Young people are having sex earlier, unplanned teenage pregnancies and rates of sexually transmitted diseases are increasing. After ten years of public knowledge of AIDS, sex education and even 'Girl Power', why is unsafe sex still the norm for young British heterosexuals?
Based on research into young people's sexual cultures undertaken over ten years, the authors conclude that 'Sexual activity and empowerment do not necessarily go hand in hand'. While a minority of young people succeed in negotiating safe and pleasurable sexual relationships, for many the experience of adolescent sex continues to be 'nasty, brutish and short'.
Old taboos about premarital sex may have been broken, but old ideas about sex being a man's pleasure and a woman's duty live on. Young women are left with the worst of both worlds. They are expected to be sexual but not taught to enjoy it, vulnerable to pregnancy but not in control of sexual safety.
When it comes to sex young women have a 'male-in-the-head', a voice that tells them that using condoms 'is like chewing toffee with a wrapper on' and that sex is finished 'when he has finished'. Despite the effects of feminism, boys do not yet have a 'woman-in-the-head'. Even those 'new men' and 'new lads' who recognise that women have changed are still liable to revert to double standards when it comes to sex. As one young man points out 'I don't believe in sex differences ... but you can't go to bed with someone the first time you get off with them and expect them to give you respect and love, you can't have it both ways'.
Women still can't have it both ways but men can-just. The evidence from this study suggests that times are changing, that femininity is moving on and that masculinity is dragging its feet. While girls are outstripping boys in the classroom and the workplace, they are still being kept in their place in the bedroom. But the strains are beginning to show and a minority of empowered young women and going out to change men:
'Safe sex is as pleasurable an experience as actual penetration. Oral sex, just things like touching somebody else's body in a very gentle way. Kissing. Appreciating one another's bodies. I think it's as much fun if not more. You concentrate on each others needs a lot more. Instead of twenty minutes of bang, bang, bang, you've got the whole night; you watch the dawn come up and you're still there. Before they know it they're converted, and they suddenly realise 'well we haven't actually done it'. [Young woman aged 21].
Young people talk frankly about sex, relationships and life to the researchers in two projects: WRAP (Women, Risk and AIDS Project) and MRAP (Men, Risk and AIDS Project). Their eloquent and often moving accounts of risk and safety in their sexual lives and relationships are presented and discussed in a series of working papers and articles, culminating in a book - The Male in the Head which are described here.
Nearly 200 young men and women aged 16-21 living in two major cities in the UK were interviewed in depth about their sexual lives. The aim was to build a detailed picture of their sexual practices and beliefs, in order to grasp the way they understood these aspects of their lives themselves. The researchers wanted to uncover what ideas young people have about risk, danger and control in sexual encounters, and to find out how and why they behave as they do in sexual relationships.
This extensive body of qualitative data has been analysed to produce a feminist theory of heterosexuality, and the work has been described as
'the most detailed empirical study we have of the construction of heterosexuality, .. a reference point for all such studies in the future' (Jeffrey Weeks) and
'a major contribution to our understanding of heterosexual practice the meticulous and insightful analysis of their data paints a vivid picture of the micro-processes of gendered power within heterosexual relationships' (Stevi Jackson).
The WRAP/MRAP team
Professor of Social Research, South Bank University, London
Reader, Goldsmiths College, London
Professor of Sociology, University of Stirling
Senior Research Associate, Institute of Education, London
Senior Research Fellow, South Bank University, London
Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Research on Drugs and Health Behaviour