Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Little Lolitas?

[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?


  1. "Whilst young boys are acknowledged as having and acting upon sexual desire from a young age..."

    Says who? NAMBLA? Who else?

    It's not just about girls y'know.

  2. No Neuroskeptic, but this post IS about girls, and the fact that boys sometimes experience similar things does not make that irrelevant. Or are you suggesting it does?

    [And whilst NAMBLA advocates child abuse in similar ways, it's just not true to suggest that boys face the same endemic sexual abuse and terror that girls do. Look at how accepted it is in many cultures that young men masturbate, or enjoy pornography, for example. Look at films like 'American Pie'.]

  3. @Neuroskeptic, maybe Penny just means children can start masturbating when they are young.

  4. Yes, little girl.

  5. Oh, shut up, lawson, you ballbag.

  6. Hey Neuroskeptic:-


  7. "No Neuroskeptic, but this post IS about girls, and the fact that boys sometimes experience similar things does not make that irrelevant. Or are you suggesting it does?"

    Did I say that? Did I imply it?

    I just don't think that it's true that young boys are widely accepted as having sexual desires while young girls by contrast aren't.

    As I said, NAMBLA say that little boys have sexual desires but, well, NAMBLA are freaks. I don't see anyone else doing so.

    Meaning that the problem applies to both boys and girls.

  8. www.derailingfordummies.com/#linkingtoderailingfordummies

  9. Neuroskeptic - yes, you did imply it. You attempted to derail the argument by making the issue about boys, saying 'it's not all about girls, you know'. Classic deflection, as Goggles explains above. I can only assume that something about this post has really shaken you up.

  10. Look at how accepted it is in many cultures that young men masturbate.

    This. I was caught doing so at a really young age, and told that 'when little boys do it it's called masturbating.' Seriously. What?

  11. A (sorry for the anonymity, frightened of social repercussions of cissexism etc)7 October 2009 at 13:56

    Reading this I have lots of angry feelings, some of them confusing/conflicting. I am a trans woman. I figured that out when I was about 17 but got scared off it when I was 19 by my family and worrying I'd be chucked out of my house whilst I was trying to do my degree. So I bottled it, forgot about it. I treid to convince myself that I was male. I had my first attempts at relationships when I still assumed I was male, around 16/17. I had my first sexual experiences in the time at uni when I had buried my gender.

    The conflicts: since I was male associated for so long much of my socialisation of sexuality and relationships took on a male bent, even though I've been feminist for more years than I can remember. I look back and see some of the ways I've been masculinely abusive emotionally in relationships because that was how I was socialised to do things. And I look back, and at the present, and also see throughout it all this broken relationship with my body and my sexual expression which completely devalues myself. I can feel the damage you talk about, know the things mentally which tell me I am worthwhile, that I have sexual agency, that my sexual expression doesn't devalue me as a woman. On the other hand I feel like I was acting out some part of male-privileged in the kyriarchy. Gah. So often I feel like this cancels out any opportunity to be "truly female", whatever that means.

    I suppose all I was trying to say is that I find it strange reading this, because I have these effects in my life, smashing my sexuality in a way that may never be recoverable, and because I was probably a part of it in other women's lives too.

  12. For some reason I can't help but think about the "brain on meth" commercials.
    Except instead of brain and meth, they're about vagina's and sex.
    I blame the flu.

  13. Great article.

    It is a terrible thing to watch little girls grow up to be ashamed. I watch my wonderful, shouty, stompy little six-year-old niece quietly slip into a world of self consciousness and it breaks my heart. Her self confidence and esteem are already taking a brutal bashing as she learns the true value placed on her. Her beautiful curls and big brown eyes are not enough; her cleverness and creativity are irrelevant; her lovely soft little body will not pass muster. She is, she says with a heavy sigh, 'fat'. She is already learning the rules of self hatred all woman must ingest.

    Myself and most of my friends have memories of being routinely mauled and sexually humiliated by male pupils at school, and teachers letting this behaviour pass unchallenged. This damaged not only our own connection with our sexuality but also surely that of our young tormentors; the assumption that our pubescent girl-woman bodies were in themselves such dangerous visual weapons over which men could not be expected to control their urges or actions, left both genders feeling terrifyingly out of control.
    We learned that assaults on our bodies were irrelevant; our budding breasts made us deadly sirens that turned men into dangerous and essentially dumb animals.

    The porn culture that fetishizeis little girls also does its best to constrict and over emphasise male sexuality; that even very young teenage boys are expected to be constantly 'up for it' to be considered sexually 'normal' is an abusive pressure that eventually forces them to repress any real connection with the true nature of their desires or with woman.
    In porn culture nobody is allowed agency or intellect - we are all caricatures.

  14. Red El, the long haired one.7 October 2009 at 14:36

    Example of the problem at hand, possibly useful reference for Neuroskeptic.

    If a boy lifts a girl's skirt or makes a grab for her breasts, rubs up against her or makes sleazy comments on her availability, this is generally considered normal. Rude, crude schoolyard teasing, but normal- boys will be boys, etc.

    If a girl of the same age, say 14-15, were to grab a boy's arse or rub against him in the same way, she'd be considered to be acting very strangely, or to be a slut.

    There are massively different standards for boys and girls. Girls are very much taught to look pretty and sexy, but never actually act like they might actually want sex. Boys are not given so much emphasis on looking sex ready, and no one bats an eyelid when they act like they're after a shag.

  15. Great post.

    Interesting when you say "girls are in theory capable of sexual pleasure and orgasm from early infancy, not that they are old enough to understand what that means."

    What it means to whom? I understood perfectly well what it meant to me, circa age 4. The problem is not that girls don't understand what it means, but that they don't understand what adults (esp. men) and the law will say that it means (ie sexually available, slut etc), and crucially, that this seems to trump one's own understanding, experience and ownership of one's own sexuality. But we learn it pdq.

    Yes, girls are societally castrated - didn't La Greer make this very point way back before you were born?

    I'm not sure though that the answer is greater acceptance of young girls' sexuality, when such a thing is used as an excuse for paedophiles, and while said sexuality is understood only in terms of what it means to adults, and its effect on men in particular.

    The answer is that boys and men need to learn and be taught female sexuality belongs to females, and isn't just there for male pleasure, use, exploitation or commodification. Of course, that's an uphill struggle when every man (even nice ones) knows he could pay for sex if he wanted to, can rape a woman with virtual impunity, and has ready 24-hour access to pornography. It's kind of hard to argue for our personhood while we let this stuff go on.

  16. 'I look back and see some of the ways I've been masculinely abusive emotionally in relationships because that was how I was socialised to do things. And I look back, and at the present, and also see throughout it all this broken relationship with my body and my sexual expression which completely devalues myself.'

    Oh honey.

    I do get it, and I'm not saying that what you did back then was okay, but we all do what we need to do to survive at school, especially when we feel different inside. I think the word 'socialised' doesn't quite express the level of horrific indoctrination involved, for girls and for boys.

    And of course, being part of a kyriarchy and having once exercised male privilege in a negative way doesn't preclude you from being a 'real woman' - whatever that means to you, it means something different to everyone. Femininity and womanhood are not dependent on victimhood, that's the whole point of this post in some ways.

    The point is that you recognise it, and you're analysing the reasons behind it. people who are (or once were!) men aren't the only people who need to do this sort of self-analysis - a lot of the sexual pressure, a lot of the judgement, came from other girls too. Remembering the girl who was raped in year 9, a lot of the girls in our year colluded with the boys in calling her a slag and a liar, so much so that when she was expelled her sister left the school as well because it all got so nasty. Again, not that that makes it okay.

    Sorry long comment!

  17. I agree with you m'dear, and that is a rather unusual state of affairs. I think it is madness that the sexuality of young people is denied by society, I find it even stranger that this is a relatively modern phenomenon; back in t' day (and even now in many cultures around the word) 13 was child bearing age.

    "If there's grass on the wicket, let's play cricket." Is catchy, but perhaps a bit too strong...

    “If there’s grass on the wicket, we’ve done our homework and there is a good weather forecast we could certainly consider the possibility of tossing a few balls about” just about sums up my opinion.

