When adults fantasise about teenage sex

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The Independent Online
WHAT would you expect to find inside a magazine with five young men posing moodily on its cover, one of them in a James Dean-style vest, under the headlines "Girl mad! Exclusive! Boyzone in Spain!"? Although I am not a regular reader of TV Hits, I think I could offer a fair guess that it's not a publication offering knitting patterns for the over-40s, gardening for those dead winter months or extracts from Middlemarch.

No one could accuse this magazine, whose December edition has now been banned from sale in Tesco, Asda, Safeway, Sainsbury's, WH Smith and the Somerfield supermarket chain, of being discreet. Published by Attic Futura, which is owned by one of Rupert Murdoch's companies, it offers its readers articles on teen idols such as Take That along with - and this is how it got into trouble - advice from an agony aunt. Tesco imposed a company-wide ban after one complaint from a customer in Gwent while Asda followed suit because "we are a family store with responsibility for our customers".

What was in TV Hits that shocked all these people so much? The answer is an agony aunt's reply to a 16-year-old girl in Essex who had asked: "I know this sounds stupid but what is oral sex?" The response seems to have been carefully worded, frankly answering the question while offering advice on using condoms and suggesting that the reader shouldn't allow herself to be forced into trying oral sex if she's at all reluctant. I vividly recall asking the same question at home when I was 13 and getting the quaintly misleading one-word reply, "kissing". That's precisely why teenagers write to magazines, as Melanie McFadyean, former agony aunt of Just Seventeen, pointed out this week: "You ask an agony aunt because no one else will tell you."

It seems a little strange that supermarkets which are quite happy to sell a magazine offering "10 sexee! POSTERS" on its cover should get so worked up when their attention is drawn to responsible advice inside. This seems to suggest that selling fantasy sex to teenagers is fine as long as we can all go on pretending that they aren't interested in trying out the activities such publications blatantly promote.

THE Daily Telegraph's report of the banning of the December edition of TV Hits was juxtaposed with a one-paragraph news item headlined "Vicar dies of Aids". The Rev Simon Bailey, who was 39, tested HIV-positive nine years ago when the dreadful impact of the virus was only just beginning to be clear.

The fact that the predicted Aids epidemic didn't happen in Britain (although its effects are, for those infected, dire enough) suggests that telling people the truth about sex and its attendant risks, far from promoting orgies, actually makes their behaviour safer. As Madonna insists on her brilliant Erotica album, "ignorance is not bliss".

WHEN I was at school, we worried far more about unwanted pregnancies then sexually-transmitted diseases. We were given awful warnings about girls who Let Their Families Down and became Unmarried Mothers - a phrase that isn't in itself pejorative but which had acquired a whole nexus of negative connotations. It's fallen out of use, being replaced by lone or single parent, so I was surprised to read in the Daily Mail this week that Hillary Clinton had been having coffee and cookies with some unmarried mothers (and a divorcee) during her visit to London.

These were not any old unmarried mothers, which is why the Daily Mail got so cross about the event. The list included Elizabeth Symons, "unmarried mother and general secretary of the civil servants' union, the First Division Association", and "unmarried mother Sue Slipman, 46, a one-time Communist and, until recently, leader of the National Council of One Parent Families". The "divorcee" was Baroness Blackstone, High Master of Birkbeck College and Labour's foreign affairs spokesman in the House of Lords.

Other women present, such as Julia Middleton who runs a charity raising money for inner-city projects, had their marital status and number of children spelled out before their jobs. The only explanation I can think of for the Mail's dated terminology is that it was fulminating about the list being drawn from a "left-of-centre elite". As everyone knows, working mothers (and especially unmarried ones) are almost single-handedly responsible for the breakdown of the family, and indeed civilisation as we know it, which makes their private lives fair game. The Mail also reported that the discussion "was far removed from normal Women's Institute matters", ranging over topics such as education, parenting, career guidance and equal opportunities.

Wow. These women are dangerous. I'm amazed that the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, didn't get up and storm out as soon as such radical subjects were raised.

ON THE other hand if the Clinton administration was genuinely progressive, it would have challenged the convention that the President has to be accompanied by someone with the ludicrous title of First Lady. Would a female US president travel the world with a First Gentleman in tow, packing him off to coffee mornings to talk about "children from disrupted family backgrounds, marital problems and their impact"?

I think not, partly because these are traditionally female subjects and partly because a male spouse wouldn't be expected to occupy this ambiguous and unelected position. Even though I detest her, Margaret Thatcher marked a break with the past in one respect: she ran for office instead of exercising power through the indirect channels previously used by women. First Ladies, whether they are Hillary Clinton or our own wannabe Cherie Blair, reinforce the idea of politics as an essentially male culture in need of the occasional light feminine touch. Not so much back to the kitchen as back to the coffee mornings?