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10 September 1999

National moral purpose sex shocker

by James Heartfield

It is sad news that two 12-year old girls have fallen pregnant, but it must have been a surprise to them as much as to anybody else that they were to become the prime minister's next moral crusade. After showing his determination to fight in Kosovo to the last American soldier, Blair has decided to fight teen sex with the same determination.

'We need to find a new national moral purpose for this new generation. People want to live in a society that is without prejudice, but is with rules, with a sense of order. Government can play its part, but parents have to play their part. There's got to be, if you like, a partnership between government and the country to lay the foundations of that moral purpose.'

It's the equivocal aside 'if you like' that speaks volumes. Blair's brash talk of a moral purpose sounds confident, but it is symptomatic of its opposite: a lack of moral purpose, in the country and in his government.

Most depressing is the realisation that the only way that the prime minister feels he can galvanise a sense of purpose is around extreme and exceptional circumstances. Blair says that anybody who cares about Britain should be concerned with the case of the two pregnant 12-year olds. The parents no doubt, have a lot to worry about. But for the rest of us, this is a story that is interesting because it is so bizarre. Public interest in this case is not an expression of moral purpose, but one of ghoulish, lip-smacking prurience.

One group of people whose resolve really stiffens at the thought of all that underage sex is the prime minister's own Social Exclusion Unit. The reason that the PM was so flushed about these recent cases is that his special unit has been poring over the figures for teenage pregnancy. Britain has the highest proportion of unmarried teenage mothers of any country in the world, according to an international survey of sexual activity in young women by the Allan Guttmacher Institute in New York. But since the survey is of 15-19 year-olds most of those pregnancies, problematic as they are, are not underage.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that 8829 underage girls became pregnant in 1996, the highest level since 1985 when there were 9406. That is about 9.4 girls under 16 in every 1000. Of course, each of those is a problem for the individuals concerned, but it is not a significant trend, and certainly not the basis of a moral crusade. According to the Family Planning Association, the main reason for the increase in 1996 was the health scare over the pill around that time.

There is a problem of young unmarried mothers that is due principally to the diminished life chances of a significant group of younger women. For them, motherhood is not such a bad option in comparison to unemployment or the local technical college.

The Social Exclusion Unit, however, is not interested in solving a practical problem, so much as generating a national moral purpose. The home secretary has swung into action demanding to know why local authorities have not imposed curfews - as if the prospect of teenage shagging in the streets would breathe some life into that initiative. The prime minister favours more sex education. He wants a moral purpose, but characteristically he is reluctant 'to go back to the old days when sex wasn't talked about - it doesn't mean you revisit a whole series of old prejudices'.

The perverse effect of the PM's concern is that children are being taught more and more about sex at a younger age, because the school curriculum has to be organised around the small minority of children who are sexually active. Blair is nervous of revisiting old prejudices because that smacks too much of condemnation. Instead 'you've got to make youngsters aware of the undesirability of having sex at the age of 12' - though for most that is more awareness than they need. The preoccupation with sex education is a classic middle-class reformer's understanding of the 'problem' of teenage sexuality. For people who are obsessed with such things, but lack the confidence to simply disapprove, education seems like the best way to control horny teenagers.

The prejudice that teenagers are out of control, though, tells us more about the concerns and preoccupations of the government than it does about teenagers. A man whose waking thoughts are peopled with teenagers copulating irresponsibly in the streets after dark has a problem. Fears of disorder are really just a projection of the government's own, half-acknowledged lack of a moral purpose. The perception of disorder, whether international or domestic, expands to fill the vacuum at the heart of the government's own political agenda. The call for a national moral purpose is simply a restatement of the problem. The fact that they have to pillory gymslip mums to do it is pathetic.

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