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Laurie Penny: Teenage Girls and the Pill

Objecting to young girls having access to the Pill is part of frantic cultural paranoia about female sexuality.

Bigots and reactionaries are like small children, in that when they ask a question over and over and over again, it is usually because they don't like the answer. "How do we stop teenage girls having sex?" is one of these questions. The answer – "We really, really can't" – is unacceptable to the moral mumocracy, who become incensed when any policy is proposed that appears to prioritise young girls' safety and autonomy over those excellent, tried-and-tested methods of preventing teenage pregnancy: shame and ignorance.

This week, a scheme is being piloted on the Isle of Wight that will allow girls as young as 13 to have access to a month's supply of the contraceptive pill over the counter in pharmacies. The Daily Mail has gone bonkers, which might seem surprising, given the suggested attitudes of its readers both to teenage pregnancy and to abortion. All becomes clear, though, when one understands that the greater social evil is teenage girls having sex at all. The scourge of the underage slags must be stamped out by any means necessary, as long as those means don't involve actually providing useful sex education.

Simply perpetuating the fear of pregnancy by making it harder to get access to contraception is no more likely to stop teenagers shagging each other than a conversation about inbuilt obsolescence and sweatshop labour is going to stop hipsters buying MacBooks. (For the record, I'm typing this on a MacBook.) For some, the main objection to contraception being made available in pharmacies is that it means that young girls will be able to get hold of prophylactics without first talking to their parents, who, of course, are the proper gateways for all teenage sexual behaviour. I don't know about you, but when I first considered becoming sexually active, I couldn't WAIT to talk to my mum about it.

"Mum," I said, "I'm considering becoming sexually active." "That's great news, honey," she said. "Let's go down to the family doctor and get you a coil and some banana-flavoured lubricant!"

There are others, including Mr Stephen Fry, for whom the whole idea of females being sexually active of their own volition is incomprehensible, much less young girls. Surely they should be satisfied with being passive objects in a culture that surrounds us with images of adult women posing as schoolgirls in order to make men excited? Surely actual pleasure doesn't register on the radar of these creatures, who are, as we know, comprised entirely of sugar and spice and all things morally circumscribed? Surely their junior pole-dancing kits should be enough?

Then there are those who believe that shame alone should be enough to keep girls from dropping their knickers: shame and the fear of pregnancy. Nobody, it should be noted, seems to have any problem with the idea of teenage boys having sex, although several recent studies have shown that in nearly all cases of underage pregnancy, a male was involved at some stage.

As Rowenna Davis observes in the Guardian, there has been precisely no outcry about young boys buying condoms, which can and does occur at every chemist in the country. The idea of underage boys having sex is unthreatening: the notion of underage girls having sex is unthinkable. Teenage boys buying condoms are responsible: teenage girls being allowed to have control over their own fertility is outrageous and morally wrong.

There are, unfortunately, reasons besides lusty adolescent jollies why some very young women might need access to contraception. Some will be being pressured into sex they don't want to have. Some will be the victims of violently coercive as well as statutory rape. And some will be being sexually abused. Approximately 15-25 per cent of women, and 5-15 per cent of men, are sexually abused as children, usually by family members or family friends – another valid reason for some young girls not wanting to ask their parents for the Pill.

The Mail and other moral tub-thumpers have lots to say about paedophiles and playground perverts, but nobody wants to talk about the far more uncomfortable fact that sexual and physical abuse of minors by the people who are meant to be responsible for them is endemic in our society. It happens in every town, on every street, every day. So far, our only comprehensive response to this architecture of abuse has been to heap shame on the sexuality of women and children, as if it were somehow all our fault.

It is, as always, about control. Objecting to young girls having easier access to the Pill is part of a frantic cultural paranoia about female sexuality in general, particularly developing female sexuality, which is treated as a horrifying disease rather than a natural part of growing up. If we really wanted to protect the "innocence" of young women and girls, we would stop slut-shaming them and reserve our outrage for the adults and young men who rape, intimidate and abuse them as a matter of routine. It's about control, and nothing else.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.