A perfect storm of poor


Diane Abbott is on the warpath. The shadow health minister responded to the findings of the latest Health Survey for England (HSE), which show that 27% of women aged 16-24 reported having had sex before they reached the age of consent (16 years old). Says Abbott, in an interview with the Guardian:

“The underlying cause must be the ‘pornification’ of the culture and the increasing sexualisation of pre-adolescent girls. Too many young girls are absorbing from the popular culture around them that they only have value as sex objects. Inevitably, they act this notion out.

“The government needs to respond to spiralling underage sex, not with pointless schemes to teach abstinence, but with better PSHE [personal, social, health and economic] teaching in schools for both girls and boys.”

In so doing she rehearses an increasingly popular and nuance-free moral panic about sexualisation and underage sex, which the findings of the research really don’t support.  Abbott also perpetuates a damaging perception that in matters of sex, girls and women are always the victims, with boys and men at best invisible and at worst the perpetrators of abuse.  

The problems around how the media and politicians deal with underage sex are explored in this blog post by Petra Boynton.  Elsewhere, Petra also provides a critical take on contemporary discussions of sexualisation (also here) and pornification.

The more you look into this story, however, the more the plot thickens.  Abbott was interviewed by Sarah Boseley, the Guardian’s health correspondent.  Her article begins:

More than a quarter of young women today say that they first had sex when they were below the age of 16, a greater proportion than in any previous generation asked about underage sex in an official annual health survey.

Around 27% of women aged between 16 and 24 said they had sex before they reached 16, according to the Health Survey for England. Fewer men in the same age bracket – 22% – said they were under 16 when they first had sex.

A greater proportion than in any previous generation asked about underage sex in an official annual health survey“.  I’m pretty sure there is only one way to interpret this: the implication is that the 27% in the 2010 HSE is higher than in any previous survey.  Now that is odd, since the seminal survey on sexual behaviour was the NATSAL (National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles) which, in 2000, showed that something in the range of 27.2% of girls aged 16-24 reported having initiated sex before the age of 16*.  For boys, the result was around 27.8%, pretty much the same as it was for girls.

(*I say something in the range of because the table reports the results for 16-19 year olds and 20-24 year olds separately, so I’ve had to go back and work out the percentage for both groups).

To be sure, the NATSAL was sampled in a different way and it covered the whole of Britain (as opposed to just England), but nonetheless how can the 2010 HSE results for girls be reported as being higher than any other national survey?  Especially given that each of these estimates comes with a degree of uncertainty – the NATSAL estimate for girls, for instance, has a 95% confidence interval of (again, roughly) 24.9%-27.2%.  Given that the sample size for the HSE was smaller, the uncertainty of the HSE estimate is likely to be greater.

It’s not ideal, then, that the news article doesn’t explore the context of the figures.  Perhaps, though, the press release for the HSE was misleading? Here’s how it starts:

Some 27 per cent of women aged between 16 and 24 reported having sex when they were below 16 – a greater proportion than women in any previous generation covered by the survey.

Now that’s different from the Guardian article, in an interesting way. What does “any previous generation covered by the survey” mean? It could mean any generation covered in a previous HSE survey, but from what I can tell previous HSEs have not systematically asked the same question.  I can’t find them in the trend tables that compare HSE results year on year.  In any case if they had, the press office – and the Guardian article – ought to have reported these previous figures.  Note that just like the Guardian and Diane Abbott, the press release focuses on women and girls.  

The press release can be interpreted in another way: what it means is that the proportion of women aged 16-24 reporting having started sex before the age of 16 in the 2010 HSE is greater than the proportion of women in any other age group in the 2010 HSE.  In other words the comparison that is being made is between cohorts of different age groups within the same study.  This is fair enough, providing the risk of response and recall biases for the older cohorts is acknowledged.  I thought it would be interesting to check the proportion among women in the 2010 HSE report who would have been 16-24 at the time of the NATSAL (2000): the 25-34 year olds.  In this group, 18% of the women reported having had sex before the age of 16, and 25% of the men.  Even accounting for confidence intervals, the discrepancy between the 18% of women reported by HSE respondents casting their minds back to what they got up to in the 1990s, and the 27% of women reported by what ought to have been respondents of a similar profile back in 2000, is large.  It’s also strange that the NATSAL found similar proportions for boys and girls, but the HSE results, for 25-34 year olds, finds a much higher proportion of boys reporting having had sex before the age of 16.  The studies can’t both be right.  Moreover, one might ask: if girls are starting to have sex earlier but boys are increasingly waiting, does that mean girls are increasingly having sex with older men?  That seems to be the implication but where are the data to back that up?  The press release, the Guardian article, and by association Diane Abbott’s comments are all misleading.

What of the HSE survey itself?  The report (sexual health section) and the methods can be viewed and deserve to be examined closely.  One or two things immediately leap out, however: the report states that people were asked at what age they had first “had sex”.  If President Clinton taught us anything it is that not everyone means the same thing by “had sex”.  The question that participants were actually asked was more nuanced, fortunately: “How old were you when you first had sexual intercourse?”, but even then I’m not sure how clear it is.  What is harder to understand is that when this question was put to women, they were asked specifically about intercourse with a man; and men were asked about intercourse with women.  So the figures for first sexual intercourse below the age of 16 only relate to sex with someone of the opposite sex.  This leaves no room for different identities or even ambiguities about gender, and while relationships with people of the same sex is explored later in the survey, it seems odd that it is left out here. 

So, we end up with a story that is very hard to interpret: uncertainty about the survey approach, the press release, the media coverage and the political opportunism that it has generates. A perfect storm of poor.

There are many good sources of information on young people and sexual health in the UK.  If you wish to investigate further, look at the links provided on the blogs of sexedukation and Brook, and the resources that the amazing Bish Training produces, including his resource on porn and young people.

H/T Petra Boynton for the subject matter of this post, and also for the title.


One thought on “A perfect storm of poor

  1. Excellent post! It’s this kind of thing that makes me laugh uncontrollably when journalists/media establishment types suggest that they do something special that bloggers can’t do, because news articles on this stuff *never, ever* discuss methodology and very frequently contain major errors and misinterpretations.The obsession with teenage female sexuality and total lack of interest in boys’ drives me absolutely mental.

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