fucking word. 

Right, so here's my problems with the Guardian story:

  1. The focus on underage female sexuality only. If I told you that 27% of 15 year old women and 22% of 15 year old men had eaten chocolate cake, would your response be to say "those greedy bitches!"? 
  2. That no emphasis is put on the fact that in the same survey 26% of women and 32% of men aged 16-24 said that they'd NEVER had sex.
  3. It doesn't mention that the reason for the disparity between the male and female results may (if it exists, which there is reason to doubt) be explained by the fact that in heterosexual relationships, it is seen as normal for the man to be older than the woman, and aberrant for the woman to be older than the man. So a 15 year old girl may be sleeping with a 17 year old boy, but it is unlikely for the reverse to occur.
  4. That bloody 'pornification' explanation, which I am now going to prattle on about at length. 
Diane Abbott MP is quoted as saying:
"The underlying cause must be the 'pornification' of the culture and the increasing sexualisation of pre-adolescent girls. Too many young girls are absorbing from the popular culture around them that they only have value as sex objects. Inevitably, they act this notion out."
May I be the first to say: Bullshit. Get a damn history book. I hate this 'female sexuality is always weak and passive' narrative. It's just another side of your bog-standard misogynist 'women don't have a sex drive and only fuck men to get things' drivel. Seriously - broadband and access to high-speed internet porn has been around for what, about ten years now? Yeah, and teenage pregnancies only started happening a decade ago too. Oh wait except they didn't, because they always have done, regardless of the availability of porn. Get this - teenage girls usually have sex because it feels nice. I mean, goddamn. I went to an all-girl high school which was essentially a holding-pen for hormones. We were very interested in the whole 'fucking' malarkey. Has Diane Abbott really not realised the correlation between the discovery that playing with your bits can be fun, that other people playing with your bits can be even more fun and teenage sex? Or does she seriously think that all teenage girls would be nuns if it weren't for this damned pornography?

As I have said before, I do not like mainstream pornography*. Really not a fan. But not because I think that it encourages people who aren't ready for sex to have sex, but because it a) gives people who are not having sex an unrealistic idea of sex and of women's bodies and b) because it doesn't teach how to have good sex. (*Before anyone starts a flame-war about how awesome homemade queer porn is and how I'm a total prude blah blah blah please bear in mind I'm talking about Flynt-esque 'Busty Babez 4' types of porn.)

Anyway, the longer the Guardian and Diane Abbott pursue this pearl-clutching 'all young women are victims' shite, the worse things will be, since as we can also see in the results, 12% of all women and 9% of all men have been diagnosed with an STI. Which to me suggests that just suggesting to women that they don't have sex doesn't work and we need some fucking better sex education in schools. We don't need to tell people not to fuck, we need to tell them to only fuck if they are totally sure they want to, how to make sure the other person is totally sure they want to fuck, and how to use (and make sure their partner uses) a barrier method to prevent STIs. As I mentioned quite forcefully above, sex feels good. Once people realise this, telling them not to have sex is not going to stop them having sex. (I know that most of this polemic has ignored asexual people. I believe firmly that it is also important to teach teenagers both about the existence of asexual people and to make sure that asexual teenagers are able to actualise their feelings in the best way possible for them without stupid societal pressures.)

Next, the Daily Mail tried to stoke the fires of ignorance with a charming piece titled "Promiscuous Britain: one in four young women admit they had underage sex - more than twice as many as their mothers' generation" (direct link). As well as the recreation of all the Guardian's mistakes, here's the problems with this article:

