[This entry comes with a trigger warning for mention of rape and abuse involving young girls. It's also possibly the angriest post I've ever written.]
Thanks to a new book, ‘The Lolita Effect’, and a kiddy-sized pole-dancing kit marketed to six year olds that got attention on both sides of the pond and, of course, Miley Cyrus, the ‘sexualisation of young girls’ is in the press again. Cue a great deal of handwringing and think-of-the-children-isms in the same international press that, this same week, gave a good deal of coverage to child-rape apologists.
All of these stories are just begging, just laying back like the wanton little semiotic nymphets they are and begging to be illustrated with faux-naive photos of young girls in suggestive states of undress – or, more frequently and legally, parts of young girls. Merely, of course, to demonstrate how awful it all is.
Western society has a curious doublethink going on over young girls and sex. Whilst young boys are acknowledged as having and acting upon sexual desire from a young age, the notion of young girls being sexual is still shocking – but it’s also exciting. From the pages of playboy to music videos to porn, girlhood is sexualised and undeveloped female bodies fetishised as the ultimate in naughty fantasy. This trend has been going on for decades, and yet when real little girls do what they’re told to do and play sexy, the hollow hypocrisy of the commentariat is deafening.
M.G Durham, author of ‘The Lolita Effect’, has a novel solution: why not actually tell little girls that it’s okay to enjoy sex? In Carol Midgley’s review of ‘The Lolita Effect’, she notes that ‘some believe that shielding girls from sex for as long as possible — preaching the abstinence message and the pregnancy/STD/victimhood perils of sex — is the only way [to counteract The Lolita Effect]. Durham disagrees. Girls do not need “rescuing” from sex, she says. Merely the media’s one-dimensional, profit-driven version of it, which is based purely on male fantasies without a nod to female needs or desires.
‘Rather, girls should be encouraged that it is their right to enjoy it, thus reclaiming their sexuality from a culture that increasingly positions them as passive, objectified sex kittens who are not encouraged to actually want sex or get any pleasure from it yet are mandated to be desirable to males — to look up for it but not, of course, act on it, for that would be sluttish.’
This fantastically sensible suggestion has not stopped the book being promoted in the press with straplines such as Lost Youth!. Nobody, moreover, has yet thought of asking young women and girls themselves what they want. What a silly idea: everyone knows that young girls are merely ciphers for the steamy fantasies of artists, advertisers and pop psions: they have no personalities of their own, and no agency to speak of. They are told what to want, and they’ll damn well like it; they are the embodiment of patriarchal desire, and as such their own desires are irrelevant.
Curiously, I don’t remember myself and my schoolmates morphing into vain, vacant sex-dollies between the ages of twelve and seventeen. As far as I recall, we were all people then, no matter how many parts of our growing selves were stamped down, stretched out, primped, polished, squeezed into shape or mercilessly stifled, and with any luck we’re all still people now*. I do, however, remember being judged relentlessly on the way I looked, and being miserable because of it. I remember how my body and desires and the bodies and desires of every young woman I knew were ruthlessly policed, and how that process informed my feminism.
Now, this is the point where you might want to go and get yourself a strong drink or roll a fag**, because I’m about to talk about my childhood.
Like many people, I was emphatically not a Little Lolita. I was a pug ugly kid. No, really. I had braces, a scowl, an awful haircut and enough acne that I wouldn’t have been surprised to be approached to be the new face of Pizza Hut. I often went out in unwashed clothes and forgot to brush my hair, which grew long and straggly. I used to look with envy at the same girls the papers are currently lambasting, the girls with boyfriends and the beginnings of breasts to fit in their push-up bras, the girls with highlights and lipgloss who strutted through the schoolyard in the shortest skirts they could get away with. Those were the girls who got attention and respect – from our peers and from the adults. Every magazine and advertisment I saw, every programme I watched, every message I got from parents and my peer group and the few friends I had told me that my selfhood was irrelevant because I was not beautiful, that my life would be immeasurably better if I looked more like those girls. I am reliably informed by my teenage sisters that the message has not changed in the past six years: if you’re a girl and you’re not sexy, you may as well go and lie down in a skip right now, because you’re worthless and nobody will ever love you.
Note that I said sexy, not sexual. We were expected to look sexually available at all times – but if we actually were sexually available, we quickly developed reputations as slags. None of the effort we put into our appearance and behaviour was actually meant to result in any actual sex for us, because that was dirty and dangerous. We were supposed to look good, not feel good.
When sex started to be something that my classmates did together, the language at breaktime was all about what so-and-so had let Chris F. Studly do to her. Had she let him see her tits? Had she let him finger her? Had she let him put his penis in her mouth? All of it was – and still is – about what boys are allowed to do to you.
Which was doubly confusing, because at the time I was not only too shy and ugly to get a shag, I was crashingly horny nearly all the damn time. Nobody ever told me that would happen. The girls we were meant to look up to dressed for sex but didn’t seem to be very enthusiastic about it – whereas I would have given my train-tracked eye-teeth for five solitary minutes of fucking. Sexualisation was never my problem. The problem – for all of us, whether we were pretty and popular or library-dwelling trolls – was that looking sexy was a game you had to win, whereas sex itself was forbidden. More than that: sex was dangerous.
