E Jane Dickson: Filling a void where love should be

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The Independent Online

Next week, my 11-year-old son is due to watch a schools sex information film. It’s an event viewed with no great enthusiasm by a boy who still covers his face with a cushion when James Bond moves in for a smooch. This seems to be a common enough reaction among his peers. “For the love of God,” as one small sophisticate put it on the way to Scouts, “do we really need to know this stuff?”

As the last ounce of scandal is wrung from the story of “Britain’s youngest father”, I’d say the answer is overwhelmingly “yes”. There are compelling arguments for standardised, statutory sex education in our primary schools – children need to know enough to keep themselves safe. If, however, we expect education alone to address the problem of underage parenting, we’re on a hiding to nothing.

A generation or so ago, “gymslip pregnancies” were, plausibly, the product of ignorance. Nice girls weren’t supposed to know about sex and therefore fell victim to breathless myths (“you won’t get pregnant if you’re standing up/having a period/crossing your fingers”).

Nice boys took precautions, and if those failed, they took responsibility.

Then, as now, niceness had nothing to do with it. (And if you think we’re over such quaint notions, just fill your lungs with the fug of class snobbery obscuring the issues in the case of 13-year-old Alfie Patten and the 15-year-old mother of his child.) It is clear that when it comes to sexual knowledge – which is quite different from sexual maturity – girls today scarcely fit the image of “innocence abus’d”.

I can remember my daughter’s year group emerging from the “Personal Health” session two years ago. The boys in the class wore expressions ranging from sheepish to stunned. The girls, most of whom had been quizzing mothers, sisters and friends well in advance of the lesson, looked fashionably bored.

Girls, in short, have never been so well informed. Contraception is freely and confidentially available. It cannot be repeated too often that fathers, whether they’re 13 or 30, must own their responsibilities, but there is now scant reason, barring the obvious circumstance of rape, for a 15-year-old to get pregnant if she doesn’t want to. Which leads us to the uncomfortable truth that many girls, too young for legal sex, do in fact want to have babies.

I’m unconvinced by the argument that underage mothers are “in it for the benefits”. There are easier ways, frankly, of earning 85 quid a week. I’d be more interested in finding out why girls are so easily resigned to subsuming themselves to the care of a child.

It is a trumpeted cliché of parenthood that until you reproduce, you are basically a selfish organism; once you have a child of your own, your every hope and dream is diverted to its welfare. The trade-off for this is an unconditional, soul-drenching love you wouldn’t have believed possible. The fact that it’s an annoying cliché doesn’t mean this isn’t true. And it worries me very much that children barely into their teens should feel their own lives promise so little in the way of personal satisfaction that they are rushing to meet a responsibility beyond their resources and capabilities. It saddens me even more to think that what they’re craving, in creating a new life, is love.

It is unhelpful to wish a child unborn. And it seems to me wilfully wrong-headed, to suggest, as was suggested this week by the Tory children’s spokesman Tim Loughton, that government guidelines designed to support very young parents are somehow “encouraging” teen pregnancies. It just seems to me that “un-pregnant” teens could equally use our support to find hope in their own lives. Because there’s more than one way to abuse a child’s innocence.

Not much wit, but plenty of twits

I’m damned if I can see what’s so great about Twitter. The micro-blogging site, where celebrities and non-entities alike keep us up to date on their every bowel movement, recently received the intellectual imprimatur of Stephen Fry when he shared his pensee (“Arse, poo and widdle”) at being stuck in a lift, but even with this high-end endorsement, an online salon of wits it ain’t. Take the current spat between the pop star Lily Allen and the blogmeister Perez Hilton. Lily tells Perez, “Go away you little parasite”. Perez parries with the rapier-like, “I’m still a big fat C***. Just like U”. Cue endless discussion of “the democratisiation of the media”.

Call me a Luddite – I’ve been called worse – but I don’t see how this kind of unedited splurging adds to the gaiety of nations. I do see how it could very easily become a kind of cultural |licence to bully, the equivalent of a |giant toilet wall in cyberspace where you scrawl your insults. It’s reckoned that seasoned “tweeters” spend an average of one hour a day on the site connecting deliriously with people they’ve never met. Personally I’d rather call up a friend and chat or bitch – or apologise for bitching – in private. There again, in cyberspace, nobody can hear you squirm.

The Ripper’s release was greatly exaggerated

So the Yorkshire Ripper will stay behind bars. It is a measure of the public’s concern that the Prime Minister has stepped forward to confirm that Peter Sutcliffe, jailed for life in 1981 for the murder of 13 women and the attempted murder of seven more, is not due for release.

“In my view, it is very unlikely that anything is going to happen that is different from the sentence that has been imposed on him,” said Gordon Brown after it was reported that Sutcliffe’s possible reclassification as a “low risk” prisoner makes him eligible for rehabilitation. The man known as the Yorkshire Ripper is currently held in Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital after being transferred from prison in 1984 suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. A mental health review later this year will decide whether he is sufficiently recovered to be transferred back to prison.

There has been much wrangling over the legality of Sutcliffe’s position consequent to the failure of the judge to set a formal tariff on the term of his imprisonment at the time of sentencing. The high feeling surrounding the case – utterly understandable on the part of his victims’ families – does not favour a clear view on whether Sutcliffe is now technically sane.

However, in the light of uncontested crimes that orphaned 26 children, it would be a mad person indeed who held this technicality important.