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Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel - in name only?

By D Pfeiffer

Teen magazine watchdog says: “Mags should make it clear to readers that under-age sex is legal”

As teenage sexual behaviour increases and the average age at which it occurs decreases, is it any wonder that parents are concerned about their children? Add to that the shocking increase in serious sexually transmitted diseases amongst our young and it is easy to see why serious questions are being asked.

Contrary to what many would have us believe, children do not grow up any faster now than they did fifty years ago. Children generally “grow up” in response to their environment and in response to the influences they are bombarded with on a daily basis. Parents today are no different – all are concerned for their child’s welfare and most do their best to protect them from exploitation and corruption. The difference is that fifty years ago, the media were not as obsessed with sex, and particularly not in children’s magazines. For parents today, doing their best is simply not good enough, because they cannot shield their child from the constant barrage of forces infiltrating their homes through the mediums of TV, magazines, music and the internet.

Of course, we can take several precautions; a blocking device such as net nanny can be installed on the internet; TV programmes can be monitored for home use, and listening to wholesome music can be encouraged, but the choice is becoming more and more limited and one cannot protect a child altogether from unwholesome sources.

The real problem occurs when we look outside of the home and to one of the main sources of information for children – the teenage magazines. With the exception of Mizz magazine, which has remained in line with the age group targeted, nearly all magazines aimed at 12-17 years olds put a huge emphasis on sex. If such magazines are there to empower, educate and inform, as the so-called professionals would have us believe, then what exactly have they been doing? Instead of teaching childhood (yes, childhood!) abstinence, they have the attitude that it’s happening anyway so therefore the solution is to make it safer whilst it’s happening. This is akin to giving a child a motorbike and teaching them how to ride, instilling in them a sense of excitement about riding it before they are remotely ready to do so. We wouldn’t do that, so why are we allowing the media to snatch away our child’s innocence before they are ready to become adults?

The reasons are many and varied. Some parents are apathetic and simply go with the flow, caring more about fitting in than their child’s welfare. Others feel that the mountain is just too high to climb – that the damage has been done and the sexualisation of society is far too great a force to challenge at this late stage. A few actually believe that teenage magazines are there to educate and inform their children; and some sadly realise the untold harm caused when it is too late. However, most desperately want to do something but have no idea where or who to turn to. As you will see, such concerns are justified.

The Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel (TMAP) was set up in November 1996 to monitor and adjudicate on complaints about the sexual content of magazines where 25 per cent of the readership is under 15 and female. The aim of TMAP is, they claim, to ensure that teenage magazines take a responsible approach to sexual issues and that the magazines use their influence to educate and inform young people. They don’t mean young people of course; they mean children. What they are saying is that they are, in effect, taking the responsibility of the parent into their own hands and they will decide what is right and what’s wrong when it comes to the content in such magazines. It is a comforting thought to know that there’s a governing body looking after the concerned parent’s interests. Or is it?

Firstly, TMAP are based at Queens House in London, in the offices of the Periodical Publishers Association. Since the Periodical Publishers Association exists to support magazine publishers and B2B media in the UK, it isn’t difficult to work out what’s likely to happen should adjudication be sought.

In the Third Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill in the House of Lords on 29th July 2004, the Government tabled an amendment that will ensure that those advising on the emotional as well as physical aspects of sex would not be prosecuted. Dr Fleur Fisher, chairman of TMAP, said: “The Government’s sensible amendment recognises that young people have the right to easy access to non-judgemental advice as well as accurate biological information on sex as they grow up…I am pleased that this Bill enables teen magazines’ continuing contribution to a safer journey to adulthood”. Is this a sensible amendment, or a downright irresponsible amendment? Easy access to advice? Or easy access to sex? Safer journey into adulthood? Or a much swifter journey into adulthood?

Not surprisingly, Nick Mazur, deputy executive at PPA, said: “Teenage magazines and their problem pages are often the only source which many young people can turn to for advice”. This statement was made, presumably, on the basis of such polls as could be found on the CosmoGIRL! Website in July 2004, which asked: “If you have a question about sex who would you turn to?” Of course, given that most girls entering the website are undoubtedly readers of CosmoGIRL! is it any wonder that 79% of these magazine readers said they would turn to a magazine agony aunt?

So, what actually happens when a member of the public writes to the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel about something that concerns them in a magazine? One of the most recent bouts of complaints they have had concerned an article that appeared in the May 2003 issue of Sugar magazine entitled “Are you cool about condoms?” The article was written following the results of an independent survey commissioned by pro-abortion campaigners Marie Stopes International UK and gave its 11 (yes, eleven!) to 15 year old readers a chance to order a condom online as part of a Marie Stopes International UK sexual health initiative. When making a complaint to TMAP regarding a magazine, the complainant is supposed to first get a response from the editor of the said magazine in question but despite several attempts by letter, e-mail and fax to get a written response to my complaint at that time, no written response was ever given. Nonetheless, the panel did not uphold the complaint, for reasons given in italics:

The survey that prompted the article showed a high level of ignorance amongst 11-15 year olds about sex and contraception.

