The UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe – twice that of Germany, three times that of France and six times that of Holland. Every year in England about 90,000 teenagers become pregnant. Reasons may include low job expectations, ignorance about contraception and ‘mixed messages’ about sexual activity. Improved sex education is vital but can children’s books help? Lesley de Meza investigates.
To begin to understand how to deal with the issue of teenage pregnancy one should really begin with young people themselves. We must bear in mind that just because we wish it so, we cannot change the way they behave – they have to choose to change their behaviour. What we can do is listen, learn and build on what they tell us to produce a way of working with them.
The sexualisation of commodities, the commodification of sexuality
Young people live in a society where so much is sexualised. Advertisements imply that the ice-cream you purchase will provide you with an erotic love-life, the perfume you wear could attract the attention of a stranger who will give you flowers, the car you drive will allow you to get away with flirtation and, just in case you were in any doubt, size matters! A glossy magazine carries an article on the importance of using contraception side by side with a story of the joy a baby has brought into the life of a teenage single female ‘pop’ idol who became pregnant seven weeks after meeting her now departed partner. And, we are constantly bombarded with images of perfect bodies.
Switch on the television and join Gail and Martin in Coronation Street. Martin is having an extra-marital relationship. Watch Susannah Morrisey bed-hop her way round Brookside Close. Square up to life in Eastenders as you thank goodness sensible Sonia’s fear about pregnancy was unfounded (or was it?). Doesn’t anyone in a soap opera ever use contraceptives? I have only twice seen references to them in television programmes.
If I hear another person say, ‘Schools should be giving young people lessons on sex. There is no excuse in this day and age…’ I may resort to some kind of violent behaviour. The majority of schools I have worked with do provide not only schemes of work for Sex and Relationships Education but they also have a relevant Sex Education policy. Do people imagine that if a young person has had sex education at school, from that point onwards s/he is protected from getting pregnant, being infected with a sexually transmitted disease or whatever? Schools cannot do it all. Parents, teachers, government and young people themselves must work together. But can children’s books help?
Good sex and relationships education should properly begin in the primary school as part of a planned, progressive programme of PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) starting in Year 1 and covering topics such as ‘The beginning of life – animals, plants and me’. In Year 2 you could go on to name body parts, including sex organs – using correct vocabulary, and so on. The earlier you begin to deliver a programme of sex and relationships education, the easier it is. Children quickly overcome their giggles and embarrassment and are interested and enthusiastic to learn. So why not have a box of books labelled ‘Sex and Relationships’ in your classroom? I have no doubt that curiosity will be raised, opportunities for learning will abound and a lot of unexpressed fears will be assuaged if you include the following:
Where Babies Come From by Rosemary Stones is a delightful picture book. The text is sensitive and accurate and uses absolutely correct terminology throughout. Nick Sharratt’s multi-cultural illustrations are beautifully and thoughtfully drawn. Here is a book which explains that there are different names for the genitals but ‘It’s a good idea to learn the correct names.’ Fathers and older brothers and sisters are given recognition for the help and support they can give in looking after a new baby and the trials of dealing with new babies are recognised too. This book certainly provides a good basis for open communication between adults and children.
Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley have written and illustrated two excellent books about sexual health and reproduction. Let’s Talk About Where Babies Come From and Let’s Talk About Sex feature a bird and a bee who lead the reader through beautifully written explanations and cleverly drawn pictures. The format varies between comic strip and prose in short chunks, which are easily digested. In both books the illustrations are exquisitely coloured, wonderfully detailed and often humorous. Let’s Talk About Where Babies Come From would be a really useful addition to a primary school’s collection whilst Let’s Talk About Sex could be a supportive resource with upper juniors and lower secondary students.
Have you started yet? by Ruth Thomson is aimed at older junior and secondary school girls who will appreciate the open nature of this book about menstruation. Subjects covered include bras and breasts, sex organs, coping with PMS and a whole lot of ‘What if…’ questions. I agree with the author that boys should read it too.
