E Jane Dickson: Just say 'no' to these sexual antics

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The Independent Online

Every generation thinks it invented sex. Some generations, it appears, are more inventive than others. I cannot be the only parent whose reaction on hearing the alarming news from the Royal College of Nursing that schoolchildren are indulging in the sexual practice of "daisy-chaining" was: what in God's name is daisy-chaining?

A quick trawl through the internet left me disabused of any "he loves me, he loves me not" teenage dream. Daisy-chaining, it turns out, is simultaneous group sex in which each person connects, genitally, with another; the precise disposition of bodyparts required to effect this human Rubik's Cube remains hazy, but one thing is clear: it's a long way from Postman's Knock.

The idea that schoolchildren are skipping homework for this kind of thing is, of course, horrible and we must be thankful to the school nurses at this week's RCN conference in Harrogate for drawing our attention to the phenomenon; even the most liberal parents, one assumes, are unaware that their teenagers are practising such terrifically unsafe sex after school hours.

It really shouldn't come as news that underage sex is on the increase - or did we think that all those teenagers pushing buggies were just helping out their big sisters? The shame is that it takes a brand new buzz-word to shock us out of our complacency. We know that Britain has more teenage pregnancies than anywhere else in Europe. We know sexually transmitted diseases have increased by 57 per cent in the last 10 years. You'd think we'd know if our children were organising orgies in the living room, but apparently we don't.

It is axiomatic that children don't want to think about their parents having sex; the very idea is monstrous. Increasingly, the reverse is true; parents, too appalled or too embarrassed to confront their children's sexual activity, are doing the equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and humming.

Are we, quite simply, out of our depth? My internet search for "daisy-chaining" opened up a realm of eye-popping sexual proclivities; such a resource - free, unregulated, explicit - will surely not be lost on a curious, click -happy child. Much has been written of late about the "digital divide" between parents and their computer-literate offspring. Could it be that another generational divide is opening up, with children pretending to a degree of "sexual literacy" their parents never dreamed of?

Baby-boomers are accustomed to think of themselves as unshockable - hell, we lived through the '60s. But two generations have grown up since the summer of love. For those currently aged 45 and over, the average age to lose one's virginity was 17. For those in the 16-20 age range, the figure has dropped by two years. This cannot wholly be attributed to the availability of reliable contraception (in fact, the biggest demographic leap in age-related sexual activity occurred between the austerity years of the 1940s and the never-had-it-so good 1950s).

We've been through condoms and, as it were, out the other end. Among the most frightening examples of junior sexual mores thrust in our averted faces by the school nurses this week was the story of the 14-year old boy who contracted HIV as a result of sexual activity. "HIV can't happen to me," he told his doctors. "It only happens to old people."

Nobody likes to sign up for an egg-sucking course, but evidence suggests that, where underage sex is concerned, it's time British parents got with the programme. It's all very well debating the age of consent, for all the world as if it made a blind bit of difference to the management of adolescent hormones when every scrap of evidence suggests the opposite; the fact is that our children are having more sex, with more partners, at a younger age, and if we are agreed that this is an undesirable trend we need to know why and - unpalatable as it may be - we need to know how.

The "why" is blindingly obvious; because they can. Peer pressure in sexual matters has all but eclipsed parental authority (the weight of peer pressure in the context of juvenile group sex is, again, something most parents don't want to, but most definitely should, think about.) It has become a tenet of liberalism that "you can't stop kids having sex", but if it were my 13-year daughter putting herself at risk of pregnancy and infection, I think I'd be having a bloody good try.

I'm aware that lurking at the bedroom door with a bucket of cold water is not a realistic option; nor would I advocate a Victoria Gillick style blockade on contraception and sexual advice for the under 16s. But I can't for the life of me see what's wrong with a bit of properly implemented parental disapproval. If I thought my child was free-basing heroin or joy-riding or doing anything else likely to cause significant harm to themselves or others, I'd be weighing in with every sanction at my disposal. So why are we so "ooh-I-couldn't-possibly" coy about questioning our children's sexual behaviour?

The very least we can do is be there for our children, not just in an emotionally supportive way, but physically, old-fashionedly there. Most teenagers will not, I think, organise a gang-bang in the living room while Mum - or her deputy - is listening to The Archers in the kitchen. So, enough wailing about how a generation has lost its innocence. If we are to restore childhood to our children, someone is going to have to be the grown-up.