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May 13, 2004

Unbelievable Sex

Can we talk candidly, here?

I remember the day that Mr. Keith foiled the plans of every boy in his eighth-grade sex ed class by informing the girls that "blue balls" isn't all that painful and goes away quickly. With that inside information arriving on top of the graphic pictures of genitalia infected with various painful-looking diseases, we young males came to believe it was Mr. Keith's objective to scare us away from sex — or, more specifically, to scare the girls away from us. (And that was before he showed us home video of his child's birth...)

Apparently, the "experts" in Britain have found that Mr. Keith had it all wrong:

Encouraging schoolchildren to experiment with oral sex could prove the most effective way of curbing teenage pregnancy rates, a government study has found.

Pupils under 16 who were taught to consider other forms of 'intimacy' such as oral sex were significantly less likely to engage in full intercourse, it was revealed.

Not to beat around the... umm... not to put too fine a point on it: until I've had a chance to peruse the currently unpublished study, I simply don't believe its conclusions. For one thing, the language involved is all-important. Is oral sex included in statistics about children who are "sexually active"? If not, it could be that rates of children engaging in non-intercourse sexual behavior have skyrocketed. That could increase the spread of disease and lead to a subsequent explosion in full sex and pregnancy, as teenagers continue to experiment and, not accustomed to condoms in their "usual" activities, don't bother with them.

Indeed, according to This Is Exeter, every high school in Exeter is participating in the program, yet the city's pregnancy rate for girls between fifteen and seventeen was 44.4 per 1,000 women in the latest study, above the national average of 43.8. Although, how this relates to the "A Pause" program is difficult to say:

Dr John Tripp of the Department of Child Health at Exeter University said: "We can't show reductions in pregnancy rates because it is not easy to collect that data.

"But we can show precursors which you would expect to be linked to reductions in teenage pregnancy rates.

"For example, we can show that young people who have taken the A Pause programme rate sex as less important in relationships, are likely to have better information about sexual issues and are less likely to have experienced intercourse by the time they are 16."

On the basis of these generic tidbits, subjectively offered by teenagers, the Guardian piece that is linked above reports:

Now the government will recommend the scheme, called A Pause, to schools throughout England and Wales following the success of the trial in 104 schools where sexual intercourse among 16-year-olds fell by up to 20 per cent, according to Dr John Tripp of the Department of Child Health at the University of Exeter, who helped to design the course.

The article isn't clear about the method of discerning that drop. The program provides an evaluation survey in the final year, but This Is Exeter also mentions data from anonymous national surveys of 16-year-olds. It's difficult to say, then, how direct the findings are. It isn't difficult to say, however, that said findings are blurry, even at the level of hard numbers. Pace the Guardian, what looks to be the same category of data from This Is Exeter is a bit different:

The 'A Pause' course - which has been piloted at 130 schools around the country including all the Exeter high schools - has been criticised for encouraging promiscuity among the under 16s. ...

Results showed the number of sexually-active teenagers from schools where the A Pause course had been taught had fallen by up to 12 per cent.

More schools, less improvement. What explains the difference? Don't know. I do know, however, that these stories ought to serve as a wakeup call to parents everywhere, whose duty it is — I must concur with Michael Williams — to teach their children how to behave responsibly and "what true intimacy means, not how to get each other off to slake their momentary lusts."

But parents are part of, and giving kids options other than intercourse doesn't address, the problem. As I pointed out in January, 45% of single pregnant teenage girls in Britain wanted to become pregnant or didn't care, thanks largely to benefits for teen mothers. In that post, we met seventeen-year-old mother Katie and her friend from Swindon:

"We are not like your generation," her friend says. "We get taught how to do it. When I was 14 we were shown a video in school that told us all about sexual positions. And it said that we should consider oral sex if we were a bit unsure about going all the way."

How far into this thicket are the "experts" going to march their country in an effort to avoid the obvious?

Posted by Justin Katz at May 13, 2004 12:20 AM

Some people experience sex like a balanced meal: They get it, their hunger is satisfied, and they go on to something else. Others experience like eating candy: A taste of it whets their apetite, and they want more. Is there any data on what proportion of people experience it which way, and how other factors relate to it, e.g. participant's age and sex?

Posted by: Ben Bateman at May 13, 2004 10:49 AM


I'd suggest that those differences are largely social, meaning that the proportions would shift toward the "candy" side in a highly sexualized culture. Speculatively, I'd also suggest that the route to addiction to sex runs along the path of compounding perversity.

But I haven't come across any relevant data. Let me know if you do, though.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 13, 2004 2:39 PM

Thanks for the link.

Ben: I don't think you're right about sex. Almost without exception (basically, mental illness) we are addicted to sex at a fundamental biological level.

Posted by: Michael Williams at May 13, 2004 3:37 PM

I suspect it's a question of the role sex plays in one's life. Lots of people use sex to fill non-sex needs: They want to feel loved, accepted, or important. Maybe they have complex childhood issues along Freudian lines. The sex urge is complicated because it's so malleable.

The food analogy seems strong here. Your body wants a certain number of calories per day, along with various nutrients. Some people can eat just enough food to meet that biological need, and then stop. Others use food as a stress reliever, a means of social interaction, or a source of entertainment. Used for these secondary purposes, it never resolve the emotional need that's causing the problem: If you eat a pint of Hagen Daas because your boyfriend left you, you feel a bit better for a few hours, but afterwards you're still alone.

To bring it back to the original story, teenage girls want to be loved in the Harlequin romance sense. Having sex is an easy way to get that feeling, at least for a little while. Afterwards she realizes that she's still not loved. Rather than try to find real love, which often seems impossible, she simulates one near-love experience after another.

The girl doesn't really have a driving sex need that will be satisfied by oral sex instead of procreative sex. Her need is to be loved, and no amount of any type of sex will satisfy it.

Michael: You're young yet. Get married, have a couple of kids, set up a happy life, and eventually the addiction will subside. People aren't addicted to sex; they're just perenially unhappy.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at May 13, 2004 7:38 PM