Pills, thrills and bellyaches

September 24, 1999

One in five of Britain's students is risking unwanted pregnancy by having unprotected sex. Should universities teach sex education? Helen Hague reports.

One in four of Britain's students are risking pregnancy and disease by having unprotected sex. So should universities teach sex education? Helen Hague reports Chart t/c from Laura Pic of Jane Watkins t/c Tuesday

An alarming survey published this week reveals that it is not just 12-year-old girls on sink estates who need sex education. One in ten female students falls pregnant before graduation and one in five has had sex without using any contraception, according to the first report of its kind by the National Union of Students.

The survey, of nearly 1,000 higher and further education students, destroys the image of 1990s undergraduates as sexually confident, knowledgeable adults, able to insist on their partners wearing condoms and taking responsibility for their own sexual health. Its findings have already sparked calls for British universities to offer comprehensive sex education to undergraduates.

Julie Bindel, assistant director of the centre for research on violence, abuse and gender at Leeds Metropolitan University, said this week that universities must take responsibility for sex education. She argues that every university in Britain should have a trained expert on site to provide counselling, pregnancy and contraception advice and help students deal with the pressures from fellow students to be sexually active.

The survey found that 22 per cent of students have sex, occasionally or often, without using any form of contraception, while 39 per cent said they had had casual sex. At least 73 per cent of those who fell pregnant when in full-time education had not planned their pregnancies. Half of them opted for abortion and a third gave birth. Many students are reluctant to use the pill because of recent scare stories, or reserve its use for long-term relationships only.

One third-year student featured in the survey became pregnant at the age of 17 after having unprotected sex. She decided to have an abortion. "I had a place t college and it was not the right time for me to have a baby. I do not regret having the termination but it was pretty horrible," she says.

Students who get pregnant unexpectedly and decide to keep their baby are likely to face major financial problems, according to Maeve Sherlock, director of the national campaign for one-parent families. Lone parents do not qualify for income support because they are deemed to have taken out student loans, and although most universities have nurseries on campus, waiting lists are often long and fees are high.

Armed with the survey, the NUS is now working with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. Andrew Pakes, NUS president, says: "We strongly recommend that students protect themselves against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. We found that many students were doing neither."

The survey suggests that more than half the young women in Britain have had little or no accurate information on sex and contraception by the age of 16 and identifies a lack of sexual confidence. One in three students agreed they had been in sexual encounters where they had felt pressured to have sex against their inclination, had felt intimidated by their partner and/or felt excessive peer pressure to have sex.

Although most students believed the pill to be the most reliable way to avoid pregnancy and that using condoms was the best way to protect against infection, many students did not know how to fit a condom and were uncomfortable discussing contraception with their partner.

Ruth Lister, professor of sociology at Loughborough University, says: "There is an assumption that younger women have greater confidence in sexual relationships to insist on protection. This survey certainly calls that assumption into question."

Bea Campbell, visiting professor of women's studies at Newcastle University, also believes universities are not doing enough to ensure the emotional well being of their students. "Clearly a significant minority of girls are having to put up with stuff that can only injure their well-being - sexual pressure, bullying and anxiety about pregnancy. The social exclusion unit assumes it is a problem of class, when actually it is a problem of gender," she says.

"What is needed is to help boys look at their bodies, women's bodies, love, sex, passion and desire differently. Students are away from home for the first time and it is an immensely vigorous sexual time and it is very important to treat this seriously. Nobody will be having a conversation about sex half as candid and clear as that they will have about meningitis.

Nobody will be having a conversation with boys about sex and power and how they have to stop sexual bullying - or telling girls they should not be intimidated. There is a need for information and advice for young women, but boys should be blasted with propaganda."

But Lola Young, professor of cultural studies at the University of Middlesex, does not think it is up the universities to teach sex education.

"We are not in loco parentis as teachers. Gaps in students' knowledge are an indictment of schools and their parents."


Jane Watkins spent the first month of her baby's life revising for finals and finishing her dissertation. Jane, who graduated from the University of Kent this summer, had a two-week extension - she was giving birth the day her dissertation was due in.

"If Bronwyn had not been an easy baby to look after I would not have been able to complete my final year," she says. "It has all worked out for the best, but not everyone is so lucky."

When Jane fell pregnant, she had just split up with her boyfriend and came off the pill because of migraines. "It wasn't a failure to use contraception, but a failure of contraceptives," she explains - the couple were using barrier methods at the time. "People should remember no method is 100 per cent foolproof. A method might be 99 per cent safe but if you are among the 1 per cent you have to deal with the consequences."

By the time Jane realised she was pregnant and had had counselling, her pregnancy was fairly advanced. She decided against a termination because it would have meant an induced labour.

She and four-month-old Bronwyn now live with her parents in Norfolk.

Students who fall pregnant must talk through their options as soon as possible with trained counsellors, she says.

* Moya Loughery had to put her plans for university on hold when she got pregnant in the summer before she planned to take up a place. She had a six year wait - until her daughter Zo started school.

"I just couldn't afford the childcare fees. The university creche was way beyond my means and they couldn't guarantee a subsidised place."

An unsubsidised place would have cost about Pounds 85 a week. While Zo was younger, Moya gained work experience with Single Parents Scotland, gaining insights into the financial jungle lone parents who want to study have to hack through.

Moya is now in her third year studying psychology at Napier University in Edinburgh and Zo is eight. She cites alcohol as a prime culprit in pregnancies among undergraduates. "A key health message could be, if you drink too much and get sick, the pill won't work."

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