Sex, lies and young people

Sex, lies and young people

By Claire Thompson and Unna Liddy

Until the recent introduction of the human relationships course
in Queensland high schools, education about sexuality was limited
to a description of the reproductive organs, isolated from
decision making, self-esteem and personal rights, as well as from
factual information about sexuality, reproduction and
contraception, In no way were adolescents prepared for dealing
with sexual development and the issues and choices they face.

A further stumbling block for adolescents is society's denial of
their sexuality. Indeed, adolescents may deny their own
sexuality, as evidenced by the widespread non-use of
contraception. Yet they are sexually active.

Reliable data on adolescent sexuality is scarce. A survey of
Newcastle adolescents in 1989 found that at 15 years of age 27%
had experienced sexual intercourse, at 17 years, 41% and at 18
years, 62%. Youth have a real need for contraceptive access and

Australian surveys show that 85% of teenagers think that
information on sex and contraception should be available before
age 16, but that barely half received any sex education at school
and only about half could discuss sex with their parents.

The Human Relationships Education Program is being introduced
into Queensland schools over a five-year period. It addresses
five areas: communication; relationships; self-esteem; values;
sexuality. The program content varies between schools, and no
school is compelled to cover issues such as contraception or
pregnancy options.

The Family Planning Association was set up in 1972 to provide
information and access to contraception. Teenagers currently form
a sizeable part of its clientele, but are most likely to be from
middle-class, metropolitan homes. Many teenagers are unaware of
the service and of its relevance to themselves, so the widespread
non-use of contraception persists.

The majority of teenage pregnancies result from the non-use of
contraception. A 1979 survey found that 63% of males and 47% of
females aged 18 to 25 years had, at some stage, ``taken the
risk''. The information presented to Children by Choice in
Queensland suggests that the situation is the same today.

Contraception requires planning, and an acknowledgment of the
intention to have sex. However, forward planning is
oftendisapproved of. Teenage girls may be unwilling to accept
themselves as sexually active, thinking ``good girls don't have
sex''. Women of all ages seem to feel comfortable with the excuse
that sex was not expected. Furthermore, an intention to use
contraception, especially condoms, may not be followed through at
the time of intercourse.

Sometimes, young women's non-use of contraception is due to a
belief that it is not possible to fall pregnant because they do
not love their partner, or because they are too young, or because
they have not been having sex long enough.

Another class of reasons for the non-use of contraception is the
dislike of the various methods. Young people sometimes say that
various forms of contraception are unsafe or that ``condoms take
the feeling away''.

Contraceptive services are still not aimed at young people's
needs. Confidentiality is a big issue, as are the questions of
parental consent and the age of eligibility. Access to
confidential information and assistance is particularly limited
for young people in rural areas and small towns.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that in 1990 there
were 3266 births in Queensland to women aged under 20. This
represents 7.2% of total births in Queensland. Australia-wide,
there were 15,107 teenage births in the same year, 5.75% of the

A comparison of adolescent and adult women visiting Children by
Choice shows that teenagers do not fit the same pattern as adults
in a number of ways:

1. Teenage women are more likely to be dealing with their first

2. Teenagers usually present further into their pregnancy.

3. Teenagers are less likely to attend the service on their own.
They are likely to be accompanied by a parent or a partner.

4. Teenagers are more likely to be single, and less likely to
have ever been married.

5. Teenagers are more likely to be students (usually high school)
or unemployed.

On presentation to the counselling service, many young women are
still coping with their initial reactions to discovering the
pregnancy: usually shock, denial and fear.

Sensitive, non-judgmental counselling can help deal with these
first reactions and provide an opportunity for the woman to
discuss her feelings about the pregnancy and her circumstances,
making possible careful consideration of all the options.

It is especially difficult for young women to consider
realistically the impact of their choice on all aspects of their
future. Some young women, unable to make a decision about an
unplanned pregnancy, will become mothers by default rather than
by choice.

For adolescent women, counselling may include dealing with their
parents. The initial reaction of teenage girls' parents often
includes anger, but this usually subsides and most parents are
extremely cooperative and concerned for their daughters. However,
there are cases where counselling may involve conciliation of the
young woman and her parents, at times including protection from
their initial anger.

Currently the percentage of young women choosing adoption as a
solution to an unplanned pregnancy is very small. Only 68
newborns were relinquished for adoption in Queensland in the
1991-92 financial year, and eight of these were special needs
adoptions. This is an extremely small number considering the
birthrate in Queensland is around 44,000 per year. The vast
majority of young women facing an unplanned pregnancy choose
parenting or abortion.

Abortions in Queensland are performed legally under section 282
of the Criminal Code. Most of the cost is covered by Medicare.
When considering abortion in unplanned pregnancy counselling, the
woman will be given an opportunity to discuss her feelings about
abortion and any moral, ethical or practical concerns she has.
She will be offered support for her decision and will be able to
obtain information about abortion clinics, the procedure and
instructions for pre- and post-operative care.

Accurate statistics on abortions in Australia are hard to obtain
because there is no central reporting of abortions except in
South Australia. National estimates, however, are usually around
80,000 per annum.

As society becomes gradually more accepting of single parenthood,
marriage as a solution to unplanned pregnancy is becoming less
frequent. Nevertheless, in 1990, Australia-wide, 21.5% of all
married women giving birth for the first time within a marriage
had been in the current marriage for less than one year, and
10.7% had been married for less than 7 months prior to giving
birth. For teenage women the figures are significantly higher:
71% had been in the current marriage for less than one year and
48.7% had been in the marriage for less than 7 months at the
timeof giving birth.

Single teenage parents have many special needs. They suffer the
consequences of an interruption to education, with subsequent
loss of career options, and financial difficulty. Also, early
parenthood means an interruption to the normal processes of
adolescence as a transition to adulthood. The existing
socioeconomic disadvantage of women is also accentuated by
teenage pregnancy.

Sex education and the prescription of contraception are clearly
insufficient prevention for unplanned teenage pregnancy and will
not solve the myriad of problems facing youth. This requires much
wider social change. The reproductive rights of women, including
adolescent women, must be recognised. There must be:

* An open attitude towards youth sexuality, which means sexuality
as a part of life, and not just married life.

* Support for young women to develop their skills fully, not only
as potential wives and mothers.

* Encouragement of self-esteem in young women, including the
right to say ``no''.

* Information about the positive and negative consequences of sex
incorporated into a total picture of sexuality and not dealt with

* Freely available, safe and effective contraceptives.

* Active promotion of condoms, including education on how to use

* A positive attitude towards unmarried, pregnant teenagers,
including practical support to enable them to continue with their

* An acceptance that the choice in teenage pregnancy ultimately
belongs to the young woman herself.

* The continued availability of safe, legal and affordable
abortion services, with sympathetic treatment of women.
[The authors are members of the Children By Choice Association,