Bearing in mind that young people generally opt for magazines intended for an older age group and given the youthfulness of the people portrayed in the photographic illustrations, What Do You Know About Relationships?, Let’s Discuss Love, Hate and Other Feelings and Let’s Discuss Sex and Sexuality by Pete Sanders and Steve Myers, could also be added to that box in junior school classrooms. All these books sit well within the framework of PSHE and they also provide some of the support necessary to young people to enable you to achieve quality standards in Health Education. Subjects are sensitively and carefully explored using text, case studies, illustrated story lines and comic strip formats.
Having a box of books about sex and relationships is also a sensible step for the secondary age range. As young people get older, curiosity grows, and so does embarrassment:
‘I can’t think about anything else. I love her so much. I really, really want to have sex with her…What if I can’t get it up? How will I not die of embarrassment if I can’t get the condom on?…’Bradley aged 16 from Cool and Celibate? Sex or No Sex by Dr David Bull.
As well as Cool and Celibate?, there are three more handbooks on the market aimed specifically at young women: Sex by Anita Naik (although, worryingly this perpetuates unsubstantiated information regarding HIV transmission and swallowing a pint of saliva. It also states that you cannot get HIV from a blood transmission in the UK – not quite true), Sex by Rachel Wright and Sex – How? Why? What? by Jane Goldman. These books all answer such questions as How do you make love? What can you expect from sex? What is the difference between lust and love? How do you know when you’re ready? And so forth.
However, there is no direct counterpart for young men apart from Living with a Willy by Nick Fisher which deals with the trials, tribulations and pleasures of having a penis. The language Fisher uses will engage the most ‘street-wise’ young men. It deals with many issues including size, circumcision, erections, hygiene and sex. Curious males and females will benefit if books such as these are left lying around for them to peruse at their leisure.
Sex Matters by Julian Cohen does look at sex from both sides, working around a series of key questions. Issues covered include the age of consent, HIV testing, contraception availability and the case for and against abortion. As well as abortion, Kenneth Boyd covers fertility treatment in A Right to Life – and Death? published in the ‘Moral Dilemmas’ series. Set this in place alongside lessons on sexually transmitted infections [chlamydia is an STI responsible for causing sterility in large numbers of young women] and the position of the National Health Service and you could have the beginnings of a really useful PSHE link into your Citizenship curriculum.
A book that is well worth including in your box is Tough Choices: Young Women Talk about Pregnancy by Alison Hadley of Brook Advisory Centres. Twenty-four young women aged from 14 upward tell their stories. These are simultaneously riveting, depressing, compelling and heart warming. This title gives an honest and helpful insight into teenage pregnancy.
The role of fiction
Once a week I run drop-in information, advice and counselling service for young people aged 11-19 in a large London comprehensive school. Week after week they tell me, amongst other things, about their relationship problems. Hopefully, talking things through with an understanding adult helps but sometimes more is needed. I refer them on to local services, make appointments for them and occasionally i.e. in the case of emergency contraception, actually take them down to the nearest family planning clinic although quite often they are frightened to go there in case they are ‘told-off’. They also worry that their parents will be contacted. Reassurance is needed, as is knowledge of user-friendly local services for young people; services that are welcoming and geared up to their needs.
But apart from appointing a school counsellor and having mandatory lessons on sex, what else can schools offer young people to support their sexual health needs? I taught English and Drama and I am a firm believer in the joy and power of literature. It may not change your life but it can touch you deeply and explore themes (such as teen pregnancy) which may be troubling.
Boys and young men are well served by fiction with several novels written from a male viewpoint. Morris Gleitzman (who also wrote the marvellous Two Weeks with the Queen – very useful if you’re dealing with Sexuality, HIV and/or bereavement issues) has written Bumface. 12-year-old Angus lives with his actor Mum (who is more of a ‘Mum’ on television than she is at home) and looks after his younger brother and sister – Leo and Imogen. Angus sees a succession of men pass through his mother’s life. But when Angus meets Rindi who is obsessed with contraception because of the prospect of an arranged marriage, his problems seem minor. This story is both funny and sad and deals with the problems of being a child pushed into adulthood too early.
