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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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.