How easy is it to get pregnant? Judging by the scaremongering sex education I received, you’d think all it took was the touch of the tip, the slip of a condom or the missing of a pill and – bam! – you’re a pregnant teenager and your life as you know it is over.
But now a coalition of leading doctors, fertility experts and campaigners – under the umbrella of the Fertility Education Initiative (FEI) – has told the government that the emphasis must shift. In the new compulsory sex education classes, girls (and presumably boys) should be taught how and when to conceive. One in seven couples struggles with fertility, and it is looking as though the traditional emphasis on safe sex at the expense of all else – a response to what was an appalling teenage pregnancy record in the UK – has unsurprisingly backfired. Young women (and, again, I assume the men to whom a large proportion of them are coupled) are assuming that they can conceive as soon as they want to.
There’s too much sex in sex education. We need more on relationships
So tell us something that we don’t know. You spend a decade or so terrified that all it takes to get pregnant is to drop your guard for a second, and the next few years wishing you’d known what you do now: that for many women, it is not that simple. Yes, we all know someone who missed a pill, or even didn’t, and still got miraculously knocked up. But for most couples, the chance of getting pregnant in any given month of trying is around 20%.
Clearly this imbalance needs redressing. Now that the battle for compulsory sex education is won, we need to fight for informative and modern sex education. A good start would be acknowledging that fertility is something that affects both genders, that the responsibility for getting pregnant, and the decision about when to do that, is made in most cases by two people. The grief in realising that you have left it too late – a potential outcome that has hovered over my generation of women like a horror story told around a campfire – is often shared by the partner at the woman’s side, just like the emotional ups and downs of fertility treatment, or the heartbreak of miscarriage or abortion (something that’s also rarely dealt with in sex education).
Many, many men come on this journey too, and need to be as well-informed. If anything, it has been my male acquaintances who have been more blase about being able to wait, forgetting that they too have their biological clocks.
In saying this, I am not calling for more paternalistic tick-tocking. We young(ish) women have had a bellyful of that. But a balance needs to be struck. Women are leaving it later and later. The average age for a woman in the UK to have a child is 30 (it was 26 in 1976), with the optimum age from a biological point of view being 25-30.
It’s not just the mechanics of sex … children need lessons in life and love
I have little sympathy with those who paint this as a societal crisis without examining why. Their logic is often underpinned by the belief that women are failing to do their duties as baby incubators. So often it is that women must be told what to do, as opposed to being given all the information so we can make informed decisions. The FEI’s intervention is welcome because it argues for the latter. The media could do their job too, by better addressing how IVF and egg freezing are not the failsafe fallbacks they are so often claimed to be.
Most of all, it is paradoxical that the government considering the FEI’s proposals – a government that claims it is committed to family values – has done little to create a society in which balancing childrearing with a career is manageable. Nor has it worked to prevent a housing crisis that means many of my generation are delaying starting families, or deciding against them altogether.
If you want more women to have children, giving them the facts is an excellent place to start. But fertility education is of limited use when you grow up only to find that a stable home, affordable childcare, and decent maternity and paternity packages seem out of the question. We shouldn’t need to send politicians back to school for them to realise that.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author