This is the first generation to go through adolescence online. Photo: Getty
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The two women teaching boys about sexting, porn and laddism

“You sit teenage boys in a room with two sassy New Yorkers and you talk about hardcore pornography, sexting and age of consent and what you can get away with – and they pay attention.”

The day Deana Puccio handed back her assistant district attorney shield was one of her worst ever. “I was so sad. I felt like part of my identity had gone,” she told me. She had always wanted to be a prosecutor. “Apparently I came out of my mother’s womb on a soapbox,” she said. And she chose to specialise in sex crimes because that would allow her to protect the streets where she grew up, in Brooklyn, New York.

Puccio gave up her job in 2001 to move to London with her husband and two young girls. It was intended to be a temporary relocation but they have stayed and Puccio has found a new sense of purpose. She now runs the Raising Awareness and Prevention (Rap) Project, which she founded with Allison Havey, a journalist and fellow New Yorker expat. The pair, both of whom have teenage children, became so concerned by the lack of information about rape available for young people that they began organising workshops at schools on sex and love in the digital age. They cover questions of consent, safety, sexting, porn and what they refer to as “laddism”.

I met them at a restaurant near King’s Cross, London. Puccio, petite and blonde, was sipping a Diet Coke when I arrived. Havey, taller, with bouncy brown curls, arrived a few minutes later, just behind her very excited puppy. If the stiff, uniformed waiters had a problem with the dog, they quickly realised that resistance was futile.

The Rap Project started in 2013 with talks for secondary-school girls. Quickly, its remit expanded. “From the very beginning, they said you really need to talk to guys about porn,” Havey explained. They are concerned that access to violent online pornography is shifting sexual norms. So they spoke to boys. “You sit teenage boys in a room with two sassy New Yorkers and you talk about hardcore pornography, sexting and age of consent and what you can get away with – and they pay attention,” Havey said, with a loud, husky laugh. “They shuffle in with a swagger – they don’t really need this talk. And you can hear the rape jokes: ‘Why’s it called Rap? They lost an E? Ha, ha.’ Little jokes. Within five minutes, they are mesmerised.”

Sometimes, Puccio needs to get “harsh on the boys”. She leaned forward, made eye contact and jabbed a finger towards me: “Do you realise something you do could get you landed in jail? . . . Have you ever been inside a jail cell? And, of course, everyone’s, like, ‘no’. And I’m, like, ‘Well, I have. Trust me, you don’t want to be there. Even one night could change your life,” she said. Many boys seem more concerned with the prospect of getting into trouble than the thought their behaviour is wrong. Still, Havey and Puccio reason that preventing even one young man from becoming a misogynist is a success.

The pair speak teen “lingo”, which helps, and they can draw on a depressing number of newspaper stories, from sexist emails about “free pussy”, sent by an Oxford rugby club, to allegations of gang rape at University of Virginia frat parties. These stories also fuel demand for the Rap Project: in early December, they will visit their 50th school.

This is the first generation to go through adolescence online. Havey and Puccio believe this poses unique problems. Yet when we discussed celebrity child abuse cases, it was evident they are also motivated by recent history. “So many women and men have been sexually abused and we didn’t talk about it because of shame, because of embarrassment,” Puccio said. “It was a different time but maybe if we had come forward earlier, it would have saved a lot of people from becoming victims.” 

For more information, go to: therapproject.co.uk

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt