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WORLDVIEW/HEADLINES: A Pro-Sex Pamphlet From Britain's Health Service

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By Karla Adam
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, July 23, 2009

LONDON W hile many U.S. officials continue to debate the merits of abstinence-only sex education, the British government is sending out a different message: Sex can be fun and healthy, for young and old alike.

In two new leaflets, the National Health Service advises elderly patients that it's "never too late to experiment" and tells teenagers that sex every day "keeps the doctor away."

And while some tabloids here happily publish photos of topless women as a regular feature, the response from many of the nation's newspapers has been amused outrage.

"What the Dickens?" roared the Daily Telegraph, alluding to the fact that Charles Dickens once lived in Medway, an area in southeast England where the booklet for the elderly was published. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the paper said in its editorial: "This new imaginative work may turn Old Curiosity into Great Expectations for a Mutual Friend or two, but for how many will it end in Hard Times?"

One local pensioner, Bob Ainsley, 71, was quoted in several papers saying: "We don't need a leaflet to tell us we can still have sex."

The leaflet for the elderly offers guidance on contraception and dating agencies. It offers wide-ranging health advice for the over-60 crowd, but it caused the stir by describing the physical benefits of sex, which it says includes "reducing the risk of incontinence." A total of 2,000 copies were sent to doctors' offices, libraries and health centers, and it is available on the Internet.

The leaflet for teenagers, unambiguously called "Pleasure," was issued by the National Health Service in Sheffield and is available to teachers, parents and youth workers across the country.

"Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes physical activity three times a week," the booklet said, suggesting that some form of sexual activity "twice a week" might be healthy as well.

After that one appeared, dismayed parents lit up message boards and some educators charged that the message encouraged promiscuity.

Britain has the highest teen pregnancy rate in Western Europe, and the issue is treated with high priority here with policy interventions and millions of dollars spent on awareness and contraception campaigns. In April, the government announced plans to make sex education compulsory in all state schools, starting next year.

While some said the leaflets were a welcome contrast to traditional forms of sex education, which focus more on biology and disease prevention than on personal relationships, others wondered just how much coaxing teenagers need to enjoy sex.

"Urging them to enjoy their own bodies is a bit like encouraging cows to eat grass or birds to fly," said the Independent newspaper.

Hilary Pannack, chief executive of Straight Talking, a teen pregnancy charity, said in an interview that talking to teenagers about the pleasures of sex "should be done with extreme caution," but in general, the new booklet is a "big turnaround for Britain."

"British people are very, very embarrassed talking to kids about sex," said Pannack.

Steve Slack, the director of the National Health Service's Center for HIV & Sexual Health in Sheffield and one of the authors of the booklet, defended it in a statement saying one of the objectives was for teenagers to delay intercourse until they are ready and feel confident they will enjoy it. Slack said some of the ideas were inspired by the Netherlands, a country often evoked here in debates on sex education for its liberal attitudes towards discussing sex and its low rates of teenage pregnancy.

At least one tabloid, the Sun, which just happens to publish those topless photos, was less outraged than many others by the sex advice.

"It's much more fun than an apple a day," the paper said.


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