You see, we were surrounded by rape. Not just rape as an airy warning, something that meant that you shouldn’t walk down Eastern Road in the dark or catch night-buses on your own, but rape as a real, tangible thing, that had happened to people we knew. In year 9, after a school disco, one of my classmates claimed to have been raped by the class stud in the nearby park. Both she and the boy were immediately expelled. I still remember vividly how, in that same term, a girl broke down in a Maths lesson because she had been raped as a child by her stepfather. Eventually, after being caught sexually engaging with her boyfriend on school premises, she was suspended too. Not only did rape happen to some of us, if you were unlucky enough to be one of the ones it happened to, you faced punishment and moral judgement. God forbid you actually engaged in consensual sex – that was even worse.
This wasn’t the case for the boys, of course, who could shag around to their hearts’ content, and frequently did, without having any moral judgements attached to them. Their bodies and developing desires weren’t policed by their peers and their parents as ours were, their sexuality was not taboo. Biologically, of course, this is more than illogical: whilst many men do not experience sexual feelings until puberty, women and girls are in theory capable of sexual pleasure and orgasm from early infancy, not that they are old enough to understand what that means. Whilst boys’ first experience of heterosexual sexuality tends, these days, to be visual – catching a peek of a dirty magazine or simply being assaulted by a naked female body on a billboard – many girls’ first experience of sexuality is of a parent telling them not to fiddle in their knickers without ever explaining why it’s dirty, bad and wrong.
It’s a trend that has held true for decades: the ‘sexualisation’ of young boys does not raise many eyebrows these days. Who cares if young lads watch porn from the age of thirteen, internalise the messages of pornography and violent rap music? Whilst young girls’ sexuality is forbidden in any form apart from sartorial pantomime, young boys’ sexuality is encouraged in almost any form (as long as it’s a heterosexual form), with violence and the dehumanisation of women part of the language of schoolboy culture from an early age.
This is not entirely young boys’ fault. The men I know today are largely mature, understanding and decent. But when I think of the fear I felt of young men as a child, when I think of the way they sexually terrorised me, my female classmates and each other, I cannot help but get angry that this is so roundly ignored. When I read statistics that tell me that one in three teenage girls has been sexually abused by a partner, they seem ludicrous at first – and then memory kicks in.
Sitting in a physics lesson, aged fourteen, I suddenly feel something hard, cold and sharp poking up under my skirt, prodding into the seat of my knickers. I jump, and turn around. The boy sitting behind me, Aidan his name is, is shoving a half-metre metal ruler into the fabric covering my anus. My expression as I turn makes him laugh. He withdraws the ruler, and the boys sitting either side of him echo him when he starts to yell at me, ‘do you love it? Do you love it? Do you love it?’
Not knowing what he means, and not wanting to make an even worse mistake, I shrug. Aidan is triumphant. ‘Penny loves it up the bum!’ he squeals. ‘Penny loves it u-up the bum!’. Everyone laughs. The teacher swoops in, and shushes them, and glares at me. What have I done to encourage them?
The author of the Lolita effect is absolutely right to point out that what I needed back then, what young women desperately need, is more, not less, honest sexuality. Little girls are already sexual – but instead of teaching them about sex, we teach them to fear it, just as the rest of society fears female sexuality. We teach them to become objects for others’ enjoyment, rather than acknowledging that they themselves are capable of positive sexual agency. These days, young girls learn that sexuality is simultaneously shameful, dangerous, and the only sure way of gaining attention and popularity. We culturally castrate young girls before they’re into training bras, and then the Polanski defenders, the critics of Little Lolitas, our parents, our teachers, our peers, tell us that little girls are all immoral because we’re so clearly begging for it.
It makes me want to smash things. It makes me want to smash things like my sexuality has been smashed – into a thousand painful little pieces. These days, I’m a feminist. I understand that I have sexual agency, I understand that my body is not shameful, I know it’s okay to like sex, I know that that doesn’t mean I’m a slut or a slag or that I deserve punishment or to be treated like an object. I know that logically, but the damage has already been done, to me and to millions of others. I want us to stop talking about young girls as if they were not people. I want us to acknowledge a range of female experience. I want young girls to be allowed to be sexual without being taught victimhood, and taught that victimhood is all we deserve.
Above all, I want people to stop being so bloody frightened of young girls’ sexuality, and the promise of positive, equal sexual experience that it entails. The sexuality of young girls is not there for the enjoyment or artistic appreciation of men, it’s not an excuse to rape us and hurt us and shame us and punish us, it does not make us wicked, or manipulative, or slags. Young girls are people – not Little Lolitas, not tiny shameless sluts or else hopeless sad cases, we are all people, and we all have a right to healthy sexuality. Instead, we are offered a selection of ways to be victims, a smorgasbord of sexual shame and self-denial. I call time on this hypocrisy – right now.
*Although I just bet Sarah Williams is still a pen-stealing bastard, knowwhatI’msaying.
**people reading across the pond: I’m not advocating the gentle rotation of queer people as a relaxation aid, this is a piece of British smoking terminology. Don’t you just love this weird fucking language?