Monday, June 24, 2013

Feminism and the modern world

 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.


Lesley Cookman said...

Completely agree, Jules, and I shall subscribe to those campaigns, too. And I think you're right about feminism being more relevant today. I fear dreadfully for my four year old granddaughter, and even for my seven year old grandson. Just yesterday my daughter was complaining about the difficulty of buying appropriate clothing for the granddaughter without spending a fortune.

Anonymous said...

Absolute agreement from me, too!
And I cannot begin to express how thankful I am that my 22 year old daughter was home educated and mixed with girls and boys whose parents CARED about their attitudes!
[Not that it was the reason for home educating - just a byproduct of being so often in the company of adults and children who were independently-minded!]
Fight the good fight!
Caroline Praed

Rob Buckley said...

I agree with most of what you've written, but as always, the cry for Google/ISPs to sort out the world's problems attributes magic powers to them that they don't have.

Google reckons there are 4.18 billion web pages; an ISP is typically only a small to medium-sized business. Imagine if an ISP had 100 people working for it and instead of them all day what they're actually supposed to (like providing a service) and instead spent their days vetting all those web pages. Assume charitably that every web page takes only 10s to load and to be vetted by each member of staff for porn. It'll only take them about 400 years for them to scan the entire Internet, after which they'll have to start again.

Obviously blacklists can help; Google already has a department of 100s scouring the Internet and investigating reports. But to cover the entire Internet? You're going to need automatic scanning. But is a site about lesbians for lesbians going to fall foul of an automatic scanner? How about one for women who want to know the correct way to self-examine their breasts for potential cancers? Is The Sun porn? How about the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame? Should they both be blocked automatically? Should you just block particular pages of sites that are definitely porn or the whole thing on the offchance? How about Is there porn served from that? How about erotica? How about testimonials from people about their abuse as children?

Until we have artificially intelligent computers who know what porn is when they see it - and as soon as we've all decided what's truly porn and what's merely The Joy of Sex - there's simply no way to be foolproof.

You can, of course, block the most obvious cases with blacklists. In fact, there's already a mobile classification service for mobile phone ISPs: O2 was using it last time I looked. You have to opt in to 'get porn'. How many parents have ensured that their children have O2 phones as a result, do you think? How accurate has the service been? How many children have still managed to instant message each other porn, etc, to circumvent an ISP block? How about those using a VPN to tunnel to another country and download from there?

The simple fact is that you can't block all porn. You can block a lot of it from those who don't know much about technology. But you can't block all of it and just as the Chinese have discovered, you can't block people who are technically literate - and these days, as always, that's kids. But if parents think that their kids are safe online because their ISP or mobile phone provider has a 'porn blocker', what's actually going to happen is they're going to be lulled into a false sense of security.

Instead, you have to educate people. British parents are incredibly bad at educating kids about not just the mechanics of sex but also the subtleties and details, such as how to make sex pleasurable, how to respect your partner, etc. So I think the campaign to have lessons in school - "you get taught chemistry, but not about consent in this day and age?" - is by far the best way of educating kids, perhaps in conjunction with parents, about how not to behave as well as how to behave.

And as for your daughter's anecdotes, all of that happened at my school when I was growing up in the 80s. There was even a guy in my class nicknamed Fingermouse. Have a guess why. The only difference now is that instead of word of mouth, graffiti in the toilets and chalk writing on the walls for rumours to spread, now we have Facebook and phones - everything's just a bit faster.

Anyway, vive la feminism, because it's the only thing that's going to change this.

JR said...

Its the same here in Dublin, Julia. My daughter's school pals have been going to the local disco since 6th class in primary where they have been wearing skirts or shorts that literally show off their butt-cheeks, with stories of sexual exploits that have made my eyes water, and I have seen their facebook posts where their boyfriends make seriously inappropriate comments such as "I will be taking her up the ass later" (that comment will probably be censored but I think it's important to see the level of today's c.10 year olds sexual knowledge, or lack of it). And this is in a quite privileged area where you'd assume the parents might be protecting their children a little better. I thank my lucky stars my daughter has gone down a different route and thinks those girls are idiots, or perhaps I'll take some of the credit for watching over her facebook etc and for discussing these topics with her. Joyce

Jane Henry said...

