Sex on the beach

The holiday atmosphere of seaside resorts encourages the young
people who live in them to adopt a risky attitude to sex all year
round, writes Joy Ogden.

Sun, sand, sea… and sex. Forget the buckets and spades,
for many young people a trip to the seaside means a holiday from
reality and a break from the usual constraints on their sexual

But for those young people who live by the sea or the rural
areas around, the risky behaviour is not just a two week temptation
but an ongoing problem, according to a new report.1

They face all the factors associated with risky sexual behaviour
– such as low aspirations, low family expectations, lack of
self-esteem – as people who live anywhere, but these are compounded
by the impact of the pleasure-seeking lifestyle of the seaside, the
report says.

Researchers from the universities of Hull, Brighton and
Liverpool talked to young people aged 12 to 17, and to key
professionals, young parents and transient workers in three seaside
resorts and their surrounding rural areas in the east midlands,
north west and south east England. They explored the factors that
shaped the young people’s attitudes to, and experiences of,
sexual behaviour and young parenthood.

And what they found beside the seaside was a “carnival”
atmosphere, with ready access to alcohol and a steady stream of
casual workers and holidaymakers that engendered a feeling of
excitement and attracted young people to the area like wasps to a
picnic. But the festive mood also generated a sense of distance
from reality that was conducive to casual sex.

The report’s publication coincides with the latest figures
for 2003 released by the Health Protection Agency last month. The
agency’s figures show a 9 per cent rise in the number of
chlamydia cases and an overall 4 per cent increase in diagnoses of
sexually transmitted infections (STIs) over the previous year. They
also show marked variations across the country, which the agency
attributes both to the impact of local outbreaks, for example
syphilis in Manchester and London, and to the variable distribution
of high-risk groups. And the figures reveal reductions in some
areas that the agency says point to the importance of local
initiatives to promote testing and safer sexual behaviour.

Sir William Stewart, chair of the agency, said: “It is a cause
of considerable concern that we are still seeing increases in new
diagnoses of STIs across the UK and unsafe sex is undoubtedly a
main contributor to this.”

Given the vulnerability of young people who live by the seaside
to sexual and economic exploitation by the dominant tourism and
entertainment industries, with their focus on sun, sea, sand and
(casual) sex, the quality of advice they receive is critical, say
the report’s authors.

The young interviewees were scathing about much of the help they
received. One Year 10 girl (14 to 15-year-olds) said: “They
don’t give you a clue about your emotions.”

They often described sexual health professionals as “judgmental
and stigmatising” and said they encountered hostile attitudes,
particularly when asking about under-age sex and terminations.
Young people were often uncertain about their rights to
confidentiality, and those in rural areas faced the added problems
of scarce services, poor transport and the embarrassment of asking
advice from a limited pool of professionals, often known to them
and their families.

Jan Barlow, chief executive of the Brook Advisory Centre, said:
“We are calling for sex and relationships to be a compulsory part
of the national curriculum so we know that young people are growing
up better informed about sex and relationships and protecting
themselves from pregnancy and infection. I think all young people
need to be better informed – but the need is particularly acute for
children growing up in seaside and rural areas.

She added: “There should be easily accessible specialist advice
centres in rural areas – and we need to make sure the message gets
out that young people have the right to confidentiality.”

Mark Graver from the Terrence Higgins Trust called on the
government to re-instate sexual health as a public health priority.
“We need greatly improved sex education for young people. We need
to reduce sexual health clinic waiting times to no more than 48
hours – that’s a government recommended target but it
isn’t happening. And we need community-based easy to access
HIV and STI testing services. The testing procedures that many
genitourinary medicine clinics follow are time consuming and often
require people to re-attend the clinic to get their results. The
HIV test we use here works in an hour.”

Different attitudes to the sexual activities of young women and
men are also a contributory factor in risky sexual behaviour, say
the researchers.

“If a male is sleeping around it is seen as a good thing – if it
is a girl she is a slut,” one Year 12 boy (16 to 17 year olds)

The low status of sexually active young women encourages young
men to feel little sense of responsibility for contraception and
leaves young women reluctant to go into a sexual encounter with
proper protection, the report says.

It isn’t all bad news. Schools and homes that step into
the breach and provide high aspirations, good quality education and
decent preparation for relationships and sex, can protect some
young people from the worst risks of a seaside address.

– Living on the Edge: Sexual Behaviour and Young Parenthood in
Seaside and Rural Areas of England is available from Social
Research Papers, Social Policy, University of Hull, HU6 7RX or from

Ther report conclusions

  • Local authorities should encourage child and family-friendly
    activities in seaside resorts and discourage those which target
    young people’s vulnerabilities.
  • Sexual health services in seaside and rural areas should be
    made more accessible to young people
  • Non-judgmental and non-stigmatising attitudes should be
    fostered in those delivering services.
  • Schools should build links with local sexual health services,
    advertise them effectively to young people and ensure they are
    accessible in time and place.

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