The hypocrisy of America’s moral outrage

US pressure groups are up in arms over the racy British TV import, Skins. But why the moral panic? Teenagers are no more likely to be brainwashed by it than they are by shows about teenage mothers, or films about romantic vampires, argues Harriet Walker

Monday 31 January 2011 01:00 GMT

Sound the alarum! Lock up your daughters! Return the remote control to behind the bullet-proof plexiglass and tell the kids to get back to their prayers; there's nothing to see down here.

The outrage and kerfuffle sparked in America last week upon the airing of teen drama Skins, a series originally shown on British television in 2007 and subsequently remade for US audiences, was nothing short of Victorian hysteria.

It was described by the Parents Television Council, an organisation to give even Mary Whitehouse a run for her money, as "the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seen". Five days after it aired, significant advertisers, the fast-food chain Taco Bell withdrew their support, stating that some scenes did "not match with its vision" of what teen entertainment ought to be. And execs at MTV, the channel which broadcast Skins on 16 January, are concerned that elements of the show might contravene federal child pornography statutes.

Like fun they are. They're laughing all the way to the bank. The puritans and the prudes might have been purse-lipped and goggle-eyed at the sight of a 17-year-old's bare bottom running down a road, some recreational drug use or a recurring erectile dysfunction joke, but their wards certainly weren't. The first episode of Skins drew in viewing figures of 3.3 million, and broke the record for a new show in the 18-35 demographic – a tricksy internet – and smartphone-obsessed age bracket that television moguls are desperate to drag back to the sofa.

One of MTV's other hero shows in the US at the moment is a charming series entitled Teen Mom – the premiere of Teen Mom 2 earlier this month sucked in 3.6 million viewers and the show, that follows the trials and travails of – you guessed it – down-on-their-luck teenage mothers, has been credited even by America's left-wing press as a factor in the recent decline in US teen pregnancy rates. "No pamphlet or public service ad is more likely to encourage birth control than these MTV tableaus of maternal boredom, fatigue and loneliness," said The New York Times last week.

It paints a grim picture indeed, following the banal back-and-forths and crisis talks between two children getting ready to be parents themselves. "Did not!" "Did too!" "Did not!" ad infinitum, says the generic Chuck to his Kenzie and back again, their bickering resounding through entire strata of Tennessee and Kentucky.

But what these two television fables go to show is the great divide in American teen values, that are stricken by the schism between entertainment and moralising, between education and didacticism. There's no doubt that two minutes of Teen Mom is enough to convince you not to have a child with a 16-year-old called Tyson who is more in love with his truck than with you. But does it really follow that after two minutes of Skins, you'll be frotting with the boy next door and rubbing weedkiller into your gums?

"Young people aren't silly," says Simon Blake, chief executive of the Brook Advisory Service, which offers sexual health advice to teenagers. "They won't do what they see on TV. These programmes are key as conversation starters, and it's our responsibility as adults to answer the questions they raise."

But it seems to be an American tactic to simply shut down these conversations before they begin, so rigid are the moral codes spattered across so large and diverse a country. The cries to pull Skins, despite (or perhaps because of) its popularity among its target audience is a knee-jerk shutdown in communications, like the spoilsport who fast-forwards the innocent mucky bit in an otherwise anodyne rom-com, and, in its more sinister incarnation, the Arkansas supermarket policy that led to the covering up of the image of Elton John, David Furnish and their baby on the cover of weekly gossip mag US Weekly "to protect young shoppers". American absolutism means that their cultural handle on sex veers from ignorant to hypocritical, but rarely settles at normal or compassionate.

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"The abstinence movement in the US is something I absolutely detest," says sex expert Tracey Cox. "If you look at the campaigns they're presented in terms of 'would you want a bite from an apple that somebody else has bitten?' Girls are described as sluts if they so much as kiss someone."

Yet one of the biggest teen phenomena of recent years – both in the States and the UK – has been the Twilight saga of books and now films. Written by Mormon and abstinence evangelist Stephanie Meyer, they tell the story of Bella, a human, and Edward, a vampire, who spend a lot of time fizzing away next to each other but insist on getting married – at 18 and 107 respectively – before they let things go any further. The explanation is based around Edward's 19th-century sensibilities (which is the era in which he was a teenager, of course) and the danger than his phenomenal physical strength could hurt Bella should they bump uglies before she too is turned into one of the undead. It may be contrived perhaps, but not half as complex as some other American value systems.