In Anne Fine’s delightful Flour Babies, Simon Martin, in Year 4 at secondary school, is ‘…sprawled over three chairs outside the staff room door…’ and ‘… bored halfway out of his skull…’ A committed hooligan, Simon takes on the responsibility for looking after a baby. During the days that follow Simon learns what it is to be a parent and realises just how amazing his mum is (‘When had she realised how much trouble he was going to be?’).
Both these books would be a good addition to the upper primary school box but will also go down well with those in secondary school. The laddish behaviours and silliness that characterise packs of male youths is there but so too is warmth and tenderness and permission to give in to your emotions.
Shadows by Tim Bowler will also appeal to boys. It tells a story of threat, violence, danger and escape. Jamie is 16 and under considerable pressure. He meets a young woman who needs help as she is pregnant. Both young people have burdensome problems but how will they deal with them? This adventurous tale had me turning pages at a rate of knots. It is exciting and sensational. It is moving and caring. ‘You’ve made me believe in myself again,’ Jamie concludes.
Just Sixteen by Jean Ure is a novel that will definitely capture the imagination of young men. Sam tells the story. Sam Virgo (nickname Ginny or Virginia) is one of the lads and a virgin. He and his mates enjoy boasting about their exploits and talking about tits and bums until he meets Priya. Suddenly he cares. In fact he is in love:
‘Guys aren’t meant to do that sort of thing. Lee and Baz and the rest, they’d think I’d gone soft. And don’t get me wrong. No way did I want to become a dad at sixteen. No way!’
Everything goes well for Sam and Priya, until she discovers that she is pregnant. What will the future hold for them now?
Mary Hooper’s Megan begins with a PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) lesson – how apt – where the students try to embarrass their teacher with questions like, ‘Miss Springer, what’s oral sex?’ or ‘Miss Springer, what’s an orgasm?’ until one particular point made by the teacher makes Megan Warrell take notice. Megan is 15 and pregnant. What will she do? How will her friends and family react? In the sequel, Megan 2, we join Megan as she wonders whether she should tell her mother she wants to keep her baby. Is she up to coping with the responsibility? How will her relationship with Luke progress?
Both Megan books reach out and grab the younger reader’s attention set, as they are, in their world and peopled with characters that they will recognise. This is non-patronising, careful writing that tells it like it is and how it could be changed: ‘…what a waste of a big occasion – the losing virginity occasion – when what we had wasn’t strong enough or important enough to survive the first row.’
In Nowhere to Run by Sue Welford, a school bag becomes a football and a Jackie Collins’ paperback, a make-up bag and tampons spill across the school corridor. Here is the hassle of dealing with a charging crowd of boys. Here too is a story with characters that students will recognise. Cass and Mel are friends. But only James seems to understand what she is going through. Can they both work through their crises and survive? Pregnancy, termination, alcoholism, and running away from home are all here and firmly rooted in the ordinary lives of young people everywhere.
In Don’t Look Back by Sandra Chick, 16-year-old Lisa Brunt tells us her story and we know life is not going to be easy.
‘I know it’s happened. I’m pregnant. Up the duff. In the club. One in the oven. And I’m scared. Dead scared. Not ready for all this… I can’t tell anyone. Can’t get me head around it. And if I tell someone, it’ll make it real. Definite. Everything will start rolling and I won’t be able to stop it…’
How many young women in similar situations have held the same thoughts? We meet the adults who look down on Sandra for being a pregnant teenager, her boyfriend who is not ready for a full time relationship and a host of people who give their opinions as to whether or not she should have a termination. What should Sandra do?
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff is set in America and written in short sharp bursts of dialogue. It paints a vivid picture of the life of 14-year-old African-American, LaVaughn, her mother, and Jeremy and Jilly, the children of her friend, 17-year-old Jolly. LaVaughn wants to escape from poverty. She wants to get good grades and go to college. Will she achieve her ambitions or become caught up in caring for the children of another teenager? Something about this novel reminded me of those ‘Kiss and Tell’ talk shows hosted by Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake. It is a colourful, brilliant inner city tale, which pulls no punches.
