When I was very young - say 6/7ish - my mother who isn't prone to taking to the streets to protest, became very angry in our local sweetshop. I dimly understood why at the time. It was something to do with magazines she didn't like. Around the same time I also remember her shooing away teenagers who congegrated in the bush at the park which backed onto the bottom of our garden, to snog and smoke, as teenagers do. 6 year old me was fascinated to see a girl in a bra and skirt, and a little puzzled as to what was making my mum so cross.
As I grew up, I came to understand what had made my mother so angry, and as a young woman, dealing with the casual sexism of page 3, having my bum pinched by boys, or being aggressively chatted up by men in bars, I became angry too. And a feminist. I remember many arguments while I was a student with guys my own age, who simply didn't get where I was coming from. Well you wouldn't would you, if you've never been discriminated against. I was determined that I was going to be independent, combine a career with a family and never rely on a man...
Then real life intervened, as it is wont to do. I didn't stop being a feminist, as such, but quite frankly it went on the back burner in the years when my children were small. Daily life was such a struggle, I didn't have the energy for gender politics. And to be honest, I don't think it was much easier for Spouse. While I was firefighting at home, the onus was (and still is to a large extent) on him to bring the bacon in.
However, I have four daughters, and I want them to learn from my mistakes (have a career that pays you enough to make it worthwhile carrying on working, would be one lesson I'd teach them), and I also want them to feel the world is their oyster, and being a girl shouldn't be a reason for them to ever think they can't do anything. To an extent, I think that's worked. They've grown up in a world which expects equality, and they are so sure that it exists, they think at the moment feminism is irrelevant. The gender war is over, it's all done and dealt with. My eldest daughter is planning on a career in engineering, and sees her sex as no barrier (I can remember there was one girl on the civil engineering course when I was a student) - hurrah for her. The second, however has no idea what she wants to do bar being a wife and mother. Which I find dispiriting to say the least. She not only thinks feminism is irrelevant, but for her, it's almost as if it hasn't happened.
Because in the time when I had my head down and wasn't paying attention, I feel that we've gone backwards. Sure I had a lot of teasing from boys about feminism in my student days, but they respected my opinion, and on occasion I won some of them round. I was immensely depressed to read this article the other day about a bunch of teenage girls who started a feminist society at their school and got this foul and vicious reaction to it.
Have things really got so bad? Why are boys behaving in such a vile manner because girls are calling for more equality? The guys I knew when I was young might have been sexist, but they knew they were, and they also on the whole have grown into men who've tried at least to take an equal share in domestic tasks, and bringing up families. We've a long way to go still, but I genuinely thought things had got better. But in fact, I think it's got worse, and my daughters face a far harder time then I did.
One of the problems I think is that this generation has been much more exposed to sex from a young age then we were. I can remember being horrified watching Britney Spears on Blue Peter doing a routine which was totally inappropriate when my kids were under 10. Trying to buy clothes that didn't make them look tarty has also been a huge issue. And currently I am battling with my lot about the underwear they buy. They get it from places like Primark, and think it's pretty - a lot of it looks like it should belong in a brothel. They watch Waterloo Road and Eastenders where people casually hop in and out of bed, with very little discussion about the emotional impact. I know I'm beginning to sound like a prude (I'm really not!), but it seems to me, the pendulum has swung too far the other way from, sex being taboo, to it almost being something you do as recreational activity.
Added to that mix, there's the hideous modern day fact of online porn, which any savvy teen can access with a click of a mouse. So what? You might say, porn isn't new. Teenagers having sex too young isn't new. And yet, there is something new, pernicious and very worrying about the situation we are currently in, as this article makes clear:
As a mum of teenagers it doesn't surprise me at all. Granted, I did have a fairly sheltered teenage life (being a catholic, kept the boys I knew in check, thank god), but these are some of the stories I've heard from my kids:
- a 14 yo girl who got drunk for the first time, was filmed by a boy as she was being felt up by another boy. He was only stopped from putting the video up on YouTube by her sister threatening to go to the police
- a 13 yo girl was bullied after naively talking openly to a boy she knew about masturbation. Their conversation went viral and everyone got to know, and she was labelled a slut
- a 13yo boy made it his mission to ask every girl he knew to let him finger her
- a 14yo girl was asked to give head to a boy who had an STD. She refused only because he had an infection.
- 15yo girls regularly give head to boys in the loos.
Maybe all that went on 30 years ago, but it certainly wasn't my experience. I wasn't asked to have sex on a regular basis as my 15 year old has been. The latest coming from a boy she barely knew, who asked her if she was up for it now he was "legal", conveniently ignoring the fact that she isn't.
On top of that because of the false image of sex the boys have witnessed, girls now regularly feel pressurized to shave all their hair off to match the expectations of what goes on in porn films. I know that happens because my daughter has succumbed to that one. She's also been sent pictures of erect penises, which she finds funny, fortunately, I suppose, but I don't. I think the pressure on her and her peer group is intolerable. And it's not that great for the boys either, many of whom must struggle with the disconnect between what they see and what they should be doing with girls. And what makes it worse is, thanks to the advent of technology, it's always there, a click away, something they cannot escape from easily.
So what's the answer? In an ideal world parents would simply police it. We'd get savvy, and pull internet connections and block phones, and make sure that we knew what our kids were up to. But it really isn't as easy as that. You can do all that at home if you like (we try to, with patchy results), but as soon as they've left the house, they can do as they please. Plus keeping up with the technology is a real challenge - I was ahead of the game with no 1 being on Facebook before she was, but no s 2&3 have blackberries and I don't have BBM. Nor do I have an ipod and use snapchat - an innocentish app which kids use to send pictures to each other, which could easily be used for sexting purposes. And it's the sheer proliferation of this stuff, that makes it so hard to deal with. It's not something we parents can tackle alone, and most of us aren't equipped for it, quite frankly.
I think education is one approach, and I thoroughly applaud Sarra Manning for writing about teenage sex in a messy and realistic way. I'd rather my kids read books like that, then learnt about sex via the internet.
And I think being open and honest about this stuff with your kids is also vital. Again something I try to do with varying results - you get a lot of "Ew! That's gross, Don't want to talk about it" kind of reactions. And teenagers are notoriously secretive, so they won't always talk to you about it even if you try. I think schools need to be proactive - making boys aware that what they are viewing is totally unrealistic, and that they need to respect girls, and making girls aware that No, really does mean no, and empowering them to be able to say it. That's vital more then ever today I think.
I've also subscribed to these two campaigns:
I think it's vital we make both the government and internet providers
see that the current situation is unacceptable and we should all be
doing everything we can to protect our children. I get there's a freedom
of speech issue here, and have no issue with consenting adults having
access to whatever porn they want. But children shouldn't be being
exposed to this stuff, at an age when they're impressionable and
learning to become sexual beings. They need to do that in a safe environment, one that they can retreat from if necessary. Otherwise, things are only going to get a lot worse.
Feminism irrelevant? My daughters have got is so wrong. Today it's more important then ever.