    I think today's attitude it has its roots in misguided efforts by parents and policy to protect their children; to keep them wrapped up in cotton wool for as long as possible.

    Don't get me wrong, children _do_ need to be protected, from sexual predators and would-be abusers of all kinds; but I like so many things, there are two sides to the coin. The most obvious way to make sure you don't get the dark side is to take it away entirely, but I don't believe that is the best way and you end up robbing young people of the chance to fully and properly develop.

  18. I wonder what we might consider the legitimate limits on sexual exploration to be, in terms of age? If a 15-year-old (or younger?) is sexually aware, how far should a parent or responsible society go in suppressing the child's sexual urges, if at all? What would be the consequences of not doing so?

    Acknowledging a desire (for sex, drugs, sugar, alcohol, credit cards, punching someone in the face and so on) whilst choosing not to act on it is often a good course of action and being able to make that choice is something we probably want to encourage in kids. Since the ability to delay gratification is an important personality trait it's no surprise that parents/schools/society prizes it as a virtue (though if you're having to enforce it, it may be too late). It only becomes a problem when it prevents any action, which is the scenario here, I guess.

  19. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  20. I'm in a country where the censorship mechanism makes it impossible for me to view the pre-teenies' pole dancing kit.

    Is it marketed by the same people who sell the Hello Kitty vibrator, by any chance?

  21. The fact that boys no longer recieve adequate sexual conditioning is as much a product of femminism as anything else. When women forsake the protection of men, they make themselves their targets. I`m also not too sure that an even vaguely rational young man is going to be able to square in his mind the idea that he must restrict himself from doing as he wishes simply so that a women can be free to do whatever she wants, free from criticism.
    It`s also (if you`e ever tried being a man you`d know this), absolutely necesary for men to be more aggressive when persuing a partner. It`s the only way to get women to want to do it with you.
    So, if male sexual aggression is at least partly a reaction to female sexuality... what exactly will happen if and when we make it a cultural principle for women to do whatever they wish for the sake of their own sexual gratification?
    Whats already happening, perhaps?

    Finally, the big elephant in the room is that there is a rather good reason for sexual double standards - paternal uncertainty. Though, I suppose, under your regime, we`re all required to raise everyone elses children anyway...

  22. Mark, if you have a good point then there shouldn't be a need for you to make snide remarks like that. Seriously, I'm fairly sure that the kind of sociobiological points you allude to are essential to properly understanding the issues, but you're unlikely to persuade anyone of that by posting in that manner. You might be right, but you're being very ineffective in making anyone realise it.

    Sorry if this takes the thread off on a bit of a tangent, I just get fed up seeing people talk past each other rather than to each other.

  23. A Right On post. Education, once again, being the answer to the veil of ignorance mankind throws around sectors of the population.

    My 2nd best (girl) friend began regular masturbation when she was nine and didn't know what it was or how it affected her; she just knew it felt good. The reaction of both her parents, when they discovered her rubbing herself against a teddybear one day, was to tell it her was dirty and shameful.

    I find the behaviour of her parents a thousand times more abhorrent than any young person figuring out that pushing certain buttons produces a reaction.

  24. This is a very confused article.

    So, you hate the traditional male model of a boy growing up with the freedom to express their immature sexuality as they wish (and of course it's immature, they're 13. No 13 year old boy isn't an idiot to some degree).

    And despite that, you want little girls to embrace the ability to express their developing sexuality (in what would almost certainly be an immature way, them being so young and all).

    Why? What makes you think this would work out well? What makes you think that small girls would become self-examining enlightened feminists? It's a bizarre and self-obsessed piece of thinking to assume everybody in your utopia will come to think just as you do.

    What stops girls starting to torment the ugly acne-riddled boys, EXACTLY like you were tormented by 'Aidan'?

    As you say, boys are free from social and moral judgement to express their sexuality from youth, and they end up poking you in the arse with a ruler. Do you assume girls are so very much better?

    All that a culture that permits all to revel in their developing sexuality equally does is ensure that the sexually more developed make life hell for those who aren't.

    Penny, when did the idea of moderation and respect become such dirty terms?

