LONDON — What is it about the British and sex? Young people seem to leap to it as though having as much of it, as soon as possible, as flamboyantly and boastfully as possible and damn the consequences, is their national destiny.
A holiday resort on the Greek island of Rhodes has just announced a drive to get young British people off their streets because of their lewd and drunken behavior. Not all young people. Just the Brits. Then more teenagers get pregnant in Britain than in any other European country, and in the developed world only the United States nurses more teenage, unmarried mothers than Britain.
This might seem just all good fun, the outburst of youthful exuberance so long shackled by British decorum. And with so many outfits around willing and able to make money out of the hunger for sex, who can put up a barrier between their children and the sex on screen?
Not only is there the Internet, offering youngsters an unlimited domain of erotic sights and acts; but even Channel 5, a terrestrial TV channel, supposedly regulated by decency laws, shows pornographic films almost any night of the week after 10. Who dares say, after the liberating 1960s, that sex ought to be repressed for the good of society?
But, as the government does keep saying, there are direct links between the centers of teenage pregnancy and the centers of social deprivation. Which comes first — the teenage pregnancies causing social deprivation or the social deprivation causing teenage pregnancy — is a moot point.
The government is so perturbed by the figures that it set up a special Teenage Pregnancy Unit two years ago, attached to the prime minister’s Social Exclusion Unit to tackle the problem, and all local health and education authorities have been told it is one of their duties to reduce the pregnancy rate, preferably by half by 2010.
This has become a deeply political issue, though not one that divides neatly along party lines. Most people who work with the young are convinced that more sex education and more contraception are the answers to the problem of too many babies born to hapless, feckless youth. Others, of a more conservative bent, think the answer is to teach young people just to say no and to stay in and do their homework under strict parental control rather than shimmying out to footle around with each other in any private space they can find. Or, as the Greek and Spanish governments have found, not so private space.
At the heart of the problem is the breakdown of the family as a unit of authority and control. Once shored up by government policies, the church and patterns of work that turned men into remote heads of households and women into full-time mothers, the family has been cut loose to become whatever its members make of it. There are many family units in Britain that have no connection to state or church or hierarchies of power and thus no longer function as units of control.
In fact, where that family consists of an unemployed mother and her children, the family can itself act as an antisocial gang. Beleaguered, harried, disapproved of from all sides, a young mother may seek refuge from the hostile world through her children. A recent study of school truancy — which is also a central concern of the Social Exclusion Unit — found that on any one day most truants were out of school with their mother’s knowledge and approval. These are mothers — perhaps yesterday’s teenage mothers — who find being at home on their own a lonely and frightening business. They are not going to drive away their children with words of wrath and criticism; the children are all they have.
As to the sex, it seems unlikely that British boys are any different from boys the world over. In their teenage years, they may simply be a sex drive on legs — or not on legs, depending on how much alcohol, the other British youth vice, they have consumed.
What seems different are British girls, who do not, in time-honored fashion, act as a restraint on boys. It is not so much that British girls have an unusually high sex drive; rather it is that, unlike girls in societies where family honor reigns supreme, girls in Britain have no particular reason to say no to boys. Marriage in Britain no longer offers girls status or security. So why bother?
One factor in both the United States and Britain would seem to be the Protestant religion. One side of Protestant Christianity is extreme Puritanism, as seen in any of its birth states — Holland, New England, the north of England, Switzerland . . . The flip side of that is license.
Protestantism, a quintessentially modernistic religion, decreed that the censor, the authority in life, was God through one’s own conscience; as Freudians said of the super-ego, the policeman was in your head, not in the archbishop’s office.
Furthermore, where Protestantism was accompanied by a welfare state, as it was in Britain and most of northern Europe, the clergy lost their role in measuring out charity and education; those roles were taken over by the state, leaving the clergy with little to do but officiate over births, marriages and deaths, and ally themselves with movements for social progress. No role there for lessons on chastity and sexual propriety.
Like an army whose soldiers will rape and pillage only when their officers turn a blind eye, or appear to connive with licentiousness, young people will plunge into sexuality if they have no officer class to discipline and punish them.
In time, this may create as big a gulf between capitalist, irreligious societies and Muslim and Eastern societies — where religion and family honor still rule — as does any difference of material wealth or global trade.
In the 1980s, the Thatcherite assault on the state and its institutions, and its insistence that all doors should be flung open to trade and unrestricted commerce, left no moral rules intact. Thatcherite conservatism was as destructive of old rightwing morality as it was of trade unions and the welfare state. There is, in that morality, no core of ethics consistent with market freedom. Where the market rules, and where sex in the market yields such huge profits, there there will be unlicensed sexual behavior.
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