Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 900-919)

THURSDAY 16 JANUARY 2003

MS LORNA WEBLEY, MS TARA HALL, MS SARAH NICHOLLS, MR DAVID MORRIS, MS EMMA HENDERSON AND MS ERICA BUIST

John Austin

  900. On the embarrassment and accessibility point and you have spoken about the need for confidentiality, do you think there is a case for having an even more anonymous service available such as a telephone counselling and advice service that people could ring up?
  (Ms Nicholls) A text message service came up really, really strong. One young lad said, "I can text to see how my football team is doing, so why can't I text to get advice on sex?" A number of people have modern technology nowadays—your thumbs are defined from texting people all the time. Why can there not be a sex line through text messaging or even through a phone line/ I do know that there is the 0800 282930 number. However, when we were younger, I do know that they received a number of prank phone calls. It was not a big thing. When we launched our report, they made a card somewhere with a picture of Ali G on it and he stood like this and was saying, "I is itching!" It is a free-phone confidential help line. If you could do something like that or even in a drop-in centre and in the clinic—you could have a phone in the clinic where you could just ring someone and talk to them in the clinic. The text messaging thing is a big recommendation for us because so many young people use mobile phones nowadays, so why can they not just text somewhere to ask advice?

Chairman

  901. Who provides the phone line that you have just mentioned?
  (Ms Nicholls) Who provides the advice?

  902. Yes.
  (Ms Nicholls) Trained people like peers, specialist people who are actually trained up in this and people like our project leader. People who actually know what young people are thinking. It is all very well somebody sending a text message and you sending them back a load of jargon. It all needs to be young people friendly. If you send a text message and there are young people there who can advise or even who are employed to answer it themselves, who can answer the question because they know what they are talking about, as long as it is young people friendly, that is what we are aiming for. In the sexual health clinics, there are leaflets about chlamydia and everything, but it is all full of jargon and no one understands what it is actually going on about. Even if you have put a project together like we have and gave a number out and saw how it went for three months and then, if it went really well, you could carry it on from there. You can always build it up. It is just getting young people involved again. Our problem was that we did not get any formal feedback. We had a number of phone calls saying, "Yes, your report is brilliant" but we did not get any formal feedback and I think that is what stops young people doing projects like this because they are worried that it is a waste of time. I think they need to know that it is being taken on board. From my point of view, I think you will find that, if you let young people know that you are taking on board what they are saying, you will get a lot more out of them and a lot more people will be willing to help in the situation.

John Austin

  903. Do you know which organisation set up the phone line and who started it?
  (Ms Nicholls) It was called Sex-Wise. I only remember it because there were numerous times when I was 13 on the street with my bottle of cider ringing that number and saying, "Ha-ha, sex line" and putting the phone down! Perhaps I should not say that in public. It was something that we all did at that age and that is the only reason why I know of that one.
  (Ms Buist) People would not want to waste their text credit on that!
  (Ms Nicholls) You can text certain people and certain numbers free, so why not have a free text line? It would cost enough but it would not cost that much to actually run it. All you need is a free phone line and a computer and someone sat at the other end typing the answer back and sending it out.
  (Ms Buist) And you could send people that we are sending to school to teach sex education.

  904. You mentioned the Internet. Do you think many people use the Internet to access information about sexual health or do you think it could be developed?
  (Ms Nicholls) I personally do not because I know that, at college, if I went onto the Internet to access something about sexual health, it would come up barred because it has the word "sex" in it. Young people within schools and colleges cannot access the Internet for sexual health services because they are all barred. It is anything to do with sex. It is the same in libraries and everything, unless they are using it from home but I know that my dad can trace everything I do on the Internet and he willingly reads my e-mail addresses and things like that. So I know that, if I went on there, he could access where I have just been. That also is the perception of young people and young people nowadays know more and more about computers and they do know that they are going to be able to access it. So, I do not think that people use it that much. I might be wrong but it was not really one of our questions.
  (Ms Henderson) I think it could be the last resort. If they could not get any information anywhere and they were really worried about something, I think they would be forced to go. They would not want to go anywhere and it may be as private as they feel they are going to get. So, the Internet would be a last resort but I do not think that it is in common use.
  (Ms Buist) It is not confidential enough. As you said, it can be traced and, at school, it is just not going to happen. Anything with the word "sex" in is barred. So, the Internet is really not a big one to use, unfortunately.
  (Ms Hall) Some people do not want to speak over the phone or go to a clinic. I would prefer to look over the Internet because there will be a piece of information there which is illustrated and is easy to look at. It is not like reading a book. It is right in your face on the screen. I would prefer to use the Internet.
  (Ms Webley) We did not do any research on this, so we cannot give you any statistics.

Sandra Gidley

  905. Just to pick up on something that was said earlier, I am getting some quite alarming messages about the quality of the sex education you are getting, which does not seem to have moved on much from when I was at school, I am afraid to say. You mentioned pregnancy and that is obviously covered at school and somebody said that the sexually transmitted infections were very sketchily covered; you were thrown a leaflet. Is that a common experience because part of the reason for doing this inquiry is that there has been a huge increase in the rate of sexually transmitted infections? How many young people are even aware of something like chlamydia?
  (Ms Nicholls) Not many. We do have some statistics on it somewhere but it will take me a while to find them. Not many people know about it and the worst thing and the scariest thing with chlamydia is that you could have it for years and not even know that you do. About half-way through doing this project, I had never seen any advertisement for it at all, but then I picked up my mum's magazine yesterday—bear in mind that this was not a teen magazine, this was in Best or whatever it was, my mum's magazine—and there was an advertisement which was black and had lots of things on it and it said, "Do you want to play the sex lottery?" I thought, God, what is this doing in here? Obviously it should not be in here.

  906. Was that because it was your mum's magazine?
  (Ms Nicholls) Yes. My grandma reads this magazine! The sex lottery—I thought they had put the wrong advertisement in! Then you read down a little further and it says, "You're playing the sex lottery every time you have sex without using a condom. You can catch things like chlamydia." It was really bold and in your face and you could not get away from it. However, all the information on it was about that small written across the bottom of the page. It is only just very, very recently that you actually start to see things in teen magazines. They do the whole, "You can have this disease", but that is only very recently and people just do not know enough about it . People may have unprotected sex but the main issue for me, now that I have done all this, would be, gosh, have I caught anything? When you go into the public with young people, their main issue was, am I pregnant?
  (Ms Hall) STIs do not seem to be covered in a lot more depth. A number of people are aware of the pill and think that, if you are on the pill, you are protected against STIs. They are taking the pill for absolutely ages thinking they are fine and they may not be. They just do not know enough about it.

  907. Should that information be given at school?
  (Ms Hall) Yes.

  908. Or should you pick it up from magazines?
  (Ms Nicholls) Yes.
  (Ms Buist) People are not aware of things. They know the word "syphilis" and they know the word "HIV" and "AIDS" but they have never heard of VD, gonorrhoea, chlamydia or anything like that. It is really worrying and it needs to be taught not, as you said, with a leaflet, "Have a look at this, kids."
  (Ms Nicholls) It should be taught in sex education. While we were doing the project, we all had statements that we kept saying all the time just to remind us of what we were doing and what I used to say all the time was, "Young people need to know the difference between protection and contraception" because, if you go to the clinic for contraception, some people think that contraception and protection are all in one. Young people especially need to know that, even if they are on the pill to protect themselves from getting pregnant, they still need to use protection to stop them from catching sexually transmitted diseases. It is a really big thing but it just seems to have taken a back seat, if you know what I mean, to pregnancy, which is obviously important, we do not want young people getting pregnant, but that seems to have been pushed forward and it seems that, as pregnancy has been getting pushed forward, sexual health has been pushed back. In my opinion, you could kill both birds with one stone. You could do it. It is simple enough—contraception, protection, all at once. If you think you are mature enough to make the decision to have sex, you should be mature enough to make the decision to do it properly.
  (Ms Buist) I think that the reason sexually transmitted infections have taken a back seat is because we are young, we are immortal. When you get older, you start to realise your mortality. You are more sensible to the fact that you could get diseases. Right now, we think, oh my God, if I had a baby, it would just ruin my life and it would change things dramatically. No one really thinks about STDs because health issues are not our main thing at the moment because we are young and immortal! I think more importance for that needs to be drummed into us.

Mr Burns

  909. We have had evidence in this Committee in the past from people who obviously want to use the fear of STDs as a reason for inhibiting young people from having sex. Do you think that it could be turned round in that way and used in that way and what would you think of that if it was?
  (Ms Buist) It needs to be because contraception, as you said, is not just about pregnancy, it is about STDs and it does take a back seat. Instead of saying, "Use contraception so that you do not get pregnant", say, "Use contraception so you do not get STDs and also pregnant."

  910. We cannot use "contraception" but maybe "condoms".
  (Ms Buist) Yes.

  911. You have to get a different message across to young women you are using the pill.
  (Ms Buist) Yes. It is all about awareness. I could not believe it when it was said that some people think they are protected from STDs while using the pill. That alarms me very, very much.

  912. That was a very alarming message.
  (Ms Buist) It means that they really do not know what they are talking about and I think that, yes, it definitely does need to be stated very, very clearly that it is to stop STDs as well and what does stop STDs and what does not. That has alarmed me.

Sandra Gidley

  913. Can I just take up the feeling that you are immortal, you are young, you are having relationships and all the rest of it. We have talked about the influences on the education but, when it comes to young people making decisions about relationships and sex and sexual health, what are the biggest influences on you then?
  (Mr Morris) What influences us to do it?