  25. "I'm not sure though that the answer is greater acceptance of young girls' sexuality, when such a thing is used as an excuse for paedophiles, and while said sexuality is understood only in terms of what it means to adults, and its effect on men in particular."

    Surely the point is that female sexuality and being/acting 'sexy' are completely different things?

    To look 'sexy' (by adhering to the media definition of the word) is not indicative of sexuality but more likely, its antithesis.

    To conform or at least try to conform, to the extremely narrow parameters of what is defined as 'sexy' is all about soliciting the attention and approval of the (often) male gaze (who in turn have been conditioned to define 'sexiness' in such an uniform and manufactured way).

    Such a preoccupation with the external means a neglect of the internal which is surely where sexuality lies? It is something within that, as Penny said, should be encouraged and nurtured in young girls. It is about finding out what turns you on, what turns you off etc. It is truly understanding your own body's potential for and right to experience sexual gratification, rather than to solely be the giver of pleasure.

  26. Brava! great post Penny, the only bit I take issue with is this "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."

    why use the same words society uses to describe sexually active or permissive women to then separate or distinguish yourself from them. This begs the question 'what makes/defines a 'slut' and by whose definition. It's the same trap you're falling into then no?

    I love sex. It's my right to. I may well be a slut but I'm comfortable with that as long as the word doesn't fly off someone's lips as a critical judgement. Man or woman's lips.

    You're right that being sexually active, assertive and demanding does not give anyone the right to treat you like an object or punish you, but I am confused by your distinction and separation from 'sluthood'???

  27. Mark - you said "When women forsake the protection of men, they make themselves their targets."

    I find that to be an OUTRAGEOUSLY misogynistic comment....grrrrrrrrrrrrr. We neither need your protection nor make ourselves your targets in forsaking it! We deserve autonomy, respect and safety REGARDLESS of whether there's a man standing in front of us to suffer the punches on our behalf.

    Woman AND men have basic human needs and rights that go beyond cave man thinking such as this.

  28. I really enjoyed this article, Penny. And it also led me to reminisce about my own youth and how I spent my teenage years being tortured by girls! lol.
    Childhood is a terrible time, dominated as it is by fear of rejection, uncertainty and the desperation for acceptance. The young women I went to school with were a terrifying bunch, not short on their own kind of power over us males.
    Not of my mates would've done anything inappropriate to girls (after the age of say 9 anyway) and to have done so would've been seen as distinctly un-cool.

    I really appreciate ElementalChild's comment that "female sexuality and being/acting 'sexy' are completely different things".

    As a straight male, I echo this view 100%. Even from a young age I believed that a woman who could talk tough and have strong opinions are more 'sexy' than one who wears the revealing clothes. They're also the ones that give us men the toughest time growing up..

  29. I don't remember when I started masturbating, but I would suspect that it was not long before I got my first period (aged 11 and a half). I remember, strongly, wanting to spend the rest of my life with a girl that I liked (late age 10/early age 11); I also remember, the Christmas after my first period, strongly wanting to have sex with a boy that I liked. By the time I was 14, I had figured out that boys my own age, much as they claimed to want sex, actually were quite scared of it; they also weren't all that attractive to me, and I started flirting with men in their twenties. At the same time, I was totally in love with one of my classmates (I was at all girls school) - it was quite a confusing time for me! Aged 15 I had an extremely unsatisfying encounter with a chap 3 years my senior, but at least I had lost "it", which made me less terrifying for the older men that I wished to attract. The 29 year old, with whom I had been infatuated for a couple of years, waited until I turned 16 so that, if our mothers (who were best friends) were to find out, they could stop us from seeing each other, but at least couldn't prosecute him. He taught me how amazing and fun sex could be; we had a wonderful year, during which we both saw other people, but also had some utterly joyous couplings. I believe that it is thanks to him that I adore sex and rarely have any negative feelings about how many people I have slept with, or that I might be perceived as easy, even though a good friend of mine told me that I was at risk of acquiring a "reputation" (I was 27; I was very amused).
    On completely the other side of the argument, we have recently bought my niece her first bra, and let her wear mascara for the first time. She is 9 and growing up fast, and I am scared for her. She adores Hannah Montana, and I see this tiny, blonde, prepubescent angel dancing in horribly provocative ways, which distress me deeply. But why am I distressed, when she is less than a year away from the age at which I was first sexually attracted to a woman, and two from that at which I first felt an urge to actually _have sex_? Not, I point out, merely to act sexually; I was very aware that I wished the object of my desire to penetrate me.
    Hmm - this comment seems to have turned into a lot of waffle. I think I mostly want to say thank you to Pennyred for yet another wonderfully thought provoking post.

