British Sexophobia


On the wings of a new study that found a genetic background to some people's early sexual start, we decided to look at how the Brits and “United Statesians” cope with their prudishness, their Victorian and Elisabethan traditions and not in the least, the pressures of having the teenage population most prone to binge drinking and to pregnancies.

little doll close-up Britain is known for its prudish, stiff-upper-lip attitudes toward sex. Some people believe that this attitude is at least partly responsible for the the binge drinking – teenage pregnancies tandem. The other OECD country sharing similar traits is USA; the cultural and political “closeness” of the two nations is inescapable.

Genetic link to promiscuity?

Most of us see these issues as essentially pertaining to sociology and (mass) psychology. Yet a new study coming out of University of Oregon claims that such families where these problems are more likely to occur (single mother, father mostly or permanently absent) share a genetic background. The study was released almost in the same day with another report, stating that colour blindness will soon be cured through gene therapy.

The study tested for genetic influences as well as factors such as poverty, educational opportunities and religion. The more genes the children shared, the more similar their ages of first intercourse regardless of whether they had an absent father or not.

Competing theories

The study published in the journal, Child Development, says several theories have been advanced about the environmental factors which influence this association between absent fathers and early sex.

  • One suggests that because these children observe unstable or stressed parental relationships, they learn that resources are scarce, and people untrustworthy. This leads them to mature in such a way that they are geared towards mating rather than parenting.
  • Another states that because adolescents reared in single-parent households may have parents engaging in sexual behaviour with partners to whom they are not married, the children may be more likely to view non-marital sex as the norm.
  • And a third theory states that a single-parent family structure may encourage adolescent sexuality by reduced parental control.

In other words two parents can much more closely monitor their offspring's activities and social networks, reducing the opportunities for sex.


The researchers at the University of Oregon compared the average age of first intercourse among children whose fathers were always absent, partially absent or always present throughout childhood.

They looked at more than 1,000 cousins aged 14 and older from the American National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. For the children whose fathers were always absent, 63.2% reported having had sex. This compared to 52.5% of children whose fathers were sometimes absent. And only 21% of children whose fathers were always present.

The average age of first intercourse for children whose fathers were always absent was 15.28, compared to partially fathered children at 15.36 and 16.11 for children whose fathers were present for all of their childhood.

It compared children who were related in different ways to each other, and who differed in whether they had lived with their fathers. The more genes the children shared, the more similar their ages of first intercourse, regardless of whether or not the children had an absent father.

Direct Quotes

Jane Mendle, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, who led the study said: "The association between father's absence and children's sexuality is best explained by genetic influences, rather than by environmental theories alone.

"While there is clearly no such thing as a 'father absence gene', there are genetic contributions to traits in both mums and dads that increase the likelihood of earlier sexual behaviour in their children. These include impulsivity, substance use and abuse, argumentativeness and sensation seeking."

But Professor Mendle said her study did not have the power to discriminate conclusively between genetic and environmental factors and further research with a larger number of children would be necessary.

Simon Blake, from the sexual health charity, Brook Advisory Centre, took issue with the idea that genes were the overriding factor in early sex.

He said: "We know from research that factors associated with young people having first intercourse at a younger age are: lower educational achievements; friends and the media being the main source of information about sex education; socio-economic status; early sexual experience and the earlier age at which girls start their periods. All young people need access to confidential sexual health services as well as high quality education about sex and relationships from a young age. This gives them the skills and information to make informed choices, and the self-esteem and aspirations for themselves for the future. Targeted outreach work is also an effective way of reaching those more vulnerable groups."

The study raises some important questions, emphasized in the second part of the BBC article (see Direct Quotes above).

Sex Ed in Britain

Perhaps even more perplexing is what we learned from an article published last year:

Sexual health clinics are available in nearly 30% of secondary schools in England, according to a survey. Research by the Sex Education Forum suggested one in six on-site clinics offered the morning-after pill, and all provided condoms or pregnancy tests. The results had angered some parents' campaigners who said they were being left "out of the loop" by schools.

This has forced the promoters of sex ed in defensive mode:

Lucy Emmerson, a senior development officer at the forum, said: "Parents with children in those schools will know that the support services will involve sexual health advice and what the range of services on offer are. Also, health professionals always encourage the young person to talk to their parents about any problems they are experiencing," she said, adding that it would be illegal for a school to breach a patient's right to anonymity.

The last part of the article best illustrates the widening gulf of beliefs between proponents of sex ed, who think that informed children are less likely to get into trouble, and the prudes, who think that sex ed promotes promiscuity:

A report in the Observer newspaper suggested one in 20 school-based clinics were providing prescriptions for contraception without parents being informed. Co-founder of the Parent Organisation support group Andy Hibberd said: "It is not a problem that children are getting sex advice in school but the fact that parents are being intentionally cut out of the loop is wrong. If they want the morning-after pill, the school will sanction that and the parent will never know. We would say that this is the end of innocence."

But forum member Brook, a young people's sexual health advice charity, said the survey results were "brilliant news". Brook chief executive Simon Blake said: "All the evidence shows that if good quality sex education starts early enough, it can be part of the solution to problems of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease."

The survey comes after official figures for England and Wales found the number of abortions among girls aged under 16 rose by 10% to 4,376 in 2007. In the under 14s, abortions rose by 21% from 135 in 2006 to 163 last year. The number of abortions in all women rose by 2.5% to reach an all time high of almost 200,000. In response, government advisers called for high quality sex education at school and investment in contraception services for young people.

Prudish contagion in Denmark

Though different, Denmark is not only geographically, but also culturally close to UK. Like most of its Scandinavian peers, it is known for tolerance and progressive views though married with a largely silent conservatism. Yet even in this country, a recent viral video making fun of Scandinavian women openness had to be taken back because of a backlash of mock videos. The video, produced by VisitDenmark, shows Danish actress Ditte Arnth Jorgensen playing the role of a mother looking for the father of her child through a YouTube video.

A video promoting tourism in Denmark has been removed from YouTube after complaints it promoted promiscuity. The three-minute clip shows a young blonde woman, trying to find a man whom she had a one night stand with, who fathered her child "August". VisitDenmark's manager, Dorte Kiilerich said the film was supposed to be a "nice and sweet story of a woman". But Denmark's Economy Minister, Lene Espersen, said it "was not a very well-thought-out picture of the country". (…)

Critics says the video implied that along with traditional tourism, Denmark was a place to go to have unprotected sex with strangers. One Danish newspaper, Ekstra Bladet, labelled it "grotesque" and a "waste of taxpayers' money". The video also prompted a slew of angry comments, with one user saying it was a "tasteless, tactless way of attracting attention". Ms Kiilerich said she regretted any offence the video may have caused, but the intent had been to tell "a nice and sweet story about a grown-up woman who lives in a free society and accepts the consequences of her actions".

The YouTube clip received more than 800,000 hits and although the official video has been removed, copies have been spreading across YouTube. It has also spawned numerous parodies, with men from across the world saying they were "not bimbos" and trying to find the mother of their child.

I find it very sad that people could be offended by what was very clearly a parody. It makes me even more sad that the same people who are offended by such a video constitute a majority and are also the people who believe that children should be deprived of sexual education.

Sources / More info: bbc-genes-early-sex, bbc-gene-therapy, bbc-denmark-pulls-vid, bbc-pupil-sex, yt

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