Owen Jones, the socialist wunderkind and current darling of the Labour party, came under criticism yesterday when a vitriolic email chock full of threats and expletives that he had written at the tender age of 16, came to light. Whilst not sharing his zeal for socialist ideology, I have to confess some sympathy for him, though his email was absolutely shocking in content, not the sort of thing that one would expect from an intelligent, sensitive, politically aware teenager, one has to take his age into account. He was an immature perhaps somewhat naive teen, firing off an angry email in the days of the dot com bubble, the internet was only just becoming on-stream into people’s homes and he lacked the nouse to realise that this might come back to haunt him one day.
We could draw all sorts of conclusions about how this gives an insight into his character, the teenager is the adult in formation, how this is characteristic of those on the left who resort to ad hominem and abuse when they run out of argument, this email could add further ammunition against a personality and cause that is already disliked, or we could exercise some intellectual honesty and admit it as being the product of an immature teenager who has yet to get his passions or his writing under control. Though we can suck our teeth in horror, I can’t get too uptight about it, because to do so would be totally hypocritical knowing what I was like as a 16 year old. Without putting too fine a point on it, I wasn’t the most upstanding example of virtuous youth, I was busy developing my taste for tobacco for example, a habit that I have long since eschewed and I would be horrified if my children followed my pitiful teen example. There can be few people who didn’t do at least one silly and ill-thought through thing as a teenager, whatever that might be and though one cannot condone immature or adolescent mishaps, it seems wholly unfair to hold it against the fully-grown and more emotionally mature adult. All of us make mistakes, the trick is to learn from them and hopefully prevent and guide others from doing the same.
What this does highlight however, is the notion of teen maturity and how this varies wildly between individuals. Plenty of teenagers are fine upstanding examples of youth, others have some way to go. Owen’s mistake is indicative of the tendency of youth to live in the short-term with little thought to how their actions may affect them in the future. Owen himself admits, that the year 2000 was a particularly difficult and tumultuous one for him. Teens are a potent heady mix of burgeoning sexual hormones who in many cases lack the emotional maturity to deal with challenging situations.
This is why the sexual age of consent is set at 16, recognising that this is the minimum average age at which a person can be said to be able to consent to sexual intercourse and its implications. Most sensible people would recognise that children under this age lack the necessary maturity and responsibility to be able to handle a sexual relationship. There is currently something of a problem in the UK, with over a third of teenage girls reporting that they have experienced sexual violence. A government campaign is underway in order to educate teenagers that sexual violence is unacceptable. Speaking in March, Nick Clegg, the deputy PM said
When you’ve got a situation where a third of teenage girls say they have been subject to sexual coercion and abuse, when lots of teenagers say in surveys that they think it’s OK for a boy to expect to have sex with a girl they spend time with, something’s going wrong and we need to challenge it
The current liberal narrative assumes that teenagers have all the emotional intelligence, experience and reasoning faculties of adults, hence they must be treated as such. Whilst this is true to a certain extent, as Owen Jones’ email and as the levels of teen sexual violence suggest, teens are not yet fully formed adults and must therefore be given a level of protection and their minor misdemeanours not held against them.
The law in England states that a 16 year old can have sex but lacks the maturity to enter into a lifelong commitment such as marriage, without the consent of their parents. A 16 year old is furthermore unable to obtain a credit card or enter into any serious long-term financial commitments. The law exists for their own protection.
What I can’t understand in the light of this, is why it is thought acceptable for an adult, with no intimate personal relationship to a child, to teach that child all about the various methods of contraception, in order to protect themselves and no thought is given to the fact that teenagers can be and often are irresponsible. Why do teachers think that if they teach teenagers all about how to have “responsible sex” that teens are therefore going to go out and behave in a responsible fashion? In an ideal world this might be the case, but the reality is very different. The normalisation of sexual relationships between teens that goes on in the classroom, unwittingly gives consent to those who wish to coerce unwilling partners into sex and puts further pressure on teens to comply with what seems normal. Many teens are desperate to appear adult and grown-up beyond their years and hence sex is seen as reinforcing their maturity, particularly when Miss thinks it’s OK so long as you use a condom and don’t get pregnant.
How many teens are effectively able to use contraception? How many teens might forget to use a condom or may misuse one in the heat of the moment? That’s not to say that teenagers are stupid or ignorant, far from it, but statistically they are far less risk averse than the average adult. How many teenage girls have thought through the long-term consequences of taking hormonal contraception, whether or not they will be suited to it and the wisdom of bombarding one’s burgeoning reproductive system with a cocktail of synthetic hormones designed to simulate pregnancy at the onset of puberty?
Though this year’s figures show a slight reduction in teen pregnancies, there has been an explosion in the rate of teen STDS. More teenagers are having sex, slightly fewer are getting pregnant, but many many more are requiring treatment for diseases that could leave them scarred or infertile.
So if we can, as we should, excuse Owen Jones, a youthful indiscretion, recognising his immaturity, why are we therefore unable to recognise the vulnerability and instability of teenagers? Why is the teaching of abstinence as the ideal, deemed such a taboo amongst our chattering liberal classes? Why if we recognise that teenagers are not responsible adults, are they able to be given hormonal treatment, encouraged to engage in behaviour that could have lifelong repercussions and given access to abortion without parental consent? Why are 16 year olds not allowed to marry without parental consent, but able to take medication which could have serious and damaging side-effects? Why are those under the age of consent able and encouraged to abort an unwanted pregnancy without parental input? Why are parents not deemed capable and positively prevented from protecting their children from doing silly things.
Why does society allow a total stranger to give out a contraceptive pill to a 13 year old and encourage her to engage in illegal behaviour that could endanger her and impact her for the rest of her life? Are synthetic hormones, STDs and abortions less risky for the health of a pubescent child than a cigarette? That is what the law would suggest.
As Owen Jones acknowledges, teenagers do silly things for which they cannot be held responsible later in life. Such is the nature of adolescence. That does not mean that the silly things should be given licence and encouraged, even if they can be forgiven.