11 JULY 2002

Opinion: We have all collaborated in the dangerous erosion of innocence

The minimum our children deserve is their youth

New walls come tumbling down. The history of the past decade or so is of barriers and borders crumbling. As Charles Leadbeater points out in Up the Down Escalator, his panoramic survey of the gloomy state we are in published last week, the defining concern of the contemporary conservative is the erosion of boundaries.

Social conservatives are unsettled by the flow of illegal migrants, and drugs, across increasingly porous borders. The apparent inability of the State to restrict these flows appears to force policymakers into an uncomfortable dilemma. Should new barriers be erected, whether they be physical or legal, fences at Sangatte and denial of services without an entitlement card? Or should rules be amended to go with the flow, with a relaxation of immigration restrictions and drugs laws? National sovereignty conservatives are concerned by another loss of border control. Power which was once exercised securely within the nation state is now slipping away. Supranational bodies such as the EU, WTO and IMF have erased old boundaries. Decisions are now taken in a distant realm beyond our borders which appears out of bounds to popular pressure.

The conservatives concerned by these changes are not just on the Right of politics. A Labour Home Secretary is agitated about Sangatte and agitating for ID cards. Opposition to WTO rulings and EU arrest warrants comes from Greens and civil libertarians.

But what unites these groups is a desire to protect something precious which a borderless future appears to menace. Whether it is a shared understanding of citizenship which migration challenges, the physical integrity of the vulnerable which drugs harm, the environment which economic development erodes, or the traditional freedoms of private citizens which European integration flattens, cherishable goods are believed to need borders to survive.

There is one border, however, which is disappearing before our eyes and on which political debate still appears to be alternately kneejerk and tentative, confused rather than considered. The boundary between child and adult, innocence and experience, youth and maturity is becoming blurred in our society.

At one level, the acceptance of adult behaviour, codes and responsibilities is increasingly deferred. Marriage is postponed, families put off, the period of commitment-free hedonism once associated with teenage or student years is extended well into the thirties. Products once aimed exclusively at the young now develop new brands to cater for this “kidult” market. These range from computer games which allow the studio to become a perpetual teenage bedroom, to the casual clothing of Diesel or Duffer which allows the weekending banker to become an eternal homeboy, and even alcopops which were once designed to initiate the novice to alcohol and have now become “ironic” cocktails for the office worker’s Friday night bender.

But even as maturity is postponed, so youth itself is rendered less special, protected, distinct. Fashion-consciousness is instilled in the under-8s at Gap Kids, adolescent yearning is marketed to the prepubescent through boy bands such as A1 and Westlife. The boundary between the sex object and the innocent child is deliberately blurred in commercial pop culture. Britney Spears appears (barely) dressed as a schoolgirl fantasy figure in one video, while the 11, 12 and 13-year-olds of the kiddie super group S Club Juniors bare their midriffs on publicity shots and invite visitors to their website to “swoon” and visit their “secret area”.

Having discovered the power of sexual display and flirtation so early, having been encouraged to acquire the dress sense, mores and experiences of adults while not even adolescent, the young, especially young women, are straying into territory once thought fenced-off.

Two stories on the front page of last weekend’s Observer indicate how the walls are coming tumbling down. The newspaper reported that British children as young as 14 are advertising intimate pictures of themselves on the web in return for gifts and it revealed that ministers are ready to offer teenage girls easier terminations for unwanted pregnancies through more widespread use of the “abortion pill” RU-486.

The decision to let family planning centres provide abortifacient drugs which have been, up to now, available only in hospital wards and special day units follows the announcement that contraceptives should be made available in schools to help children to practise safer sex. Both initiatives have, understandably, run into opposition from those concerned that these interventions will lead to more sexual activity, at a younger age, with a greater risk of disease, emotional scarring, the erasure of new life and the blighting of young lives. It is also impossible to ignore the effect on family cohesion if schools usurp the role of parents in setting the boundaries for sexual activity.

But, valid as all these concerns are, the criticism directed at the Government for the way in which it has responded to the erosion of sexual boundaries misses the most important point. The capacity of ministers to alter sexual activity, for good or ill, is minimal. The boundary between youth and maturity is one that has been dismantled by society not the State, through marketing imperatives, individual hedonism and the death of restraint. The culture which peeks at paparazzi pictures of teenage princesses in their swimsuits on page three of the tabloids, puts bobby-soxed Britney on the cover of a lads mag and drapes the most desirable fashions on women with barely pubertal figures is one we have all collaborated in creating.

What happens when walls come tumbling down? People are left searching in the rubble, helpless before the wind.


Michael Gove,,482-351084,00.html




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