AGED eleven, we were grouped around our low shiny-topped table, learning very little, when boy N asked X to remove her knickers. He became increasingly insistent. She at first agreed to do it, then became reluctant, then distressed. I told our teacher that N was upsetting her. She told him to behave and the matter was dropped. That was long ago when teachers and parents took command, never seen to be indecisive. As children we could trust them to sort things out and protect us from each other if necessary. They weren’t our friends and usually didn’t give out anything resembling empathy.
Having been brought up in the 1960s, when Christian/Victorian morality was only beginning to crumble before secular individualism, I find the current attitude of adults towards children and sex bewildering. Under the headline ‘How to talk to your child about sex: expert guide for parents,’ a week or so ago the Times offered this advice from a Dr Shadi Shahnavaz: ‘Speak to your child about porn by the age of eleven, don’t wait until they have their first smartphone or are shown porn by a friend. All it takes is for them to go to a friend who has an older brother.’
Are those the same brothers who used to inveigle me into playing conkers, knowing I would always lose, and tried to put spiders down my neck? Today it’s no longer about down the neck, it’s up the skirt, with photography included. When I was young only parents took photos, on Box Brownies; now everyone of every age totes a camera like a handgun.
Shahnavaz, who is head of family therapy at the private Soke clinic in Chelsea, further instructs: ‘Explain that porn is not normal sex.’ But, she says, ‘sexting is a very normal, common thing.’
Sexting, in case any innocent remains unaware of it, is sending photos of your genitalia to another person, illegal for anyone under eighteen. ‘It’s a very normal, common thing for teenagers in relationships, even relationships that haven’t started,’ Shahnavaz writes. ‘I say to teenagers, “If you want to send images of yourself, make sure your face isn’t on it because if you break up your photo could be circulated.” Being a tad old-fashioned she also advises them to wear underwear.
I have no daughter but I get the impression that girls are now often pressured into showing their private parts, not just under a desk but online: ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ has gone global.
Children warned about so many dangers, including the risk of playing conkers without a helmet, are told sexual exposure is normal and acceptable, and it seems impossible to argue against this without sounding archaic and repressive. The withdrawal of any consensus on moral conduct and the arrival of the ‘post-truth’ culture, when anything you feel is taken as true rather than anything based on reason, means that we have even lost a common language of sense and restraint. Now only Muslims can acceptably talk about ‘modesty’.
Some of us, stuck in the evil past, see ‘sexting’ as a direct consequence of pornography, and the pressure on girls to behave in this lewd and dangerous way as quite wrong. We might even dare to say, as with drugs, ‘Just say no.’
Parents continually saying ‘Yes’ have created a generation of ignoble savages, who can bully and coerce each other 24 hours a day. ‘Child-centred’ culture has obviously failed to increase happiness: NHS data for England shows there were nearly five thousand hospital admissions for eating disorders among children aged 18 and under in 2019-20, a 19 per cent increase on two years before.
Dr Shahnavaz tells teenage girls they will feel better if they learn to be ‘empowered and in control of your body . . . there’s no reason to be fearful.’ But eating disorders are about feeling a loss of ‘empowerment’ or control. Perhaps the tight carapace once provided by parents and teachers is needed before that can happen. These days adults are your friends, don’t know any better than you do, cannot make choices for you; you have to do it all yourself, long before you’re ready: a terrifying situation.