Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 920-937)



John Austin

  920. Can I just bring together some of the things that Ms Nicholls said then and some of the things she said earlier. When you were talking about resisting pressures and about doing things in your own time and really talking about empowering the individual and learning negotiating in relationships. Earlier on, you were talking about the use of role play in the classroom. Do you think there is enough in the sex education programmes that deals with those issues about empowerment and negotiation in relationships?
  (Ms Nicholls) No. Yet again, it is the situation that, when you are doing sex education, you learn about sex and you need to be able to talk about your relationships and you need to be able to sit there and say to your students, "Peer pressure is a problem, but you do not have to do what everybody else is doing." It is the same with everything. It is fashion. You do not have to buy the same shoes as everyone else does, but you do it anyway. It is a really big thing. I think that peer pressure and people having sex is a really dangerous mix because it influences.

Andy Burnham

  921. Can I just broaden things out a little and ask about the kind of world that we live in and the messages we get from the media. When Simon Burns was at school, having a snog was a really big deal but now apparently it is not. Obviously society has changed and the taboo has changed as well. What do you think of the messages from the Internet, music and films because the expectation is that you will be sexually active at a young age? Do you think that is an issue?
  (Ms Webley) Do you mean getting it from the media?

  922. Yes. The kind of bombardment of images.
  (Ms Webley) Yes.

  923. The expectation is that you are . . .
  (Ms Webley) You feel like it is something that you have to do and, if you do not do it, then you are left out and you are the odd one out.

  924. You have to do it? Do you mean that you would be weird if you were not doing it?
  (Ms Webley) Yes. It is the same as before. If everyone is doing it, then you are going to do it and, if it has been advertised, like you say, in the media etc, you just feel as though you are being pushed into it.

  925. Pushed? You think it is that strong?
  (Ms Webley) Yes. You do not feel confident enough to say, "No, I want to wait."

  926. One has a go at the media all the time, but do you think that they are pushing it too hard sometimes?
  (Mr Morris) I think people should be advised that it is a really big thing but that they do not have to do it because their friends are doing it. They should do it when they are ready and not get pushed into anything.
  (Ms Nicholls) The whole Britney Spears thing was ace—when Britney Spears said, "I'm a virgin, I'm a virgin" because everyone was saying, "I want to be like Britney. I want to be a virgin".

  927. It did not last long!
  (Ms Nicholls) Now she has turned into this really cheesy pop act who wears nowhere near enough clothes and, if she was performing in England, she would catch cold without a doubt! It has just changed round and, to me, she looks like a slut.
  (Ms Buist) That is the word because "virgin" is a term of insult but then so is "slut". You are a shrivelled up, sad, little virgin if you have not had sex and then, when you have, you are a slut. Not with men—this is why it is more concentrated on women—because they are a stud if they do it and, if a girl does it, she is just publically downgraded.

  928. At what age is one really under pressure?
  (Ms Buist) If you have not done it by the time you are 17, you are an outcast.
  (Ms Nicholls) If they are 15, 16 or 17 and they have not had sex, it is like, "What is going on with you? We need to sort you out." It is awful.
  (Ms Buist) But, when you do it, it is catch 44, it is worse than a catch 22. It is so infuriating.

  929. I was going to get onto that point about the mixed messages in British society. I think that, in some of the other countries that we visited as a committee, yes, there is that pressure, but society is more open—the kind of formal society parents, so there is not quite the mixed message. We have picked up from other young people in Manchester that it was confusing because there is this constant pressure from the media and the message from the school is that you need permission to watch a dusty, old video from 1963. Do you know what I mean? There is total contrast between, let us say, what the formal world gives out and what the media gives out to you. Do you feel that that confuses young people?
  (Ms Buist) Very much so and there is a real feminist issue here as well. There really is. Not so much on being virginal, that falls on both girls and guys, it is very much, "Oh my God, you have not yet" kind of thing, but the flip side of that is where you get publically humiliated and downgraded for having had sex and you get rumours spread about you and things like that is on girls. If a guy were to sleep with two women in a week, he would be a hero, he would be a stud.

