There was a time when I railed against being referred to as a “girl” in a professional context, without really internalising why that was. It was infantilising women, diminishing them – I got that. But it was more an intellectual understanding of theoretical significance than deeper understanding. It was pretty irritating though. And the men I challenged about it were pretty irritated too – I was considered a troublemaker. A pointlessly troublemaking troublemaker, who would play the “sexism card”. But that’s the thing with feminism. As a younger woman I knew feminism was important, but had little first hand experience of sexism or of curtailed opportunities. And if the worst sexism I ever experienced was to be called “girl”, well I guess that’s bearable. I’m glad I challenged it – I suppose on one level I must have understood it’s importance, but struggled to articulate it except through stock phrases.
I think I understand it better now, in this post-Saville moment. In the wake of the grooming ring convictions. Because it is so painfully obvious that the lived experience of so many women – and girls – is so much worse than mine. And because as I’ve got older and through my line of work (in which I include this blog), I’ve seen so much visceral hatred of women, and hatred of their behaviour and transgressions (some of the stuff I’ve come across on facebook and twitter lately – including by teenagers – is vile, misogynist, threatening and violent – and highly concerning).
And although it appears on one level more benign than overt rape threats, the infantilising of women is the janus face of the womaning of girls. Our society slips easily from one to the other, unaware it is doing so – one moment we are child-whores, the next we are just girls again, expected to revert to the submissive role girls are trained to fulfil from our earliest days – our unwomanly assertive behaviour dismissed as aberrant. Always sexual, responsible for our own lives and actions only when it suits the circumstances.
I recall first hand that teenage girls are individuals with opinions and with needs and with sexual and other desires. Nobody was going to tell me what I couldn’t do until I was sixteen. But then, I made some pretty poor life choices when I was a teenager : most of us develop independence before we develop good judgment, and if we are lucky we get a chance to lose from mistakes that have not wrecked our life prospects. Luckily for me my poor life choices were the result of my own judgment, not exploitation – I came to no harm and it’s all part of growing up. So yes, some teens may be willing participants in sexual activity, for example with a peer. But it’s all in the context. Ostensible choices may not be real choices when one participant is in a position of authority or power or with pastoral responsibility and is much older. There the focus must be on the responsible adult and his choices. Where my husband comes from they don’t have a bright line law based on a (historically) arbitrary age of consent – they have an age of consent overlaid with “close in age” exemptions known as “Romeo and Juliet laws” – so the focus is on imbalance in relationships determined by reference to comparative age. Many US States have a version of a Romeo and Juliet law, and although it is possible to disagree with the detail of the provisions, in principle it seems a more nuanced approach to the difficult issue of vulnerable young adults than ours.
All those gazillion media personalities who we now know to have been involved in sexual exploitation of girls – they fall way outside the margin of appreciation (to borrow a legal phrase). But that these men were bold enough to behave this way in such numbers, to rationalise their behaviour as part of an acceptable lifestyle (along with the many others who turned away telling themselves it was just something that people do) – that exemplifies the problem. They are the logical conclusion of this damned hypocrisy. “They are sexually active, they know their own minds” they tell themselves. “They were up for it. They agreed. They didn’t say no…” Of course they didn’t. They were “good girls”. The good, submissive, girls we have trained them to be. The good, submissive, girls we are expected to be, even as women. And they knew they would be patted on the head or called whores if they told.
You’ve been warned boys. Don’t call me a girl.