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|Would you want your teenage daughter to read this? No way, says outraged Geldof
It would be unfair to say the editors of teenage girls' magazines have a one-track mind; after all, they also like J Lo, shift dresses from Top Shop, and perfect nails. But they do seem particularly keen on sex.
"Your guide to after-school snogs," screams the cover of this month's Sugar. "Sex survey results: the shocking truth you couldn't tell your parents," yells J-17. "You and guys and sex," shrieks Cosmo Girl!.
Yesterday, one parent, a father of three teenage children, hit back. And he is not just any parent. Bob Geldof, the rock star and charity hero, compared the publications to grown men who get sexual thrills from underage girls.
On a BBC2 programme, Grumpy Old Men, to be shown next week, Sir Bob asks: "Are they any less offensive than a 22-year-old man going to an 11- or 12-year-old girl and saying, 'I am going to talk to you about sex and how girls can give blow jobs to men?' If such a conversation happened, you would view it as odd, probably illegal and certainly predatory."
Sir Bob, father of Pixie, 13, Peaches, 15, and Fifi Trixibelle, 19, adds: "There is something predatory because they are made by adult men and women. Is it because of my age that makes me feel they are wrong? I don't think so. I would have objected to them when I was 20."
Sir Bob's anger centres on several magazines. Mizz, Bliss, J-17, Sugar and CosmoGirl! carry sex advice and sexually themed features for a readership with an average age of 15 or below. His criticisms are supported by Robert Whelan, director of the pressure group, Family and Youth Concern.
Mr Whelan said Sir Bob "is quite right. These magazines are objectionable. What disgusts me is the overall attitude which pervades these publications that the only thing a girl ought to be interested in is sex, and that girls need to be told how to do it".
These magazines were not "seedy back-street publications", he added, but produced by large, mainstream companies "with in-house lawyers who know how far they can go without risking prosecution".
The current issue of Cosmo Girl! discusses mutual masturbation, bisexuality and oral sex. Alongside a piece on "What your favourite colour says about you" and "How to become a millionaire" is an advice feature in which a reader asks: "My boyfriend recently tried to finger me and, although I was comfortable with him doing it, it really hurt. Will it get any better?" The reader is told: "Put sex on hold, try to relax and have fun getting to know each others' bodies."
Official trade figures show the average age of the magazine's readers is 14 and a half.
Celia Duncan, editor of CosmoGirl!, a youth offshoot of Cosmopolitan, denied her magazine sexualises girls before they are ready. "The people reading our magazine are 14 to 15 years old. We get some 13-year-olds, yes. But we get 500 letters a week to our problem page and I cannot remember a 12-year-old writing to us."
She said her agony aunts are professionally qualified. "Many of our features on sexual health are approved by the Department of Health," she said. "We don't print just anything. Everything in this area goes though several checks, and we abide by guidelines." Sexual slang is banned, apart from exceptional occasions.
"All the research we have done shows sex education in this country is haphazard and piecemeal," she added. "Most of our readers say they get their information in this area from teenage magazines. We go out of our way to answer questions they ask us in a responsible way."
Rival magazine Sugar, cover line, "Why some lads are addicted to lust", is gentler than its rival, concentrating more on "gorge guys" than what those guys might do after dark. The average age of a Sugar reader is just more than 14. Editor Claire Irvin justified her decision to run items such as a problem page letter on the subject of a boyfriend's "stiffy".
She said: "Our philosophy is that information is power. When we give information on sex, we always say it should be in the context of a loving trusting relationship, and readers should be over 16. We never talk about how to enjoy sex, and we make it clear not everyone is having sex."
In 1996, Peter Luff, the Conservative MP for Worcester, attempted to clamp down on such advice. Mr Luff's Periodical (Protection of Children) Bill would have required magazines to carry warnings on their covers about articles that parents might consider unsuitable. At the time, he said teenage magazines often degenerated into "squalid titillation, salaciousness and smut".
The debate was kick-started by an issue of TV Hits magazine - average readership age 12 and a half - in which an agony aunt offered a plain-spoken description of oral sex. She concluded the reservation that, providing the 16-year-old who asked for advice and her partner were free from infection, they should "lie back and enjoy it".
Mr Luff's Bill did not make it to the statute book, but the industry created its own regulator, the teenage magazine arbitration panel (Tmap), which issues guidelines, and deals with parents' complain about inappropriate sexual references.
The Tmap guidelines require that readers must "be encouraged to take a responsible attitude to sex and contraception". It adds, "safer sex" must be "encouraged where relevant"; "Where under-age sex or sexual abuse is discussed it will be stated clearly as illegal. Under-age sex will be discouraged and the age of consent clearly stated"; and "the emotional consequences of sexual activity will be highlighted where relevant".
Critics claim the organisation is a fig-leaf, saying few parents know of Tmap. The organisation's latest annual report shows that in the 12 months from November 2001 there were two complaints, neither upheld. The report called this "a productive year".
Sir Bob's intervention is timely. A recent last-minute amendment to the the Sexual Offences Bill, now going through Parliament, prevented the banning of such advice.
The Bill, aimed at preventing the "grooming" of vulnerable children by paedophiles, would have made it an offence to "arrange or facilitate the commission of a child sex offence". This would have included providing information that could be considered to "incite" an under-age child to have sex. After a lobbying campaign from the magazine industry, the ban has been lifted, where the purpose of such communication is "promoting the child's emotional well-being by the giving of advice".
Virginia Ironside, agony aunt at The Independent, was unconvinced of the threat posed by the magazines Sir Bob attacked. "I can't see there is a lot wrong with it," she said. She said girls can read magazines and newspapers with fewer safeguards and are not aimed at them. "Such as the Daily Mail."
The Mail yesterday ran a piece headlined "Learn to be a skillful lover" which recommended its male readers amuse lovers by "incorporating food into foreplay, drizzling cream over sensual areas such as her breasts and licking it off".
Between the covers
Average age of reader: 14.3
Cover lines: "Serial snoggers, why some guys are addicted to lust"; "Boys in their boxers (ooh!)"
Inside: The other day, my boyfriend told me that whenever we snog I give him a 'stiffy'."
Average age of reader: 14.5
Cover lines: "You and guys and sex: the questions you can't ask anyone - answered", "Why don't you have a boyfriend?"
Inside: "He wants sex 24/7... I love him and don't want to lose him."
Average age of reader: 15
Cover lines: "Sex survey results! The shocking truth you couldn't tell your parents", "Kiss with confidence - 7 ways to make him come back for more"
Inside: "Secret lesbians ... we went upstairs and kissed."