When this story broke on Twitter I got involved in a bit of a Twitter debate about it. Schools in Brighton are offering their year 11 and 12 students (aged 15 and 16) chlamydia tests. Chlamydia is the most common STD in the UK, can easily be treated with antibiotics and if left untreated can cause serious long term reproductive health problems.
The testing in Brighton schools is part of The National Chlamydia Screening Programme which is offered to people under the age of 25.
There was some surprise on Twitter that 15 and 16 year olds were having sex, a few people got the wrong end of the stick and read that 11 and 12 year olds were being offered the tests, for that there was outrage. To clarify the report, 11 and 12 year olds are not being offered STD tests routinely in school. But maybe they should. Maybe.
A report by Marie Stopes International in 2003 showed that a quarter of 11 year olds knew someone their own age who was sexually active. As a parent this makes horrifying reading. I was 9 when I started my periods, it was a horrible time for me, my hormones were raging, I was physically sexually mature, but not emotionally mature enough to handle that kind of relationship. Thankfully I hung on to my virginity until I was 16, but it could’ve been a different story.
If in 2003 a quarter of the nations 11 year olds were having sex, that’s an issue that needs addressing on a number of fronts. Sex education for a start, you can talk some kids into waiting until they’re married, some into hanging on until they’re 16, but some will do what their hormones are telling them to do and do it anyway, so they need support. They need sex education, contraceptive advice, access to sexual health screening, someone to talk to, ideally an understanding and supportive parent or guardian. Supportive not of their desire to have underage sex, but someone who will listen and offer guidance without judging, shouting and making them run for the hills.
I absolutely do not condone being sexually active at a young age. Just because you’re physically ready, it doesn’t make you actually ready. But if teenagers are going to do it, then they should have access to the same sexual health support that is available for anyone else.
Of course if an 11 year old is displaying sexual behaviour, then there could be an issue elsewhere in their lives which needs official intervention. I don’t think we should be blindly nodding and saying it’s ok to be sexually active to young teenager, that’s where someone supportive comes in.
When I was 13 I met a boy I liked and I wanted to do the right thing, so I went to the sexual health clinic. I was lucky enough (though I didn’t know it at the time) to meet a nurse in the clinic, she was lovely and talked to me about why I wanted to have sex with him. She spent ages with me, giving me exactly the kind of sex education I needed at the time, she was brilliant. She sent me away with some condoms and lots to think about. I didn’t have sex with the boy, I waited three more years and those condoms ended up in the bin. But without her supportive, informative, caring intervention I would’ve been sexually active at 13.
I don’t believe that offering sexual health services to underage people sends the message that as a nation we approve of or condone their behaviour. Anyone who had ever visited a sexual health clinic will know that although mostly it’s not unpleasant, it’s not ever going to be the highlight of your week.
As a parent I can’t help but think how I will broach the subject with my son. Part of me is insistent that there is no way ever that boy is going to have sex, and then only to produce much adored grandchildren for me. But part of me knows that I’m going to have to have a number of open, honest and informative conversations with him when he gets older. He’s going to do it, because most people do eventually, but I want him to be safe, respectful, mature enough to deal with the repercussions and the emotions involved.
The issue of sexual health will always be an emotive one. We are all made differently. We don’t all wait until our wedding night, we don’t all have sex with someone of the opposite gender, we don’t all have one or two sexual partners in our entire lives, we don’t all do it with the lights off. We’re all different, with different things floating our different boats. And that’s how humans are.
Sex education is so incredibly important. I’m 38 and my sex education was poor, I think schools often provide quite patchy sex education, but it’s such a personal subject that parents have a responsibility to talk to their children about sex. Sex isn’t dirty, it isn’t taboo. It can only take one conversation, like the one I had with the sexual health nurse to change a path. Don’t be afraid, don’t be embarrassed. It’s time to have that conversation with our kids.