At their conference this summer the Association of Teachers and Lecturers passed a motion calling for an age limit on the purchasing of teenage magazines after hearing from teacher Ralph Surman, who criticized them as "inappropriate" and often harmful to the wellbeing of their young readers.
He was echoing the views of self-styled moral campaigners like conservative Member of Parliament Gerald Howarth who, earlier this year, lambasted the teenage sector for producing material containing little moral content. He was referring to publications like Sugar ("Is my vagina abnormal?") and Bliss ("Now her found out I'm not a virgin he's gone off me.")
It's all wearily familiar. Back in the late 1970s I was editor of a raft of teenage confession magazines which specialized in explicit sexual content. Love Affair and Loving, New Love, and Hers, like today's teen glossies, purported to be aimed at seventeen-year-olds, but were read by girls as young as eleven. Unlike them, mine were cheaply produced, with maybe four editorial color pages per issue if you were lucky. And even more unlike them, the graphic sex stopped far short of the G-spot. You were lucky if you actually got between the sheets.
Our code of practice would recommend the use of either fire metaphors--"his lips scorched my neck as flames of desire shot through me"--or water: "Floods of desire engulfed me until I was caught up helplessly in wave after wave of ecstasy." Though not both together.
We would be able to say lips but not mouth, legs but not thighs, hardness but not, as I recall, erection. I can't tell you how many "thrusting members" had to be cut, however urgently they pressed. And we would never let in any "swelling manhoods" It was a thousand multiple orgasms away from today's earthy recipes for ten ways to turn him on and how to make him gag for it
Yet, just like Sugar, Cosmo Girl, and Bliss, my quaintly innocent titles would regularly he castigated in the commons, blamed for the rise in teenage pregnancies with calls for bans and censorship. And just like their editors, my colleagues and I would patiently point out that our publications were brimming with information and advice for young women who would often read nothing else.
The eminently sane Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel agrees that the magazines provide much-needed education alongside the fashion tips, pin-ups, and makeovers. Their arguments evidently convinced Lord McIntosh, the minister for media and heritage, who has firmly dismissed the calls for age-stamped restrictions on the magazines.
Concern about the content of teenage magazines is usually linked to panic about the rise in teenage pregnancies, and this time coincided with the story of Michelle Smith, a fourteen-year-old who had an abortion without telling her mother. Maureen Smith, who discovered what had happened by accident, attacked her daughter's school for not informing her even though the girl's advisers were acting perfectly legally. She was joined by hordes of gleeful supporters eager to denounce the government's sex education policy.
The story was blazoned over front pages, complete with photos of Michelle, just as the government was about to launch its campaign to reassure young women of confidentiality over contraception or abortion help. Same old, same old.
In 1984, the year my daughter was born, anti-contraception campaigner Victoria Gillick was engaged in what was to become a regular bid to overturn the rights of underage teenagers to confidentiality when seeking contraceptive advice. Along with hundreds of other mothers, I contributed my name to a full-page advertisement in the Guardian in which we pledged our support for our children to obtain advice without our knowledge.
It felt like a powerful gesture at the time. But it's a bit different once the gurgling baby is a real, live adolescent and beginning to bring boys home. …