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11 December 2014

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.”

By Sophie McBain

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.

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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

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