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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Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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