Dr Naysmith

  930. That does not gel together what you are saying. What you are saying is that virtually every girl has done it by the age of 17, so they cannot all be sluts, can they?
  (Ms Buist) No, that is the point. This is the complete mixed message that has come out. If they have not, it is like, "sweet little virgin" and, if they have, "oh, dirty". It is completely frustrating. Personally, I cannot pin it on the media.

Andy Burnham

  931. Just to be clear, there is massive pressure to become sexually active and, when you do, there is pressure from another quarter of society telling you that you are bad and wrong.
  (Ms Buist) Yes. It is not even pressure to not do it, it is just telling you that you are, as you said, bad and wrong.
  (Ms Nicholls) Unless you are a bloke and then that is a good thing.
  (Ms Buist) Then you are a stud, you are a sexual hero. The man is always the sexual hero.

  932. Do you not think that the mixed messages are the same for men as they are for women?
  (Ms Buist) They are not the same.

  933. So, the message for men is to become sexually active and that, when you are, it is more acceptable?
  (Ms Buist) Yes.

  934. That is interesting. Would you back that up, Mr Morris?
  (Mr Morris) Yes. It is like a macho thing for guys, "I have had sex" and everyone respects you then. It is true with girls that, if they have sex with loads of guys at a young age, they do get names.
  (Ms Nicholls) Named and branded and it will follow you forever, unfortunately, all the way through school, whereas with a bloke . . . It is so frustrating and I cannot pin down why it happens. I do not think that it is a good thing that it happens but if a bloke sleeps with three girls in one week, he is the champion at school.

Dr Naysmith

  935. We are not talking there about having sex, what we are talking about is promiscuity—having sex with more than one partner or a lot of partners.
  (Ms Buist) It does not even have to be as far as having sex but that is the worst form of promiscuity and then, when you are not doing it, you get made fun of as well.

Andy Burnham

  936. Obviously we have a high teenage pregnancy throughout this country. People have touched on it—it is very high in Wakefield and it is very high in my area, Wigan, and we will hear about that in a minute. Do you think that the net result of these mixed messages has something to do with this high pregnancy rate because there is pressure to become sexually active but the support services, the advice and the information, as we have been discussing all morning, is not there, so the net result of pressure is unprotected sex and people are ill-informed? Do you think that the two are linked?
  (Ms Nicholls) The pressure to have sex is a hell of a lot higher than the pressure to go to a sexual health clinic and sort it out once you have had sex or even go to the sexual health clinic before you have sex to get your contraception. If the two were equal, if the pressure for sex was on the same level as the pressure young people are getting to go to the clinic, it would be fine and I do not think there would be so many teenage pregnancies. However, because this is lacking slightly behind—

  937. There is an imbalance?
  (Ms Nicholls) Yes, there is not a balance.
  (Ms Buist) We know that there are many confounding factors to the high teenage pregnancy rate and we believe education is one of them, but 28% of people did not know that Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate. What we are saying is that education is not the only reason. We are not saying that if we had perfect sex education, there would be no teenage pregnancies. Of course not. That is ridiculous. Anyone who is sexually active can fall victim to pregnancy. What we are saying is that when sex education is improved to the level that it needs to be, having sex would be an informed choice and then it will not be the fault of education and then they can make an informed choice and it will be down to them. We are not looking for a scapegoat here. We are not blaming Parliament or the education system or anything. This is for an informed decision and that is it. The rest of the factors are another issue.

  Chairman: I am conscious that we have run nearly half-an-hour longer than we intended with the session because I think you have been such a brilliant group of witnesses and we have learned a great deal from you and I want to thank you on behalf of the Committee for being so honest and open and telling us as it is, quite clearly. You have given us some very important messages. Please stay for the next session and we will talk to you informally at the end of the committee meeting. Thank you very much all of you for your help.

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