I saw a particularly great example of this a couple of months ago in the Australian newspaper. Their front cover advertised a full-length feature article inside entitled "The Yes Generation". OMIGOD, boys and girls saying "yes" to sex?! Let me buy that paper! Tell me more!
Except that when I turned to the article in question and waded through the preliminary sensationalist gumph, it turned out that the article was covering recent scientific research into the sexual behaviour of teenagers today and - wait for it - it turns out that there was no evidence whatsoever that teenagers were having more sex now than in the past. Headline news! Teenagers are having sex at about the same rate as they've always been!
An interesting subtheme in the issue of teenage sex is its relationship to class. There is a strong emphasis in some newspaper coverage of the issue of the wayward morals of the working classes; or, more precisely, of the unemployed classes. One has images of an army of sixteen year olds pushing prams across council estates and rubbing their hands together gleefully at the prospect of a life on benefits; their lives subsidised by that most feted of tabloid archetypes, the hard-working British taxpayer.
I came across an illuminating take on this subject in the classic novel "Germinal" by Zola. "Germinal" was written in 1885, with the events described therein being set about twenty years previously. Zola's concern is with a group of miners in northern France, and he chronicles their daily struggles in a way that reminded me of Dickens. Like Dickens he has a lot of sympathy for his subjects, although Zola makes less use of caricature than Dickens - his sympathies are held in check by his desire to describe his subjects accurately and without prejudice. (The other similarity is that, like Dickens at his best, "Germinal" is a belting good read.)
With regard to sex, then, Zola writes bluntly. The youth in "Germinal" take their pleasure when they can. They creep out of their over-crowded homes in the evening and copulate in back alleys, and in the waste ground round the mine. They are promiscuous and irresponsible, and entirely free of a good example - their parents' primary concern in all this is the worry that they will end up with pregnant daughters unable to work, and then nine months later another mouth to feed. The people in these villages are viewed by the middle classes as little better than animals for their lack of morals, and their utter surrender to their carnal desires. Yep, the same sneering attitude, just 150 years earlier.
What makes Zola's treatment of the subject interesting, however, is that he understands that this is more than a moral issue. The people in these villages work the mines from the age of six or earlier. They work long long hours in terrible conditions for a pitiful wage that barely covers their food bill. (Zola describes how some of the women are forced to pay their grocery bill by prostituting themselves to the grocer.) When the villagers organise to try and force an improvement to their situation, they are opposed by the mine owners, the police, and the state. In other words they are locked into a life of unrelenting wage slavery, with no prospect of any escape.
The only recourse one has in this situation is to take one's pleasure where you can find it. So the men spend too much of their money in getting drunk and buying favours of prostitutes, the teenagers take their pleasure with each other (and the women and children have very little pleasure of any kind). It makes a lot of sense; Bernard Shaw was another who saw the logic in this outlook - consider this speech from "Pygmalion":
What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: 'You're undeserving; so you can't have it.' But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving...It is interesting to observe that the insight of Zola and Shaw still holds true today. Despite what the tabloids might say, there is clearly NOT an epidemic of teenage sex in modern society; as the research I mentioned above suggests, teenagers are having sex about as often as their parents did when they were young. On the other hand, if society is worried about teenagers having sex, then it would be as well to recognise that the primary motivation is, more often than not, a lack of alternatives. People living on estates in Britain might be materially better off than miners in 19th century France but still, if you've got no money in today's society, then you are nobody. You have nothing to do, and nowhere to go. Better get your fun for free (e.g. via sex) or cheaply (via booze) or you'll have no fun at all.
The media's obsession with an absence of morals in the young and the poor is a big old red herring. The real issue is the lack of opportunity for whole sections of British society, and the complete lack of interest that recent governments have had in changing this state of affairs. Far easier to point the finger of judgement at today's teenagers, than to put energy into providing them with real opportunities for self-improvement.