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Is the permissive society causing pain and harm?

26 November 2013

12:12 PM

26 November 2013

12:12 PM

It was a curious coincidence, don’t you think, that the sexual conduct findings that the Lancet published today coincided with the publication of a report from the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, about child-on-child sexual violence? The two stories were juxtaposed uncomfortably in the news.

In the case of the Lancet survey, which is conducted every decade, it was comically hard for broadcasters to know how to play the findings, which were a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand women are becoming more like men and admitting to significantly more sexual partners – ‘of both sexes!’ marvelled John Humphrys, on the Today programme – than before. So yay! On the downside, both men and women in the 16-44 age group are having rather less sex than a decade ago, which the report suggests may be attributable to tiredness, or, more yuckily, to couples having recourse to online sex rather than actual intercourse. Not so hot, then.

The report from the children’s commissioner was accompanied by studies from the University of Bedfordshire and from London Metropolitan University about the extent of gang-related sexual violence, and it was, by contrast, just scary. Ms Berelowitz admitted to being frankly appalled by the ‘sheer levels of sadism’ uncovered by the findings; it was about teenagers exploiting teenagers, about girls in gang-dominated neighbourhoods accepting rape and being common sexual property as a reality of life, one of those things you grow up to, and with. Actually, Camila Batmanghelijh, whose charity, Kids Company, is on the front line on this one, has been banging on about this issue for some time – and her take on it is that it’s partly to do with the home lives of gang members which tend to feature absent fathers and a succession of adult males in their mothers’ lives. Naturally, many then play out the same scenario themselves.

What’s pretty clear is that the problem is emphatically part of gang culture – no surprises there – but if we are to believe Ms Berelowitz, similar attitudes and expectations hold good in other parts of the country, though perhaps not to the same extent; places, dear reader, where you and I might live. And if you buy the Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s contention that the music industry – and I think we know what bit of it she’s talking about – and online pornography have played a part in warping young men’s sexual expectations, well those things aren’t confined to Brixton, Croydon and Haringey. I find myself irresistibly drawn to Norman Tebbit’s bleak judgment that the permissive society is an unfree society; viz, the freedom of individuals to flog pornography has rather horrible consequences for the liberties of very young girls.

But back to the Lancet survey. It’s fair to say that its findings suggest that quite a lot of people may be having a lovely time – though it remains undeniably the case that men seem to be getting their fill rather more than women, especially when they get older (a matter that feminists ought perhaps to get exercised about). But even in this relatively upbeat scenario, there are shadows of sexual violence: one in ten women said they’d had sex against their will, and it’s not clear whether this was simply to be obliging, or whether it was to do with hardcore coercion. Either way, it’s a flipside to the joyous promiscuity suggested elsewhere.

Is there a connection between the greater sexual liberty evident in the Lancet survey and the Deputy Children’s Commissioner’s report? Perhaps there is, in the sense that there is now, to a rather larger extent than before, a culture of sexual entitlement. That is to say, there may be a widespread view among men that since most people seem to be getting it, everyone is entitled to a share. Chastity isn’t a virtue much valued in the culture (except, paradoxically in the gangs, who tend to equate sexual experience with sexual availability) which means that a protection that was available to teenage girls in the fifties, when respectability was an asset rather than otherwise, isn’t available now. In other words, a situation in which women are free to be more adventurous is also one in which sexual rejection is more difficult for brutish young men to accept. Actually, I’m just guessing. But then, in this fraught area, everyone is.

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