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You can't teach young people safe sex by inserting the letter Z into wordz PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 29 November 2010 12:33

I've just spent three days trapped in a Berlin hotel room discussing teenage genitalia with a group of TV presenters, actors, bloggers and doctors. While that sounds like the premise of a hellish reality TV show, in fact we were all helping to plan next year's World Contraception Day. And it was hardly hellish at all.

This will be my third year as a member of the programme's Youth Task Force (I'm fully aware of how ironic that role is, by the way, given that I have the face, body and mindset of an old man). We attempt to spread the message of WCD by blogging, making videos, talking to teenagers and working with like-minded groups. Much of my trip was spent trying, with colleagues and representatives of various global NGOs, to come up with a fun and non-judgmental way of informing young people about what an important life decision contraception can be.

It's harder than it sounds. Teenagers get lectured enough as it is, so the last thing they want to hear is a paunchy idiot in corduroy haranguing them for not knowing the correct way to insert an intra-uterine device. But it's just as easy to patronise them by turning up in a baseball cap and trying to high-five everyone and superfluously inserting the letter Z into wordz because a focuz group sayz it's cool or describing things as nang even though you're not completely sure what nang means and you don't even know if people still say it any more. Teenagers aren't children. They're smart and responsible and the worst thing that anyone can do is underestimate their intelligence.

There's also a danger that an initiative such as WCD will just preach to the converted. We've got a wealth of useful information but, unless we're careful, the only people who'll pay attention are the ones who have already decided to find accurate and balanced advice about their contraception choices. Meanwhile, those who need the most help will remain oblivious to it, and to their own options.

The trip involved discussions about how to combat these obstacles through various online schemes and outreach programmes and ways to improve sex  education in schools by basing it on the Dutch model – where it starts earlier, is more comprehensive, has a greater focus on the importance of a loving relationship and has resulted in some of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in Europe. But I'm hopeful that we'll get our message across, at least partly, by figuring out why young people don't use contraception and then by simply being direct and informative enough to engage them.

At least that was the case until Thursday, when Tory peer Howard Flight inexplicably decided to announce that the middle-class child benefit cuts only encouraged more poor people to breed. On the surface, that might seem like the sort of infuriatingly offensive and insensitive remark that Tory peers consider a vital part of their job description – along with appearing to have gout and general galumphing – but just because Flight has a history of blurting inappropriately, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't listen to him this time. What if he's cracked the problem? What if people deliberately don't want to use contraception because they're poor and want the financial benefits of having children?

There's certainly evidence of this in other countries. Earlier this year, the International Planned Parenthood Federation invited me on a study tour of Nepal, to see the country's maternal health capabilities in action. Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, Nepal is one of the poorest countries on Earth – according to one recent study, 65% of its population lives in poverty – but since the government started handing out benefits to pregnant women, everyone has started having babies.

Obviously it's important to understand that by "handing out benefits" I actually mean that the government has started to partially contribute towards the cost of their travel to the nearest maternity hospital, and by "everyone has started having babies" I mean that the country's maternal mortality rate has improved dramatically because there are now far fewer unsafe and unsupervised home deliveries. But you get the point. Government benefits are encouraging poor people not to die in agony during childbirth. Nobody tell Flight about this development, please. Who knows how he'd react?

But even though he's apologised for his stupid words, I refuse to give up on Flight so easily. Maybe it isn't a case of poor people being encouraged to breed – maybe it's about middle-class people being discouraged from breeding. Take me for example. By dint of the fact that I'm writing this column, there's a strong chance that I now qualify as middle class. Do I want children? Well, I thought I did, but without the extra government-issued £20.30 per week that I would have blown on European city breaks, wildly overpriced tablet computers and organic Waitrose products, I'm not sure I do any more.

Maybe this is the answer, after all. Maybe the only way to reduce teenage pregnancy is to make all the teenagers in the UK as infuriatingly middle-class as me. If anyone from WCD is reading this, we need to rethink our strategy. Less information. More Cath Kidston blouses and trips to the farmers' market. We're on to a winner here. Thanks Howard!

This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.

Courtesy to guardian.co.uk.

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