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 New York. 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

Photo: Getty
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Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?