Note: If you have come direct to this posting via a search, please be aware that this only discusses episode 1. The posting for episode 2 is available through this link, which has comments enabled. As this is now an old posting, comments are disabled here to stop spamming.
So tonight, the BBC showed the first of their three part series “No Sex Please We’re Teenagers” which made headlines over the past couple of weeks. The following item from todays Daily Mirror gives the general attitude to the show in some quarters:
RACHEL and Dan are the kind of perky, Tiggerish Christian youth-workers who could have stepped out of a Little Britain sketch.
In that meddling, do-gooding way that some Christians have, they’ve somehow persuaded 12 kids aged 15 to 17 to become born-again virgins and give up sex for five whole months. I can see you rolling your eyes already.
Their intentions are well-meant but if anything will put these teenagers off their stride, it’s Dan’s disturbing habit of referring to sex as “woopsie”.
I suspect many grown-ups will also be trying desperately to get that word out of their heads tonight as they turn back their beds.
Anyway, from my somewhat less tabloid angle – the programme follows a group christened ‘The Romance Academy’ consisting of a group of twelve teenagers from Harrow, and two Christian youth workers, Rachel Gardner and Dan Burke over a five month project where they agree to not have sex. It’s worth mentioning that although many of them are sexually active, some having lost their virginity as young as 12, there are also practising Christians among the teenagers who are already practising abstinance. They are also a pretty mixed bunch in terms of their backgrounds, beliefs and so on – basically a cross-section of modern teenagers.
The programme started with showing the first meeting, where the teenagers discussed the rules by which they would live over the next five months. Probably the most cringe-making part of this first meeting was the somewhat poor choice of word that Dan made, picked up on by the Daily Mirror, although having said that, it was fairly apparent that the group ribbed him over it too. One of the more amusing moments in this bit was that the other youth worker, Rachel is actually married, and the teenagers demanded that she should also participate, to the point that she actually phoned her husband! Not surprisingly he said no!
From that opening, the programme moved on through the first few weeks of the experiment, in which they basically were like almost any other youth group, going off ice skating, and having discussions. This was intercut with footage of one-to-one interviews with the teenagers talking about their background. What is interesting is the paralells among many of the group in that many of them had been drunk when they lost their virginity, thought it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and had largely regretted it. In amongst this was the youth worker Dan talking about becoming Christian, which produced a laugh out loud funny moment – he initially thought that the ‘Holy Spirit’ was a new sort of drug…
Anyway, the whole area of alcohol and it’s effects on teenagers came up again in the next major event, when the group was taken away for the weekend. The rules were pretty standard stuff for a youth weekend – no drink, no drugs and seperate bedrooms for boys and girls. Also, not surprisingly for a youth weekend, the boundaries were pushed and the no drink rule was broken on the first night. To some extent I think that what happened was probably a good thing for the group, as it actually gave the youth leaders and the group a good point to start a discussion on the role that drink has played in the teenagers lives.
The third segment of tonights programme was in some ways for me the most disturbing for me, and covered eleven of the group (the last of the group – one of the drinkers for the weekend – having been arrested being drunk the night before departure) going to Florida to a Church heavily backing the abstinence message, and participating in the ‘Silver Ring Thing‘ a US initiative to promote abstinence. You had to bear in mind that the majority of the UK teenagers were not Christian, many having never been inside a Church, and here they were being dropped into the totally alien environment of a charismatic evanglical Church – the kind of Church that even many middle of the road Christians would have a problem with. However it is worth saying that it seemed to be the kind of environment in which the Youth Workers were perfectly comfortable.
From the first meeting with the families several of the teenagers expressed discomfort – aside from the alien religious aspects most of the American teenagers had been brought up in the Church, and therefore were in a totally different place having never been sexually active, rather than being sexually active and trying to stop.
The first meeting with the American Pastor was actually quite amusing in some ways. As Beth discovered when she came over here, British teenagers are a lot more vocal in their opinions. The Pastor found the same when he tried to ‘preach’ his opinion at them, and had quite an argument on his hands. At one point one of the American teenagers even intervened in the discussion feeling that the British were showing a lack of respect.
After that both the Americans and British teenagers were taken on an outing, which all seemed to enjoy, however things took a turn for even more disturbing when the British teenagers were taken along to the Americans Youth service. Three of the girls just couldn’t cope and left after a while, whilst some of the others in the group according to the youth worker Dan had a religious experience.
The reason I found the whole thing disturbing is that from my point of view it mixed up the whole sexual abstinence issue with an attempt to convert the group to Christianity – essentially getting the whole group to gel as one, and then taking them along to a service. Whilst I am aware that it is the Church that is the main driver behind the abstinence movement in the USA, my big concern is that hitting a group of teenagers with little or no Church background with a full scale evangelical service as they did, could prove to be counterproductive. To my mind whilst the Youth Workers were Christian – the idea of encouraging the teenagers to focus on realtionships rather than sex is not tied with the need to become Christian. In some ways the two youth workers, who seemed totally at ease in the service forgot firstly the stated point of the experiment, and secondly how alien Christianity can seem to people with no Church background. As has been said to me, a large number of teenagers will just switch off when directly faced with religion, or religious messaged, and that often the religious message in a session has to be got in ‘under the radar’. Certainly we have found that even with our church based youth group – the discussions that get most easily bogged down or diverted are the obviously religious ones – whereas those where the religious aspect becomes clear at the end work a lot better.
It is worth saying at this point, that from the clips of the next episode, it seems that the youth workers possibly realise their mistake, as there are several sequences of one of the youth workers saying that they don’t have to participate (and the group of girls who walked out saying that they are going to bring a deck of playing cards and a ball to the next session as they think they’ll get bored very quickly).
Certainly it will be interesting to watch the remainder of the series, both from the point of view of the subject, plus also as a feeder into the ongoing discussion amongst the volunteer youth leaders at St James as to whether a paid youth worker would be a good investment. Tonights episode highlighted the benefits in terms of the time that a youth worker can spend with the young people – time we as volunteers with full time jobs just don’t get to spend. However it also highlighted how important it is that you match your youth worker with your group of young people, so that you don’t get situations like what happened in the programme where parts of the group are turned off. Bear in mind that you can easily get a similar reaction from teenagers brought up in a Church like St James, as from those who have had no Church experience if you drop them cold into a service like the Americans held.