Sexting. Slut shaming. Familiar words? To many young girls they are, and the Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 recently had a look at these words and their broader context. “Girls are in trouble” psychologist Steve Biddulph says on the show.
Slut shaming: The act of making someone, usually a woman, feel guilty or inferior for engaging in certain sexual behaviours that violate traditional gender expectations (source: Wikipedia).
Or in the words of Diane Abbott, British Labour Party politician and Member of Parliament: Bullying girls for behaviour which in boys can actually be celebrated, and being called sluts for doing or saying things that there’s pressure on young girls to do or say.
A contradictory term, made to confuse young girls who are supposed to be getting a sense of who they are and to discover their sexuality. On Woman’s Hour, 18-year old student Helena Horton says the girl often finds herself in a lose-lose situation, getting the blame no matter what she does. If you do you’re a slut, if you don’t you’re frigid; a new platform for the old Madonna/Whore Complex. Horton also says that cyber slut shaming is a girl-to-girl thing, not only boy-to-girl.
A quick google-search gives you “10 hot sexting messages”, “37 messages GUARANTEED to make your girl hot”, YouTube videos, and the list obviously goes on and on.
“Both terms reflect how new technology has turbocharged elements of sexism. Are parents prepared for this?”Abbott asks on the show.
The parent generation never had to deal with these terms and phenomena. In our day, there were magazines, and they were hardly as explicit and accessible to a 10-year old as internet porn is today, nor as detrimental. And that 10-year old is the one the parents ask for advice on maneuvering the Internet. Sexting and cyber slut shaming is instant, but the images stay on the internet forever, and many young girls don’t think about that.
The current EU Safer Internet programme has a special focus on cyber-bullying as well as other types of harmful and illegal conduct. The programme aims to provide contact points for reporting such content and conduct, in particular on child abuse, and to keep up with online trends and how they affect children.
“Children today might have seen pornographic images, even violent, before their first kiss” Abbott says, advocating for the possibility to opt into or out of pornography.
She doesn’t believe in snooping, children have a right to some privacy, but she believes in empowering girls through education and information, to make them know they have a choice and to give them confidence to say no, also online. Parents need to talk to their children, even though it might be embarrassing, and help them navigate their sexuality without feeling ashamed or being exploited. “Things are moving on a pace, and parents have to keep up!” Sexual education in school also needs to keep up.
“We need better sex education in school to get a different image. Now we’re getting a skewed image of what sex is, and what our body is” Helena Horton says. In a blog post, she mentions Tumblr’s “topless Tuesday” as an example of online sexualisation.
“Children should learn about personal relationships in school, not only putting a condom on a banana” Abbott agrees.
Is 14 the new 18?
Steve Biddulph, psychologist and author of several parenting books, is also a firm believer in good conversations with adults, helping young girls to get a strong inner resolve and enabling them to say “no, I don’t want to go there” and to pull back whenever they’re pulled a little bit in. Age 10 – 14 is when a young girl develops a sense of who she is and what she stands for, and later she will draw on that time.
Today, is 14 the new 18? There’s already sexual pressure, and the girl might feel she doesn’t have anyone to talk to about this. Media and her online world might make her think that this is what girls have to do, affecting her image of sex and of her own body, possibly making it more difficult to form a good relationship.
“Sexting may be the only way she attracts compliments and rewards” Biddulph says.
Kate Figes, journalist and author writing about family life, says girls suffer from premature sexualisation and the total need to be perfect, body and personality. Adolescence should be about exploring sex, but the image is tarnished, and there is pressure and confusion. She would like to have a more spirited debate about basic feminism as something you do, not just something you talk, and about telling men and boys not to behave like this.
“Girls look to Dad to see what the opposite sex behaves like, as a benchmark. So fathers have to talk, tell your children what it was like for you” Biddulph adds.
The key message is “empower your child”. Never stop finding ways to get through, and never stop endorsing your child who needs confidence. Help them to notice what they really feel and to trust their inner compass.
By Unni Holtedahl, February 2013
Vodafone Digital Parenting can give you tips.