Aged eleven, we were grouped around our low shiny topped table, learning very little when boy N got the idea of asking my friend X to remove her knickers. He became increasingly intent on this. She was usually an absolute goody, never put her Clark’s sandalled foot wrong, and at first agreed to do it, then became reluctant, then distressed.
I told our teacher, vaguely 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, and were 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.
Brought up in the 60s, when Christian/Victorian morality was only just beginning to crumble before secular individualism, I find the current attitude of adults towards children bewildering.
Under the headline, ‘How to talk to your child about sex: an expert guide for parents,’ The Times on Saturday offered 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 smart phone 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 once inveigled 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 everyone of every age totes a camera like a 9mm handgun.
Shahnavaz who teaches at Kings College, has supervised the Master’s Degree in ‘Systemic’ (a buzz word for holistic) Psychotherapy at the Tavistock Centre and is head of family therapy at the private Soke clinic in Chelsea, further instructed: ‘Explain that porn is not normal sex.’ But, she says, ‘Sexting is a very normal, common thing for teenagers in relationships.’
Sexting, in case anyone remains innocent, is sending photos of your genitalia to another person, actually illegal for anyone under eighteen. ‘It’s a very normal, common thing for teenagers in relationships, even relationships that haven’t started,’ she 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 when flirting, ‘To wear underwear.’ Advice grannies once gave, relating only to the weather.
I have no daughter but get the impression that school girls are often pressured into showing their private parts, not just under a desk but on line; ‘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 head protection, are told sexual exposure is now normal and acceptable, but to observe certain etiquette and it seems impossible to argue against this without sounding repressive or intolerant.
The withdrawal of Christian or any consensus on moral conduct has removed basic common sense language about restraint. 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 is 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.’
Instead of free-spirited children skipping freely about in all innocence, parents continually saying ‘Yes,’ has created a generation of ignoble savages, who can bully and coerce each other twenty- four hours a day. There was an anti-bullying TV advert showing a girl using her mobile at night, relieved to find it was free of abuse. To someone brought up in a family with one phone kept out in the hall, it’s hard to understand why she would have a phone in bed which she seemed unable to switch off.
‘Child-centred’ culture has failed to increase happiness. NHS data for England shows there were nearly five thousand admissions for eating disorders for children aged 18 and under in 2019-20, a nineteen percent increase on two years before. The majority were aged thirteen to eighteen with almost half of a further 418 admissions for 10- to 12-year-old, girls with anorexia.
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 trying to gain ‘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.