The Times

Tuesday, June 15 1999

Pressure grows for sex lives to begin earlier

by Alexandra Frean, Social Affairs Correspondent
The Times

WHILE the number of 15 to 19-year-olds in Britain has dropped from 4.7 million in 1981 to 3.7 million, changes in social mores and improvements in health have pushed forward the age of puberty, increasing the pressures on teenagers to have sex.

An estimated 10 per cent of girls start their periods while still at primary school and the average age at which young people start having sex is 17. Forty years ago, it was 21 for women and 20 for men.

Peer pressure is particularly strongly felt by young men and women living in care, where the enhanced opportunities created by living in a children's home can lead to starting sexual relationships at a relatively early age.

Sex among teenagers is often unplanned, affected by alcohol and takes place outside any long-term commitment. A tiny group begin to have sex before they are even in their teens - 1 per cent of 11 and 12-year-olds are sexually active, according to the Health Education Authority.

There are nearly 90,000 teenage conceptions a year in Britain resulting in 56,000 live births. About 7,700 conceptions are to under-16s. This is higher than in any other Western European country.

Only 50 per cent of under-16s and 66 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds in Britain report using contraception the first time they had intercourse, compared with 85 per cent in The Netherlands, 78 per cent in America and 74 per cent in France. It is thought that the reluctance of British teenagers to have protected sex is caused by ignorance, lack of access and lack of confidence in discussing its use with a partner.

The percentage of 16 to 17-year-olds who are neither in work nor full-time education doubled from 5 to 10 per cent between 1989 and 1996. There is a striking correlation between countries with high rates of live births to teenagers and high levels of relative deprivation, dropping out of education, and family breakdown.

In Belgium, where 100 per cent of 17-year-olds are in full-time education, the rate of teenage births is less than 10 per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. In Britain, where fewer than 75 per cent are in full-time education, the rate is more than 20 per 1,000 girls.

Turning to hostel accommodation, the Social Exclusion Unit report states that the Government will be spending £10 million of the £60 million set aside for its teenage pregnancy initiative piloting 15 supervised projects, to see which type works best.

At present there are only a handful of such schemes in the country. The aim is to build enough hostels to accommodate 2,000 to 4,000 girls.

An existing project that the new hostels are likely to be modelled on include the Centrepoint Young Mother's project in Lewisham, South London, which comprises five bedsits with self-contained kitchen areas and three bedrooms with a shared kitchen.

Bathrooms are shared and there is a communal lounge, a laundry room and a shared back garden. There are two full-time staff providing support and advice on parenting, benefits, health, education and work training.

The authors of the Social Exclusion Unit report were also impressed with the Edmonds Court Foyer in Birmingham, which has 48 furnished flats and bedsits for young people, couples and single parents. The scheme, which has a registered crèche, includes an agreement in which residents, who usually stay for about nine months, have to take part in a package helping them into education or employment.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.