Originally published in The Guardian
One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve grown older is how little I know about pretty much everything. Every birthday brings to my attention new gaps in my knowledge, and the yawning embarrassment of realising just how immature some of my past actions have been. Conversely, when I was 13, I was pretty certain I knew far more then my peers and elders. I held a steely conviction that I was an adult in all but the eyes of the law. So having sex at 13 seemed completely sensible, and if anything a sign of how very mature I was.
Would I do it in hindsight? Of course not. But that’s because I’m now 25 and have grown up an awful lot. Would anything have stopped me then? Of course not. But to me, the news that pharmacists could soon dispense the pill to girls as young as 13 without a GP’s prescription was hugely welcome. My school’s sex education comprised how to insert tampons, then a biology lesson on pregnancy. Nothing about relationships, contraception or consent. Everything I knew about contraception before I was 16 was cobbled together from hearsay from friends and boyfriends. Teenagers are absolutely terrible at dispensing advice on contraception if they’ve never been taught about it, and discovering how much of your received wisdom is wrong is embarrassing if you’re lucky, life-altering if you’re not. A school friend discovered that condoms need to be on from penetration rather than just before ejaculation when she got pregnant at the age of 14.
Pharmacists, on the other hand, are trained professionals and dispense healthcare advice every day. If a teenager has decided they want to have sex before the age of consent, the likelihood is little will change their mind. But knowing they can speak to a pharmacist and get advice and counselling before they choose to do anything means they’ll be armed with more facts and protected. Much of the media coverage of the pilot has led politicians to make sweeping statements that all teenagers having underage sex must be under duress and being abused. As a teen at a school where large numbers lost their virginity before 16, this wasn’t my experience at all. Teenagers are often in a rush to grow up and replicate adult relationships: this usually involves sex. Not because they were pressured into it, or influenced by sexual imagery in the media, but because they were human, and sexual urges are a biological function, not a phenomenon that switches on overnight.
When I volunteered at a youth club in Battersea a few years ago, I found many teenagers were desperate to talk about sex and ask questions of an adult who knew what they were talking about, but who was removed from their family and school. Many were too scared to approach their doctors for contraception advice, or even to ask questions, because their GPs had known them since birth and were also their parents’ doctors. Confidentiality was key, as is a certain distance from their lives. My impression from the young people I spoke to was that they were very keen to talk about sex, but were worried about parents and teachers being told they’d even asked. Universally, sex education was deemed completely inadequate. That relationships didn’t have to involve sex or follow a particular template was completely new to them.
Pharmacists can and will offer counselling. The pill won’t be handed over like a packet of aspirin. As a teenager, it would have been a huge comfort to be able to talk to someone responsible about sex. In an ideal world, no one under the age of 16 would have sex, but we don’t live in an ideal world; 27% of girls and 22% of boys have sex before they’re 16. Giving teenagers the option to talk to a trained professional about sex and have access to contraception if they are adamant they are going to have sex before their 16th birthday won’t encourage people to have sex, but it will encourage those who decide to do so to do it safely. When sex education fails so many teenagers, it’s the least you can do for them.