  30. wow, i guess i was lucky at school; people on rape charges got suspended, and i had express special permission from my maths teacher to hit the boy who followed me about tickling me :o)

    as for the "what about teh menz" brigade - go fuck yourselves. it's socially acceptable for teh menz and everything.

  31. I feel almost unqualified to comment on this article, but can certainly appreciate the fact of being conditioned into doing things you don't want to do (and assuming that those things are the only enjoyable things because that is What Is Done). It's nice to be provoked into caring about things.

  32. Sorry... but parents telling kids not to masturbate in front of them is not misogynistic, any more than a woman reporting me to the police for having a wank on a bus is misandry. We have taboos against these things precisely because we recognise that completely uncontrolled sexual urges are not really compatible with our (any?) society. Further, if your parents are British, I`d guess that what your sensing is their own shame at talking about sex rather than some desperate urge to shame their daughters into celebacy.

    Claudia - unfortunately, in practical terms, women do need the physical protection of men (at least in countries without widespread gun ownership). You can plead for fundamental human rights all you like, but if femminists continue to succeed in villainizing male sexuality, young men simply won`t listen.

    Far better to direct sexuality in socially beneficial ways - ie encourage traditional gentlemanly conduct (which requires some degree of traditional lady-like behaviour as a counterpart).

  33. Read the preface to Nabokov's 'Lolita'

    Halve the age of consent!

  34. Excellent read, Penny--can definitely relate on being the un-sexy late bloomer who was silently desperate for positive sexual contact!

    My mother, despite being a flower child of the 60s, was still at heart a good little Lutheran girl from a Colorado sheep ranch, and was pretty much always afraid and hamstrung by her own attractiveness and its effect on men, and despite my early gawkiness and rebelliousness against her projections, I still find myself defaulting to her avoidant tendencies when hollered at out on the street. I can self-talk in private all I want, but I'm damn near 30 and I still feel "hunted" every now and then, and I hate it :(

    @Philip Scott: Read The Case Against Adolescence by Robert Epstein, he goes into detail about the ways teens are "protected" and thereby limited and stunted by societal mores.

  35. Mark wrote, "unfortunately, in practical terms, women do need the physical protection of men (at least in countries without widespread gun ownership)."

    Not sure that women in the US are, overall, any safer than women in the UK.

  36. Well, at least this post explains why you grew up to be the kind of woman that you are, Ms. Red.

    Kind of interesting as well as kind of sad.

  37. You're very frank, Penny Red. I think it would be quite something to know you in private life.

  38. @Mark: "Traditional lady-like behaviour" such as not learning to read? I can't think what else you can have meant by that comment - I'm pretty sure Penny wasn't advocating public masturbation for all women, just that society ought accept that it happens and is usually a natural and positive thing for the person concerned.

    And I'm pretty sure that that was made clear.

  39. Really enjoy your posts, and as a straight man i find it very sad that some gits post such misogynist homophobic crap in the comments. I don't know why you don't block them. Actually I do - it shows them up to be the tossers they really are.

    You take over simplified issues from popular mythology, and pile on layer after layer of complexity, and still when I come away with lots more layers I'd like to pile still further on top.

    While I recognise all the issues you say, I still don't think it's the whole story.

    As a for instance, relating to my own school days (in the 70's ) (and I'm sorry but i think everyone relates to things through their own experience) - life was very much about acceptability amongst peers - not so much sexuality, but the sexuality was there to bolster up the acceptability - for boys and girls - but for boys, physical violence was a far bigger worry - the threat and the reality.

