Research type 
Year of report 

Summary of findings


The main findings were that:


  • Most teenagers were aware of most if not all the different forms of contraception available: Condoms, pill, morning after pill, coil/cap, jabs, femidom and abortion. However, their actual knowledge about these options and how they work can be very limited. Some fourteen year olds in particular lacked any real knowledge about what these methods are and how they work, and they would very much like to know more detail. Non-virgins in general had often not really thought about what contraception they might use in the future, despite being able to reel off a list of choices.
  • When discussing the options further, it emerged that a number of these contraceptive methods were associated much more with relationships than more spontaneous sex. They also require some form of adult discussion about the decision, as you cannot simply purchase them off the shelf. This makes them more out of reach and intimidating forms of contraception as the teenager is required to talk to someone about sex. That can be very uncomfortable, and reason enough not to consider using them.
  • For many teenagers, condoms were the only truly considered form of contraception, particularly for girls and boys who were not in solid relationships. All teenagers knew where to find them, why to use them and how to put them on. Also, everybody knew the advantages of using them.
  • However, the reality of condoms is that they are a hassle, they are a joke and they kill the moment. Ultimately, everyone knows they should use them – it’s the sensible thing to do - but most of the people spoken to didn’t want to be sensible. They wanted to have fun and take risks. Unprotected sex was therefore happening an awful lot across the sample of boys and girls.


  • Alcohol nearly always seems to be a factor in teenage sex for both girls and boys, with the youngsters drinking it in the park and older respondents consuming it in pubs/clubs. Many drink alcohol everyday and most drink on Fridays and Saturdays, with teenagers drinking to excess. When drunk, teenagers tend to be carefree, careless and lack inhibitions. This is when most unprotected sex happens.

Knowledge and awareness

  • When it came to talking about STIs, the conversation with teenagers became rather limited. They knew the names, but the level of detail and understanding was low. Chlamydia seemed the most familiar of STIs.
  • Many teenagers, particularly the girls, were keen to learn more about STIs. They would welcome information about the specific detail, such as what actually happens, what they look like, how serious they are and how long they last. Older teenagers and non-virgins tended to know more than others from personal experience or stories from others, but they still didn’t feel entirely informed.
  • The fear of STIs was not strong enough to prevent teenagers from having sex, and was generally not enough to make them use a condom. Either their knowledge was so limited that their fear was minimal, or they were aware of how easily certain diseases can be treated. Those diseases with the most dramatic effects were the most feared, such as warts from herpes or death from Aids, yet still not enough to influence most people’s behaviour. Despite being feared, STIs were not singularly a deterrent to having sex.

Personal information sources

  • Most teenagers didn’t talk at length to their parents about sex. There may have been the odd short conversations which mainly revolved around ‘be careful’ and ‘you’re too young’ messages. These brief and occasional chats tended to be instigated and controlled by the parents, and the kids were often highly embarrassed.
  • For those teenagers that have an older sister or female cousin, she was often a much better resource for information and advice than parents. They generally have the same background and values, which is particularly valuable for Asians due to their cultural restrictions. Across the board, however, friends were a particularly big source of information.
  • School lessons, in the main, were not perceived as a core source of sex information. Everyone agreed that these were insufficient and lacking in impact and detail. They tended to provide basic biological facts, and some awareness and information about STIs. But they didn’t provide the level of detail that teenagers wanted and needed - about STIs, about contraception, about sex itself and for girls, about life after giving birth. The format of sex education classes was also criticised. Mixed classes were thought to be far from ideal, and boys and girls got embarrassed around each other and couldn’t comfortably listen or ask questions. The teachers were also thought to be quite rigid and mechanical when giving the information and the lessons tended to be either boring or one big joke. The time allocation was also thought by many to be too short, as one-off lessons were not generally revisited; in the course of one or two years some teenagers may only have had two sex education classes.
  • Clinics were a more valued source of information for those that knew of them and had the confidence to use them. In most areas, awareness of clinics was fairly strong, based on actual experience or information from others. In some areas, however, people were less aware of clinics and they didn’t fully understand their role or where they are located.
  • Doctors’ surgeries were seen as another formal source of information, which can be particularly helpful in providing leaflets to older teenagers. Doctors can also help with particular information or medical needs. The problem here is for younger teenagers, particularly girls, who find surgeries a rather intimidating place to go to. Youth clubs were another source of information, albeit less formal and more important and trusted for some teenagers. Youth workers can be highly respected and listened to, particularly for boys. They can offer useful and practical advice about condoms and sex

Cultural influences

  • What teenagers watch, read and hear from the media has a huge influence on how they approach sex, and what they know about sexual behaviour.


