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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

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.