Don't you know that it's different for girls?
In the era of Sarah Cook and Sugar, who'd be a boy? They are labelled boorish, ignorant and only after one thing. In fact, they are no match for those emotional terrorists, girls
Sunday 11 February 1996
At least that's what I told the boys when I got back home. It was, however, a complete lie. The true story of that camping holiday was one of resisted fumbles in haystacks and fields with girls I didn't even like, followed by ignominious, sore-trousered retreats and - ultimately - arboreal onanism. But my mates weren't there, couldn't check and (although I didn't realise this at the time) had all been lying about their exploits, too.
Nor was my lie entirely harmless. By the second time I'd told it, the fabrication was losing its flimsiness and turning to something more substantial in my memory. The Girl acquired a name and the The Event possessed a prelude and an aftermath. I was now (in my own mind) an experienced lover, who knew how It was done. Except, of course, that I hadn't and didn't. I had become a sufferer from False Memory Syndrome. The consequence of this was that, when eventually the great moment did arrive, it seemed all wrong - not how I remembered it at all. Surely you'd do this and I'd just ...Thus I nearly started an extremely untimely argument with the true plucker of my virginity, until - fortunately - an inner voice screamed into an inner ear "you made all that up, idiot - this is real".
You may wonder why am I telling you this. A pathological need to confess? Pure exhibitionism? Because the Editor asked me to? No. I'm doing it out of a sense that an injustice is being committed right now. Let me explain. For a fortnight now Britain has been discussing girls. First 13-year-old Sarah Cook starts a moral panic about underage sex by marrying a bloke called Mustapha Virgin and deciding to stay in Turkey. This is carried on when a Conservative MP and father of an 11-year-old girl, Peter Luff, gets a fit of the vapors about the sort of explicit advice that is appearing in his daughter's comics. Being an MP means that when you don't like something you can introduce a Bill to stop it, and Mr Luff did. Cue instant huge furore: what should girls know, when should they know it, who should tell them, would you let your daughter marry a carpet salesman, etc.
But on the fringes of this debate lurks a phantom army, invoked occasionally, roundly ridiculed and then forgotten. I speak of teenage boys. Where they have been mentioned at all it is by women columnists in the Guardian, and in such pitying tones it makes you want to spit. Boys are boastful, clumsy, coercive, ignorant, emotionally underdeveloped and boorish. Liberal women believe in frank sex education so that girls can be protected from boys - and conservative women are against it for exactly the same reason.
So here is the boys' story, not as told by one of their mothers, or by a columnist who has slept with a lot of boys, but by someone who has been a boy. As feminists rightly argue, men cannot fully understand the female experience. Equally you have to have been a 15-year-old male and continually attached to a bionic hosepipe, plugged in turn into Niagara Falls, to know what it's really like.
In my day we lied (as above). And we were very ignorant. Take, for instance, Mungo Lobositsky. Mungo was one of those boys who does everything early. At 11 he grew Rhodes Boyson sideburns, at 12 he played lock forward for the 1st XV, and at the end of the third year was bassist and manager of his own rock-band. Hirsute and bandy, Mungo was testosterone on legs. By the time he was 15 there wasn't anything he couldn't do.
Except put on a condom. The trouble had started, he told me sadly one break, with the instructions, which were printed on a little piece of card inside the packet. "Place the unrolled condom on the erect penis" was instruction one. Fair enough. Instruction two was "squeeze teat to expel air". Unhappily Mungo hadn't realised that this referred to the end of the condom. His voice quavered as he described how his girlfriend had fled from the bedroom, one hand covering a badly tweaked nipple. If it happened today he'd sue.
Out of ignorance came fear. And the biggest terrors were these: is it normal? Is what I do with it normal? One of my pals confessed many years after our adolescence that he had endured torments because, when tumescent, his otherwise straightforward organ developed a positively baroque curve to the right. For ages he believed that the only girl with whom he would ever be compatible would be one with an equal, but internal, bias to the left. "And how would I have gone about finding her?", he explained. That was before the Internet.
How we suffered then. But is it still like this, in the era of Sarah Cook and Sugar? I decided to go out on the streets and speak to some of today's teenagers about their sex lives. And then I thought better of it. After all, how do you manage to get a group of adolescent males to discuss the intimate details? Go down to the school gates at lunchtime, hang about a bit, sidle up to 14-year-old Darren Clodd and his mates and say: "Hello, I'm a journalist, can I ask you a few questions about masturbation?" Maybe in Stoke Poges, but certainly not in Limehouse. The NHS is busy enough as it is.
