Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Irish Times: Church's stance on sexuality no longer helpful


Sat, Jul 10, 2010

EVEN IN the mid-1960s, 1,700 babies were born to females under 20, and over 300 of these young mothers were under 18. However, because of social pressures then, four-fifths of these under-20 females had married by the time their babies were born.

Perhaps because most of the births were thus within marriage, there does not seem to have been much concern about the fact that so many young females were becoming pregnant.

Over 30 years later the total number of pregnancies involving those under 21 had almost doubled, increasing the under-20 birth rate by half when demographic changes are allowed for. However, by the 1990s pressures on pregnant young women to marry before the birth of their baby had largely disappeared, and this had the effect of increasing over seven-fold the number of non-marital births to females in that age bracket.

That change in behaviour seems finally to have alerted society to the undesirability of so many births involving young women, and in 2001 the Crisis Pregnancy Agency was established to address this issue.

The work of this agency has had very positive results. Since 1999 the pregnancy rate for females under 20 has been reduced by over one-sixth and the reduction in births to those under 18 has been almost 30 per cent. Moreover, the abortion rate for those under 20 has fallen by 40 per cent.

It is also interesting that the earlier continuous rapid increase from 3 per cent to 33 per cent in the proportion of non-marital births between the mid-1960s and 1999 came to a halt after the latter year, and this non-marital birth rate has remained around that 33 per cent figure.

One cannot help wondering why none of this good news seems to emerge in our media, with the result that there is little public recognition of the progress made in this social area.

I have great admiration for the work of the Crisis Pregnancy Agency whose young staff relate well to teenagers, and whose research has yielded evidence-based data that has been shown to carry conviction with young people. In particular, teenagers, extremely subject to peer pressures, tend to be credulous about the extent of sexual experimentation within their own age group – many of them believing the myth that 70-80 per cent of under 17s engage in sexual activity. Persuading that age group that serious research shows this to be false, and that only 20 per cent of girls and 30 per cent of boys are sexually active before the age of 17, has been an important part of the agency’s work.

Other factors that have been found to discourage early sexual activity are factual information on the scale of sexually transmitted infections and the research which has shown that both men and women who have had their first experience of sexual activity at an early age are more likely to regret that timing than others who have waited until later.

The success of the agency’s work has been due to the fact that it is careful to avoid a normative approach: its staff do not attempt to tell young people how they ought to behave for they know that if they try to go beyond their brief in this way they could quickly lose their effectiveness.

Yet young people need to be helped to understand that their long-term happiness is likely to derive from establishing a successful intimate relationship with a partner – a relationship in which sex will play a major role.

Traditionally the role of providing this kind of guidance was left to the churches. And up to the 1960s, church teaching about avoiding sexual involvement before marriage carried widespread acceptance.

As recently as 1981 well over half of all women were married by age 24. Today, with earlier puberty; with education to a much later age; with four-fifths of women aged 25-34 engaged in paid work (as against one-quarter 30 years earlier); and with women reluctant to have children before their late 20s or early 30s; that traditional situation has been transformed. Today the proportion married by 24 has been reduced to just 8 per cent.

Today’s long gap between puberty and child-bearing in a stable relationship, together with the ready availability of contraception, has for most young people made unrealistic the traditional concept of abstention from sexual activity for a period that can now be as long as 15 or 20 years.

Church teaching has not adjusted to this new situation yet for very many children at school religious instruction is the only guidance they receive on this crucial issue. The problem is that our past excessive dependence on the churches has left a most unfortunate gulf in this key area just when within second-level education there is a clear need to supplement discouragement of early sexual activity with more positive guidance about the role of sex in establishing stable relationships.

Unhappily, church teaching on sexual matters has ceased to be helpful. Indeed, this traditional teaching has now become something of an obstacle to providing young people with realistic guidance that will help them to understand the crucial role of sex in establishing a stable long-term relationship.

In the absence of such relevant and credible guidance there is clearly a danger that many young people may succumb to the attraction of sexual activity for its own sake. That may make it more difficult for them to establish a stable long-term relationship.

Relationships and sexuality education within the framework of Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) offers the key to this problem, but despite much progress by the Department of Education the continued absence of a senior-cycle curriculum for SPHE and resistance to sex education in some schools continue to delay progress.

© 2010 The Irish Times