Tracy Quan is the author of the Nancy Chan series of novels, the latest of which is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl (Harper Perennial).


What's it all about, Daisy?

Next to my pillow lies a favourite short novel, set in India and told in English by R.K. Narayan. In The Painter of Signs, a mild-mannered young man trying to establish a sign-painting business falls in love with a birth control zealot. Daisy proselytizes about overpopulation and the standard of living, and turns her progressive cause into a noble calling. In her chaste, clinical way, of course, she is obsessed with sex. I am very familiar with Daisy, for the obligation to do something rational about the sex urge took hold of me when I was 12. I obtained a small stack of birth control handbooks to distribute amongst my classmates – a kind of ideological foreplay.

I revisited Daisy after finding myself a mental captive of the media frenzy over two East Sussex teenagers, Alfie and Chantelle. Narayan's romantic heroine would never have approved of these misfits – and neither would I when I embarked on my contraceptive mission. But my reactions to the moralistic freak show surrounding them surprised me.

When 15-year-old Chantelle Steadman gave birth to a daughter, Maisie, in early February, rumours began to multiply. How much were the tabloids willing to pay for access to Alfie Patten, the baby-faced 13-year-old seeking a paternity test to prove he'd impregnated Chantelle? Five- and six-figure sums were mentioned. How many older-looking schoolboys (two? eight?) were claiming they might have fathered Maisie? But Chantelle kept insisting the biological dad could only be Alfie.

Adults, reacting with alarm to pubescent sex, will find a way to fixate on anything but. Pregnancy, economics and innocence top their list. "Broken Britain! Childhood lost!" shrieked the conservatives, their sense of dismay on autopilot. Actually, if Alfie or Chantelle have lost their innocence, it has little to do with sex and much more to do with how they relate to the media. Their insouciance before the camera at such a tender age was disturbing. Naïve about intimacy and, perhaps, about each other, they seemed quite jaded about the publicity.

Chantelle's and Alfie's parents were accused of exploiting – even creating – the media frenzy, but were they solely responsible? Kids of 13 and 15 can be wilful and avaricious, even if their goals are unrealistic. When Mrs Justice Baron, a High Court judge, banned all further reporting, she cited "press intrusion", but she was also, I believe, protecting Alfie and Chantelle from themselves.

Speculation about how much money Chantelle's parents receive in state benefits was inevitable, since both are unemployed and Chantelle is one of five children. According to one tabloid report, Alfie's dad has ten kids with, I think, four different mums. Another suggested nine. I tried to figure out exactly how many, then gave up. A picture of Alfie's dad wearing a devil mask in broad daylight made me uncomfortable.

Everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Jeremy Kyle (DNA-testing on morning TV!) was blamed, either for Chantelle's pregnancy or the post-partum circus. Gordon Brown, forced to comment, tried to sound thoughtful and horrified at the same time, which is not as easy as it should be.

Conservatives simplistically proclaim that sex itself destroys youthful innocence, while social liberals are more likely to cite the complications of youthful motherhood. Statistics on teen pregnancy help us to avoid facing our own phobias about youth – which are, of course, a response to phobias about ageing: "It's not your sexual behaviour that scares us, it's the pregnancy rate." Britain's teen pregnancy rate – the highest in western Europe – makes the UK look as unruly as the US, and trotting out the latest data makes the entire conversation seem quite scientific.

Like many girls of 15, Chantelle is well along in her physical development. She could, at first glance, be Alfie's mother, a visual discrepancy that made me wince – because it reminded me of my adolescent self, far more developed than my male peers. Even if you don't get pregnant or end up in the news, puberty can feel a lot like a freak show. 13 and 15 are such variable ages.

When I became sexually active I was Alfie's age, 13, looking at guys who could match my precocity. But three years earlier, at 10, I had suffered from an agonizing crush on the boy next door who, at 13, looked even younger than I did. I resembled a budding woman – menstruating, wearing a bra – but the object of my affection was a mere boy. I looked his age and he looked my age, even though our true ages were just the opposite. By the time I was ready for sex, I had outgrown this unsettling obsession, but it haunts me to this day.

I can't identify with Chantelle's pregnancy, but I'm disinclined to laugh at her relationship with Alfie – whatever that might entail. Many people, well into their own adulthood, have a complicated relationship with adolescence. Some of us found ourselves in situations similar to Alfie's or Chantelle's when we were young: two kids, a few years apart, one far more mature than the other. Do these uneasy memories of our own development contribute to the fascination with Alfie and Chantelle? If Alfie looked his age, would there have been a story?

Chantelle's allegation was viewed by many as a stunt, for – until judge and media watchdog stepped in – there were questions about a documentary producer paying to watch Alfie learn the DNA results on camera. Chantelle's had at least one sex partner. Were there others? If so, are we meant to believe that naming Alfie as the father was a cynical gesture on her part? I dislike that assumption.

Throughout human history, paternity has been hard to untangle. Romantic experiments often leave a question mark in a woman's mind about who the father is. Sometimes a mother's favourite is the child whose paternity remains unclear. There is a long female tradition of pinning fatherhood on the guy you like best – or the male who will be kind to both mother and child – and then taking this secret with you to the grave. DNA testing interferes with that, but the impulse may still be alive – and hard to kick.

While Alfie is too immature to be a conventional dad, Chantelle may have feelings that can't be explained by those seeking to mock her predicament. Her desire to proclaim Alfie the father of her daughter might be based on something more mysterious, more heartfelt, than a media stunt.



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