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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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.