Published in The Guardian June 15th 1999
Is fining boys £5 a week when they impregnate a teenage girl going to become this
country’s most effective new contraceptive or not? Setting the Child Support Agency on
older males has already proved somewhat of a mixed blessing. Now the Government’s
ambiguously titled Social Exclusion Unit is proposing to make juvenile males pay for
their sexual pleasures through the same punitive mechanism. I personally don’t envy
any civil servant the task of trying to attach the mythical earnings of unemployed Darren
from Chelmsford who accompanies his refusal to give a blood test with an aggressive
“fuck off and die” but that’s a technical problem. Does it work for the average young
The trouble with deploying sticks as opposed to carrots is that you glamourise sin.
When dealing with boys who literally do not work at any level except sexually you risk
disaster by giving them additional negative attention. I foresee a hopeless Darren
boasting quite logically that not only has he got his girlfriend pregnant but the
government has put a flattering price on his head, or perhaps it’s his cock. Boys in
deprivation join gangs to get a measurement of self-worth. Boys who have no other
yard-stick by which to measure themselves will delightedly embrace the new culture of
uncollectable, poll tax-style sexual fines. And while we’re talking about joy-riding, the
further suggestion that Darren’s driving licence will be cancelled if he spawns an
unwanted child seems to me to run into the brick wall of existing motoring lawlessness.
How many young offenders driving without tax, insurance or the permission of the car
owner will lose any sleep?
I believe the government’s approach, which is better intentioned than Tory efforts from
John Patten and Baroness Blatch, still fails to recognise three outstanding facts about
male sexuality. First, there is a grinding correlation between male social inadequacy,
poverty and sexual fecklessness. Second, male identity at al levels of the food chain
overdepends on the slippery slope of what men see as sexual success. (Upmarket men
like the late Sir James Goldsmith boast of filling a mistress vacancy while downmarket
lads tell me: “Well it’s not like I fancied her much but I hadn’t had sex lately and I need to
keep my love life up to scratch”) Third, our nation’s new moral frenzy is still failing to
promote the one message which might hit home where it hurts – that having offspring
you cannot care for is not cruelty to marriage it is cruelty to children.
All this boils down to re-striking the balance between politics and culture. If you want
boys to behave responsibly in bed then you’d better make sure they don’t belong to an
underclass for whom the word has no further application. It would be instructive to see
what sort of success the exclusion Initiative would have if Gordon and Tony devoted the
same level of resources to finding jobs for the boys as they have to Kosovan
peacekeeping. Poor classes, like poor nations, tend to have a population problem. It is
futile to pretend that sex education alone can ever bridge that gap.
But it is equally false to pretend that this nation has ever been serious about providing
sex education. The point is we still don’t really tell teenagers the truth. Many of the
explicit letters I’ve received as a problem page writer were NOT published in magazine
columns because the editors couldn’t face them. The British still think it’s funny to call a situation comedy “Bottom”, we get our knickers in a twist when women’s towels with
wings are advertised on tv and regard toe-sucking as a perversion not…foreplay.
John Craven and I were once asked by Children’s BBCTV to make a film about HIV and
AIDS but were never allowed to mention the virus’s principal mode of transmission –
SEX. We told young viewers you couldn’t get AIDS from mosquitoes, from fishing in
reservoirs, from breathing other people’s germs. What we SHOULD have said was that
you couldn’t get accurate information about AIDS from watching tv. The BBC showed
the film twice.
By providing little straightforward, snigger-free information for youngsters we create the
very problems we deplore. Parents who don’t explain where babies come from, or
shelter their children from news’ programmes on deviance and abuse, or withdraw them
from school lessons on HIV and AIDS, or imagine that the News of the World is some
sort of child guidance primer, render them more vulnerable to danger. An ignorant child
is obviously an unprotected child.
If this government is serious and I for one broadly welcome what they are attempting,
the scope and content of sex education for boys has got to include a positive image of
paternity. This means getting male role models into schools where at the moment only
female teachers are found. (One set of boys lucky enough to receive personal sex
education from a man spent most of the lesson finding out how to shave. This was
something their mothers could not teach them, legs being different from chins!) It means
tv shows which are guaranteed to upset the gentility of the nation by discussing subjects
like menstruation and masturbation in the sort of prime time slot currently enjoyed by the
Antiques’ Roadshow. It means promoting the novel idea that men are more than the
spasm of ejaculation. And it means encouraging boys to feel as sympathetic to the
plight of deprived babies as they already seem towards political refugees and hunted
animals. It means an in-your-face approach for the first time ever – and it will cost, a lot.
Published in The Guardian June 15th 1999