Is sex our only pastime?

I don't want to explain to someone not yet 10 what date rape is, nor why Bianca is snogging Dan
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The Independent Culture
THOSE AERIAL views of London just keep getting better and better. On Sunday night, at the start of a "special" hour-long episode of EastEnders, the show's third version of London-from-above appeared in the soap's credits. London became a little less grim-looking in the last revamp, but now it is positively verdant, with greenness everywhere except in Greenwich, where, EastEnders has finally acknowledged, there's an enormous Nurofen.

The Dome has made its EastEnders debut in order to mark the first episode to be broadcast in wide-screen format. As if in greeting, the sacked writer of the official guide to the real Dome declared that "The public may want a day out like Alton Towers or Disneyland, but the hope is that you will go in as Joe Bloggs and come out as a superior moral being. Prepare to be preached at and patronised."

This outburst, reported on the same day as Tony Blair called for "a new national moral purpose" certainly has the ring of truth about it. But, on the other hand, why on earth would the Government fund a replica of Alton Towers to celebrate the new millennium? I thought the idea was that you got Alton Towers, and the Science Museum, and plenty of other stuff too. And while preaching and patronisation are bound to be part of any New Labour package, presumably this small aspect of the Dome, like any other, can be disregarded by the discerning visitor. We shall see.

At least we can be certain that the Dome won't be filled with explorations of dangerous liaisons. For Sunday's hour-long episode of EastEnders, like so many hours of television, was almost entirely given over to the seismic repercussions of an unremittingly sleazy affair.

Married-with-baby Bianca has been sleeping with the boyfriend of her pregnant mother, Carol. The situation is given further contemporary relevance because Bianca had first had an affair with Dan when she was 15 and he was in his mid-thirties, while Carol had Bianca when she herself was around that age. Dan was married to someone else at the time of his first bunk- up with Bianca, and has at least one other child, with whom he seems to have no contact, instead living with three of Carol's four children with different men while awaiting the arrival of Carol's new baby and, of course, making love to her first one.

If the story line sounds naggingly familiar, this may be because one of the tales of woe surrounding the infamous 12-year-old mums-to-be involved the child having an affair with her mother's boyfriend. Luckily, though, in our time of need EastEnders has come to the rescue, illustrating by way of angry retribution for Bianca that sleeping with your mother's boyfriend is not a nice thing to do. There you go; you switch on EastEnders looking for some family entertainment, and you switch off again a superior moral being.

Or not. Now, whenever my stepchildren turn on the television set and express their pleasure in finding that one of Britain's leading soaps is on, I have to tell them that while it may be one o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, or five o'clock on a Saturday evening, or still only 7.30pm, so there's still quite a while before bed, this stuff is not suitable for them to watch. I don't want to have to explain to someone who is not yet 10 what date rape is, or why Bianca is snogging Dan, or why Phil and Grant are planting ecstasy pills in Beppe's club.

Nor, the other day, did I particularly wish to explain why there should be an enormous billboard 100 yards from their home and right outside a primary school which proclaimed that "An ugly man with no money might as well cut off his own penis". The answer, in case you're wondering, was that this is a quote from a very successful radio presenter called Howard Stern, and that the quote was being advertised so that lots of grown-ups would tune into his show to hear much more of the same.

The existence of such material in the mainstream of daily life, either in an adult television programme or in the promotion of an adult radio programme, poses the question: what is the watershed for? For while sexually explicit scenes don't appear in the evening soaps, there are plenty of sexually explicit story lines. And while it's difficult not to sound like a nutcase when complaining about all this "too much sex on television" stuff, the fact is that these hints from the adult world to which children can easily gain access (in the case of the billboard, by walking down the street) do suggest to them that sex is the defining pleasure of adult life.

For in the soaps there is little else but sex and work. Since the soaps (like the tabloids) deny accusations that they have a poor influence on the nation's morals by saying that they are in the business of reflecting the state of the nation, not directing it, we are left to assume that this really is the stuff of life in Britain. And so are our children.

That is one reason why the debate about sex education has become so heated. I remember with hideous clarity the day, 25 years ago, when a classmate asked me whether I knew what a penis was. As a sheltered child I replied, with some uncertainty, that this was someone who played the piano. Now, I suppose, a sheltered 11-year-old might reply that it's something an ugly man with no money might as well cut off.

Except that it's impossible to believe that there are any 11-year-olds left who don't know what a penis is, so the debate about whether schools should be telling them officially at earlier and earlier ages is becoming more and more academic. Take the 14-year-old father-to-be who revealed that he'd lost his virginity at nine and had had many lovers since then. No slouch when it comes to media spin, he told the papers that he blamed school sex education classes for his early leap into adult pleasures.

What rot. We need sex education in primary schools only because it is made almost impossible for parents to shield their children from a culture that continues to have an almost infantile obsession with sex, relationships and affairs. No wonder the EastEnders people have affairs all the time. None of them has anything else in their life that might be considered a hobby or a passion. Apart from killing people, drinking and working, nobody appears to do anything else at all.

All this has an odd effect on children, I think. When girls and boys approach puberty they do begin to think a great deal about sex, relationships and affairs. That is a natural and exciting part of growing up. But the culture around them suggests that messy, illegal and irresponsible sexual relations are the very definition of being adult, the very pinnacle of maturity, and the only leisure activity that adults ever have.

While it is unlikely that Britons will emerge from the Millennium Dome as "superior moral beings", whether or not Tony Blair's latest moral crusade is called off, it does seem to me that it is time that we took a good look at the impact that early access to such a narrow popular culture has on the sexual development of children.

Since we know that one in three of them has a television set in their bedroom, we should start to work out whether the sex act itself is the only aspect of adult relationships that should be out of bounds before the watershed, or whether it might be better all round to have an earlier watershed and tighter restrictions on programmes that are broadcast before 8pm.

For at the moment, any parent or teacher attempting to instil mature attitudes about sex is fighting a losing battle. Very young children can switch on the telly and see adults behaving very badly in the middle of Sunday afternoon. Which is just when some genuine family viewing might be the very thing.