If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the sound of Lord Baden-Powell spinning in his grave. Not because the internet meme of working out your fake Tory name (grandfather’s name + street you grew up on + your old headmaster’s surname) fields results that sound uncannily like his own, but because the Girl Guides have got a new Brown Owl, or whatever you call them. A Head Brown Owl. A Grand Vizier Brown Owl, perched right at the top of the tree.
And she talks about sex. Not in a “lie back and think of England” way, but with more of a “sit up and sort yourself out” type of approach. Julia Bentley, the former head of the Family Planning Association, was named the chief exec of Girlguiding UK this week, having spent much of her adult career not dib-dib-dibbing or dob-dob-dobbing according to her Queen and her country, but rather for the thousands of young women and girls whose lives are blighted early on by sexual health scares, unwanted pregnancies, lack of information and peer pressure around the issue.
Bentley was a Blair Babe (sorry, I won’t use that phrase ever again, I promise), installed by TB to try to cut down the soaring rate of teenage pregnancy in the country when he came to power. And she managed it: since 1998 the number of teenage conceptions has fallen by 18.8 per cent – the lowest under-18 rate since 1969. More girls understand their options now. And that’s thanks to a programme of education, access and information that originally blossomed under Bentley’s orders.
Two to tango
It’s a common misconception that it’s the boys who are to blame for wayward teens, whereas we all know, Girl Guide Ballroom Badge or not, that it takes two to tango. Girls are often kept out of the sexual conversation because they aren’t the ones spreading their seed. But they are the ones spreading their legs.
We lament the pressures put on children to be aware from ever earlier ages of their bodies, their attractiveness and allure. We bemoan a culture that allows MTV to wave scantily clad bums at kids the minute they get home from school; we howl at training bras for the under-10s, at make-up on minors, and fashion for foetuses.
But our outrage doesn’t fix things – that’s why Bentley’s appointment is a step in the right direction. Kids see themselves as adults now, and they act accordingly. Treat them like adults, as Bentley’s campaigns for the FPA did, and you see results.
Baden-Powell’s great initiative – and it was great at the time – was to give youngsters something to do that made them feel important. Making young people feel important or as though they have some kind of social point is a good thing, he realised, even if he did teach young Edwardian boys to live off a dead rat for three days and shave in sand.
The Girl Guides was set up initially with the intention of providing a means for young women to better themselves and broaden their horizons, whether it was learning reef knots or pitching a tent. It taught girls previously cooped up with needlepoint how to be boisterous, how to be physical and how to fend for themselves. Times have changed, but those needs have not. They might be doing it in a sweatshirt these days, rather than knee socks and a bobble hat, but Girl Guides is still relevant: it gives girls a focus beyond boys and bras.
But that shouldn’t mean that sex is off limits as a topic within the organisation. The fact is it has already had to modernise to keep up – to backtrack on declaring allegiance to one Christian God rather than the whole high street of deities you’re allowed to worship these days. They let a heathen like me in more than 15 years ago, which was pretty enlightened. They’ve also ditched a lot of the royalist guff, and introduced badges and courses that feel more readily assimilated into modern life – how to cook with local produce, for example, how to build a website, financial literacy. (Even Bob Diamond could benefit from having a go at that one.)
Personally, I don’t see any problem with Guides learning about sex. In my experience, most Monday evening church hall meet-ups were spent whispering about sex under the guise of making cutesy badges, singing songs or learning the recorder anyway. Not that we knew what sex was, of course, not that anyone had invited us to try it. (The woggle was enough to put anyone off.) But we noticed sex everywhere, from malformed fruits to ancient history. That’s what teenage girls do: you can’t ignore or suppress it, or complain that it pervades all walks of life. It does. That’s why sex is sexy.
Bentley described the Girl Guides as “the ultimate feminist organisation” this week. With that in mind, nothing is more important for girls to learn as they mature than how to take charge of themselves, their futures and their bodies. It’s that sort of strength and independence that the movement was founded upon.