Finally I managed to collar a couple of keen 17-year-olds, Justin and Lucian, both of whom want to be journalists when they grow up, and thus had reason to co-operate with me. Is It, I asked sympathetically, as It Was? By and large, they said, It Is. At the age of 17, they reckoned, about 30 per cent of their peers had gone the whole way. But even then their knowledge of sex and girls was still a strange amalgam of playground stories, forbidden books on high shelves, unreliable anecdote and trial and error. What about their parents? Neither of them would ever have dreamt of talking about sex to Mum and Dad. "Far too embarrassing all round". School? Sex is still taught clinically by biology teachers, as part of the biology syllabus. Most teachers, said Justin (brought up in the post "Carry On" era) "can't handle it in a class situation". After 10 minutes allocated for embarrassing questions the red-faced pedagogues move quickly on to something more tasteful, such as dissecting live frogs. "I think we saw a film once", admits Lucian. His hazy description reminded me of one that I'd seen in the late Sixties - it was in black-and-white and started with naked boys and then naked girls jumping into a swimming pool. As their genitals flashed by, a BBC newsreader type intoned something about fertilisation. Much formal sex education just about fulfills the useful function of disabusing those who have reached puberty believing that babies come when men put their noses in ladies armpits and sneeze - but not much else.
So this generation of boys, it seems to me, is not very different to its predecessors, despite what Suzanne Moore describes as "the sexualisation of our culture". Just because the knickers you wear are Calvin Klein (as seen on teenage boy cuties), it doesn't mean that anyone is necessarily any more likely to want to get into them. And it is hard to believe that this lot think about sex any more than my lot did - there are still only 24 hours in a day. So they are as confused and inept as us.
But the current bunch are also being demonised. Everything is their fault. They hang around at bus stops, shout in the street, play rowdy games of football next to the new Saab and - if you give 'em a chance - they will roger your innocent Belinda.
Well hold on. For every Mustapha Virgin there is a Sarah Cook. One of the things that no magazine, or teacher, or parent ever prepares teenage boys for, is the sheer emotional ruthlessness of teenage girls. While they are warning their daughters that boys "only want one thing", they neglect to tell their sons that girls want several, and all of them badly.
At 18, on another camp, I awoke to find a 13-year-old Jezebel, body like Claudia Schiffer, stuck to my face. She'd made her decision, and I was it. For once in my life I did the decent thing, gently detached her, rolled over and never mentioned it again. But it was one of several occasions on which the homing device in a young female had fixed itself on my exhaust, and would not easily be deflected. Is it not just possible that this is what happened to the reviled Mustapha?
We are no match. Never have been. How unsurprising it is to discover from Justin, Lucian and the sex educators that one prime source of information for boys about sexuality and emotions are the very girls' magazines that Peter Luff so dislikes. But boys' pride doesn't allow the mags to be purchased directly. They are scrounged on coach journeys and school trips and, behind a mask of mockery, eagerly devoured. What the girls cast off, we shamefacedly put on. How sad.
GIRLS ON BOYS
When a 13-year-old boy phones you up you know that they've got a friend in the background, listening. That happened to me once; I heard the friend giggling and it felt horrible. Boys of 13 don't want relationships, they just want girlfriends to show us off to their friends, so they always look for the pretty ones. Lizzie,13
Some boys come up to ask you for a dance at a disco but when you say yes they tell you that they're only joking and walk away laughing. All 13-year-old boys think about is your looks and your age, if you're not pretty they don't want to know. Pippa,12
Boys don't have the nerve to phone you up, so you have to phone them and then it seems as if you are hassling them and things go wrong from then on. Kate,12
It's nice having boyfriends, it really comforts you. My boyfriend doesn't push me at all, he only does what I want him to. He always asks me if I'd like him to kiss me. Boyfriends always get embarrassed in front of you and are very aware of the fact you are a different sex. Laura, 12
I prefer to go out with someone who's 15 or 16, older boys give more respect to girls. The younger a boy is the less likely it is that relationship will last, I went out with a 12-year old and he dumped me after a week. But I do like to have friends who are boys of 13 or 14. I often find it easier to talk to them, they are less bitchy than girls. If you have male friends people assume that they are your boyfriend and ask you about snogging and things like that. Lucy, 13
I don't think that magazines should keep showing perfect people. Usually the boys look really hunky which means that you expect the boys you know to look like that and are disappointed when you find out that they don't. It's the same with the pictures of the girls who are so pretty with such perfect figures that you feel inadequate. Maria,14
I usually meet boys at discos - where they sidle up to you looking very embarrassed. Helen,12
Boys our age learn about sex from porno magazines and then they expect us to have really great figures. Sometimes the boys I hang around with will put porn movies on when I'm with them but it gets on my nerves. You do get some sleazy people who just treat you like you are a sex object. Natasha,13
All the boys I know show me respect but that's probably because I'm feisty and they're scared of me. I think boys my age are mature but the minute they're with their mates they change and start talking about whether they would go with this bird or that bird. But it's an act - on their own they're very different, much more considerate. Yvette, 14
Boys my age are very immature and shy, so I'm not bothered with them, though some girls like younger ones. I prefer men who are very much older, 17, 18 or even 21. Lisa, 13
If you behave like a little girl in front of boys you get treated as one, but behave like you know what's what and they will respect you. Jane,14
Interviews by Katie Sampson
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