Terence Blacker: Does sex need to be encouraged?

What was once seen as self-pollution is now presented as useful exercise

Tuesday 14 July 2009 00:00 BST

The Government's pledge to use the London Olympics as a way of encouraging lazy Britons to take exercise grows ever more ambitious. Last week, we heard that frisbee-throwing, baton-twirling and arm-wrestling would be eligible for government grants. Now a more traditional form of exercise is being promoted to teenagers.

"Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes' physical activity three times a week," reveals a new national health leaflet, which is being distributed in schools. "What about sex or masturbation twice a week?"

Younger readers may need to be reminded what a turnaround this is. From the Victorian age until the second half of the 20th- century, the very activity which is now being so eagerly marketed was regarded as both physically debilitating and morally corrupting. Complicated strap-on contraptions were invented to prevent it taking place; breakfast cereals were created to conquer the urge to do it; learned pamphlets on its terrible effects – blindness, madness, impotence, hairy hands – were published.

Our own version of the same fearfulness could be found in much of the advice given to teenagers over the past 20 years – gruesome warnings about sexually transmitted diseases, or hopelessly nannyish appeals for sex to be associated with that slippery, rather adult concept, the "loving relationship".

The health message of the NHS leaflet is more down-to-earth. Its title, Pleasure, is defiantly pro-sex. What was once the unnatural vice of self-pollution is presented as a useful form of exercise. Pleasure's clarion call to its young readers is simple: "An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away".

There have been mutterings, naturally enough. Nothing is more guaranteed to stir alarm than the subject of sex education. We want to convey information to children but worry that they might want to use it.

A more relevant worry about this orgasm-a-day campaign is whether it is not a complete waste of time and money. The message of Pleasure is in the air that teenagers breathe, in magazines, online, on TV, above all in songs. Urging them to enjoy their own bodies is a bit like encouraging cows to eat grass or birds to fly. It may be uncomfortable for adults, but solo sex is part of growing up. If scientists could work out a way to connect the busy hands of Britain's teenagers to the national grid, there would be enough renewable energy to power an eco-town.

The leaflets convey the faintly alarming tone of the target culture at work. It is not enough to promote sexual exercise but the weekly amount should be estimated. Are we on the brink of a new government initiative? Will a masturbation tsar be appointed to oversee nationwide orgasm league tables? Could Lord Coe and his Olympic "Let's Get Britain Moving" team, become involved in some way?

The NHS has enough problems without poking its nose into the private life of schoolchildren. We live in a highly eroticised society. Everywhere that young people look, sex is being glamorised, primped up and marketed.

There can surely be only one response to the idea that teenagers need a leaflet to tell them that sex can be fun. Duh.


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