Victims of a culture that won't let our young people say no to sex

'I hope my daughter understands that she is much more than a sex aid for grasping, growing boys'
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The Independent Online

My first sexual experience was with my ex-husband when I was 20 years old and he was 21. We had been dating for two and a half years, during which time we held hands, hugged a lot and kissed each other with a bruising ferocity. Night after night we would carry on this petting, discharging the hot passion we felt for each other on a half broken bench outside Mary Stuart Hall, the women's residence at Makerere University in Kampala. Miss Stanton, the prim Englishwoman who was the warden, would make sure she walked by a couple of times, just in case.

My first sexual experience was with my ex-husband when I was 20 years old and he was 21. We had been dating for two and a half years, during which time we held hands, hugged a lot and kissed each other with a bruising ferocity. Night after night we would carry on this petting, discharging the hot passion we felt for each other on a half broken bench outside Mary Stuart Hall, the women's residence at Makerere University in Kampala. Miss Stanton, the prim Englishwoman who was the warden, would make sure she walked by a couple of times, just in case.

The Sixties culture had wafted into Uganda, but the old values fought back effectively. We loved the op art dresses, Jean Shrimpton eyelashes and the Beatles, but were fearful of the drugs and the free-for-all sex. I was, anyway, which is why I held out until after I was engaged. Fear of shame and gossip was a powerful deterrent, and I know that I only did what I did because I was absolutely sure that the young man was going to be my husband.

I described this eventual, longed-for surrender in my autobiography, which was published a few years ago. My mother phoned and summoned me over. She was furious, she said, ashamed that her daughter had no morals. Distraught too, that I had so little self-respect that I gave myself to a man before he had done the right thing and married me. What was the hurry? What would I have done if he had gone off with someone else? Men are men, she said through her tears, and they are only too happy to take. Why did I not say no and believe that I was worth waiting for? I felt like a young teenager again. I was 45, a mother of two, and I stood there sweating and quaking in front of my 80-year-old mum. I know most readers will think this quite ridiculous, but in my heart I think I believed she was right. Girls and young women should always be more cautious than they ever are about when they have sex, and with whom.

I look at my little seven-year-old daughter and I know that this is the lesson I want her to learn too. But she lives in a world where such caution is considered anachronistic, which is why most commentators have reacted with predictable derision to the new Government campaign to encourage girls (and boys too) to think before they have sex. Obviously those who think it is misguided for the Government to give out this sensible and important message, think that it is perfectly OK for our children to be drawn consciously, and subliminally, into believing they must, must, must fornicate, as soon as and as often as possible. Girls are expected from the age of 12 ( younger too) to be fully sexually aware, body-conscious, and to compete flagrantly in the marketplace for attention and sex. Our whole culture is driven by this obsession with youth sex and body image, from children's television programmes to the clothes girls buy in Top Shop.

Extraordinarily, the era that has produced unprecedented academic achievements among girls is also the period when we have the highest number of teenage pregnancies. Even if you allow for class difference, what this tells us is that large numbers of bright young girls feel they must be seen to be sexually desirable and active. The only difference between the middle classes and poorer groups is that the former have the wherewithal to "manage" any unwanted pregnancies, while it is the children of the poor (as ever) who are ending up as child mothers. But most of our daughters are succumbing.

You can be brainy or exceptionally talented, but the only way to get recognition and respect is to be available and to look it. An item on Woman's Hour this week looked at how there is evidence of increasing violence among young girls and women. Some of the young schoolgirls interviewed said that their most vicious fights were often over young men. Pop videos reinforce these values relentlessly. Thrusting, semi-naked bodies have actually replaced the music now, and a large number of these videos feature bloody battles between hysterical young females all dying to screw the same cool guy.

Young people have become victims of a savagely "free" culture which no longer gives them permission to say no.

Social disapprobation, once gone, can never be reinstated. And anyway, nobody is suggesting that we should return to the days when young women were damned forever for having sex outside marriage. This is what still happens in some communities in Britain, and the pain and injustice is intolerable if one believes in gender equality. But these same communities - which include British Asians, Chinese, Turks - do seem to have children who are not ashamed of being virgins beyond the age of 13. I once interviewed a dozen Asian girls between the ages of 14 and 20 who had run away from home and were in a refuge. They were all born here and they hated the strict restrictions imposed on them by their families. But only one said that she wanted the sexual freedom of her white peers. What would be the point they said? It gives the boys what they want without giving any commitment in return. Wise words, I thought.

The writer and researcher Adrienne Katz, who has spent years studying the attitudes of young people, found in one recent study that the majority of girls interviewed not only wanted more information about sex, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence, but that 81 per cent wanted to know how to resist pressure to have sex. Interestingly, her research into the attitudes of 1,400 teenage boys revealed that when asked "What makes a boy popular in another boy's opinion?", "He's had sex" came at the bottom of the list. Only 8 per cent believed that this was important. Humour, trust, and the capacity to be a good friend were the top three.

I know that my daughter will not be 20 and engaged before she has sex, and that she will just laugh if I behave like my formidable mother. But I do hope that she understands that during her teenage years, she can have boyfriends and even keep their attention without going to bed with them, and that she is more, much more, than a sex aid for grasping, growing boys.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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