Why I'm glad my daughter had under-age sex
Amid the clamours for censorship, celibacy and an end to teenagers' rights to confidentiality, Sally Feldman fulminates against the misguided moral crusaders
At their conference this summer the Association of Teachers and Lecturers passed a motion calling for an age limit on the purchasing of teenage magazines after hearing from teacher Ralph Surman, who criticised them as "inappropriate" and often harmful to the well-being of their young readers. He was echoing the views of self-styled moral campaigners like Conservative MP Gerald Howarth who, earlier this year, lambasted the teenage sector for producing material containing little moral content. He was referring to publications like Sugar ("Is my vagina abnormal?") and Bliss ("Now he's found out I'm not a virgin he's gone off me.")
It's all wearily familiar. Back in the late 1970s I was editor of a raft of teenage confession magazines that specialised in explicit sexual content. Love Affair and Loving, New Love and Hers, like today's teen glossies, purported to be aimed at 17 year olds, but were read by girls as young as 11. Unlike them, mine were cheaply produced, with maybe four editorial colour pages per issue if you were lucky. And even more unlike them, the graphic sex stopped far short of the G-spot. You were lucky if you actually got between the sheets.
Our code of practice would recommend the use of either fire metaphors – "his lips scorched my neck as flames of desire shot through me" – or water: "Floods of desire engulfed me until I was caught up helplessly in wave after wave of ecstasy." Though not both together.
We would be able to say lips but not mouth, legs but not thighs, hardness but not, as I recall, erection. I can't tell you how many thrusting members had to be cut, however urgently they pressed. And we would never let in any swelling manhoods. It was a thousand multiple orgasms away from today's earthy recipes for ten ways to turn him on and how to make him gag for it.
Yet, just like Sugar, Cosmo Girl and Bliss, my quaintly innocent titles would regularly be castigated in the Commons, blamed for the rise in teenage pregnancies with calls for bans and censorship. And just like their editors, my colleagues and I would patiently point out that our publications were brimming with information and advice for young women who would often read nothing else.
The eminently sane Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel agrees that the magazines provide much-needed education alongside the fashion tips, pin-ups and makeovers. Their arguments evidently convinced Lord McIntosh, the minister for media and heritage, who has firmly dismissed the calls for age-stamped restrictions on the magazines.
Concern about the content of teenage magazines is usually linked to panic about the rise in teenage pregnancies, and this time coincided with the story of Michelle Smith, a 14year old who had an abortion without telling her mother. Maureen Smith, who discovered what had happened by accident, attacked her daughter's school for not informing her even though the girl's advisers were acting perfectly legally. She was joined by hordes of gleeful supporters eager to denounce the government's sex education policy.
The story was blazoned over front pages, complete with photos of Michelle, just as the government was about to launch its campaign to reassure young women of confidentiality over contraception or abortion help. Same old, same old
In 1984, the year my daughter was born, anti-contraception campaigner Victoria Gillick was engaged in what was to become a regular bid to overturn the rights of underage teenagers to confidentiality when seeking contraceptive advice. Along with hundreds of other mothers, I contributed my name to a full-page advertisement in the Guardian in which we pledged our support for our children to obtain advice without our knowledge.
It felt like a powerful gesture at the time. But it's a bit different once the gurgling baby is a real, live adolescent and beginning to bring boys home. That's when you really have to keep your nerve. It's troubling for any mother to accept that her delicious, unselfconscious, tree-climbing, Polly-Pocketed, kitten-adoring girl will any minute be tossing her hair, flashing her midriff and learning to fly. And the transformation seems to be happening so early that we fear we are being robbed of their childhoods. The knowingness of young children unsettles us, as I discovered the day my son, then aged three, told me on the way home from the nursery that his friend Zak had found a condom on the patio. He added, puzzled: "What's a patio?"
No one is thrilled that little girls are worrying about their figures at five, their boobs at ten, swapping kissing techniques at the pony club, wearing lipstick to the pantomime and considering their first vaginal tuck as their periods begin. They are growing up faster. But you can't blame the magazines for that. And you can't reverse the trend with blindfolds. Which is what the new celibacy brigade are keen to do.
This summer sees the UK launch of the Silver Ring Thing – a programme which encourages teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage and rewards virginity with a ring to symbolise abstinence.
In America the Silver Ring Thing has received $700,000 from the Bush administration. The 10-year-old True Love Waits movement has been funded to the tune of $120 million by the federal government. Both are firmly rooted in Christianity, which explains not just the simple-minded support of the President, but the general shuddering recoil that characterises the Church's attitude to sexuality.
True Love Waits claims to have influenced more than two million teenagers to refrain from sex. On the other hand, a recent study found that almost nine in ten of those who signed chastity pledges broke them. So it's no surprise that a survey published last month shows that youngsters who promise to keep their virginity until marriage have levels of sexually transmitted diseases as high as everyone else.
Keeping kids in the dark about sex is no answer. It is ignorance rather than knowledge which leads to unwanted pregnancies and sexual diseases. In the UK, which has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, the relentless rise is located in the most disadvantaged inner city areas. It is intrinsically linked to poverty, social disadvantage and poor education.
