by Laurie Penny
Reading the papers today, you could be forgiven for believing that young people live in a technological Sodom and Gomorrah – tweeting, blogging and "sexting" our way into sick cybernetic promiscuity. The press pounced on a Teesside health spokesperson's suggestion that online hookups might be linked to a rise in cases of syphilis in the area, with the Sun luridly declaring that Facebook had "caused" a 2,000% surge in the disease. It then transpired the actual rise was far smaller and the connection with social networking was tenuous, but parents had been dosed with another clumsily concocted reason to fear and police the sexual behaviour of their children.
Young people are used to seeing statistics shoehorned into an adult agenda that smothers and misunderstands our sexual choices. Last month a Conservative policy document claimed that 54% of teenage girls in "the most deprived areas" were getting pregnant, when the real figure was only 5.4%. That such a glaring exaggeration made it past the proofreading stage points to a chilling incomprehension of the reality of young people's lives. It is not just Conservatives who are guilty of lazy thinking: stern headlines about teenage pregnancy persist despite the fact that teenage conception rates have been decreasing steadily for a decade.
Dr Petra Boynton, a sex educator and academic, says the change in sexual behaviour isn't nearly so dramatic as the media make out. Most young people still don't lose their virginity until they are over 16, she says. "As adults we're very quick to look at young people and say 'Aren't they awful', without looking at the wider issues – like our appalling track record on sex education."
If anything, there is a curious frigidity to our understanding of youth and sexuality. What surrounds young people is not sex itself but the illusion of sex – a straining, airbrushed vision of sexuality that is as chaste as it is relentless. Young people growing up with the pressure to perform in every aspect of their lives find themselves aping a robotic eroticism that has little to do with their desires. "Some girls in my class like to play up to the idea of being a sexy schoolgirl, like you see in films and music videos," said Ellie, 16. "But that idea didn't just occur to us. After all, it's not us making the videos." This commercial pantomime of sexuality is an adult invention, and has little to do with real sex.
Young people are blamed for mimicking adult sexuality even as we are told we are hapless victims of "sexualisation", a word that has entered the lexicon following the recent Sexualisation of Young People Review by the Home Office. Feminists like Natasha Walter are quick to condemn young people's sexual culture as exploitative. As a contributor to Walter's book Living Dolls, I was disappointed to see a lack of acknowledgement that young women can make positive sexual choices. The harmful, objectifying experiences I discussed with her were part of my bumpy journey towards an adult awareness of sexuality.
For young women in particular, a double standard is in place. We are pitied for growing up amid media encouraging erotic availability, but we are also portrayed as wanton strumpets, vomiting our worthless GCSEs into drains with our knickers around our knees, especially if we are "girls from deprived areas". Nowhere is there the idea that young women might have their own minds.
Moral posturing is deeply unhelpful to young people attempting to navigate the murky, marvellous world of sex and intimacy. Protecting them from abuse is vital, but we must be granted the space to take risks. How else will we develop a healthy sexuality of our own?