Sunday, 7 June 2009

Condom distribution schemes and boys

Today the Sunday Times reported on new guidance being prepared by Brook that boys as young as 12 will have access to condoms via condom distribution schemes as part of a new strategy across the country.   These condom card schemes have been in operation for over a decade, and as part of a well coordinated package of education, support and services make a vital contribution to helping make sure young people only have sex when they are ready and contributes to a culture which is clear - if you have sex you need to be able to both enjoy and take responsibility for it. 

The Guidance to be published imminently by Brook brings together the learning from existing schemes across the country so others that are thinking about or in the process of setting a scheme up can benefit from the experience of thousands of other people across the country.

As often happens when Brook's work makes the news I get calls from family and friends asking for the real story, sometimes I get taken to task if they believe what they read before clarifying. And often as a result of these conversations I am challenged to think differently or understand an issue from other points of view.  

It was clear today that it is really easy to forget or ignore the significant gender stereotypes and expectations that both boys and girls grow up with in 21st century Britain.  Still, despite some changes, boys  are 'roughed up' from an early age - boys don't cry, be a man, don't be a girl and don't be gay -  and girls taught to play nicely (not like tomboys), to have 'girly ambitions' and not to be angry or outspoken.   

And with these expectations and stereotypes boys learn that they should know everything about sex, want sex all of the time and not need to ask for help.   And so it is a lack of understanding of these unwritten rules that can make sex and relationships education sterile and meaningless for boys (and girls) because it does not pay attention to the strong, pervasive messages about gender in our society.

So when boys of 12, 13 and 14 come to Brook, the absolute majority are not having sex.  Yet often they do want condoms and we want to welcome them.  The world is full of sex and sexual imagery and it is confusing, worrying and frightening if there are not adults able and willing to talk sensibly and help them make sense of these messages.  Boys get less information at home than girls.  The onset of menarche creates a moment for talking about personal issues (although sex and relationships education is not sorted for girls either).  Boys on the other hand have less obvious markers of transition and fathers less confident talking about emotional and sexual issues.

And so it is that boys are hungry for information, hungry to know what sex is, how it happens, why people do it, and a way for them to feel confident to seek that advice is to ask for condoms, to pretend they are having sex.   And giving condoms to younger boys is not, as some argue, a green light for 'any old sex will do'.  At Brook it is a signal that we trust them.  That we value and support them.  That we will help them to understand they must only have sex when they are sure they are ready for it.  That we expect young people to be responsible about sex and that it is sensible for them to know and understand about contraception including what a condom packet is, where the expiry date is, what a condom looks like, feels like etc so when they do choose to have sex they are able to talk about, negotiate and protect themselves.  

Indeed this is what countries with much lower rates of teenage pregnancy do as a matter of course with their young.   Having high expectations for young people's relationships and early sexual experience so they have high expectations of themselves is what marks a responsible society that trusts young people.  Having condom distribution schemes is part of an important package to help develop a positive culture towards young people and sexuality.

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