My daughter and her friends were bombarded with sex education at their liberal North London comprehensive. Once they began to be sexually active they used to march each other down to the local family planning clinic. Anyone who dared to try unprotected sex would be dealt with severely by the girls. They all experimented with sex early, had boyfriends who were lovers and others who were friends, and are turning into delightfully well-balanced young women.
It's all very well for these cushioned, middle-class girls. For many others sex education in schools is simply not working. It can be embarrassing, awkward, or just plain boring. Adolescents who are not used to discussion of intimate matters, or who have been brought up to think of sex as wicked or dirty, are the very ones most likely to balk at earnest attempts to inform them about something so alien to the confines of the classroom. And that's why the magazines play such a crucial role.
Girls who giggle at the geography teacher attempting to stretch a condom over a Bunsen burner may well be enthralled at Sugar's blow-by-blow guide to oral sex. Unsuitable? Inappropriate? Not according to the Government, which is about to launch a new scheme that will include oral sex lessons, after a trial showed it was successful in helping to reduce sexual intercourse among 16year olds.
The magazines are chock-full of similar advice, but in a more palatable package. The favourite adjective, sexy, is used to describe lip gloss, flip flops, fashions and summer drinks. But it rarely appears in the problems pages, which are busy dispensing age-old wisdoms, little changed from those in my own magazines. "Just because you're over 16 doesn't mean you should rush into sex," advises Tina in Bliss. "Wait until you're sure you're ready." She then offers some brisk facts about the side effects of the Pill.
"Please don't worry," comforts Dr Marianne Parry, Sugar's agony aunt. "There's no such thing as too much masturbation." These magazines all grab every opportunity to remind their readers to use condoms, to be aware of the symptoms of disease and to stand up for themselves.
If they are the reassuring older sisters, then Loaded, FHM and the rest of the gang of boy magazines are swaggering big brothers. They, too, are the targets of cyclical bouts of hostility. Their critics fail to notice that lurking within the pages of sexual boasts, crude gags and masculine bravado is a host of information on health, sex and emotions – but presented in an acceptably laddish lunchbox.
A recent victim of kneejerk disgust is the author Melvyn Burgess. His novel Doing It was denounced by Children's Laureate Anne Fine: "What are the children's publishers thinking of, peddling this grubby book, which demeans both young women and young men? It will prove as effective a form of sexual bullying as any hardcore porn mag." Eventually, the book was withdrawn from Puffin and reissued as a Penguin for adults.
The outrage it provoked was based on the seeming crudeness of the content and the sexist nastiness of the boy protagonists. But this criticism is far too literal. Burgess deftly captures the macho bravado and unpleasant boastfulness of the adolescent male and then undermines it.
"I like girls. I get on well with them. And I like sex," confides one of the anti-heroes. "Not that I've had all that much experience of it – not with another person being in the room at the same time, anyway. I just can't somehow put the two together. I can be getting on really well with a girl but as soon as I get an inkling that there might be a chance of anything happening, I just freeze up. It's scary. Sex is well it's so rude, isn't it?"
Boys as well as girls reading Doing It will be reassured to discover how normal they are – that, however riddled with hormones, hard-ons and horribleness, most teenage lads are just as mixed up, vulnerable and sensitive as girls. And this novel is a pretty well-realised attempt to navigate their strange psyches.
Back in the early 1980s a similar furore greeted the publication of Forever by the much-loved children's author Judy Blume. Best known for her tender-funny takes on the agonies of growing up, she was roundly castigated for producing a dirty book where teenagers actually do it. This novel, too, was eventually repackaged to distance it from her children's books.
She told me once that she had written the book in response to a request from her own daughter for a story where kids have happy, loving sex, and nobody gets pregnant or dies.
And this, for me, is the main point. I don't want my children to regard sex merely as a jungle full of deadly dangers, mined with disease and punishment. They need and deserve to indulge in passion and celebrate its delights.
That's really why I'm glad that my daughter started young. I'm glad she learned about tender, loving sex, disappointments and mistakes, ecstasy, experimentation, friendship, romance, fun, eroticism – however precarious that path may seem. I'd far rather that than the agonies heaped upon so many generations of women, tight-laced into unholy innocence. The women who would lie back and think of England. The women who would let him have his way. The women who would produce a child a year with no information on how to stop. The women who were taught that sex was shameful and forbidden and that shrivelled chastity was the path to redemption. The women who would endure without pleasure or refrain for a lifetime and never know their true sexual selves.
The abstinence movement represents a return to those bleak days, a return to repression, joylessness, terror, shame and subordination. Call me old-fashioned, but I still passionately believe that sexual expression is the key to women's freedom. And I still defend my daughter's right to privacy. Oh, and before you ask, yes I did ask her permission to write this piece. She said tersely: "Don't forget to tell them what passed for sex education in our house." I looked blank. "You said I was allowed to indulge in any sexual practice that I could spell."