Fiction for 15-year-olds and upwards
For older secondary age readers two books in the ‘Confessions’ series have teen pregnancy as a theme, “I abandoned my baby” by Sue Dando and “They think I’m too easy” by Lorna Read. Both books are written in a way which will appeal to the gossipy side of young women that enjoys titillating, sensational writing. These two books contain young love, passion, sex, pregnancy and babies. They also introduce us to social workers, police officers, parents who care, morals and ethics.
The Best Thing by Margo Lanagan is a story of first love and first baby. Melanie’s life is in turmoil. She had been sure that Brenner was the sort of guy she should have aimed for. But now people at school have turned against her. No one asks and no one listens: ‘You did have an abortion! You’re just a slut!… It’s no wonder no-one talks to you. No-one likes a slut!’. Without discussion they just judged her. This beautifully crafted story has energy, and tenderness, brawn and brains. It is full of love, trust and understanding and hope.
Dear Nobody by Bernie Doherty tells the story of 18-year-olds Chris and Helen and their unborn child. We learn from both of them how it feels to be preparing to enter higher education and the difficulties of their relationships with their families. And, as Helen writes letters to her unborn baby, ‘Dear Nobody’, at first wishing it away, we learn about the overwhelming emotion and turmoil that an unplanned pregnancy can bring:
‘Dear Nobody. You did not ask for this. I have nothing to give you. Nothing. With all my heart I’m sorry.’
Young people will get very involved with the characters in these books. Reading them will help them take a look at their own worlds from a different perspective.
A qualified counsellor, Lesley de Meza is a leading practitioner and policy maker known nationally for her Health Education work. She is a freelance health education consultant and trainer specialising in issues which affect young people – Sexual Health (including HIV), Drugs, Body Image and Self-esteem. She is the co-author, with Liz Swinden, of LifeSize, a teaching pack on Body Image and Self-esteem published by Forbes in October 1999.
National Organisations – Sexual Health
4 Brighton Road, Horsham, West Sussex RH13 5BA
Tel: 01403 210202
Web site: www.avert.org
Information and Sex & Relationships Education (SRE) materials, particularly about HIV/AIDS and safer sex. Useful web site too.
Brook Advisory Centres
165 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8UD
Young People’s Helpline: 020 7713 9000 (office hours)
Brook run local centres around the country offering contraceptive and sexual health services for young people.
Children with AIDS Charity (CWAC)
Tel: 020 7242 3883
Web site: www.cwac.org
National charity to support children who have HIV/AIDS and their families, to lead as normal a life as possible.
Family Planning Association
2-12 Pentonville Road, London N1 9FP
Advice and Information: 020 7837 4044
Web site: www.fpa.org.uk
Information about contraception and services.
Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays
Tel: 0191 537 4691
FFLAG run a network of local groups for parents of gay children.
Jewish Lesbian/Gay Helpline
Tel: 020 7706 3123
Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement
Helpline: 020 7739 8134
London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard
Tel: 020 7837 7324
Free, confidential advice, support and counselling.
National AIDS Helpline
Tel: 0800 567 123
Free, confidential advice.
National AIDS Trust
Tel: 020 7814 6767
Web site: www.nat.org.uk
Information about HIV/AIDS, including issues concerning children.
Tel: 020 8741 1879
Help on a range of sexual health issues including HIV to straight and gay people from the South Asian, Middle Eastern and North African communities.
Rape Crisis Centre
Tel: 020 7837 1600
(Lines open weekdays 6pm-10pm and weekends 10am-10pm)
Tel: 0800 282 930
Free, confidential information and advice line about all aspects of sex for 12-18 year-olds.
Tel: 020 7607 8851
(Line open Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm)
SPOD offers help and information on sex and relationships to anyone who is disabled, or has a disabled partner.
Tel: 020 7833 3737
(Line open Mon, Tue, Wed, 7pm-10pm)
Information and advice to men and boys who have been raped or sexually abused.
Terrence Higgins Trust
52-54 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8JU
Tel: 020 7831 0330
Web Site: www.tht.org.uk
Information and advice about HIV/AIDS.
