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There’s more to the Facebook generation than the odd poke, writes Laurie Penny

This state-sponsored panic about the sexualisation of childhood has far more to do with religious censoriousness than it might at first appear.

Is Facebook turning girls into strumpets? That's the thrust of the latest moral panic to come out of the Bailey review into "sexualisation", an ugly word which suggests that girls are passive creatures with no sexual agency of their own. The word is relatively new but anxiety about young women in public spaces is age-old. Six decades ago, rock'n'roll concerts were apparently turning nice, young ladies into wayward, serial-shagging hussies. Now, it's social networking.

As always, the discussion is focused almost exclusively on girls, boys being free to post pictures of themselves dancing to Lady Gaga in their underpants without incurring the opprobrium of the Daily Mail.

This state-sponsored panic about the sexualisation of childhood, by which nearly everyone means girlhood, has far more to do with religious censoriousness than it might at first appear. The Mothers' Union, whose chief executive, Reg Bailey, produced the review for the government, is neither a union nor a mothers' group. It is an "international Christian charity", dedicated to bringing about "a world where God's love is shown . . . by supporting marriage and family life". The group pursues this goal "through prayer" as well as "policy work".

If the male leader of an Islamic charity were to advise the government on how girls should dress and consume popular culture, there would be uproar. Instead, the Prime Minister congratulates Bailey in an obsequious letter for voicing “an issue that concerns so many parents". It is reassuring to know that, in this decadent modern world, there are still powerful, middle-aged men on hand to manage and censor the sexuality of young women.

Parents have been concerned about their children becoming sexual for centuries. There isn't a mother or father who will not, at some point, become frantic with worry at the notion that their son or daughter will one day grow up, move out and start being penetrated in club toilets by runny-nosed young men called Nigel whom they met on the internet.

Growing up, however, is the one thing that children are guaranteed to be getting up to every day. It is impossible to legislate against it.

There is nothing that the government can do to stop girls from growing up, unless it plans to issue parents with vials of puberty-suppressing hormones to slip into their children's Frosties - and even that won't stop them going on Facebook to flirt. David Cameron may as well endorse a report recommending that spring not turn into summer quite so soon.

Dangerous minds

Most of the teenage girls I know do not spend their Saturday afternoons vomiting their A-levels into drains with their knickers around their knees and catching chlamydia from Facebook. Most of them are fantastic human beings, who astonish me with their resilience and courage. Among them are my two teenage sisters, both of whom spend a lot of time on the internet. I am often distressed when they use their profiles in this den of cyber-iniquity to admit, for example, to enjoying the music of Coldplay, or to post photographs of themselves doing shots of sambuca, when whisky should be a fine enough drink for any Penny female.

I miss the days when we were all eating rusks together and listening to The Smurfs Go Pop! on the way to school, but I'm not worried about my sisters growing up too soon. I'm worried about them growing up into a world that doesn't want them.

I'm worried that they will struggle, like millions of other young people around the world today, to find a job or a safe place to live. I'm worried that they will absorb religious rhetoric that tells them that their sexuality is dangerous and dirty, when the big, unspoken secret is that young women want sex just as much as young men do - and that's OK.

The kids are all right. Yes, the internet is full of teenage girls posting pictures of themselves in tight wardrobe malfunctions but it is also full of teenage girls learning about modern philosophy on Wikipedia, applying for university, or posting video blogs from Tahrir Square.

Instead of worrying about young women growing up, we might do better to focus our efforts on creating a better world for them to grow up into.

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 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution