Don't send me to jail

If the Sexual Offences Bill curbs advice columnists, young people will suffer, argues the agony uncle Phillip Hodson
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The Independent Online

When I was an advice columnist for the News of the World, the problems did not come only from the readers. I found myself under increasing pressure to angle the page toward the perceived tastes of the readership. The message was clear: "We want more sex, lad."

Eventually, I sent a memo to my editor: "Please remember," I wrote, "this is my column, too." He was not best pleased.

Today, the pressure is coming from a different direction: the Government is proposing a Sexual Offences Bill preventing teachers, counsellors, school nurses and, God help us, even agony aunts and uncles such as me from giving sensible advice on love, sex and relationships to people under the age of 16.

As a sex-and-relationship therapist who has written for 10 magazines and newspapers, I fail to see why I should be put at risk of keeping company with the likes of Kenneth Noye and Jeffrey Archer. The fact that Patricia Hewitt, herself a former advice columnist for the Daily Star, can sit in Cabinet and keep a straight face defies belief.

The proposed law would make it a punishable offence to "communicate with a child, where any part of the communication is sexual". So, out go teen magazines, and the opportunity that they provide for kids to absorb information more reliable than that available in the school playground ("You lose eight pints of blood with every period" is one whopper I remember). Out go television programmes such as BBC 1's Saturday Superstore and Going Live!, on which I appeared for six years discussing everything from teenage breasts and bras to the age of consent - "Don't do something where you can only cope if things turn out for the best."

All this is based on a British Establishment fear and confusion about the nature of both sex and childhood, routinely reflected in our publishing law and practice. It's largely forgotten that the age of consent to sex and marriage in England and Wales was 13 until 1885, when Parliament arbitrarily moved it to 16 in an overnight moral panic. The change came about because a pioneering journalist, William Stead, exposed the scandal of child prostitution on the streets of London by buying a 13-year-old from her parents for £5, spending a chaste night with her in an hotel and writing up the story in his magazine, the Pall Mall Gazette. The government threw him into prison for his temerity, an attitude to which it still fondly clings.

I have seen changes in the 30-odd years I have been dispensing advice to young people. In the 1970s, there were questions about the Pill and contraception, but the issue for many was: is this the boy I should marry? Today, it is: will this boy give me a good orgasm?

The change came with the arrival of Cosmopolitan, which altered the whole vocabulary of sex in mainstream magazine publishing. Helen Gurley Brown saw to that. Up until then, there had been a coyness and a fear that explicit advice might lead to prosecution. But Cosmo was so upfront and so loud that it became too big to take on.

I am pleased that we changed. Yes, kids talk about oral sex and some columnists are too lurid for any sensible person's taste buds - mine included. (My rule of thumb is simple: would I be saying this to my own child of the same age?) But sex advice ought not to be a matter for the Sexual Offences Bill. If the Government wants to get at these magazines, Section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act is still willing to make an editor into a criminal. Isn't that sanction enough for our ex-liberals?

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