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Tuesday, 10 October, 2000, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Like a virgin

Girls' teen magazines are often stuffed with information about sex. So what do the editors think about government plans to teach the virtues of virginity?

Cherry Falls, the latest slasher movie to have passed through UK cinemas, hung on the fanciful scenario of a serial killer who preyed on teenage virgins.

Its none too subtle strapline ran: "If you haven't had it ... you've had it."

Girls with prams
Teenage births in the UK are six times higher than in Holland
For many self-conscious young teenagers, the sentiment, if not the premise, will ring true. Playground logic has it that virgins are prudes; sex is cool.

Now though, the government is about to flex its own moral muscle and teach children that being a virgin is not so shameful after all.

As part of its Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, it is about to embark on an advertising campaign aimed at making girls consider the consequences of having sex.

Newspapers say the underlying message is "Kids, it's OK to be a virgin", and several have pilloried Downing Street for meddling in matters of personal belief.

Drive down pregnancies

But for many, the campaign will stand or fall on whether it helps drive down Britain's rate of teenage pregnancies, which is the highest in Western Europe.

The strategy has received a mixed reaction from authorities such as the Family Planning Association (which is in favour) and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (which is against).

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth
The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I's chastity is said to have strengethened her power
But some of the most influential voices in the lives of young girls can be found in the pages of teen magazines, which sell more than 2.5 million copies. So what do the editors think?

Lucie Tobin, editor of Mizz magazine, backs the campaign.

"At last someone is taking the issue seriously. The government has been slated for years for doing nothing, and now it is being attacked for doing too much," she says.

The adverts, which will appear in magazines such as Mizz and the top-selling teenage title, Sugar, remain under wraps. But Ms Tobin believes they will be "more sophisticated" than simply endorsing virginity.

Ads will be 'anonymous'

And she rejects claims that teenage girls will feel patronised by the Department of Health, which will not have its stamp on the ads.

"They will take it as a genuine message. They won't even know the government is behind it.

"Hopefully it will encourage girls and boys to talk about the issues of sex and discuss it with their friends and do that in the open."

Boys
Boys need to be targeted better, says Samantha Warwick
One controversial aspect of the upcoming campaign is the distinction it makes between girls' and boys' attitudes to sex. While girls are encouraged to remain chaste, the emphasis for boys is on using condoms.

Ms Tobin, whose magazine was consulted by the government for the strategy, regrets this, but says boys are harder to target because, unlike girls, they don't read magazines.

Samantha Warwick, editor of 19 magazine, believes the government has missed an opportunity.

Under-age sex

Earlier this year a survey by 19 reported that nearly one in 10 girls loses their virginity before they reach the age of 13. Almost half of the girls questioned said they lost their virginity between 14 and 16 and only 11% said they were still virgins.

Ms Warwick says whether or not the government puts its name to the adverts, young people will smell a rat.

"I would never put in my magazine that you should stay a virgin until you are 18. It's up to each person to make the decision themselves."

Britney Spears
All white: Britney Spears
She concedes there is a trend among young celebrities, such as pop singers Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, to parade their chastity as something to be treasured.

"That's a good thing. But I don't think just because Britney Spears says she is a virgin other girls will follow suit. They will respect her for making her decision, but it's not necessarily the right one for them."

The government should get involved, says Ms Warwick, but it needs to tackle the emotional side of sex and put a greater emphasis on educating boys.

"Most of the letters I get about sex are from girls who have felt pressured into having sex for the first time by their boyfriends because they want to be liked or loved.

"The government should be targeting boys and teaching them not to put this kind of pressure on girls."

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See also:

10 Oct 00 | Health
'Virginity' scheme under fire
17 Aug 00 | Health
Teenage girls fail with Pill
13 Feb 00 | Health
Young take risks with sex
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