A feminist’s place is in the classroom
When I was at high school there was a boy, probably in his late teens, who’d left school but used to stand outside the gates, waiting for girls to come out. It was always the same group of girls. They’d stand and chat for a bit then one of them would go off with him. He seemed to work his way through them, some as young as twelve, and they accepted this, were apparently fine with the fact that he’d have sex with them – or, at least, try to – then move on to the next. I remember hearing some of them talking about him in the changing rooms. He’d told one of them he fancied her and she was nervous about going out with him. The others in the group were warning her, saying “Watch him cos he’ll try to get in your knickers. He’s got it in him to try and get your knickers off”. I didn’t think much of it at the time, aside from the fact that I couldn’t work out what they could possibly find attractive about him. Thinking about it twenty-odd years later, I’m struck by two things: first, he was a paedophile and, second, the teachers did nothing about him hanging round the school and trying to get in the knickers of female pupils.
There was another girl who used to tell me about the men she had sex with, saying her boyfriend shared her with his friends and comparing the size of their penises. “Black men really do have bigger cocks,” she’d say. She was proud all these men wanted her. She was also twelve years old.
The sex education we received was no preparation for the reality of sex or situations in which we might find ourselves. Really, it was little more than reproductive anatomy. If you asked any one of us, we could probably draw you a picture of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries or the testicles and penis; and we’d watched the video about the sperm fertilizing the ovum so we knew what happened then. It being the late eighties-early nineties, there was a lot of talk about STIs and the tone was very much “Don’t have sex with anyone because you’ll die”. A woman came to the school and showed us how to put a condom on a plastic penis while we sat there, trying not to laugh, but no one said anything about sex. There was no mention of pleasure, confidence or bodies – not even of consent. We weren’t told that no means no, how to say yes when we decided we were ready for sex, or that the absence of no wasn’t the same as saying yes. No one said anything about how to communicate with another person what we did and didn’t want to do and how to create an environment in which we felt safe, including the use of condoms and birth control. This was sex as an abstract concept, presented as though it existed only as a method of reproduction and the spread of disease.
To supplement the sex ed from school and anything our parents chipped in, the girls had teenage magazines and the boys had porn so we had a pretty good handle on what sex was meant to be like and how we were supposed to feel about and treat each other. Based on our teenage reading and the TV programmes, music videos, and films around us, the point of sex was for the boys to try and make the girls take their knickers off and for the girls to resist. Very simple and utterly misinformed.
Over two decades on, I’d hoped teenagers’ attitudes to sex would have changed markedly. My main reason being that feminism is amongst us in a way that I don’t recall when I was in my teens. The term has become common parlance; it has a new young, cool, gutsy face; it’s Pussy Riot protesting Putin‘s regime and Julia Bluhm succeeding in her petition to stop Seventeen magazine altering images of models. Being a teenager – in particular a teenage girl – is studied and written about on an unprecedented scale. Jessica Valenti, MissRepresentation, About Face, Feminist Frequency, The Brave Girls Club, Feministing, the NOW Foundation Love Your Body Campaign, SheHeroes, The Geena Davis Institute, and Jean Kilbourne to name a very few champion the cause of teenage girls, encouraging them to be confident, proud, brave, and aware that they have choices about what they want to do and how they want to be. Feminist attitudes permeate our culture on a massive scale, primarily through the internet.
Unfortunately, what also pervades our culture is sexualisation and pornification. From an increasingly young age, girls are targeted by beauty industry charlatans, advertisers, and magazines telling them that their greatest asset is to be sexy. Cosmetics for five-year-olds; padded bras for eight-year-olds; g-strings for ten-year-olds; the creation of the tween, a pre-pubescent girl marketed to as though she were an adult. Teen magazines, their pages filled with models photographed in sexually provocative poses, read by more girls in the 10-12 age bracket than teenagers. Films, computer games, and music videos take this further, defining sexiness within parameters as miniscule as the hot pants. The girls are there for the boys, their pleasure is irrelevant, though they’re free to fake it, and if they’re looking to change that dynamic in any way, well that’s what being called a bitch is for.
By the time girls reach their teens, their attitudes towards their bodies and sex are a mishmash of influences. Feminist messages are there and they do get through to girls who want to hear them, but feminism is losing this battle. Girls are taking the morning after pill, often several times in a menstrual cycle, so they can have sex with their boyfriends without condoms because the boys don’t like using them, “it’s more like porn sex if you don’t”. Many boys pressure them into having unprotected sex because they know there will be no consequences – not for them, anyway. There are no studies, as yet, of the long-term effects of frequent disruption to the menstrual cycle through the use of the morning after pill, but apparently neither that nor the possible infection of STIs is more important than performing like a porn star. Although the average age at which girls first have sex is 15, girls as young as 11 and 12 are sexually active, many with multiple partners.
As far as school sex education is concerned, it seems nothing has changed: pupils are told to use condoms, but there is no mention of intimacy, trust, relationships, communication, love, or choice. No one tells the girls they should wait until they’re ready and shouldn’t feel pressured or about the concept of giving enthusiastic consent if they do want to have sex. At the same time no one tells the boys that the absence of no doesn’t mean yes, porn isn’t reality, and they can’t assume to know what girls do and don’t want to do.
Critiquing popular culture, criticising potentially damaging influences, writing reports on what teenagers are doing and what they think, and books on what they should be doing and thinking are vitally important. But they’re not getting through to the target audience because they’re not made part of a teenager’s everyday life. Feminism isn’t winning the battle over teenage female sexuality because it’s failing to engage with teenagers at a young enough age and feminists aren’t doing enough to become part of their lives. By not involving ourselves in education curricula to teach teenagers about sex, we’re allowing sexist, misogynist, and damaging social influences to do it for us, and we’re failing entire generations.