  • Communicating a positive message about sex, relationships and condoms in the context of TV, music and porn would have relevance for these teenagers and could potentially carry impact and effect.

Research objectives


The principle aim of this study was to develop key learnings about teenage sex, pregnancy, contraception and STIs that could be transferred and utilised in a successful communications campaign. More specifically:

  • To understand respondents’ views in regards to contraception
  • To understand views with regard to STIs
  • To identify how the target audience can be persuaded to use more condoms
  • To evaluate information sources and the role of Sexwise and
  • To evaluate the current campaigns, assess key out-takes, appeal, relevance, credibility and degree of integration across campaigns
  • To establish whether relationships and confidentiality have mileage as campaign ideas



Following an enquiry in 1999 by the Social Exclusion Unit into the main factors associated with teenage pregnancy, a major initiative, the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, was mounted in England to address this problem. The Teenage Pregnancy Unit was created to execute the strategy across all government departments and to work with different sectors. The strategy adopts a two-pronged approach, embracing the dual aims of preventing early teenage pregnancies and supporting young parents. Media activities form a major component of this strategy, alongside education initiatives and health and social provision. In 1998 around 90,000 teenagers in the UK became pregnant, of which nearly 8,000 were under the age of 16. Teenage pregnancy has wide ranging social implications:

  • Babies are more likely to have a lower than average weight
  • Infant mortality in this group is 60% higher than for babies of older women
  • Babies are less likely to be breast fed: 44% of mothers under 20 breast feed, compared to 64% of 20 to 24 yrs olds and up to 80% of older women
  • Daughters of teenage mothers may be more likely to become teenage parents themselves
  • Children of teenage mothers are more likely to have the experience of being part of a lone parent family, and are generally at increased risk of poverty, poor housing and poor nutrition

The Government has tackled these issues through the campaign ‘Sex. Are you thinking about it?’ This campaign aimed to change teen attitudes and reduce the rate of pregnancies by encouraging young people to make informed choices about sex and safety. The teenage pregnancy campaign has been supported by a helpline - Sexwise - and a revitalised website - The Department of Health wished to build on these campaigns and develop new learnings about teenage attitudes towards sex and contraceptives, and the optimal way of communicating to this audience. An extensive programme of market research to truly ‘get under their skin’ was commissioned in order to provide the Department of Health with real depth and usable insights for future marketing and communications.

Research participants

  • Teenagers
  • Young people
  • Teenage parents
  • Looked after children

Audience Summary




  • General population
  • African
  • Caribbean
  • Bangladeshi
  • Pakistani


  • 11-14
  • 13-15
  • 15-17
  • 15-18 (ethnic minorities)
  • 18-21 (teenage parents)

Social Class

  • D
  • E


Data collection methodology

Depth interviews
Focus groups

Other data collection methodology


Many respondents also completed a photo notebook over the course of the week before the research. The notebooks established respondents’ actual behaviour, lifestyle, and media choices to provide a concrete, factual start-point for the conversation in the research sessions. There were also two three-hour communications workshops. The research focused on ‘high risk’ geographical areas for teenage pregnancy – within this there was a spread of urban, suburban and more rural areas.

Sample size


Aged 11-14

  • 8 friendship triads among 11 to 14s

Aged 13-15

  • 8 friendship triads among 13 to 15 year olds (years 9 to 10)
  • 4 friendship triads among 13 to 15s (African and Caribbean only)

Aged 15-17/18

  • 8 friendship pairs among 15 to 17 year olds (years 11 to 12 or equivalent)
  • 7 friendship pairs among 15 to 18s (all four ethnic groups)
  • 4 friendship pairs among 15 to 17s

Aged 19-21

  • 4 friendship groups among 18 to 21 year olds

Other groups

  • 10 individual depth interviews with Mums and Dads
  • 4 friendship triads among those in care
  • 2 sessions among those just out of care
  • 2 communications workshops with teenagers

Detailed region


Main sample: Birmingham, Camden, Dagenham, Enfield, Feltham, Lambeth, Leeds, Leicester, Lewisham, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Plymouth, Sidcup, Southall, Wembley, Westminster

‘High risk’ geographical areas: Cornwall, Durham County, Grimsby, Hertfordshire, Morecambe, Torquay

Fieldwork dates


Not specified

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This report is classified as sensitive as it deals with young people.

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