MediumRob We've had this argument elsewhere. And I completely take your point about the difficulty of controlling the internet. I agree completely that education is key. I was brought up with the sex is bad model and no mention of emotion/that you might actually want to. Nowadays at school it's the other way round. Both models have flaws, and I'd prefer to see a healthier version of, look this is what you're going to want to do at some stage, let's talk about this honestly.

I can honestly say the stuff you describe just didn't happen in my circles, but the boys I knew probably were held back by catholicism (which is one good thing about it from a girl's pov!). I also think 13, is hideously young. And yes, the gossip would spread, but pics all over the internet are a whole different ball game I think. It's a new world out there, and it's working out how best to police it. As a parent who has zero interest personally in technology, I do find it hard to keep up with it all, and I'm sure I'm not alone. So maybe what I want is more help from the ISPs perhaps. Opting in to things is at least something. But as you say clever teens can usually get round it. I'm not sure what the answer is, but raising awareness has got to help, which is why I wrote this post.
PS I think your sensitivity to stuff like this also changes with age/as your kids grow up. I watched the 50 dirtiest pop songs the other night, and some of the rap videos were eye popping (and am sure accessible to kids on You Tube if they're banned on TV), but the Madonna vids were also quite shocking. I don't think I noticed that at the time assuming they were for grown ups. Had I had a teenage daughter who loved Madonna, I'd have probably thought differently.
Oh well, the world wasn't changed in a day (or by a blogpost) :-)

Rob Buckley said...

"I can honestly say the stuff you describe just didn't happen in my circles, but the boys I knew probably were held back by catholicism (which is one good thing about it from a girl's pov!)."

I think location and community have a lot to do with it. I went to an independent "school for the sons (and daughters) of missionaries", which was quite nice in most respects and we had a school chaplin and Christian services every morning. We had about 15-20 people go to Oxbridge every year.

It was also in SE London. SE London won. Everybody knew the double meaning of a sentence we translated in Latin when I was 11 as the "priestess lay in the temple, stroking her pussy." That was also the year the popular song "Bestiality's best, boys" - which contained such lyrics as "Have a squirm with a worm, boys" - did the rounds.

And if you think it was just the boys like that, let me disabuse you of the notion.

But it was ever thus. Sex isn't the problem. Kids know a lot about sex by the time they're 11 and always have done. It's what they don't know that's the problem.

Jane Henry said...

You're school sounds ... interesting... We got a lot of our knowledge from Sidney Sheldon books. Which is also not the best source :-) I agree, it's what they don't know. Education about it has to be better. I am cheered that they are are confident enough to know where the local teen clinic is, and to go there and learn how to protect themselves that way. And we're lucky as our teen clinic very good/empathetic/telling them the right things as far as I can see.


I too was horrified by that Guardian article, but more horrified, actually by the lame response from the girls' school. Instead of letting all that bullying going on, they should have been contacting the boys' schools around & getting feminism on the agenda...

Speaking to my girls in yr 8 & 9 who go to a mixed school, I asked if they thought a feminist group would get that reaction. They thought probably, and that the boys they know can be a bit stupid like that. But having said that, no 1 reckons boys just say and do things cos they are stupid, girls do it to be mean. (Having experienced a lot of mean girls between age of 12 &1 14 have to concur with that one!)

Neither of my daughters appear (yet) to have been approached by any boy with any sexual intention. They reckon that sort of thing probably goes on in the Facebook/Populars community. In their world of You Tube and Nerdfighters they say the culture is more about sci fi and Harry Potter. Which is NOT to say sexism isn't going on there, but perhaps it is not as outrageously horrible?

I do know in our Catholic school - that there were a handful of girls in my class who appeared to be having these kinds of unpleasant encounters with boys from a young age. I'd say it was the "Populars" I wonder if what we're seeing is the kids that would do this stuff are doing it in a bigger, more obvious, more horrible way, and perhaps for some a bit earlier than they were...But I do remember a girl in the local park describing being fingered when she was 13 (I was our my girls!)

Mad Twinx