Most would agree, 11-15 year olds are still children, especially at the lower ends of this spectrum. Why should they be anything but ignorant about sexual matters at this age? It would be interesting to see results of an independent and well organised survey into what gives those children who decide to enter into a sexual relationship at such a young age that urge to do so. Some teen magazines and organisations promoting birth control might not be keen to fund such research!

Four out of ten people (children) surveyed believed it was illegal to purchase condoms.

Surely this positive, as such a belief, although unfounded, may well act as a deterrent.

The panel also noted that a proportion of the young people who answered the survey had already embarked on some form of sexual activity.

What “proportion”? The word “proportion” is ambiguous. It doesn’t even say a “significant” proportion. Nor are we told who was asked. How were the questions worded and were the respondees with friends or alone? How were the ages accurately assessed, were parents informed and how was the sample chosen? All such factors can influence the responses given and should have been taken into account. Most importantly, it is obvious that in today’s sexualised society, if you ask youngsters whether they have had sex, they’re often going to say yes when really they mean no. Magazines and organisations that make sex look cool, clever and fun are responsible for such misleading answers. Are we expected to believe that every respondent was actually telling the truth and not simply bragging? It seems that the whole survey is based on a totally unreliable sample bearing unreliable results, manipulated and used in a dangerous and irresponsible way.

There is a need to remove “sordid sex’ connotations from condom use.

What exactly does this sentence mean? That we should make condoms look appealing to children? That we should promote condom use over and above celibacy? Encouraging children to participate in sexual activity is sordid.

The way in which the reader could obtain the condom was inclusive…

Inclusive of parents’ wishes? Inclusive of those many readers who would feel embarrassed outsiders through not ordering one with their friends? Tokens such as this serve to make sensible children feel pressurised and abnormal.

The article satisfied…by using a survey in association with an established sexual and reproductive health agency, Marie Stopes International UK…

Founded by Dr Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer, Marie Stopes International has offered 11-15 year olds free condoms on their website. Its campaigns include lobbying the Government for easy access to emergency contraception and lobbying for much easier access to abortion. Condoms, sexual health and abortion are major topics covered. Abstinence doesn’t appear to be a sensible option – probably because the organisation would then no longer be necessary. Could they possibly have a vested interest in promiscuity? You decide.

...to educate young people by enabling them to become familiar with condoms in an environment in which they feel comfortable.

And what about those children who aren’t ready to discuss sex? How would they feel? Certainly not comfortable. What about those who, through such an irresponsible article, decide to go ahead because they felt so comfortable with the idea? Just how comfortable will they feel afterwards? What about making kids feel comfortable enough with their bodies to remain celibate?

Perhaps most worrying and disturbing of all is the unsolicited addition of the following formal recommendations TMAP, seemingly in defiance of my complaint, added to the bottom of the adjudication response:

It is not illegal for a person under the age of 16 to have sexual intercourse: it is unlawful (subject to very limited exceptions) for a man to have sex with a girl under the age of sixteen. The consent of the girl is immaterial. Magazine articles should be careful to make this distinction.

Why should this distinction be made? Why is it necessary to point out to readers that sexual behaviour is not illegal? Moreover, a child under the age of thirteen cannot consent to sex; therefore it is classed as rape. Any magazine that is targeting children of as young as eleven upwards is therefore encouraging and inciting rape is they are promoting sex by means of making it look as though it’s easy, fun and without physical and emotional consequences.

Any article addressing sexual health should inform the reader that they can visit any general practitioner for help, not just that general practitioner with whom they are registered.

..TMAP guidance notes on these recommendations will be issued to the teenage magazine industry in due course.

It is absurd that, in response to complaints about an article offering condoms, TMAP’s Chairman would recommend that articles put even more emphasis on the rights of the child who wants to engage in sexual intercourse and by way of doing so, take away even more rights of the parents. This adjudication has simply proved what we already know, that those who really do care have no official and impartial body to turn to.

Understandably, there was outrage among family values campaigners; parents, pro-life groups and religious bodies as the Government amended the Sexual Offences Bill in favour of those advising on the physical as well as emotional aspects of sex. In theory, this means that good advice can and should be given to those children that want it. In practice, as we have seen, such advice is given to all, and with detrimental consequences for children wanting to preserve their innocence without the pressure that has so obviously led to the state we are in today.

The very nature of our children being asked such personal questions about sexual activity is inherently wrong and surely begs the question of those who control the PPA and TMAP, just what is their early sexual history that they want so vociferously to pass the damaging effects onto our young? We’ve got the question, now all we need are the answers.

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