National Organisations – General Health/Help
Tel: 0800 1111
Free, confidential helpline for children and young people.
British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering
Tel: 020 7593 2000
Where Babies Come From, Rosemary Stones, ill. Nick Sharratt, Puffin, 0 14 038602 5, £4.99 pbk
Let’s Talk About Where Babies Come From, Robie H. Harris, ill. Michael Emberley, Walker Books, 0 7445 4084 4, £10.99 hbk
Let’s Talk About Sex, Robie H. Harris, ill. Michael Emberley, Walker Books, 0 7445 3252 3, £12.99 hbk, 0 7445 3674 X, £8.99 pbk
Have you started yet?, Ruth Thomson, ill. Jane Eccles, Macmillan, 0 330 33722 X, £3.99 pbk
What Do You Know About Relationships?, Pete Sanders and Steve Myers, Franklin Watts, 0 7496 1551 6, £10.99 hbk
Let’s Discuss Love, Hate and Other Feelings, Pete Sanders and Steve Myers, Franklin Watts, 0 7496 2458 2, £10.99 hbk
Let’s Discuss Sex and Sexuality, Pete Sanders and Steve Myers, Franklin Watts, 0 7496 2457 4, £10.99 hbk
Cool and Celibate? Sex or No Sex, Dr David Bull, Element Children’s Books, 1 901881 17 2, £3.99 pbk
Sex, Anita Naik, ill. Corinne Pearlman, Hodder Children’s Books ‘Wise Guides’, 0 340 71042 X, £3.99 pbk
Sex, Rachel Wright, ill. James Cotton, Scholastic ‘Reference Point’, 0 590 19754 1, £3.99 pbk
Sex – How? Why? What?, Jane Goldman, Piccadilly Press, 1 85340 213 3, £6.99 pbk
Living with a Willy, Nick Fisher, Macmillan, 0 330 33248 1, £4.99 pbk
Sex Matters, Julian Cohen, Evans Brothers ‘Life Files’, 0 237 51509 1, ££10.99 hbk, 0 237 51653 5, £7.99 pbk
A Right to Life – and Death?, Kenneth Boyd, Evans Brothers ‘Moral Dilemmas’, 0 237 51877 5, £11.99 hbk
Tough Choices: Young Women Talk about Pregnancy, ed. Alison Hadley (of Brook), Women’s Press ‘Livewire’, 0 7043 4953 1, £4.99 pbk
Bumface, Morris Gleitzman, Puffin, 0 14 130355 7, £4.99 pbk
Flour Babies, Anne Fine, Puffin, 0 14 036147 2, £4.99 pbk
Shadows, Tim Bowler, Oxford University Press, 0 19 271802 9, £5.99 pbk
Just Sixteen, Jean Ure, Orchard Books, 1 84121 453 1, £4.99 pbk
Megan, Mary Hooper, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4164 7, £4.99 pbk
Megan 2, Mary Hooper, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4169 8, £4.99 pbk
Nowhere to Run, Sue Welford, Oxford University Press, 0 19 271818 5, £5.99 pbk
Don’t Look Back, Sandra Chick, Women’s Press ‘Livewire’, 0 7043 4958 2, £4.99 pbk
Make Lemonade, Virginia Euwer Wolff, Faber and Faber, 0 571 17506 6, £4.99 pbk
“I abandoned my baby”, Sue Dando, Scholastic Point ‘Confessions’, 0 439 01009 8, £3.99 pbk
“They think I’m too easy”, Lorna Read, Scholastic Point ‘Confessions’, 0 590 11156 6, £3.99 pbk
The Best Thing, Margo Lanagan, Allen and Unwin Australia ‘Ark Fiction’, 1 86448 824 7, £5.99 pbk (available via Littlehampton Book Services)
Dear Nobody, Berlie Doherty, Collins, 0 00 674618 7, £4.99 pbk
Dear Nobody (a play, with learning resource material by Rachel O’Neill), Berlie Doherty, Collins Educational, 0 00 320004 3, £5.99 pbk