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Scouting for boys

October 20th, 2008

Dr Petra

There’s an almighty kerfuffle going on in the papers today following the announcement the Scout movement is going to offer advice on sex and relationships to its Explorer Scouts (boys and girls aged 14-18).

In a press release the organisation explained it’s main aim for discussing sex and relationships issues with young people is to encourage them to delay having early sexual experiences. Alongside their (very appropriate) motto ‘be prepared’ Scout leaders have been advised to keep an eye on their membership and offer either condoms and/or a visit to a sexual health clinic if it seems a young person is likely to have a sexual relationship. This approach means the Scouting movement hopes to prevent early sexual activity but ensure those who are having relationships do so safely and consensually.

Chief Scout Peter Duncan said: “We must be realistic and accept that around a third of young people are sexually active before 16 and many more start relationships at 16 and 17. Scouting touches members of every community, religious and social group in the country so adults in Scouting have a duty to promote safe and responsible relationships and, as an organisation, we have the responsibility to provide sound advice about how to do that.”

The move was also backed by children’s minister Beverley Hughes.

The Scouting movement is a large and well established organsation that celebrated its centenary last year. All Scout leaders are vetted and police checked and with training and support are ideally placed to be a sex and relationships education provider. Obviously we hope that schools and parents do this job, but we know not all schools or parents are competent to do this. Even when they are a young person may prefer to confide in a Scout leader who they’ve built a trust relationship with – and perhaps feel they can talk to more easily than a parent or teacher.

Predictably the news media has responded with lots of silly innuendo about Scouting, jokes about Scout leaders and the same old debate of ‘should the Scouts provide sex education? – yes or no?’ With various right wing Christian spokespeople all saying the Scouts most definitely shouldn’t talk about sex as traditionally they’ve stood for self control and abstinence (which is only true of the movement in its early years – in the past fifty years it has definitely become more progressive). Opponents have also argued that offering sex education has increased teen pregnancy and STIs (untrue) and that Scout leaders who want to talk about sex are somehow suspect.

These aren’t unexpected reactions, but I am getting increasingly irritated by the overt or covert claims of sex education opponents that those wanting to offer sex and relationships advice to young people are morally or sexually suspect. It is surely a responsible Scout leader who talks about delay, respect and responsibility but ensures sexual risks are not taken?

Clearly we do need to ensure that messages delivered via the Scouting movement are sex positive and there are no opportunities for parents to feel sidestepped or teenagers to be abused – either by leaders or by their peers in the Scouts. Presumably the training being provided to Scout leaders will ensure they can look out for any problems while making sure they are monitored in case of any complaints of inappropriate behaviour. If you read their guidance for Scout leaders on this issue, it is very obvious that Scouting leaders are expected to make use of professional sexual health organisations, use referral services, but also disclose to the relevant support services in cases where they think a teenager is being coerced or abused.

Parents will need to be reassured if they send their children off to Scouts that they won’t be given condoms the minute they walk through the door, and if their child is away on camp or any other supervised activity that they will not be allowed to engage in activities a parent may have worries about.

Hopefully this new step will happen in collaboration with parents – and with their blessing. The Girl Guide movement (the sister group to the Scouts) has been addressing issues of puberty, sexual development and more recently messages of delaying sex and safer sex. So it’s about time the Scouts caught up.

As a Girl Guide I remember my Guide’s handbook did talk about having a period, feelings and emotions which was helpful to me even though I had parents who could talk to me about these matters. For girls who have little or no support having an adult role model who can give you positive messages about sexual relationships is invaluable. It’s wonderful to think the Scouts and Guides are still thinking about giving the best advice they can to their membership.

Interestingly I suspect this campaign is in some ways misdirected, simply because young people who are encouraged into activities like Scouting already have supportive parents who take an interest in their lives, and have a lot to do with their spare time. Both of which are things that encourage young people to delay sexual activity (regardless of whether you talk to them about sex or not).

Good on the Scouts for thinking about their membership and taking this brave step. I wish them all the best with their endeavours and suspect that they may be getting a few more people joining up as a result their progressive outlook.

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