A story in this week’s Sunday Telegraph ought to be evoking some kind of response from our hierarchy, though I suspect that since most bishops are allergic to the Telegraph (the Observer and the Guardian are more to their taste) most of them won’t have seen it. Perhaps they may pick it up now on the Herald’s website.
The implications of the story are truly horrendous. Its opening paragraphs run as follows: “More than 33,000 girls under the age of consent have been given contraceptive implants and injections on the NHS over the past four years, The Telegraph can disclose.”
“Official figures obtained by this newspaper show the extent to which NHS sexual health clinics are giving ‘long-acting’ contraceptives to girls aged 15 and below – even though under-age sex is illegal. The implants and injections are given without the need for parental consent.”
The government, in other words, is conniving at the premature sexualisation of underage girls and incidentally at the normalisation of illegal sexual activity. As Norman Wells, of the Family Education Trust rightly says, “The law on the age of consent exists for a good reason – to protect young people. Where it is ignored, children are exposed to risk.”
The premature sexualisation of children in their early teens is difficult but not impossible to avoid, in a society in which we are all, through the media and especially through the internet, bombarded with sexual images, often commercially motivated. In the words of the sociologist Professor Frank Furedi, “The whole of society is hypersexualised – sex becomes the common currency through which adults make their way in the world and continually send a signal to children that sex is all that matters.”
Professor Furedi was commenting on a report by the psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos, commissioned by the then Labour Home Secretary, Frank Johnson, and entitled “Sexualisation of Young People”. Being a government report published at the very end of that particular government’s lease of life it was soon gathering dust, even though it was an outstanding piece of work (to which I shall return in due course) and even though it expressed what was at the time something like a gathering political consensus, which David Cameron, soon to become Prime Minister, enthusiastically supported. He had all kinds of ideas about how to tackle the problem. He said that he would “clamp down on irresponsible advertising targeted at children”. He also mooted the idea that parents should be able to complain about offensive marketing tactics used by companies, via a specially set-up website. Such moves were needed to stop children being “bombarded” with inappropriate material, he said. He did nothing about it as Prime Minister, perhaps because his Lib Dem partners didn’t see the discouragement of underage sex as any kind of priority.
But he’s Prime Minister of a Lib Dem-free government now, and his Health Secretary is therefore responsible for the fact that 33,000 underage girls have been illegally supplied with long-term contraceptives, and to make matters worse without the knowledge of their parents. Some, as young as 10, have been fitted with actual contraceptive implants. No doubt many will argue that these children would be sexually active anyway and there’s nothing we can do about it. But that simply won’t do: this is not a phenomenon we should be passively accepting as a fact of life. It is a scourge which is blighting the lives of our young: and we cannot simply accept it.
This isn’t simply about the sexualisation of our young children: it’s about the “hyper-sexualisation” (Professor Furedi’s word) of our whole society which in it turn has its effect on our children. As Dr Papadopulos puts it, “The world is saturated by more images today than at any other
time in our modern history. Behind each of these images lies a message about expectations, values and ideals. Women are revered – and rewarded – for their physical attributes and both girls and boys are under pressure to emulate polarised gender stereotypes from a younger and younger age.” The question is how are we to protect them?
Dr Papadopoulos lays out the problem in stark terms:
Children and young people today are not only exposed to increasing amounts of hyper-sexualised images, they are also sold the idea that they have to look ‘sexy’ and ‘hot’. As such they are facing pressures that children in the past simply did not have to face. As children grow older, exposure to this imagery leads to body surveillance, or the constant monitoring of personal appearance.This monitoring can result in body dissatisfaction, a recognised risk factor for poor self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. Indeed, there is a significant amount of evidence that attests to the negative effects of sexualisation on young people in terms of mental and physical health, attitudes and beliefs.
What can we do about the problem? Dr Papadopoulos says that “if we are going to address this issue then young people need to develop and grow in surroundings where they are admired for their abilities, talents and values,” and not for their sexual attractiveness. She is in no doubt that the family is central to this process; so it is clear that the family has to be strengthened and not undermined as so often it is: and that the government is central to this, particularly since it is governments which have done so much to usurp parental authority and the family’s responsibility for its own children. This government could make a start very easily: Mr Cameron could immediately instruct his Health Secretary to forbid the installation by the NHS, in the bodies of underage girls, of contraceptive devices, without the knowledge or consent of their parents.
He should then dust down and pay serious attention to Dr Papadopoulos’s report, which may have been commissioned by a Labour Government, but since his own government is currently stealing the political clothes of the Labour Party in a major way, that shouldn’t deter him.
This is a huge and complex dilemma, to which the health and viability of marriage and the family is central. That leads me to a final question: will this problem be discussed at the forthcoming sessions of the Synod on the Family in Rome? Was it discussed last year? I haven’t been able to find anything, but maybe I missed it.
For Catholics, this is an important question, for we are in a position to make an important contribution to solving this massive problem: I just hope that some kind of substantial answer will emerge.
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