    Many people found themselves on the fringes of the 'popular' groups, and worried about being "exposed" and demoted beyond the pale by either male or female members of the inner groups.

    I once had a girl (Anita sodding Simon who I hate to this day), who took it upon herself to try to stick her finger up my arse during a chemistry lesson.

    This operated on so many different levels - if I turned round and objected I would risk being seen as a wimp, who couldn't handle sexual contact from a girl, If I did anything at all I'd get into trouble in the lesson, but if I din't I'd indicate that I was scared of getting into trouble in the lesson. If I didn't do anything I'd risk being labelled as gay - because she was touching my arse (made sense then), and if I did what I wanted to do and smacked her in the mouth, I'd be seen as a bully by male traditionalist (notably the teachers who would have suspended me), and also as a sexist bastard by all the more sensible girls (who were the ones I secretly fancied), and also run the risk of getting a kicking from her latest boyfriend.

    But the worst was that she, with her boyfriend and all their gang, were seen as the popular people who had sex, whilst those of not in the group endeavoured to be associated with them, not because we wanted to because we were afraid of not doing. I've no reason to believe it was any better for the girls, and was probably worse in many respects, if slightly less violent.

    I did not enjoy secondary school

  40. @CJ - no... I think what I meant is that it`s impossible to be a gentleman to a ... promiscuous young lady - there is no need and the investment of time and effort is liable to be wasted. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that...

  41. @Mark: if you're not a gentleman to everyone, you aren't a gentleman at all.

  42. Hi ElementalChild. I said sexuality, and I meant sexuality.

    I see your point about the distinction with "sexiness", but I'd also add that very often, the media and the law do not distinguish, and "sexiness" is interpreted as "sexuality". Hence the focus on appearance in rape/assault trials, and "sexiness" being interpreted as "asking for it".

  43. Just to add fuel to the anti-misogyny steam engine here, let's alos not forget that young girls are not binary, digital little femibots. Empowered to listen to their own feelings and with their agency acknowledged by society, they are able to react differently in different situations, in accordance with their own wishes and depending on the circumstances. almost like they were, you know, actual people or something.

    In other words, if girls are encouraged to explore and acknowledge their real (not performative) sexuality at a young age, rather than being exhorted to suppress it entirely, it does not follow that they will become sexually available to predators, or more vulnerable to abuse. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    If girls are taught what pleasure feels like (which we are not, not even as women - there isn't even medical agreement on what an orgasm is, the G Spot veers widely from non existent to all important every few years, and the British Film Council still thinks that female ejaculation is urination), they will be more likely to know what dis-pleasure is when they feel it. If they are allowed to say "yes" when they want to, they will know when the time is to say "no".

    At the moment we teach girls that their job is essentially to say "no" until somebody bullies them into changing their minds. We teach them that sex is rape. Not feminists, who never actually made any such claims, but the worthy family focus conservative types who teach them about abstinence and chastity. And when you teach someone that any expression of their sexuality is damaging to their better self, be it with their first love or their creepy middle aged neighbour, how are they to tell the difference?

    Of course we can tell the difference, because we're not as stupid as the patriarchy would like; we know perfectly well that kissing the school stud is wonderful while being rubbed up against on a crowded bus is horrible. But we bury both our desires and our misgivings under layers of shame and self-blame. Far from offering any protection, that toxic mixture just means that we sublimate and absorb the abuse that we are left vulnerable to, turning the damage inward.

  44. Yeah, that`s true.

    The women enslaving, sexually obsessed patriachy (cue scary music) has been indoctrinating women to be entirely celebate so that no-one can have any sex (unless bullying is involved).

    Of course women are not stupid enough to fall for this, so none of it actually exists.


  45. Marina, I'm not sure that the relevant "if" is about teaching girls what pleasure is, but rather it is about having their agency acknowledged by society.

    The former without the latter does make us terribly vulnerable. Which is why the former is not generally encouraged.

