On the Daily Mail’s wish list, just below a mass round-up of asylum seekers and a ban on women over 35 wearing miniskirts, would be the closure of teenage girls magazines.
So the thought that agony aunts offering sex advice to girls under the age of consent might be silenced under a clause in the new Sexual Offences Bill last week made it fair flush with joy.
Because it is a truth universally acknowledged among Mail executives – who are more likely to read Saga than Sugar – that teen titles are nothing more than Lolita training manuals, instructing 14-year-old girls how to blow their boyfriends.
“In this month’s Sugar,” said the Mail, “sexual expert Laura gives advice to girls worried about losing their virginity and taking off their clothes in front of their boyfriends.” It doesn’t bother to print what she advises but the clear implication is that Laura is advocating casual petal-shedding and seductive striptease.
In fact, if you turn to page 126 of Sugar’s July issue, Laura replies: “Just because you love your boyfriend doesn’t mean you want to sleep with him. The fact you’re so concerned about this [nakedness] shows you’re not ready for that kind of intimacy yet.”
Indeed, having looked through several issues worth of Laura I have to admire her ability to find 1,000 different ways to say the same thing: “Don’t have sex.”
Meanwhile in Bliss magazine, love coach Tina Radziszewicz suggests that “Lovesick, 15, Norfolk” should consider prosecuting a boy who shoved his hands in her knickers. “Nelly Fan, 16, Dumfries”, with a phobia of penises, is told she is unready for sex and referred to a psychologist.
No page on sexual matters in either magazine is complete without edicts to wear a condom at all times, not have sex under the age of consent, the risks of pregnancy, the finer points of genito-urinary medicine, helplines and websites for termination advice. Oh, sigh, for the days when Jackie’s Cathy and Claire told you to practice snogging on the back of your hand.
Beyond the agony pages the anti-sex message prevails. Both magazines specialise in real-life stories which read like Victorian morality tales: “Pole dancing pulled my family apart.” “I got an STI ’cause I didn’t use a condom.” “My boyfriend killed our baby.” “Diary of an abortion.” Frankly, if I was a teenage girl today I’d be less likely to cop off behind the youth club than get me to a nunnery.
There is, however, a sexual tone to the lighter parts of teen titles but it is teasing and humorous. In CosmoGIRL! Justin Timberlake (is he the most average-looking guy ever to be deemed a sex god?) is asked if he wears “pulling pants” and Busted’s James is quizzed on what he’s like in bed. But the answers are a) what are pulling pants? and b) he hogs the duvet.
Certainly temptation is being thrust before the lilywhite daughters of Albion in the pin-ups of bodacious young men. And blimey, why didn’t my generation insist that Messrs Osmond and Cassidy get their puny selves down the gym and acquire six-packs and tight buns?
But the fact remains that teenage girls’ mags are utterly responsible in their coverage of sexual matters. Indeed, they are compelled to be by the guidelines of the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel, a watchdog similar to the Press Complaints Commission and borne out of the launch of Sugar after Conservative MP Peter Luff was outraged by what he saw as the sexually explicit content of his daughter’s copy.
All teen titles now abide by its code to take a “responsible attitude to sex and contraception” and to ensure “underage sex will be discouraged”. TMAP meets quarterly to adjudicate on complaints of which there are only around two a year, usually from parents.
Whereas magazines like B, More and J17 can discuss sexual practices in graphic and athletic detail (More is famous for its Position of the Fortnight), they are aimed at an older, post-consent young woman. Under the TMAP code Bliss, Sugar, Elle Girl, CosmoGIRL! and Mizz, with their younger readers, are forbidden to discuss bedroom technique or suggest that sex is in any way pleasurable.
It is sometimes hard to believe when you see a pack of sophisticated, streetwise, confident and high-achieving modern teenage girls that they are just as sexually ignorant and troubled as every preceding generation. They still need articles – like one in this month’s CosmoGIRL! – dispelling the eternal myths, that you can’t get pregnant standing up or if it’s your first time.
Surely the Mail doesn’t want ignorance to breed more teenage mothers, the very people it attacks for leeching benefits and bagging council flats?
Every month Sugar is bought by 321,000 girls at the most vulnerable phase of their lives, Bliss by 260,000. The journalists on these titles, deluged daily by reader e-mails, texts and letters, know more about their concerns and fears than their own mothers. Which is why bodies such as Marie Stopes International and government departments turn to teen titles for joint ventures and advice.
Teen magazines are not exploiting young girls, but the Daily Mail is exploiting their parents’ fears. It is not the agony aunts who should be silenced.
The one thing which makes me envious of girls today is the quality of the covermounts they get on their magazines. After researching the above article I find my desk brimming with exciting new toys: a bronzer, sunblock and body jewels (Bliss), a chill-out CD (CosmoGIRL!), a funky Lulu Guinness-like make-up bag (Elle Girl) and a mÃ©lange of microscopic stickers I think I’m supposed to apply to my toenails.
How much more fun than the cheerless nylon market stall tat glued to the back of the grown-up glossies. In the summer when the sun is high and sales are low, you can guarantee the containers of shoddy reader enticements are on their way from China.
The Marie Claire “beach bag” isn’t bad, except it’s too small to accommodate a towel. But who on earth would be seen dead with the sub-Primark-quality vest on Elle? Surely not that most glamorous creature the Elle reader? Or that dismal frayed clutch bag on New Woman?
The worst one I can remember was a Marie Claire boob tube, affixed to the magazine at the very height of the then editor Liz Jones’s war on body fascism. It was so weeny that of six women in my office who tried it on, only one could get it over her head.
My current prize so far this summer is InStyle’s nifty hang-up plastic make-up “wrap”. I’m sure this is not an appropriately glamorous use, but I find it makes a marvellous peg bag.
Janice Turner is a freelance journalist and former editor of That’s Life! and Real. She’ll be back in four weeks
Next week: Alison Hastings
by Janice Turner