  1. It doesn't mention men and their rates of underage sex until the ninth paragraph
  2. It sensationally claims that "nearly 60% of women 'don't always' use contraception", then says "40% of men said they always used contraception". In other words, about the same bloody levels. But y'know, women are all harpies and sluts or something.
  3. It quotes critics who "say that the rise in promiscuity over the generations is linked to increased sex education in schools that has 'broken down the natural inhibitions of children with regard to sexual conduct'". I'm just going to come out and say that the guy who said this is really fucking stupid. Have you ever seen a kid in a jacuzzi? I don't want to spell this out graphically but they're really big fans of sitting right over where the bubbles come out. (I'll come back onto the sex education part of the quote in a bit)
  4. The box that looks at sex education 'throughout the ages' seems to conflate 5 year olds knowing the names for the parts of their body they wee out of with actual 'this is how you have sex' education. It also claims lessons were 'explicit'. Now, I fall into the 16-24 bracket and first had penetrative sex under the age of 16 (yeah, fuck you Daily Mail), but I don't ever recall my teachers getting us to make a big 'FUCKING IS FUN' banner to hang up on the wall next to our drawings of bugs. In fact, I went to a Catholic school where they taught us the biological stuff under duress then stressed our likelihood of going to hell if we ever practically utilised the information. WE STILL HAD SEX BECAUSE IT FELT GOOD AND WE WANTED TO.
  5. They claim that 'one in seven women aged 16-24 who lost their virginity underage had contracted an STI'. You may note above that I point out that the survey showed that 12% of all women had had an STI. My maths is pretty dodgy, but isn't one in seven only around 14%? Also, people aged 16-24 are more likely to take the responsible measure of having themselves tested, which is how diagnoses occur.
  6. They refuse to EVEN ENTERTAIN THE NOTION that the reason that self reported incidents of underage sex from women seem higher could possibly be because female sexuality is no longer viewed as an abhorrence, which would seem likely given that TEENAGE PREGNANCY HAS ALWAYS BEEN A THING.
  7. They concede that teenage pregnancy rates went down by 7.5% between 2008-2009 (despite the horrific and borderline abusive sex education that is taught nowadays), but still manage to have a big fit and moan about underage abortion rates (which haven't changed, so the number of teenagers getting pregnant really is dropping) and our 'increasingly sexualised society'. While 20 out of 34 stories on their sidebar involve gratuitous perving at 'clingy' and 'revealing' clothing.
However, none of that could compare with the most stupid part of all, which I am now going to go on a very sweary rant about in order to draw together and reinforce all the other points that I've been making.

*clears throat*

The same dude quoted at (3), Norman Wells from the Family Education Trust (who sent out a fire and brimstone pamphlet to all secondary schools last year warning teenagers that premarital sex led to a 'lifetime of regret and misery'), is further quoted as saying: 

‘Over recent years we have witnessed the systematic removal of every restraint which in previous generations served as a disincentive to underage sexual activity. 
‘Sex education in many schools has had the effect of breaking down the natural inhibitions of children with regard to sexual conduct, and the age of consent is rarely enforced, so young people no longer have any fear of legal proceedings.
‘On top of that, the ready availability of contraception means that a girl’s fear of pregnancy is no longer considered a good enough reason for rejecting her boyfriend’s advances, and confidentiality policies mean that a girl need not worry about what her parents would think about her being sexually active, obtaining contraception, being treated for a sexually transmitted infection or even having an abortion, because they don’t have to be told.’

This is where I nearly put my head through the wall. As I said before, this guy is fucking stupid. He's just another hypocritical, evidence-denying misogynist bastard with a chip on his shoulder about those nasty dirty women doing their dirty dirty sex. Aside from what he said before, he should know that it's always been the case that if two 15 year olds fuck each other it won't be prosecuted because you'd have to prosecute them both for the same crime against each other, and how is it actually in the public interest to spend money going through the court system to punish two people for a consensual activity which, as long as they used an appropriate barrier method will have no further consequence than a vague feeling of disappointment? But oh no, he doesn't want them to be taught about barrier methods or contraception because nasty nasty dirty sex ew. Going further, he actually considers pregnancy an adequate 'punishment' for teenage harlots. And despite all the evidence showing that abstinence-based sex education DOESN'T WORK, this moron wants to stick his fingers in his ears and pretend like teenagers would never get those damn funny feelings in their groin if they never heard the word sex. Because, as I have said before, nasty filthy dirty biological urges yuck.

I am now going to reiterate the main point of this post in big letters:




  1. I've come across those 'Family Education Trust' idiots before. They claim not to have a religious agenda, but the abstinence-only thing, as well as the 'family' in the name are pretty sharp pointers as to their motives, whether they admit it or not. These are not nice people.

  2. Honestly, my first reaction when I was writing this was to Google them + Nadine Dorries as I was so sure they would just be bestest friends. Apparently not, or she's covering her links with them like she did with the extremist anti-abortion lot. Couldn't be arsed reading the whole of their website, but I'm guessing it's pretty much just a one-man show like Stephen Green (also beloved of the Mail) and his 'organisations' which usually consist of a membership of...uhm, Stephen Green.

  3. That would be Stephen "Wife Beater" "Birdshit" Green, of Christian Voice? Yeah, I'm not honestly sure whether it's a sign of how bad the Mail is that it panders to such people, or of how bad they are that they make it into the Mail so often. Tough call…

    *Reminds self to click subscribe this time*

  4. That would be the bugger. I believe, as I said to someone earlier, that it can not be described in the terms you use, but that the respective parties are but a moebius strip of asshattery. He's a rent-a-gobshite, just as all the others are :(

  5. "a moebius strip of asshattery"

    I am definitely stealing that! Bog knows how I'll use it, but I'll find a way if it kills me.

