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Bare facts push us to our knees

Julia Bell is a novelist and lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London

A report in 2004 on prostitution in London by the Poppy Project recommended that one of the ways to curb rising demand for prostitution is with effective sex education for teenage boys. Similarly, this month the Institute for Public Policy Research recommends that we introduce sex education for children as young as 10 and replace the traditional biological approach with discursive emotional education. Cue the usual moral panic. In the interim, while debate immobilises any effective practical action, teen pregnancy rates soar and incidents of teenage rape and sex crime continue to rise.

The garden of my flat in north London backs on to the playing fields of a new city academy. One afternoon, the kids were running past the chain-link fence that separates my garden from their playground when I was spotted by a few of the older boys. I looked at them, they giggled and looked at me.

"Hey Miss," one of them shouted, thrusting his pelvis forward. "You want to suck my dick?" And they all ran off laughing.

I didn't bother to complain to the school because I felt it would be just another stretch on their resources. Maybe it was simply teen bravado. Maybe he has been abused and is acting out. But his pose looked more like a poor imitation of a pornographic hip-hop video. In recent weeks, the Government has abandoned, due to lack of parliamentary time, a bill to put Zoo and Nuts on the top shelf, while Tesco has started to sell pole-dancing kits on its website. So maybe this boy thinks that, just like the representations of adult women around him, we're all just one pole-dance away from getting on our knees.

I know that by not complaining I've allowed him to swim back unchallenged into the slipstream of a wider cultural problem. And perhaps this is really the heart of the matter. As long as women are buying pole-dancing kits at Tesco or taking their tops off for men's magazines, they are colluding in their droves with the means of their own exploitation.

I would like to ask a class of teenage girls what they think about the symbolism of pole-dancing, or ask boys who read Zoo how they would like it if they saw their sisters stripping off for those pages, or how they think calling women "hos" or "bitches" makes them feel. Teen pregnancies dropped in Sweden when the country adopted this kind of discursive model. Do we really mean to leave sex education to Tesco, men's magazines and Snoop Dogg's rap videos?

Julia Bell's novel Dirty Work deals with sex-trafficking (to be published by Young Picador in January, 2007)

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