British Sex Survey Finds Some Teens Regretful

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - One in five boys and one in six girls in Scotland had sex at the age of 14 or younger, and one-third of them later regretted it, according to the most wide-ranging survey on the subject ever conducted in Britain.

Many of the students responding to the survey said their first sexual encounter happened under the influence of alcohol or drugs, although only one-fifth claim to have acted under pressure. One fifth had not used any form of contraception.

The Medical Research Council questioned more than 7,000 Scottish school pupils with an average age of 14 for the survey, the results of which have been published in the British Medical Journal.

Two fifths of the teenagers felt they had lost their virginity "at about the right time," while 27 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls said it happened "too early," and five percent of boys and 13 percent of girls wished that it had not happened at all.

Girls who said they regretted their actions tied their regret to the fact they had given in to pressure from their boyfriends, had not planned the experience and had had no parental monitoring.

Boys who regretted it said they wished they had not applied pressure on girls.

Of the 20 percent of girls who said they had acted under duress, Daniel Wight, who led the research, said it was "unclear exactly what kind of pressure they were under, whether it was of a verbal nature or because of the boy's greater physical power."

"For young women, regret seemed to be related to lack of control," Wight said. "Health promotion should aim to help young people to develop relationship and negotiation skills. Sexual health education focusing on such skills can increase control."

Valerie Riches of Family and Youth Concern said she was "not surprised" by the figures, which were a reflection of the breakdown of morals and the family.

The Oxford-based organization is carrying out a similar survey in England this year, and expects comparable results.

"It's the nature of the society we live in - hothouse sexual activity, the display of all this on television, a general breakdown of any restraint," she told Wednesday. "That's the sort of environment young people live in and that creates peer pressure."

She said sex education at schools was supposed to help restrict sexual intercourse among youngsters but had patently failed to do so.

"When one challenges this, you get the answer 'Well we've got to have more of it, more sexual education at a younger age.'"

Riches recalled the example of a 14-year old boy who had impregnated a young girl. "He said: 'It was sex education. We had all these pictures of nude adults. We were told about contraception but of course you don't think about that at the time. You just get on with the sex part.' "

Riches noted that girls who engaged in under-age sex were twice as likely to come from broken homes. "There's an emotional component here."

She said society in general seemed to be following the example of the "sex education lobby" which ignored the whole question of the age of consent (16 in Britain).

"Prosecutions for unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl have dropped right down. There's a general breakdown - family breakdown, law breakdown. And sex education seems to collude with what is going on."

Asked what her organization thought the answer was, Riches said various elements in society needed to collaborate in tackling the crisis.

"We're all responsible for the nature of the society we've created. Like smoking we need to make it socially unacceptable for young people to have sex."

She pointed to the example of Minneapolis, where a cross-spectrum of society had got together to seek ways of tackling the teenage pregnancy problem, and had managed to achieve a drop in the numbers.

Riches said contraception was clearly not the answer: Since 1979 free contraception had been available to anyone in Britain, irrespective of age or marital status.

Yet the country has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe. Half of the 9,000 girls aged 13-15 who become pregnant each year have abortions.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow