More fumble than fun

In the second part of our series on the five ages of women, Melanie McFadyean discusses the pressures on girls to become sexual. How young is too young? Decades after the 'sexual revolution', are today's generation any happier or more emancipated?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Secrecy, confusion and fear are elements that too often accompany the excitement of most girls' first sexual experiences. Throw in discomfort, disappointment and embarrassment, bewilderment, even high comedy, and you have the general picture. There are bound to be some lucky ones who hit total bliss first time, but I've yet to meet one.

Is all this pain inevitable? I don't think so. The confusion, fear and secrecy are generalised by the adult world's inadequacy to deal with the drama of first sex. Statistics tell us that the average age at which girls have their first sexual experience, which in some cases means intercourse, is 14. This seems so young. Yet the understanding parent (usually a mother) who advises her daughter about contraception, who lets her in on some of the mystery and, if necessary, helps her through this rite of passage, is a rare and wonderful person.

Most adults are so overcome by their own terror or embarrassment, so driven by their own agendas, that they only add to the trauma. They tend to think immediately of the potential dangers, not of the potential pleasure. They have a point. Only someone who has lived at the bottom of a well for the past 10 years is unaware of the dangers of sexually transmitted disease, in particular HIV. Yet many adults, rather than do the safe and sensible thing, which is to be open and helpful, prefer to button their lips, leaving perplexed young girls to be lured, furtive and fearful, into apparently perilous and supposedly forbidden territory.

Who will lure them? Not only boys and their own peers, but most powerfully the commercial world, with its lip-licking, beckoning invitations to sexuality from such an early age that it is a wonder 10-year-olds aren't all at it. Implicit - even, sometimes, explicit - in many advertisements is the message that the objects of desire which money buys confer upon the purchaser an adultness that is sexual: ownership of the object makes others want you. How many famous fizzy drinks are sold by the suggestion that you'll get off with someone attractive if you drink them?

Peer pressure is the stuff of locker-room confessions, playground friendships, the nagging, daring and egging-on that make groups cohesive. It can be welcome, that sense of belonging: the confidence you get from others who've been there, done that, tried the other, whether it be a parachute jump, an oyster, a French kiss or full-on sex that you're experiencing for the first time. For some, though, the urge to be accepted involves doing things they are not sure they want to do, and they suffer as a consequence.

Sex educationalists, parents, older friends and siblings should be wise enough to persuade young people to know their own minds and to follow their own desires. There is nothing reprehensible about not wanting to have sex even if all the other girls are (or tell you they are), and there's nothing reprehensible about wanting to have sex if the other girls aren't. And will someone please institute something in the National Curriculum to teach boys that girls who do aren't "slags", and that girls who don't aren't "fridges".

Girls have sex at a younger age than they did a generation or two ago, so when they show curiosity, they need to know the facts, the dangers and the ways of avoiding the avoidable. And they also need to know that age isn't the only deciding factor in choosing whether or not to have sex - it is just as important that they be ready, know their own mind, have been warned, advised and protected against possible emotional and physical consequences.

The question of age is hugely and unnecessarily controversial. The finger- waggers who say girls should not have sex before marriage, let alone before the "age of consent", deserve to have those fingers chopped off. Girls need a listening ear and advice, not a lecture. I am not saying "Hey, girls, why not all have sex at 12?", but I do believe that the right age is when fear, doubt and ignorance subside, and a girl has a good idea of what she is getting into. If you have your first sexual experience at 14, let's hope you are an informed 14. If it means waiting until you're an unfashionable age - over 20, let's say - then so be it. It may not be very exciting to say so, but waiting does give you time to get wiser, to cultivate your power, to lessen the chances of disappointment and heartache.

First sexual encounters are bound to be fumbling and bumbling affairs, no amount of sense or sensibility can ever change that. But fumbling and bumbling aside, sex should at least be fun, and at best also wonderfully romantic. There is no good reason for those first sexual experiences to be loaded with guilt, fear, ignorance, danger. Yet, ironically, even though sex is more publicly evident than ever before, it doesn't seem that this rite of passage has become any easier.

Next week: The Baby Question

'I worry about who it'll be with and if he'll just dump me'

Natalie Chapple is 16 and an only child. She lives with her mother and stepfather in Surrey

Mum and I don't really talk much about sex. I got a bit of information from school but it was pretty basic stuff. If I was considering having sex I would never discuss it with Mum beforehand. She'd probably shout at me and say "You're not old enough!" So I'll make that decision myself at the time.

I worry about who it is going to be with and whether it will be the right person or whether he might just use me for one thing then dump me afterwards. You can never know. A lot of my friends have had sex because they've been pressurised into it and most of them have regretted it afterwards. The sad thing is that they let it happen again and again. Girls do it for different reasons - perhaps they just want to feel liked or they think this boy is different from the others.

I don't feel proud or disappointed that I haven't had sex. It's just something that hasn't happened yet. I don't know how long I would wait if I met someone I really liked. I'm not going to say we'll have to be married first or wait for three years. Just however long it takes to feel right.

There's always a huge pressure from boys to have sex. It's more obvious with some than others but you can usually tell what they're after. They don't ask about your personality because they're more interested in the outside of you rather than the inside. They'll ask really embarrassing questions like "When did you start developing breasts?" I just come out with something silly like "I can't remember" but I know then that they're not genuine and I should just forget them.

The boy that I went out with for three years was really nice and we talked about whether we wanted to have sex. But both of us felt we were happy as we were. Neither of us felt any need to add anything to the relationship. You hear so many myths you don't know what to believe. I've heard some scary stories about girls bleeding and the boy was so embarrassed and turned off that he dumped her shortly afterwards. But I don't believe you stay with the first person you have sex with for the rest of your life anyway. Sooner or later you have to deal with the hurt about the end of a relationship.

Contraception is available all over the place now. Going to a clinic wouldn't embarrass me at all. I don't worry about Aids that much. There is an assumption that no one you know will have that or any other sexual disease. I know I'll be far more worried about getting pregnant than getting Aids.

It's exciting being 16 because you have so much more freedom than someone younger. Boys are more interested in you than they are when you're only 14. The bad thing is that you are not so protected by your parents. You have to do loads more for yourself. I worry about stupid things like whether I'm looking OK when I go to meet a boy. You have to be careful what you say especially if you're with a boy who is older. You're thrown into all these situations like exams and you have to deal with the worry all on your own. I suppose it is just part of growing up really. There's loads of things to feel excited about. But sometimes I wish I was six again.

Interview by BEVERLEY KEMP

'When my friends found out I'd slept with him they were bitchy'

Janey is 17 next month and has slept with two boys, the first this time last year just before her 16th birthday, and the other on holiday this summer. Her parents divorced three years ago.

I had been going out with my boyfriend for seven months before we decided to sleep together. He was 17 and we talked about it several times before it happened. Once it came to the point, it was quite spontaneous. His parents were away for the weekend and we were clearing up after a party. Everyone else just sort of melted away and it seemed like the right time. We hadn't been drinking so we both felt clear-headed about it. Afterwards we kind of looked at each other and said, "what now?". We decided to carry on seeing each other. It wasn't love or anything, but I felt great affection for him, although I did wonder what he really thought of me for doing it.

I haven't told my mum and I don't think many people of my age would, although sex has never been taboo and she'd like to think I'd go to her for advice. I went to a family planning clinic instead and they helped me. I decided we'd use condoms because I didn't like the idea of the Pill lying around at home where someone might find the packet. Most girls I know think like that. It would feel a bit like having your diary read. The relationship continued up until last Christmas and then fizzled out. In retrospect, I think that if we'd left it longer before we slept together, we might have stayed together longer, but it hasn't left me with any bad feelings.

The experience I had on holiday was completely different. He was 19 and working in his parents' bar. It was pure lust and only happened once. He used me and I suppose I used him although I would have liked to have gone on seeing him. It left me feeling very vulnerable and insecure as well as a bit cheap and I wouldn't do it again.

I think people at my age put pressure on each other. When I first started going out with Dave, the girls in our group would say to me, "Haven't you slept with him yet?", as if they'd all been doing it for ages. I know they hadn't. I think a lot of people lie because they do see it as something you can boast about. When they found out I had slept with him, a lot of them became very bitchy and after we split up, they'd come knocking on my door on Sunday mornings to tell me what they'd supposedly been up to with him the night before.

Other girlfriends talk to me about sleeping with someone for the first time and I always tell them to be really careful because much as I liked Dave, he took something from me, that I can never have back. I don't feel superior to other girls because I've lost my virginity. If you do it before you're ready, you can end up feeling really used and it's so easy to get into the "can't say no" thing after that.

The way I think of things now is that I'm in this lift. The lift is my life and until I was about 14 it was stuck on the ground floor but now it's travelling up and I can either keep going up or I can push the stop button. I'm in control and I can be a child again if I want. I don't care if I don't have sex again for a long time. I really want to be able to trust a guy before I sleep with him and I don't trust easily because my father hurt me so much when he left."

Interview by FIONA MALCOLM

FACTS OF TEENAGE LIFE

In the largest national survey yet conducted, the average age at which the young respondents reported having their first sexual experience was 14 for girls and 13 for boys. However, this experience is unlikely to include full intercourse. In the 16-24 age group, most report first intercourse at age 17. One in five report having intercourse before their 16th birthday.

The age at first intercourse has decreased over the past four decades from 21. The biggest drop occurred in the 1950s, before the Pill became available.

Peer pressure is one of the main reasons given for having first intercourse. Among men aged 16-24, this was cited by 34 per cent, compared with 17 per cent of women in that age group.

In a survey for Mizz magazine and Brook Advisory Centres in 1994, 31 per cent of female teenage respondents said they had been pressurised to have sex before they were ready; 82 per cent reported that the pressure came from boyfriends.

Among the 16-24 age group, 15 per cent of men and 36 per cent of women felt they had had intercourse too soon. The younger the age at first intercourse, the higher the percentage.

First intercourse is often unplanned and therefore unprotected. Among the 16-24 group, only 37 per cent had used contraception if they had sex on the spur of the moment, compared with nearly 70 per cent who had planned ahead. Young people having first intercourse before 16 are least likely to use contraception because of a combination of unplanned intercourse and anxiety over seeking confidential help.

In 1993 (the latest year for which figures are available), 59.6 in every thousand teenagers in the 15-19 age group became pregnant; 36 per cent of these pregnancies ended in abortion. Among the 13-15 group, 8.1 per 1,000 girls became pregnant; 51 per cent of these pregnancies ended in abortion.

Information supplied by Brook Advisory Centres

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