  6. Glad to finally be of use for something :)

  7. That sounds ... mildly depressive. You okay?

  8. Merely self-deprecating. (Although I am still bloody unemployed!)

  9. A situation I know only too well. Agency work's picked up around here of late with the christmas rush (lots of food factories hereabouts) but I'm fully expecting to be virtually workless again soon. Ho-hum.

    Ah, sorry! I may have been projecting a bit. I was in a stew about summat and pouring it into a blog-post as your comment appeared in my inbox.

    Meanwhile, back on-topic:

    Given that youngsters have apparently—according to the people who've regularly come out with this dribble since the bloody Domesday Book—been getting more and more licentious with every generation, howcome we're not already at the stage of 100% teen-pregnancies, and most kids having their first sexual experience at about 7 years old?

    Okay, maybe that's a tad facetious, but my point still stands, I think. My mum can remember such complaints about 'today's sexualised youth' going back to the 1950s, though it was couched a little more circumspectly back then. They always complain of a rise in teen-pregnancies since the golden-haired angel-like purity of their own generation's teens; yet the long-term rise you'd expect to see if they'd all been right, just isn't in evidence.

    Mind you, the drop in backstreet abortions is real, yet somehow they manage to miss that little statistic out of their arguments.

  10. Completely agree. I remember reading something after the riots where they looked back at reporting of teenage crime in the media for about 200 years - turns out for the whole time they've always been saying that things were better when they were teenagers, and that this generation are degenerates.

    I don't know, at what age do you completely and utterly forget what horrid little bastards you and your friends were as teenagers?

  11. I think at my age I'm supposed to be remembering my teen years as a golden age of purity. Unfortunately, I have this thing about not lying to myself.

    Completely OT, but I've just rediscovered this video. If you have 15 min to spare, I really recommend it. Mind-blowing.

  12. I really liked this article.

    There doesn't seem to be much in the way of dating/sex advice that is *actually useful* made available, or at least that's how I feel looking back on my woefully sexless teenage years.

    I don't just mean in terms of how to have good sex, but also how to get into good relationships, and how to be the kind of person that has good relationships. I feel like that kind of education is what I was missing most growing up and it's only as an adult that I've managed to start working it out for myself.

    Seeing as how sex and sexy relationships are such a huge part of having a healthy life, the fact that I got most of my training from pop culture and porn seems really inadequate and kind of harmful.

    But as you're saying, it's not inadequate and harmful in the way that they're making it out to be. The fact that they're framing it in that way and possibly justifying (even creating) the woman-hating attitudes of people who read it is much more harmful than 'pornification.'

    Anyways, really good article. Keep up the good work.

  13. Good article. I always enjoy a passionate article. It makes me feel like I'm not on my own getting angry about this kind of stuff.

    @Alex J. Dass
    How do you define a "good relationship"? Is a good relationship a monogamous relationship? Does that mean that non-monogamous relationships are bad? Are relationships part of a healthy life? If someone is not in a relationship are they unhealthy? Is it wrong to be alone?

    I think that relationships are too individual and subjective to be taught. Everyone has to find their own way to whatever makes them happy.

    If, on the other hand, you just wish you had been taught how to convince someone to have regular sex when you were a teenager then I think you will be disappointed as there is no secret unlock code for sex (at least as far as I am aware).

    On the bright side, teenage relationships are usually full of stress, misery, awkwardness and disappointment as these are the primary attributes that most teenagers bring to any situation. So you probably didn't miss out on much anyway.

  14. @Spudman101: "I think that relationships are ... individual and subjective ... Everyone has to find their own way to whatever makes them happy."

    Yup. And that's why they need to be taught. Kids won't pick it up from popular culture, which promotes the idea of a heterosexual, monogamous, sexual relationship, with marriage/family as an expected endpoint.

  15. @Sebastienne
    I'm not saying that learning about relationships from popular culture is a good idea but I think that trying to teach everyone about good relationships may suffer from similar problems. It will likely still favour the popular culture view of what a relationship should be and just end up reinforcing it.

    I don't object to teenagers learning about relationships, I just object to them being presented as good or (by implication at least) bad relationships, or creating the belief that being in a relationship is a prerequisite to being happy.

  16. Also relevant. YOUNG WOMEN HAVE SEX!!