LEADING ARTICLE: Don't lock up your daughters

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The Independent Online
So Sainsbury's, Asda and Tesco all agree - it is inappropriate for a magazine aimed at 10- to 16-year-old girls to carry an article giving detailed advice on oral sex. Thus TV Hits (otherwise stuffed full of trivia about pop stars and clothes) is being taken off the shelves as soon as the stores receive a single complaint from any parent. And at this rate it can be predicted that by the end of this week TV Hits will hardly appear anywhere.

It isn't hard to see why some parents might be concerned. The offending article certainly doesn't beat about the bush. To a 16-year-old girl asking about performing oral sex, the agony aunt (after urging the teenager not to be pressured into the act) talks about flavoured condoms and basic technique in fellatio. The readership of the magazine (on average much younger than the correspondent) is thus well educated in what is usually reckoned to be one of the most adult of acts.

For many mums and dads this is too much honesty too early. They note the rapid lowering of the age at which young people first have sex on the one hand, and the very obvious liberalisation of discussion on TV, radio and in the printed press on the other. It sometimes seems to them as though the chicken of increased frankness comes before the egg of promiscuity. After all, adolescence is the age of rebellion against parents, but of strict conformity among peers. If your class is wearing Nike trainers then so must you; if your friends are having sex, then you'd better have it too. And magazines like TV Hits appear to be helping this process along.

This view is understandable - but wrong. In the first place, greater freedom of expression has almost always followed behind behaviour rather than created it. Improvements in contraceptive technology, earlier puberty, the rise of feminism and much greater mobility have all contributed to a changed atmosphere. With sex (as with drugs), public debate has trailed reality.

What is actually being created out there is a new morality which is based on a rather different ethical code from the old one. You can see it reflected in the pages of the very magazines that cause so much concern. It does not tell teenagers who want to know the facts to go away because they should not have sex - it gives them the facts, but urges them to consult their own feelings and best interests beforehand. This month's Sugar magazine, for instance, has an adult-alarming front page advertising a story about "first-time sex, how to get it right". But the article in question is all about thinking carefully, ignoring pressure and basing sex on trust - and is accompanied by two confessions from girls who wished they had.

Such attitudes may help to explain some counter-intuitive research that was published a couple of months ago. This showed that children who received very detailed and high-quality sex education were markedly less likely to be promiscuous. Knowledge, it seems, really is power.