"The downside of this," continues Cox, "is that if you're a teenager who goes further than you're 'supposed' to – and who doesn't, because you're pretty much a walking erection at that age? – they think they've done the most terrible, awful thing. And that's when they think they might as well continue down that road and get coerced into doing much worse."

The fear in some quarters over a programme showing experimental sex and drug use belies an ingrained suspicion of youth itself; 60 years ago, these were the people complaining about Elvis's pelvis – and nobody was scarred by that. And there has been similar outcry over music videos andtelevision appearance by the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna recently – but that has come from this side of the Atlantic; the Yanks don't seem to care about explicit music videos.

There's an odd force at work in the States that implies they don't trust their own abilities to suspend their disbelief. Skins is no less a sex pantomime than Lady Gaga writhing on a bed in a nun's costume is, but because she's doing it to music, it's deemed less harmful. There are certain camps which would argue that the British humour and hyperbole of a programme like Skins is lost on a somewhat literal American audience.

And there is of course the fact that the actors in Skins are teenagers themselves, and this is what the child pornography accusations seek to address. But there is very little nudity in Skins, certainly nothing explicit; there is a smidgen of heavy petting but nothing that constitutes pornography, underage or otherwise. Presumably, no-one on the Parents Television Council has ever seen any real porn – they'd probably combust if they did.

Because the public face of American adolescence is Miley Cyrus – it's High School Musical and Disney's Mouseketeers. And notably, these teen stars are beloved of 4 to 10 year olds. Their own demographic aren't interested in them, because they're more polystyrene than person.

"It's good to have a bit of diversity on television," continues Simon Blake. "That's our responsibility in this – teenagers have questions and they want to talk about things. They'll talk in the playground regardless, so shows like Skins are a brilliant opportunity to engage them."

The Brook Service is behind the current UK series The Joy of Teen Sex which tries to address young people's anxieties and fears, through direct, no-nonsense Q and As with blunt-talking doctors. "I spoke to some teenagers the other day who said they were bored by it and had turned it off," he adds. "Some thought it was silly, some think it's boring. They're not as obsessed as we like to think."

And not as obsessed, perhaps, as we are. British music mogul Mike Stock (of Aitken and Waterman fame) last summer made a pronouncement that the raunch culture of the industry was over-sexing our children and exposing them at far too young an age to the vagaries of rubber catsuits and booty shaking. "[Parents] were quite happy to put their kids in front of Hannah Montana," he told the Daily Mail last August, "but recently, Miley Cyrus [who plays kids' character Montana] has shown off her maturing body."

When you've finished being sick, perhaps you might consider the latent Never Never Land-ism contained within his words; the fact is, children become teenagers, and you can't stop them. "It's a myth that teenagers are in more danger now," says Tracey Cox. "Teens are better equipped than ever; there has never been a better time to do your growing up."

"People think it didn't used to be like this," adds Simon Blake. "But these issues didn't come along at the same time as Cheryl Cole. It was just as difficult when I was young, the only difference was that it was Adam Ant and Right Said Fred who were on my television screen."

You need only look to some teen icons who have grown up to get a sense of how skewed the system is. Remember the furore of Britney's much-discussed virginity; her seamless segue from teen queen and sexy schoolgirl to psycho shaven-headed trailer trash: this, the abstinence lobby would have you believe, is what happens to girls who "do it". It was fine to speculate about whether she'd had a boob job or to accuse her of being too nipply on-stage in 1998, but only because she was still all nice and virginal. There's a sort of logical disconnect going on here, and it's much more sinister than simply addressing the issue of teenagers having sex straight on.

"The pop group JLS launched a condom range with us recently," explains Blake, "and young people loved it. They seemed thrilled that high-profile people were taking them seriously. They have lots of questions. And no matter whether you're 13 or 30, you're always going to worry about sex and whether you're having enough or doing it right."

Ultimately, there is one sure-fire way to dampen the flames of teen lust, and that's not to make a big deal about it. There is, after all, nothing less sexy that adult-sanctioned sex.

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