Sex education in the era of AIDS and unwed motherhood often boils down to the naming of parts, pills and prophylactics on the one hand, or lessons about the advisability of abstinence on the other. Philosophy, psychology and even biology take a back seat to the health and welfare imperative of "safety" from disease and pregnancy. It is what Jokin de Irala, professor of public health at the University of Navarre, Spain, calls the "veterinary approach" to sexuality — the one favoured by international agencies whose concerns about population seem to make them overlook people.

What do young people themselves want to know about sex? Everything, of course. A new survey of nearly 4000 youths aged 13 to 24 in the Philippines shows that they definitely want to know more about the biological aspects of sexuality and procreation: pubertal changes, pregnancy (66 per cent of males and 85 per cent of females), condoms and contraceptives (about 65 per cent of females and males) and sexually transmitted infections (around 80 per cent).

It is clear that parents need help in communicating
their values to their children — help with ways to converse with their
teens about sex, particularly in the area of feelings, love, desire and
commitment, help to encourage better use of young people's free time and their choice of friends.

But here's the news: they want, even more, to know about psychological and emotional aspects of sex. Around 80 per cent of both males and females want more information on topics such as readiness for dating, falling in love, judging a date's character, and managing their feelings. Above all, they want to know how to distinguish between desire, sexual attraction and love. And these are aspects of relationships that will help them avoid early sexual experience, says Dr de Irala, who led the Philippines study.

Who are they listening to?

Most of what the world knows about adolescent sexuality comes from the richer countries where secularist values and liberal attitudes to sex rule. The Philippines, being 80 per cent Catholic, 90 per cent Christian and five per cent Muslim, might be expected to present a different picture, but one more representative of that large portion of the world where religious values and tradition in general are still influential. At the same time, there is hardly anywhere on earth beyond the influence of a mass media culture that promotes sex as a consumer item for teenagers and for adults alike.

This is true of the Philippines, where nearly a third of male youths and a fifth of females get all, or nearly all their information about sex from the internet or magazines, as de Irala's study shows. Parents rank about equal with the media as sources of information, while friends are far and away the main source, nominated as such by 60 per cent of boys and 70 per cent of girls.

Young Filipinos do value their parents' opinion on love and sexuality and on related issues such as how to dress, going out at night, smoking, alcohol, free time activities, religious topics and choice of friends – but not much more than the opinions of their friends. They have relatively few conversations with their parents about the biological and emotional topics that interest them most.

"We have work to do," says de Irala, himself a father of five. But his study shows it may be easier than many parents think. Especially, it seems, Filipino parents. Their young people are not, on the whole, sexually experienced and have wholesome attitudes to sex as well as high-minded life goals. Three-quarters of the study sample had not had sex (81.3 per cent of those under 18 and 61.8 of those 18 to 24) and their main reasons were that they were not married and that "waiting is a special gift for the person with whom I will share my life". Very few agreed that it is all right to have sex "for fun", and around three-quarters believed that "love forever" requires sacrifices.

Among the minority who did have sexual experience, love was the most frequently cited reason, but only seven per cent (mainly females) indicated love as the sole motivation. Other common reasons were: "I felt like it"; "I wanted to know what it was like"; "I was afraid to lose him/her"; and being in an uncontrolled situation. Most reasons for having sex could be prevented with character education, thus preventing later regrets.

A boy problem

Not surprisingly, male youths need special attention. Less than 40 per cent of them felt proactive about saying no to sex, or agreed that pornography and masturbation should be avoided, or objected to using persons as sexual objects. Only a third rejected the idea that having sex proves one's masculinity or femininity. Females were much more sensitive to these important issues and much more likely to be influenced by their parents.

Boys were also well behind the girls on a key item under "future goals", with only 60 per cent agreeing with the goal of waiting until marriage to have sex, compared with 80 per cent of girls. The vast majority of both males and females, however, affirmed positive goals in life such as: being helpful, loyal and sincere; having personality, strength and autonomy; and knowing how to choose someone to share one's life with. Around 90 per cent of all the young people aspired to a marriage that "lasts all my life".

And they are quite savvy about who can help them achieve these goals. In the survey, parents scored strongly, coming out a little ahead of friends and teachers, while the media fell to fourth place. Young people know that magazines and television are the last places to find support for lifelong love and marriage.

Parents can be helped

From all this it is quite clear that parents need help in communicating their values to their children. Dr de Irala highlights two main areas. In the first place they need help with ways to converse with their teens about sex, particularly in the area of feelings, love, desire and commitment. Along with this goes character education, the fostering of virtues that will help them with life goals such as saving sex for a lifelong marriage.

In the second place, parents can be helped to encourage better use of young people's free time and their choice of friends. The youths surveyed had a good number of close friends, usually a mixed male and female group, with whom they spent large amounts of time in shopping malls, somewhat less time in sports and very little time in volunteer activities. Reducing the amount of "hanging out" time and boosting participation in sports and volunteering would positively influence the type of friends young people have as well as the information they swap, and achieve some of the character formation necessary for sound sexual development.

None of this is to say that the going will be easy. Aside from the media environment, there are public efforts of a veterinary nature forming young people's attitudes to sex. In the United States this year abstinence education programmes have lost ground to the "safety" lobby. In Britain, teenage pregnancy capital of Europe, yet another report on the country's "sexual health crisis" has produced calls for compulsory sex education that includes information about the risks of "unprotected sex" and how to access the local "sexual health clinic". Many parents are concerned about accuracy and emphasis in such programmes.

Providing alternatives

During a panel discussion at the recent Second International Congress on Education in Love, Sex and Life, Dr de Irala spoke about a parents' initiative to address such concerns in Spain. The group commissioned his university to do an analysis of all sex education textbooks, which showed that there were scientific errors in all books and that they were inadequate both for teachers and children. Problematical content included the assertion that all sexual lifestyles are equally healthy and acceptable, which is simply not scientifically correct, and the advice that teens are "too young" to know whether they are heterosexual or homosexual and should therefore try both. There was an assumption that all 14-year-olds are having sex, when most of them are not.

His team therefore designed an alternative text and won approval for its use in schools. It now appears in place of other material on human reproduction in an alternative edition of a standard textbook. This year, says Dr de Irala, some 3500 students were using this edition, which has a CD with slides and extra information to go with it.

Under the heading of Sexuality, Life and Health, the chapter talks about human sexuality and the transmission of life (with modest figures and a diagram of the female cycle — no dates), when life begins, respecting differences in people (including a baby), sexual health (including information about AIDS and other STI's), stages of falling in love, true love and false love… The authors retain copyright and it can be used anywhere with minor adjustments.

False information about sex in the media may be more difficult to tackle, but not impossible. "Part of the work we have to do to protect young people is democratic social action," Dr de Irala told a press conference at which he had shown data on the increased risks of young people who believe "safe sex" and "sex for fun" messages. "If necessary we should sue those who give wrong information."

What we should never do, he added, is underestimate the capacity of adolescents to grasp the truth about sex and make it their own.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. A report on the study described in this article will be published in a scientific journal next year.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.