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How Sex Education Can Cut Teen Pregnancy Rates

Published : Thursday May 26, 2016 | Posted in : Sexual Health
College drinking

A recent study revealed that over 45% of college freshmen who have sex under the influence of alcohol fail to consider contraception when having sex. That's pretty much half of all people in their first year of university who have sex when they're drunk and don't even think about using a condom.

In England, a quarter of university and college students have a diagnosed STI, but in reality the figure could be even higher. Many STIs don't present symptoms and unless people have taken an STI test, there's no way of knowing if they're carrying an undiagnosed infection in their bodies.

It is widely believed that more access to sex education for the younger generation can help to lower the teen pregnancy rates across the UK. But, how can it help?

How sex education can help

Why teen pregnancy rates are increasing

If it's not drunk teens having casual, unprotected sex that are being blamed for soaring rates of STI infection, it's the morning-after pill. In the UK, a report published this year suggests that providing the emergency contraceptive pill for free, over the counter, could actually have influenced the ever-increasing number of STIs in Britain. Some suggest this encourages young people to skip the condom and worry about pregnancy later, but condoms are the only way to prevent catching an STI.

Adequate condom use is a problem for any age group, and it is important to recognise that the reasons for this differ and there is no one-size-fits all solution to fixing the problem. A simple lack of education is often considered to be the most likely cause when it comes to the younger generation, but other probable contributory factors can include financial issues (condoms may be relatively cheap, but perhaps not so for young people who tend to rely on their parents for funds) and naiveté, which is similar to but not quite the same as ignorance.

How to make a difference

Blaming young people or criticising emergency contraception isn't going to improve rates of STI infections. It's much more effective to educate people about the risks of STIs, how to prevent them and how to spot symptoms. If young people understand how easy it is to test for STIs, and understand that they can do this from the comfort and privacy of their own home, maybe more young people will feel confident getting tested.

If more people are tested for STIs, more infections – for example gonorrhoea and genital herpes - will be caught and more can be treated. In fact, if you order an STI test online, send it off to a testing laboratory and receive a positive result, you'll be given information on how easy it is to treat infections.

Perhaps young people should be encouraged to have sex safely, get tested regularly and treat STIs as soon as possible, instead of being vilified for making a few mistakes. At least this would actively reduce the spread of STIs and help young people understand they're responsible for their sexual health and that of their partner, whether it's someone they've just met or a long-term partner.

Before you can begin to make a difference to teen pregnancy rates in the UK, it's important to figure out where in the country is this issue most prevalent. The answer: 'urban deprived areas'.

STI cases in 'urban deprived areas'

The most recent figures show diagnoses of Chlamydia increased by 7%, gonorrhoea cases grew by 6% and the number of people catching herpes rose by 5%. Some experts say the reason STI cases are elevated in these urban areas are because sex education can be insufficient in these areas, or because young people don't have the confidence to insist on using contraception. "In general, most STIs occur in young people because they lack the knowledge and self-esteem to actually avoid getting sexually transmitted infections," Dr Colm O'Mahony told Radio 5 live.

The Health Protection Agency revealed that of the top ten STI hotspots in England, just one is outside London. As reported by BBC news, the 'Top ten STI hotspots in England' are:

  • Hackney
  • Lambeth
  • Southwark
  • Hammersmith and Fulham
  • Islington
  • Haringey
  • Wandsworth
  • Tower Hamlets
  • Westminster
  • Brighton and Hove

Aside from an increasing number of new STI cases in young people, there's now the increased risk of re-infection. Statistically speaking, one in ten young people will be re-infected with an STI in the same year. "Re-infection is a worrying issue," said Dr Gwenda Hughes, an STI expert at the HPA. "Teenagers are repeatedly putting their own and others' long-term health at risk".

The most recent figures show diagnoses of Chlamydia increased by 7%, gonorrhoea cases grew by 6% and the number of people catching herpes rose by 5%.

Some experts say the reason STI cases are elevated in these urban areas are because sex education can be insufficient in these areas, or because young people don't have the confidence to insist on using contraception. "In general, most STIs occur in young people because they lack the knowledge and self-esteem to actually avoid getting sexually transmitted infections," Dr Colm O'Mahony told Radio 5 live.

Whether you live in one of the STI hotspots or in an area with a low rate of STIs, it can be embarrassing to visit your family doctor to take an STI test. If the idea of seeing a doctor or walking into a sexual health clinic fills you with dread, you can now buy STI home tests online which allow you to provide a sample at home and send to a lab.

Sex education

Controversy surrounding sex education

When it comes to controversial issues, few are as contentious as sex education in schools. Everyone seems to have an opinion on this particular debate, from all political strands and from all walks of life. A recent opinion piece in the Daily Mail advocated removing sex education from the classroom entirely arguing that it is a subject best left for parents. According to the writer of the piece, Sonia Poulton, teachers are not "the right people" to teach children about this topic. Shereece Marcantonio, writing for the Huffington Post, appears to agree with this second point, campaigning for a change in the way sex education is taught to young people. She argues that sex education should be peer-to-peer as young people respond better when they receive sex and relationship information from other young people.

This issue is also a hotly debated political topic, with politicians divided on the best course of action. Conservative MP Nadine Dorries hit the headlines earlier this year with calls for an increase in sex education. At first glance, that seems like a good thing. However, her proposals were heavily criticised for being too focused on abstinence, and for being targeted specifically at girls. Labour MP Chris Bryant said it was "the daftest piece of legislation" he had seen.

The problems with this kind of proposal is this: information that is partial, limited and loaded towards a particular moral perspective will never address the ever-increasing rates of teen pregnancy and STIs, and it could leave an entire generation ignorant of what it means to have safe, respectful sex. The only solution is therefore to provide clear, informed and detailed education on all aspects of sex and relationships to young people. Who provides this information is really not the issue, so long as the information is received and understood.

"Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) plays a vital role in providing young people with skills and information to negotiate relationships, protect their sexual health and prevent unplanned pregnancy." Professor Adam Balen, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and chair of the British Fertility Society

Where do we go from here?

Clearly what we currently have is not working. It is just not enough to show the basic physical elements of sex (the what goes where) alongside the standard scaremongering, which tends to involve listing the most common STIs and overstating the failure rates of condoms. STIs are clearly one of two of the serious consequences that can occur from sex (the other being pregnancy) and it is essential that young people are fully informed about them.

It is not enough to tell children and young people simply what STIs are. They need further details on all the different types, including the difference between bacterial and viral STIs, the fact that many STIs are asymptomatic and the serious long-term health complications that can arise if treatment is not sought. They should be informed of the importance of taking an STI test if they've had unprotected sex, and where they can go to get one. Many young people will not want to visit their family GP because they are embarrassed or are worried their parents will find out, but there are other options. Many sexual health clinics will actually guarantee anonymity, but few young people even know where their nearest clinic is. Surely comprehensive sex education should include this information as standard.

Evidence of where sex education is already working

According to research published in the medical journal, The Lancet, over the past 15 years teen pregnancies have more than halved after sex education programme entitled The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy (TPS) was rolled out across select parts of the country by the 1999 Labour government. This result was supported by lead author of the study, Professor Kaye Wellings from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has stated "England's under-18 conception rate has fallen to its lowest level since the 1970s". This data, which covered 148 local authority areas across England, is a clear sign that effective sex education can and does work.

By taking this sex education strategy nationwide and including more areas of the country, especially the urban areas listed above, it can make a true long-term difference to teen pregnancy rates across the UK.


Sources

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