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Agony Aunts at risk again

April 29th, 2005

Dr Petra

Back in 2003, the review of the UK Sex Offences Bill led to a storm over providing sex advice to teenagers. Clause 15 of the original bill was designed to prohibit “arranging or facilitating the commission of a child sex offence”.

It was, in theory, well meaning. We know that paedophiles to target and groom young people via the Internet and other sources, and I’m the first person to support any initiative that can prevent this abuse.

However, the wording of Clause 15 didn’t specify who could and couldn’t communicate with teenagers about sex, meaning that those offering sex advice – school nurses, GPs, teachers, or ‘Agony Aunts’ (media relationship advisors), could also be included.

Clearly it was unacceptable to have such a clumsy ruling, and the Periodical Publishers Association (PPA) fortunately intervened, so the Bill could permit bona fide sex advisors to continue to deliver vital information to teens.

You can read my report on this event in the British Medical Journal

I think all sex advisors had hoped this sorry story had blown over, but it seems not.

The Scottish Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences Bill has fallen into exactly the same quagmire. Their current Bill would allow for a Risk of Sexual Harm Order (RHSO) for anyone “communicating with a child, where any part of that communication is sexual”. The Teenage Magazines Arbitration Panel (TMAP) and some Scottish MSPs are trying to change the wording so those who are offering sex information and acting to protect or empower children are excluded.

It seems ironic this error has happened, given the lessons that should have been learned from the UK experience in 2003. It is even more poignant when this week the Royal College of Nursing announced children were engaging in ever-risky sexual activities, and over 90% of school nurses are asked by teenagers to provide sex advice and support.

Whilst I think many sex educators wouldn’t necessarily agree with the idea that there’s a swinging epidemic in our teenage population, one thing is certain. Teenagers and children require appropriate sex and relationships information, delivered by those who’re trained to provide it and available in a variety of sources – from school to magazines.

There’s a world of difference between a paedophile grooming a child for sex, and a reputable health or educational professional offering advice.

Why be so heavy handed? If you’re trying to create a Bill to protect children, surely that should include providing information that could enhance or save lives.

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