When people think about Britain of today, very few imagine puritan Victorian Britain where any discussion of sex and sexuality were strictly prohibited and considered immoral. Since then, Britain has seen the crazy sixties with their new ideas of ‘free love’ and ‘sexual revolution’. It has also seen the seventies, when British women finally began to see themselves as career-makers as well as mothers and wives. In the eighties, it became normal to see nude images on TV and in the nineties, nobody was any longer surprised at the increasing number of sexual images in the media.
So have all these social changes forever changed the British attitude to sex and given Victorian Puritanism a well-deserved place in long-forgotten history?
Unfortunately not. It appears that Britons are still uneasy about discussing sex. The UK has the highest proportion of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe. Each year in England 90,000 girls get pregnant. 2200 of these are under 14, and 7700 are under 16 years old. The British figure for the first, younger group is 10 times higher than in Japan, and 8 times higher than in Sweden and the Netherlands, where attitudes to sex are more open.
According to the United Nations, the dramatic situation with teenage pregnancies in the UK is largely due to the lack of sex education. Another factor is lack of general education and appropriate family support, as most teenage mother come from poorly educated and deprived families. Unfortunately, Britain is still very class-oriented and the difference between life opportunities given to different classes is still significant.
Being a teenage mother is not easy. Some pregnant teenage girls decide to have an abortion or give their babies up for adoption. However, some decide to go all the way. Quite often, keeping the baby means never continuing education and ending up unemployed, living on scarce benefits from the state. Also, recent research conducted by Essex University has shown that British women who had their first child before 20, were twice as likely to be without a partner in their 30s than women who had their first babies in their 20s.
So what is to be done in order to improve the situation?It seems obvious that prevention of teenage pregnancies lies in better and more open sex education, as demonstrated by Sweden and the Netherlands, and easy availability and awareness of contraception. Although contraceptive advice and services are available in Britain, teenagers are still scared of seeking help and advice in fear of blame for their sexual behaviour.
There have also been steps to improve the life of existing teenage mothers through creating support schools with a crèche, where school-age mothers can combine school education with looking after their babies. This gives the young mothers a chance to make their way in the world and not depend on state benefits.