Eleanor's Letter: Queenagers, sex and Generation XXX
When it comes to sex, I'm so glad I am 50 not 20... here's why
When it comes to sex I am so glad to be a Queenager, not a Gen Z. I caught Emma Thompson on the TV this week talking about her new movie Good Luck to You (about a midlife woman who has never had an orgasm and goes to see a sex worker…. hmmm) and was particularly struck by what she said about her kids’ generation and sex. “When I hear stories in schools about boys and what they expect from girls, what they think sex is… it is really disturbing,” she said. “I think it can interfere with their sexual development because it’s all be taken away, industrialised and fed back to them in a completely indigestible form.”
This struck a chord with me because I had just had a disturbing conversation with an old friend about her son – and also because I have been campaigning about the effects of unfettered access to internet pornography on our kids for the past ten years! I’d also been thinking about it because I’ve been watching Love Island (for my sins) with my teens and all the boys introduce themselves as ‘cheeky chappies’ with a roving eye – basically ‘players’ – and the first chats they have with members of the opposite sex are about what sexual positions they like. The total pornification of sexual mores for our young people is out and proud.
Now I am really not a prude. I was no nun as a younger woman and I frequently go into schools to talk to teenagers about sex (the basic gist is that learning about sex from porn is like learning to drive by watching the Fast and the Furious). What is heartbreaking is how confused they all are. A marker of how much things have changed since we were young is that teen girls now think being choked is as normal a part of foreplay as a boy touching their arse.
The shift in sexual mores in the last decade is immense. Most midlife women never expected to have to shave off all their pubic hair (teens now think that’s the norm) and when we were young, men almost never asked for anal sex. Now anal is de rigueur along with spitting in someone’s mouth, being pissed on or having their pudenda spat on (from my research in schools). I can’t tell you how relieved they are when you say – well, no, it doesn’t have to be like that. They are like lobsters being boiled in a pot: they only know the sexual culture that is around them now.
This is all a long precursor to the story of Jimmy. A mate’s son. Jimmy got three As and went off to a top university to study his dream course. Jimmy is slight, but handsome and tall. He’s always worked hard and not been much of a party boy. But before he went to uni he started smoking strong weed and when he got to his student digs despite them supposedly being smoke-free, his student housemates put socks over the smoke alarms and smoked skunk all day long. At night they would go clubbing, fuelled by cocaine and other class A drugs – and quantities of alcohol. Again the student culture these days is hardcore: drinks containing five or six shots are common. At this lad’s university, a pub crawl involving 14 pubs and a pint in each was a Fresher initiation. The boys in his university flat have a sex chart in the kitchen – who has shagged who and what they got the girl to do. It’s like a RedTube porn menu. The more degrading the more the points.
Into this atmosphere, bad things come. As the mother of girls, I’ve always been more concerned about the expectations on them, not fancying my little darlings being throttled or spat at. But this chat with a mum of a boy convinced me it is horrid for them too. “Jimmy was just so confused, way out of his depth, surrounded by these public school laddy animals. I think he was the butt of their joke too. He was trying to keep up – and that is when it all went wrong.”
Jimmy went out clubbing one night and was hanging out with a girl. The girl was also off her head on booze and drugs and ended up back at his flat. She got into his bed, took off all her clothes, fooled around for a bit and then decided she’d had enough (as is a woman’s prerogative) and left. Jimmy can’t remember exactly what happened. He blacked out.
The next thing he knew the girl’s male flatmate from upstairs was at the door of his room – and beat him up. The girl said he had assaulted her when she had said no. Jimmy can’t remember what happened. He stumbled to his door and got the shit kicked out of him. He feels terrible about himself and what happened. He can’t remember. His friends say the girl was all over him all night – but that she has a boyfriend and maybe that was why she departed in a hurry. Jimmy is usually a gentle soul, but he can’t defend himself from her allegations because he can’t remember. And maybe something did happen. But it’s tricky to work out the lines when both parties are completely off their heads and get into bed naked in a consensual way… and when the sexual landscape is so weird and warped anyway. Much of what now counts as consensual looks like assault to our generation…. Only the two of them know what happened and one of them can’t remember.
Anyway: Jimmy was cancelled by his entire cohort at university. The girl accused him of assault on social media (though not to the university authorities, or the police). And he was ostracised. His room was trashed and he had to leave.
He is now back home nursing his wounds. Depressed. His mum is worried he might do something terrible. She only found out about all of this because she happened to be passing through his university town on business and when he came to her hotel she realised something was going on. She thinks if she hadn’t been there that day he might have killed himself. He won’t see his old friends from home because they all smoke weed and he has given all of that up since he came home from uni. He is moping about the house. She is beside herself. She is still paying his uni rent and his fees – but he’s been at home for months.