  46. The Pole Dance Doll is fake made by the pranksters at 4chan.org your the most gullible idiot in the world.


  47. I know this side of the story now to be true, but my experience as a male was that girls (now women) were Stoic goddesses who -did- refuse boys (now men) with a glare or a look saying "Are you kidding me?". They seemed to disdain males and their animal-like desires for physical pleasure, or use a male's sexuality as a place to put their manipulating hooks. I was afraid ever since puberty that I would be imprisoned with some woman who hated any mention of sex while I constantly wanted it, who had to drag herself through it occasionally so I wouldn't be miserable. Or if she were less secure in herself, that she would have sex just because she felt like I would love her more that way (I didn't know about oxytosin back then, so I thought it was a false belief, often tragic for a girl in the wrong relationship).

    Of course, I grew up in the Southern United States in the evangelical sub-culture. These girls, to echo Eve Ensler, had probably never gotten a good look at their vaginae, never seen their clitorides (just learned that; it's the plural of clitoris). Tuh - maybe it was easy for them. Our parts constantly reminded us of their presence and I felt guilt about it every time. Other than periods and such I wonder if they ever knew about masturbation as anything but some evil and vaguely sexual spectre that lurked in evil men somewhere out there, prowling around for women to leave alone and impregnated.

    But even into college (mind you it was a Southern Baptist college) I really think quite a few of the church brat girls who went there still had no clue what sex was except something that evil men tricked them into doing but was naturally foreign to the feminine experience. (Now as a side note they weren't the only crowd at the college; some girls were quite okay with having sex and did so in the dorms with their boyfriends - in at least one case, a girl's girlfriend.) But again, the memories that you recount to us had never strongly occurred to me as a possible experience for a female. It didn't seem to me a repression of female sexuality, but rather that girls had little to none to speak of. They must have liked things like kissing and such because of how it made you feel close to someone, I thought. Maybe not even until I read The Vagina Monologues did I suspect that the majority of girls lived in deception about themselves, or deceived us.

    I admit that I don't think I've presented even a full account of my thoughts back then, because they were about as naive as the girl church brats, also very confused. I was one of the "nice guys" and so I felt it awful that I would get married to a woman and she would feel obligated to please me while being bored and uninspired.

    Anyway, thought you would be interested to get a peek into what is probably an unusual feminine experience, although perceived from the third-person; I'm sure that yours fit the norm for girls.

  48. Great article penny!!
    I am a father of a wonderful little girl (1 year old) and a boy (3 year old).
    As a new parent I often wonder about how I should go about teaching my children confidence, self respect and respect for others. None the less, you make an excellent point and I can only hope shit loads of ppl are exposed to this way of thinking.

    Proud father

  49. "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."

    This is satire, yes?

  50. While discussion has been over for a while, i thought it worthwile to add that I remember clearly ,as a boy of six, wanting to do *something* with a naked girl (had I known exactly what sex was, I probably would have experimented). I advocate freedom of choice and the right to information for everyone.

  51. Johnny-come-lately here. I'm thinking, if anyone is going to fight this, it's going to have to be the mothers. (Fathers, you probably don't have enough day-to-day contact with the girl, and society doesn't let you talk to her about the details of sexual desire anyway.)

    In order to achieve this, those mothers are going to have to be willing to switch off Oprah, refuse instruction from (and possibly lose) friends, tell their mother to go to hell, fight the school, and comfort their child when she inevitably gets called a slag. If the media gets wind of it, those mothers will be painted as abusers. If the social services get wind of it, some officious git might try to take their child into "care".

    It is possible to fight a taboo and win - but it's war. Don't think it won't be bloody and tragic.

  52. I have to say, as a guy (19) I am extremely disgusted and disappointed with the way my fellow brothers(meaning those of my gender, and by no means EVERY SINGLE male in the world) are acting and/or treating women, teens, young girls... to me... it doesn't matter... ALL WOMEN (REGARDLESS OF AGE) SHOULD BE treated the way they deserve to be treated ... (in my personal opinion they should be treated like princesses) AS A FELLOW HUMAN BEING!!. No more of the bull**** about how women are to be seen as sex-toys or what have you... NO NO NO NO.... I don't care who you are or where you are from, that's just not right. Granted I can't change every culture in the world to the way "I" think it should be. That's my two cents worth....


Comments are open on this blog, but I reserve the right to delete any abusive or off-topic threads.