  914. Yes. For example, there is some evidence from a group of young people in Manchester—and I do not want to put words into your mouths—who felt that some of the media images that they are bombarded with were not exactly—
  (Ms Nicholls) Alcohol. When we asked the question, "What was the biggest influence on young people to have sex?"—and I have it here—the influence of alcohol was the highest:107 out of 202 people said alcohol; 88 people said peer pressure; 36 people said taking drugs; 15 people said pressure from a partner; and 15 people said pressure from the media. That, to me, is another issue. If young people are being pressured into having sex because of alcohol, I do think that it is a really bad thing. The next one down is peer pressure with 88 people, which is what we are trying to wipe out in a way by doing the peer education, trying to say that we are not all the same, we are not all saying, "Go on, have sex. I have done it, so you might as well do it as well." We are saying, "Take your time. Do what you want. Do not do what your friends are telling you to do." The biggest influence to have sex, without a doubt, was alcohol.
  (Ms Buist) I find that really alarming because the two biggest ones, alcohol and peer pressure, are the ones that are going to be the most difficult to change. That will be so hard because, to reduce the influence of alcohol means that we are going to have to try and make young people not drink. Oh my God, how are we going to do that? There does not seem to be anything on earth that will stop young people drinking! Peer pressure—again, this is about changing perceptions. If anyone has any ideas, I would love to hear them.

Mr Burns

  915. I would assume, from looking at your backgrounds, that most of you are still at school, secondary school. I am just doing that simply on your ages. How many of you are still at school?
  (Ms Webley) I am.
  (Ms Buist) I am in sixth form, year 13; only for the next four months but I am still there.
  (Ms Nicholls) I am still in education; I am at college.

  916. Going to secondary school rather than college, how much do you find that your friends and other people at school are interested, in a serious way rather than the normal kind of jokey way, in the issues of sex, the problems, the responsibilities and the precautions that you have to take? My other question is, for those of you still at secondary school, how many of your fellow pupils do you think are actually engaged in sex?
  (Ms Webley) It is funny you should say that because only about two weeks ago, I was having a conversation in a group and I was so shocked because I was sure that no one in my form was sexually active and it turned out that nearly everyone was. It was, "Over Christmas, I did this" and I was so gobsmacked.

  917. Is that just snogging or actually intercourse?
  (Ms Webley) Intercourse and I was so shocked.
  (Ms Nicholls) Snogging is not a big thing any more as in, if you went out on a night and you snogged a bloke, it was like, "Yes, I have snogged a bloke" and you would tell everyone, "I have snogged this bloke." If you go out on a night now, to the park or whatever, you snog a bloke and you snog another bloke and then you sleep with a bloke and it is like, "Yes, I have slept with a bloke", which is where the badness comes into it. I know that when I was at school, if I snogged someone it was, "Wow, phew", I was really excited about it. Nowadays, it is just not good enough anymore, they need to go that one step further and that is a really big issue. It has only been two years since I left school and, within those two years, people who I talked to who were actually at school, were saying, "I did this" and "I did this" and it turns out that more people at school are more sexually active than most of my mates who are 18, 19 and 20. It was one of my friend's seventeenth birthday; he had slept with 50 people—his fiftieth was on his seventeenth birthday—and I was disgusted. I was just like "done". Do you know what I mean? You are putting yourself at risk here. It is not big and it is not hard.

  918. On that point, if we can get back to the first part of my question. How much do your friends, for those of you at school, discuss sex, the problems and the potential threats and what action to take about it in a serious way and how much is talked about sex in the normal kind of jokey way?
  (Ms Webley) I would not say being serious was that often.
  (Ms Nicholls) It is common. With doing the project, everyone knows that we know what we are talking about, so it is hard because people do tend to come to you now for information and advice because they know you know.
  (Ms Henderson) To be honest, when you are younger, especially in the lower part of secondary school, you do not. It is a jokey thing to talk about. You are really embarrassed about it.

  919. Is there a realisation that there are serious health problems and also life threatening problems?
  (Ms Henderson) I think that there is a realisation as you get into sixth form because, as you get into sixth form, you mature more and you become more comfortable talking about it. So, I think that it is with age and with maturity that you feel more comfortable and not necessarily with the amount of sexual activity.
  (Ms Buist) On that note, I noticed that, when you asked the question, you said, "How many of your friends?" and I think it is worth remembering that our own personal experiences are not irrelevant as such but it has to stay very clear in everyone's mind that we are actually a representation of thousands and thousands of people. This is what we have experienced, but just keep it in the front of your minds that there are thousands and thousands of young people at stake here and this is to do with their sex education and with their right to it. Do not take everything that we say as the exact situation because these are just our experiences.


 
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