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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 March 2008, 08:45 GMT
'Chastity' teens talk about sex
By Joanne Manning
BBC Wales News website

Becky Thomas (L) and Sioned Young
Becky Thomas (L and Sioned Young are Romance Academy graduates
Talk about sex to most adults and they'll start sniggering and making embarrassed jokes.

So imagine what it must have been like for the latest teenage graduates of the Vale of Glamorgan Romance Academy.

They have been speaking frankly about their relationships with a group of strangers and peers for the last 15 weeks.

The project, which was inspired by the BBC2 documentary No Sex Please We're Teenagers, is aimed at reducing teenage pregnancies and educating youngsters about relationship pressures.

A Christian-influenced approach is adopted at the Romance Academy with candidates being challenged to stay celibate for the duration of the course.

Members of the group, all aged 14 to 18 and split 50-50 between the sexes, visit STI (sexually transmitted infections) clinics, meet a midwife, and some take a realistic baby doll home for the weekend to experience being a young parent.

A salsa lesson, photo-shoot and talks on parenting are also all part of the experience.

My mum said to me that she wishes she had something similar when she was younger
Becky Thomas

As well as educational aspects, the group discusses cultural and media views of sex and how it can influence people; role models, stereotypes and bullying are examined and they go for an activity weekend away together.

"We want young people to see that sex is an important part of life and loving relationships but that they shouldn't feel pressured into it if they don't want to do it," said youth worker Nathan Scott-Cook, 35, who runs the Penarth group alongside Chloe Roberts.

But what did two recent graduates of the academy think of their experience? Was the Romance Academy merely an elongated sex education lesson?

"No!" seems to be the resounding answer from Becky Thomas and Sioned Young, both 15 and pupils at Ysgol Gyfun Bro Morgannwg in Barry.

The girls, who heard about the academy from a friend, said sex education at their school would benefit from an injection of some of the project's discussion topics and activities.

'Biology lesson'

"It is so impersonal in school," said Sioned.

"There it's just the facts, it's like a biology lesson.

"Among your classmates I also think you're expected to behave in a certain way, but this was more intimate. You could talk about things you could never say in school."

Becky added: "We were in this group with other people we didn't know and in some ways this made it easier for us.

"The first session when we took our celibacy pledge was pretty in-your-face and incredibly frank."

Sioned said any revelations made were treated with respect and trust built up between the group of 12 quickly.

"If someone said something, this encouraged someone else to say something too. It was like a domino effect," she said.

Youth workers, pic: Joseph Henry
Nathan Scott-Cook and Chloe Roberts run the Penarth academy

The group's members were picked by organisers from a range of backgrounds and experiences.

Becky admitted there were some members of the group who, on first glance, she wouldn't have hung around with.

"Some of the lads who came looked kind of tough. But they were really funny and they made the meetings," she said.

"The academy gave us the chance to get to know the person, not the label."

Sioned added: "It made you look at things in a completely different way.

It's not like we go sleeping around, but we all got something out of it
Sioned Young

"A youth worker called Dewi came to talk to us about drugs. He wasn't telling us not to do drugs, but instead told us about his experiences.

"He was not being patronising, he was trusting us with information and leaving it up to us to make our own decision."

Becky said the academy had made her think more about the consequences of her actions.

"If I did have sex, how would I feel after? Would I regret it or would I feel nice about it?" she said.

"You learn to value yourself more and it makes you question whether you want to take a relationship further.

"My mum said to me that she wishes she had something similar when she was younger."

Sioned recommended the experience to other teenagers.

"It's not like we go sleeping around, but we all got something out of it."

A new Romance Academy has just begun in nearby Cowbridge and a fourth Penarth-based project will begin later this year.

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