Girls shouldn't feel like they have to "perform like pornstars"

A problem which affects all of society has its roots in classrooms and on the internet, writes Frances Ryan.

When I was 15, I bought a t-shirt with the words "Porn star" on it. I remember there was choice, in the shop at least. Multiple t-shirts with multiple wordings, all drawn with silver glitter that said this was somehow fun. Did I want to be a playboy bunny or a porn star? I decided porn star. It was light pink, I recall. As if feminine and sweet.

That was 2000. Before Facebook, before mobiles let someone from school send someone else a porn link, before social media and news sites showed pictures of women who seemed to want to be sexually exposed and those who didn't but were anyway

In 2013, girls in Britain feel like they have to “look and perform like porn stars” to be “liked and valued by boys”, research from the NSPCC has said today.

There are a lot of words said about porn and the sexualisation of young people nowadays. In some ways, too many. We can drown ourselves in ‘pornification’ and other terms that, to the average teenage girl, are nothing when it comes down to it. Girls feel an expectation to “look” and “perform” like porn stars in order to please boys. I think for a minute we can just pause on that. 

This isn't just an issue for girls (“just” – as if a problem for girls isn't a problem at all). Almost a third surveyed believed porn dictated how young people had to behave in a relationship. In the film, the one with the penis may be the one in control, but back in the teenage bedroom, I doubt anyone could claim it’s any less harmful for a boy to see himself as the one who has to dominate than for a girl to see herself as the one to be dominated. 

And that’s what they see. “Performing like a porn star” would, technically, be having sex and being paid to have it filmed. I think we all know this is not what young girls mean when they say they feel they have to behave this way. “Performing like a porn star”, in the context of what the majority of porn shows, is passively conforming to whatever desires the man (or men) in the room want to use you for. 

You don’t have to watch (misogynistic) porn to see this. Miley Cyrus, 20, at an award ceremony, “twerking” her seemingly naked arse against the groin of a self-satisfied, fully clothed thirtysomething man. Women’s magazines that offer sex tips that make sex seem like an ordeal women have to go through, and will get right or wrong. National newspapers including a page for breasts, whilst casually describing other women as meat. Bad porn exacerbates a culture that says a woman’s sexuality is whatever a man wants it to be. It didn’t create it or suddenly become the only outlet for it. 

Put it like this and it's less young girls feeling like they have to act like a porn star and more “young girls feeling like they have to act like all the girls flooding through the media who feel like they have to act like a porn star.' Not to get a boyfriend, of course. Just to have a job or even get a mention. I'm not sure which aspect is more depressing. But I do know that attempting to separate them – as if what young people see in porn exists in a vacuum, apart from Page 3 and MTV – is going to help no one. 

Teenagers should be having compulsory sex education that talks about consent and mutual desire, and yes, porn. Compulsory sex education that’s updated to acknowledge the Internet exists. The rest of society, whilst we’re at it, might want to start addressing the cultural framework that informs it all. Where the women used in porn are just one end of a spectrum that silently, busily filters through schools, living rooms, and shops.

I never did wear the t-shirt. I was an impostor in a role I wasn't sure I even wanted to inhabit. The glitter loses its shine in the end. Quicker than you can imagine. 

Adult film actresses Chanel Preston, Allie Haze and Selena Rose. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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After the “Tatler Tory” bullying scandal, we must ask: what is the point of party youth wings?

A zealous desire for ideological purity, the influence of TV shows like House of Cards and a gossip mill ever-hungry for content means that the youth wings of political parties can be extremely toxic places.

If you wander around Westminster these days, it feels like you’re stepping into a particularly well-informed crèche. Everyone looks about 13; no one has ever had a job outside the party they are working for. Most of them are working for an absolute pittance, affordable only because Mummy and Daddy are happy to indulge junior’s political ambitions.

It’s this weird world of parliament being dominated by under 25s that means the Tory youth wing bullying scandal is more than just a tragic tale. If you haven’t followed it, it’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read; a tale of thirty-something, emotionally-stunted nonentities throwing their weight around at kids – and a promising, bright young man has died as a result of it.

One of the most depressing things was that the stakes were so incredibly low. People inside RoadTrip 2015 (the campaigning organisation at the centre of the scandal) cultivated the idea that they were powerbrokers, that jumping on a RoadTrip bus was a vital precondition to getting a job at central office and eventually a safe seat, yet the truth was nothing of the sort.

While it’s an extreme example, I’m sure it happens in every political party all around the world – I’ve certainly seen similar spectacles in both the campus wings of the Democrats and Republicans in the US, and if Twitter is anything to go by, young Labour supporters are currently locked in a brutal battle over who is loyal to the party, and who is a crypto-Blairite who can “fuck off and join the Tories”. 

If you spend much time around these young politicians, you’ll often hear truly outrageous views, expressed with all the absolute certainty of someone who knows nothing and wants to show off how ideologically pure they are. This vein of idiocy is exactly where nightmarish incidents like the notorious “Hang Mandela” T-shirts of the 1980s come from.

When these views have the backing of an official party organisation, it becomes easy for them to become an embarrassment. Even though the shameful Mandela episode was 30 years ago and perpetrated by a tiny splinter group, it’s still waved as a bloody shirt at Tory candidates even now.

There’s also a level of weirdness and unreality around people who get obsessed with politics at about 16, where they start to view everything through an ideological lens. I remember going to a young LGBT Republican film screening of Billy Elliot, which began with an introduction about how the film was a tribute to Reagan and Thatcher’s economics, because without the mines closing, young gay men would never found themselves through dance. Well, I suppose it’s one interpretation, but it’s not what I took away from the film.

The inexperience of youth also leads to people in politics making decisions based on things they’ve watched on TV, rather than any life experience. Ask any young politician their favourite TV show, and I guarantee they’ll come back with House of Cards or The Thick of It. Like young traders who are obsessed with Wolf of Wall Street, they don’t see that all the characters in these shows are horrific grotesques, and the tactics of these shows get deployed in real life – especially when you stir in a healthy dose of immature high school social climbing.

In this democratised world of everyone having the ear of the political gossip sites that can make or break reputations, some get their taste for mudslinging early. I was shocked when a young Tory staffer told me “it’s always so upsetting when you find out it’s one of your friends who has briefed against you”. 

Anecdotes aside, the fact that the youth wings of our political parties are overrun with oddballs genuinely worries me. The RoadTrip scandal shows us where this brutal, bitchy cannibalistic atmosphere ends up.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.