They mix Sixties-style sexual awareness with the prudence of an earlier age. They know everything they ever wanted to about sex and yes, they do it younger. Jojo Moyes meets some 16-24-year olds - and discovers more familiar anxieties lurking beneath thetough talk A N A L Y S I S No previous generation has been so well informed, so exposed to the technicalities of sex. This is a generation of women reared on Nine and a Half Weeks, Margi Clarke's Good Sex Guide and the promise of "orgasms made easy" in their mothers' quality magazines. Young men who 10 years ago would have described a vulva as a make of car now talk confidently about contraception and the importance of foreplay.
No previous generation has sounded so unexcited by sex either. After half an hour listening to a group of women talking about their sex lives, I had to remind myself most of them were not yet 21. They sounded more like disillusioned 40-year-olds.
"I've been with my boyfriend for two and a half years. But it's not always fantastic, especially when you've been drinking. Sometimes I just can't be bothered," says one 18 year old.
"If my boyfriend's that drunk," says another, "he's not going to be much use anyway."
The young women of this generation rarely blush and bridle when asked about sex, only when asked about love. They follow a code of sexual behaviour inexplicable to their parents, borrowing what they feel appropriate from earlier eras. Their sexual mores are a mixture of the relaxed morals of the Sixties twinned with the caution of a pre-contraceptive age - a caution forced upon them by awareness of Aids. Generation Y has never been sexually active without the threat of Aids, which has meant they have totalk more openly about sex. "A couple must have a big discussion about Aids and contraception before they do anything," says 16-year-old Amy from Leeds. "You can't sensibly just jump into bed with somebody."
Young men seem to agree. They speak convincingly of the need for condoms to prevent the spread of HIV, and the importance of communication, equality and fidelity in relationships.
Yet despite the threat of Aids, celibacy is not a word that features much in their vocabulary. The average age at which 16- to 24-year-olds lose their virginity is now 17, compared to 21, four decades ago. Anyone who talks to young people must realise that the average age at which they first have sex is falling. Sex, for today's teenagers, holds little mystery.
"They have become noticeably more matter-of-fact about sex over the past few years," confirms Anita Naik, agony aunt of Just Seventeen magazine. "Sex is all over magazines; films and TV are more explicit. It's more acceptable to talk about it."
The change has been most marked among young women, who are reaping the benefits of generations of feminism. They grow up expecting good sex - probably with more than one partner. They cite Madonna and Sharon Stone as role models, and are now only 4 per cent less likely than men to have had sex before the age of 16.
But men are also being swept up by changing attitudes. Young men, particularly students, claim to ascribe to a new code of behaviour: in which they have many platonic friendships, in which young women increasingly ask them out, and in which it is possible to go to bed without either party assuming it will lead to intercourse. They are almost too politically correct to be true.
"Loads of people at my college go to bed with each other without having sex," says Damien, 19. "You might snog someone and end up sleeping in their bed, but everyone knows it doesn't mean you're having sex." That made it OK, he says, when you did the same thing the next day with somebody else.
Yet their apparent confidence in their more open, controlled sexual roles may be misleading. Beneath the surface certain things have changed very little. Aids is the new issue that has shaped their sexual world, but the old ones of violence and rape still haunt them. Ms Naik receives 30 letters a week from girls who say they have been raped, often a couple of years previously. Young men are confused about how to approach women. But date rape does not appear to be a concern. Both men and women confess toa confusion about about sexual etiquette, and admit that sometimes "mistakes" happen. But the media furore about cases such as that involving the student Austen Donnellan last year seems distant from their own experience.
At the same time, old habits die hard. These young people often rely on drink to grease the wheels of their sexual relationships, sometimes with alarming consequences. Nearly all admitted that drink, or "the heat of the moment" caused them to forget or ignore the guidelines on safe sex. "Everyone knows you should use a condom," says Claire, 21, from north London. "But people don't practise what they preach. I have male friends who have unprotected sex because they think it's mainly a gay disease. They say they only sleep with `nice' girls, who wouldn't get Aids."
And for all their political correctness, some old double-standards persist. Women who behave like men are still criticised for "sleeping around".
"Sometimes you say no to somebody you really like because you think if you do it they won't respect you, and then if you say no, they're off. But if you say yes, they may still go off," says one teenage girl.
The growing emphasis on sexual openness also has its down side. Generation Y may have sex, and know a lot about it, but it does not show much sign of enjoying it any more than its predecessors. Many young people talk of the increased pressure to be sexually active. Boys describe being called "soft" if they refuse sex, while a 1994 Brook Advisory Centre/ Mizz magazine survey of 831 teenage girls shows that nearly a third felt pressured to have sex before they were ready, 82 per cent by boyfriends.
There is still a good deal of ignorance too. While they may be well informed as to sexual technique, in other areas they are operating in the same vacuum as did their parents. Beyond Aids and condoms, their knowledge often becomes dangerously blurred; many complain that sex education leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the realities of modern sexual negotiation.
"We still get letters saying if you have sex standing up or for the first time, you won't get pregnant; that if you use a tampon, you'll lose your virginity, or that `it's not healthy' to be a virgin," says Ms Naik. "That's usually come from the boys."
Although they seem so self-aware, young people still look to their parents to tell them about sex. A 1993 survey of 3,000 teenagers conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit at Exeter University is one of many that suggests young people want to be able to talk to their parents. But according to a recent Just Seventeen/Family Planning Association survey, nearly 90 per cent of parents said they would rather their children were taught sex education outside the home. And recent research by the Health Education Authority showed that while parents thought they were talking to their children about sex, the children disagreed. Young people are keen on one-way communication. They may want information from their parents, but they sel dom want to give any themselves. Confidentiality is as big an issue as ever.
They seek parental guidance partly because they yearn for long-term relationships, despite the evidence of divorce and separation all around them. Most of those I spoke to still see traditional long-term relationships as their goal.
Yet young people's attitudes towards sex are also a reflection of the society in which they are growing up - an increasingly shifting, fractured, mobile and individualistic society. According to Denise Knowles, spokesperson for Relate (the marriage guidance service that has recently set up an arm for adolescents called Relateen), this generation finds it harder to sustain long-term relationships because in our "throwaway society" most pleasures are fleeting.
Ms Knowles says, "They're used to the idea of working for material things and getting pleasure from owning. A house, a BMW, these are seen as success. But nobody tells them they have to work at relationships."
Ms Knowles thinks today's young are noticeably "matter-of-fact" about moving in together and the chances of making marriage last, perhaps because they have witnessed an unprecedented level of divorce. The only thing that made them starry-eyed, she said, was babies. Unless they had one. Alison Hedley of Brook Advisory Centres, which dispense contraceptive advice to 60,000 youngsters a year, believes the new pragmatism, the lack of romanticism among the young is not all bad.
Teenage pregnancies, she points out, have dropped since 1991, as information and advice are more widely available. Proportionally, there are now fewer than there were in 1970. "Some say that demystifying sex takes away the romance, but you have to look at what romance was shadowing, which was often ignorance and anxiety."
There are no easy conclusions about this generation. Yes, they have sex younger. Yes, they are pragmatic and flexible: they expect to go through partners, and know a lot about Aids and the technicalities of sex. But do not assume that means they are emotionally confident, or believe in promiscuity, or even reject everything their parents stand for.
She's all right for one night, but ... Our discussion groups talk about sex Carl, 17: "There's this great big image of `do it, do it'. Magazines are full of sex and all the different positions."
David, 19: "I protect myself so she doesn't get pregnant, but I'm thinking of that rather than, `Oh God, I'm going to get Aids',"
Caroline, 18: "That's the thing with sex education - we just got told the basic biological part of it, got handed round a leaflet on contraception. `Thank you very much, don't get pregnant, there you go'."
Janine, 16: "I'm always self-conscious about what other people are going to think of me. Not the blokes, more the girls.
If you're walking down the street and you're wearing something the other girls don't like - a low-cut top or something - it's `slag', `tart', straight away - even with people you don't know.
Matthew, 17: "To an extent there is pressure to have sex. If you're not going out with birds you get called bent or whatever. Not all the time, but it does happen."
Faye, 20: "I think I should have been told about the emotional side of it, how it can screw you up, how you can get too involved with people who don't want to know you."
Carl, 17: "I don't mean to be rude to the girls, but there's always one who you know has been around a bit and she's at a party or whatever. She's alright for a one-night fling, but you don't really want that sort of girl as a girlfriend, to go into a relationship with."
Michaela, 19: "I think boys would judge you if you whipped a condom out; it would say something about you."
Jason, 17: "The attitude to girls and blokes is definitely not equal because if a girl has a reputation for sleeping around with loads of blokes she's considered to be a tart or a slag, but if a bloke has slept around with loads of girls then it's `nice one mate, you've done well'."
John, 18: "Guys do talk about sex and a few of them are like, `I got to number eight last night!' And you'll say, `nice one mate, eight'. But with girls it's `Oh, she did 10 blokes last year, what a cow'.
"I suppose it would be nice not to have all the worries but I'm not envious of past generations," says Amy. "I mean, we've never really known anything else."
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