Jimmy’s isn’t the only story I have heard like this. Three other friends have told me about allegations made by girls against their sons. One 16-year-old boy swears that he hadn’t so much as kissed the girl – she’d tried to get with him and he said no and then she made all sorts of horrid allegations against him. Again all over social media. He got cancelled. But he hadn’t done anything wrong. One mum I know told her son to get consent in writing from the girl EVERY TIME before he gets into bed with them – just in case.
I’m not making any assumptions here or pointing any blame. I’ve always been on the girls’ side instinctively as a feminist and a mother of two teen girls. And I am sure boys do overstep the mark and girls do get assaulted. This whole area of consent and pressure is muddled; we all know what it is like to feel bad in the morning after a bender. But I can also see it is bad for the boys too; there are many tales of Biggerexia and boys being shamed about not being buff enough, for not being hung like porn stars… It is a culture which doesn’t help anyone.
“The biggest change in the last decade is the level of aggression girls today are encountering from boys,” explains Alison Havey, Co-Founder of the RAP Project which goes into schools to talk about consent. “It is normal now for girls to be forced, for boys to intentionally get them drunk to assault them. This generation has been bred on internet porn which is all about violently pounding different orifices – there is no consent, no condoms, no foreplay and terrifyingly no sexual pleasure for women. The levels of violence are shocking and have got worse as viewers get desensitised to the material.”
The point of sharing these stories is to make my fellow Queenagers aware of what is going on. The old rules have been thrown out of the window. It is now all about individual choice – and if you complain about the new sexual mores you are seen as a Sandra Dee-style prude: it used to be a divide between girls who put out and girls who didn’t. Now it is uncool to be seen as ‘vanilla’ when it comes to sex – cool girls are good with outre acts. And that’s before we even go there on the new relationship code (basically if you are having sex with someone there is no assumption of exclusivity unless that is explicitly said – so you can be sleeping with someone for six months and they can be shagging everyone else in sight and that is fine if it is an unexclusive agreement. Although of course, it’s not fine because if you are sleeping with someone regularly you probably have feelings for them which are not allowed in the new set-up).
The kids talk about ‘so and so caught feelings’ as if that is a dirty word, as if the aim here is to have lots of anonymous, pumpy, porn-style sex rather than find someone you like and care about.
A generation bred on porn is struggling to find their way through a maze of extreme acts with no rules or guides – fuelled by excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol and a broader youth culture that heroes ‘cheeky chappy’ bro players with six packs and girls who look like Love Island contestants and which seems to have forgotten about feelings, connection and caring about people.
Both sexes end up doing things they regret. All of them are confused and anxious – we have a mental health epidemic in our youngsters. And I can’t help but think the lack of any rules or code is probably not helping.
As parents, we have to help our young people. The first thing we can do is talk to them about all of this: yes it might be embarrassing but it won’t kill you. Open a dialogue. Tell them what it was like for you. Ask them how they feel about it all. Talk to your young people about what feels good, foreplay, romance… feeling comfortable and that you trust someone before you get into bed with them. Maybe suggest they avoid copping off after 14 pints and two pills… for their own safety.
We can’t just shut our eyes and ears and pretend this isn’t happening. This is what ALL of our young people are grappling with. Just because you have a nice middle-class life, or your kids went to private school and are at a good uni doesn’t mean this isn’t happening to them.
I’ve written about this countless times in all sorts of newspapers, talked about it on the World Service – predicted that this would happen a decade ago. It gives me no pleasure to be proved right. But we all have to try and help fix it and that starts with some difficult conversations.
While we’re talking about sex, we’re trying to start a new conversation around midlife sexuality and we’re kicking it off with this survey. If you’d like to be a part of our later life intimate pleasure revolution, please take the time to fill it out. We’ll be reporting back because we think this really matters. All responses will be anonymous.
Thanks! Made my head spin as a 56 year old American. I don’t have children so I’m out of the loop. It concerned me greatly when it became fashionable to be clean shaven, that seems to me to be trying to appear prepubescent. I have jumped out of bed and ran off when anal sex was expected. That is not sex to me. Then Many years abstinent . I’m recently married again & my husband’s blood pressure(lisinapro) medicine interferes with things. American doctors don’t care about the side effect, they just sell more vigra ( causes dangerous dizziness) .
I’m glad you are able to communicate with your children. If I were young, a signed consent is a sadly good idea. Americans watched the circus of Amber Heard Lying about Johnny Depp . She was the actual abuser, not Mr Depp. I hope the court charges her with perjury or more young women will think it’s okay to lie and ruin a man’s life through slander.
I’m fortunate to have left an abusive marriage years ago and got counseling for ptsd. Help isn’t that easy to get & the insurance company doesn’t let you see the therapist long enough… I’d just be starting to trust them & insurance said I was at the limit.
Please stop. It’s bad in one way or other. I’ve been raised in time and place when sex in movies or tv was tabu - so it was tabu for me. I don’t know how to speak with my partner about my preferences, there are times when sex is something embarrassing for me, because it was when I was growing up. It shouldn’t be like that either. Sex should be normal, because it is normal, since teenagers. Not promote, not tabu. Normal.