Teen mags shy away from sex advice

Editors fear censure over explicit writing, reports Glenda Cooper

A Leading feminist publishing house is at odds with the editors of several magazines for teenage girls over their coverage of sex and relationships.

The Women's Press, which publishes fiction, biographies and handbooks, invited the magazines to publish extracts of a novel, In the Deep End, which attempts to deal responsibly with issues such as first-time sexual encounters. But the publishing house says it has fallen foul of the magazines' nervousness since they were criticised by MPs for the way in which they approached such sensitive subjects.

Last year teen magazines were attacked by MP Peter Luff for their "squalid titillation, salaciousness and smut", and he introduced a Bill to force them to carry age warnings on sexually explicit material.

The author of In the Deep End, Kate Cann, and the Women's Press were amazed at the attitude of the magazines to the novel. Emma D'Almeida of the Women's Press said she sent proofs to Bliss, Sugar and Just Seventeen three months ago. "We met with real reluctance. They wouldn't touch them. They have had such problems in the past with sex that they couldn't manage the book."

Last December the first report from the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel censured Sugar and Bliss for printing unrepresentative figures in surveys which suggested, falsely, that the vast majority of readers were sexually active.

Ms Cann and the Women's Press believe that this criticism and the views expressed in Parliament have made the magazines unwilling to take risks. "They are frightened by the recent outcry," she said.

In her novel, 16-year-old Coll tries to decide whether she should sleep with her boyfriend, Art. The book charts her slow decision to sleep with him, and the ramifications that follow. "I was caught up in a momentum. I knew sex was the next stage. That was the connection I wanted with him now... I was still worried about actually going through with it though.

"Going all the way. It felt like such a long way. You can find out everything in theory but the physical act is still very - well, physical."

Ms Cann believes that her book has a responsible tone, with its emphasis both on safe sex and the emotional side of a sexual relationship. Of the magazines' response she said: "I think they are scared by the honesty and it is such a shame.

"We are living in such a sexualised society - sado-masochism seems to have entered popular culture but we still don't tell kids about the emotional implications of their first love affair.

"Teenage magazines have very strong sexual content, all this titillation, how to get boys, how to be sexy. Sex education gives you the general basis. We felt there was a gap between the two.

"I remember longing for a book when I was growing up that would talk honestly and there was nothing around. They want to know what it feels like, does it hurt, all things like that."

Before the criticisms of teen magazines, Diving In, the book to which In the Deep End is a sequel, was cover-wrapped to Bliss, resulting in half a million being given away. Teenagers wrote to the Women's Press in droves demanding to know when the sequel would be out. Diving In itself had been censored because the publishers were afraid about the impact on schools sales but with the positive response they got they decided to be "a bit braver", says Ms Cann.

She wrote the book because she felt that nothing that dealt honestly with sexual relationships between teenagers had been written since Judy Blume's Forever, 20 years ago. While Forever was a ground-breaker, it deals more with issues such as going on the Pill while Ms Cann, writing in the Aids age, wanted to make the idea of using a condom a priority.

Marina Gask, editor of Sugar, said her magazine's fear of being criticised because of the book's sexual content "has undoubtedly something to do with it. But I can't speak for all the teenage press."

Maria Coole, deputy editor of Bliss, denied the magazine would "shy away from a book just because it had teenagers having sex in it".

Sarah Pyper, features editor of Just Seventeen, refused to comment.

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