Cristina Odone worries about teenage sex

We have debased sex: certificate 15 films sizzle with explicit scenes

When I was growing up, the first kiss was a seminal rite of passage: we girls could tell you the exact hour of the precise Saturday night party at which the Great Event took place. We saw ourselves as Juliet to his Romeo, and though the encounter may have proved a bit sweaty and embarrassing, we replayed it in our imaginations against a soundtrack of Zeffirelli's movie version of Shakespeare's teenage lovers. We treated sex, if not with awe, with a healthy respect.

No longer. We have systematically debased sex: certificate 15 films sizzle with explicit sex scenes; television programmes regularly ignore the nine o'clock watershed to show gross and meaningless sexual activity in everything from soaps to adverts; girls aged nine wear thongs, Lycra tops and make-up that would suit a tart on the lookout for kerb-crawlers.

All of this is a prelude to what is now seen as a naughty game rather than an emotional turning point. Is it any wonder that schoolchildren snog at 11, bonk at 13 and have anal sex at 16? And is it any wonder that predatory adults - not just paedophiles - find teeny-boppers and even younger children, with their know-it-all ways and come-hither looks, an irresistible turn-on?

We've done the damage - divorcing sex from any feeling or, indeed, censure. Can any law we pass repair the harm done? Legislators think so: the Sexual Offences Bill meandering through parliament right now aims to label all non-consensual sexual touching illegal. This way, the thinking goes, predatory adults will steer clear of their young victims. The problem is that the proposed law will retain the present age of consent at 16 - thus making any under-16s who engage in consensual sex as liable to criminal charges as the abusive perv.

This is rank hypocrisy. We cannot create a society where anything goes and everyone's at it and then expect 15-year- olds to lead the lives of celibate monks. We cannot allow corporations and film-makers and fashion designers to bombard us daily with titillating images - and then censor Junior for making love to his girlfriend.

Either we push the sex genie back into the bottle and purge our lifestyle of its overt (and over-) sexiness by raising the age of consent to 18; or we continue in our permissive way and allow under-16s to heed the message we keep sending them, and copulate to their hearts' content.

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