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Laurie Penny on Rihanna: Can watching videos turn a girl into a knicker-dropping strumpet?

We're experiencing a sexual counterrevolution that encompasses a backlash against women’s sexual and reproductive freedom.

Rihanna during the 2012 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show
Just stumbling across a Rihanna video on YouTube is enough to "sexualise" a girl, apparently. Photograph: Getty Images

Teen sex is catching. According to politicians, we are suffering from an epidemic of promiscuity which is turning our young women into knicker-dropping teen strumpets before our very eyes.

"Sexualisation" is the favourite term of reference for this process - and it’s a curious, toxic word. 

The language of ‘sexualisation’ as employed by professional pearl-clutchers like Claire Perry MP implicitly assumes that sex is only, and always, something done to women and girls rather than something we do ourselves - a logic by which we can only ever be sex objects.  "The teenage girl," as Naomi Wolf observed in her book Promiscuities, "is understood more clearly as a victim of culture and sexuality than as a sexual and cultural creator." 

According to the ‘sexualisation’ logic, a young girl merely has to leaf through a contraband copy of Cosmopolitan or stumble on a Rhianna video on Youtube and wham, that’s it, sexualised. Ruined forever. Nothing to be done, and abuse and wanton, abject harlotry will surely follow. 

"The honest facts of female sexual development in adolescence- especially the facts of girls' desire - have sustained a long history of active censorship," wrote Woolf in 1997. A decade-and-a-half later, it is still modish for politicians and public health officials to behave as if women and girls had no sexual agency whatsoever, and must instead be protected from the terrible disease of “sexualisation”, which young girls are assumed to catch like the common cold. 

Apparently, we cannot cope, as a culture, with the idea that a young girl who experiences sexual desire might not be promiscuous, or wicked, or dangerous. With every technology of pleasure  and knowledge at our fingertips, we are not a society that wants to know about female pleasure, or one that respects female sexual subjectivity. 

And if young women are victimised – one in six children aged between 11 and 17 have experienced sexual abuse – we still seem to have a problem with placing blame where it belongs, with the abusers, whether they are strangers or members of their own family. No politician seems able to come forward and tell adult men to stop abusing young girls. The problem must, instead, lie with female sexuality itself, too much, or too young, or both. This week, national treasure Joanna Lumley took it upon herself to weigh in and tell young women to stop dressing “like trash” if they don’t want to get raped - an attitude that, despite the best efforts of sex-positive feminists, is becoming more and more common.

Young women in particular still receive extremely mixed messages about how they are expected to behave sexually. They are encouraged to look and act available in a passive, submissive manner at all times, but slut-shamed and dismissed, assumed to be complicit in their own abuse, if they ever actually allow the boys to touch them or, heaven forfend, pursue them of their own volition. Young men, of course, can be equally confused and distressed by the violent, thrusting, hyperbolic images that are, increasingly, the only easily available model of adult sexuality - yes, you can find every type of porn imaginable on the internet, but you have to know what you’re looking for first, otherwise you find yourself, like many young men, lost in a world of disembodied dicks brutalising women into submission. We assume, though, that the sexuality of boys is both normal and inherently violent, so nobody seems worried about protecting young men from ‘sexualisation.’

An incredible thing has happened. We live in an age of boundless information. Kids today simply know more, much more, than any generation that has come before them.  I'm typing part of this column, for example, on a device no bigger than my open hand through which I can access, with a couple of finger-swipes, more data than my immediate ancestors ever conceived of in their days of hoarding books in island poverty - although I mainly use it to look at smutty webcomics and find my way to the pub. And yet, with all this hyperabundance of information, with all of these learning tools at our disposal, we have somehow managed to raise yet another generation that remains as ignorant and confused as ever about that most intimate of mysteries, human sexuality. How did this happen?

It happened because adults in this culture persist in seeing their own sexuality as monstrous, as terrifying and compelling and disgusting, rather than as a normal part of human development. It happened because we are unable to provide decent, adequate sex education in schools, or alternative models for sexuality beyond the pornily performative, the sterile and the sexist and the crashingly heteronormative. We surround ourselves with glossy images of faux-nymphettes sucking their thumbs to sell us perfume and underwear and car insurance, and yet we are unable to conceive of an adolescent or pre-adolescent sexuality that is anything but abusive. This says far more about commercial culture than it does about young women, most of whom, if we all calm down for a minute and look at the actual evidence, still don't have sex until they are at least sixteen. 

Our fundamental mistake has been to confuse commercial sexuality, the porny, plastic, airbrushed, pole-twirling, lolly-licking vision of perpetual female heterosexual erotic submission, with sex itself, which is rather like confusing the McDonalds burger menu with food. Most of the available evidence suggests that young people are able to make that distinction right up until the point when they are offered no other language in which to express their own sexual feelings, like hungry late-night revellers who eventually give in and scarf down a Big Mac because there's nothing else open. It is adults, not children, who need to grow up about sexuality, to understand that in between frantic censorship and dull, sphincter-straining YouPorn hardcore pornography is a whole world of pleasure and adventure that young people should feel free to explore without fearing violence and abuse. Sex is not the problem. Sexism is the problem, and always has been.

The truth is that if a young woman is abused, sexually or otherwise, by an adult, it is never her fault, whatever she was wearing or doing. Right now a great chilling effect is going on across the Western world, a sexual counter-revolution that encompasses a backlash against women’s sexual and reproductive freedom, our right to choose when and if and how we fuck and what we do with our bodies afterwards, and the attack on the sexuality of young girls, the assumption that abuse is an inevitable consequence of teenage sexuality, is part of that backlash. In Britain we do not even have many of our nearest cultural neighbors’ excuse of being half-run by rabid religious zealots who regard rape resulting in pregnancy as a gift from Jesus and would exchange the word ‘vagina’ for ‘devil’s dirt-hole’ in school textbooks if they could. Here, we may have turfed the Catholic Church out of the mechanisms of state several centuries ago, but the Priest in the head is harder to evict. 

"There is a sense in much of this literature of an assumed ‘weight of evidence’ which included the idea that girls are ‘directly sexualised’ through their exposure to advertising, tween magazines and television programmes," concludes a recent report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. "However there is, in fact, a severe shortage of rigorous research on this emotive issue." In other words, the moral panic is almost entirely made up. That doesn’t stop it from making great political capital. The only people likely to be damaged by the new prudery are young men and women trying to negotiate their developing sexuality in a safe, positive way - and they’re almost nobody’s target voter.