Just stumbling across a Rihanna video on YouTube is enough to "sexualise" a girl, apparently. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

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.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

Show Hide image

For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood