Raising Girls cover artWriting in the Telegraph, columnist Allison Pearson rather cautiously and apologetically treads into the issue of contemporary British culture’s increasing sexualization of young females:

It’s not often that I unleash my inner Mary Whitehouse, but the way young girls today are expected to conform to a hideous porn culture makes me want to don a pair of glasses with upswept frames and get myself one of those battleaxe perms.

Clearly understanding the current cultural paradigm that any brakes whatsoever on sexual activity are inherently bad, and the dire consequences of any deviation from that party line, Pearson notes that even to broach such notions is to ensure one will be tarred as a pious busybody. She is willing to risk that, however, because of the damage current cultural mores are doing to the nation’s girls:

A friend’s daughter recently started at a highly regarded boarding school. When her mother asked how she was enjoying the mixed-sex environment, the girl said quietly: “You have to give the boys oral sex or they get cross.” Reeling with shock, the mum protested that her darling daughter did not have to do anything of the sort. “Oh yes you do,” replied the girl. “And you have to shave down there or the boys don’t like it.”

The girl in question is not some brazen, street-smart sixth-former; she is 14 years old. With a woman’s body, perhaps, but still a child. A child who, as far as her parents were concerned, was leading a sheltered middle-class life, not auditioning to become a professional footballer’s WAG. Teenagers have always had secrets, places where they go to try on their new selves, be it the pages of a padlocked diary or the back row of the movies. But mine is the first generation of parents that has to protect its young not just in the world we can see and hear, but in a parallel, online universe for which we barely know the password. And it’s really tough. Tougher even than we know.

“Oh, come on,” I can hear many people say, “it’s just some kids fooling around. Nothing to get your knickers in a twist over.” Americans will substitute the word “panties” for “knickers.” But such scoffers are ignoring the fact that it’s not so easy to be free and easy nowadays, Pearson writes:

Only last week, we heard the awful story of Chevonea Kendall-Bryan, who fell to her death after pleading with a boy on the pavement below to erase the recording of her performing a sex act on him. “How much can I handle? HONESTLY. I beg you, delete that,” texted Chevonea. She was 13. Thirty years ago, keeping your kids safe was a doddle. The nearest your average boy got to pornography was a contraband Playboy, which looks as quaint and charming as The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady next to websites such as YouPorn. Those of us who squiggled I LOVE STEVE on the back of our hands in biro in 1975 will struggle to comprehend that girls are now encouraged to write a boy’s name on their naked breast, take a picture of it and text it to their inamorato. “Not my daughter!” I hear you cry. Really, are you quite sure about that?

As this example indicates, Pearson expresses great concern about the easy availability of incredibly explicit pornography to young people today, and the way it likely changes the expectations of young males and females alike:

If your dear son is consulting YouPorn on his mobile, then, believe me, he will have some pretty strange ideas about the act of physical lovemaking. I spent three minutes looking at YouPorn yesterday and I felt like I needed at least three years in a darkened room listening to the B minor Mass to reconstitute my soul. What the hell would this writhing abyss look like to a 14-year-old who has never seen a penis?

These are real problems facing real girls, Pearson notes:

Eighteen months ago, my own daughter was in hospital with an undiagnosed stomach complaint. A consultant said he was seeing an epidemic of teenage girls under incredible pressure in every area of their lives. “Count yourself lucky,” he said. “Others go towards anorexia, drink or drugs.”

The notion that more knowledge about sex at any age is always a good thing has no scientific support, and Pearson cites the book Raising Girls, by Steve Biddulph (he also wrote a book on Raising Boys), in support of her concerns that the increasing access to sexual imagery as a result of new technology is coarsening boys’ attitudes toward sexuality and placing ever-greater strain on girls:

In his timely new book, Raising Girls, Biddulph says that about five years ago (around the time that sexting and camera-phones were taking off) psychologists began to notice a marked and sudden plunge in girls’ mental health. The average teenage female was “stressed and depressed in a way never seen before”. Girls were growing up too fast, much faster than their mothers had. Our 18 is their 14, our 14 is their 10.

Mainstream media has made porn-inspired sex seem compulsory for girls at ever younger ages. “So what?” says the liberal parent who doesn’t think it’s cool to challenge their child’s lifestyle choices, and may secretly envy them. Biddulph has harsh words for these hands-off mummies and daddies: “Having your daughter as a friend – so much easier than actually raising her,” he mocks.

Despite her willingness to risk condemnation as a busybody on a reckless moral crusade to push her nation back into the Dark Ages of the awful 1950s, Pearson does not advocate government intervention to restrict young people’s access to pornography. (That is probably impossible to accomplish at this point, in any case.) Instead, she calls on parents to understand the new risks of unhappiness and despair that their children face, and to try to help them avoid the problems as best they can:

One problem for parents is age: hardly anyone over 50 is technically capable of following their children down the dark online pathways where pornography lurks.

I have therefore done what Biddulph advises and drafted some “aunties” into the Daughter’s life. In their twenties and thirties, these tech-savvy guardian angels follow her on Facebook, tipping me off at the first sign of anything worrying or gently nudging her to take down an unsuitable photo.

Call that snooping? I don’t give a damn. You wouldn’t let your child wander unprotected in a real alien land, so why is this virtual one any better? “Safety takes precedence over privacy,” insists Biddulph.

I known it’s embarrassing, and no one wants to have the conversation, but as a society we really do need to teach children a healthy, emotionally connected view of sexuality that has nothing to do with the porn version that has saturated their parallel world. Sex education should be as much about psychology as biology. And the advice to our darling daughters needs to be hastily updated. For example, “Oral sex does not generally precede kissing in a relationship with any boy worth loving.”

I don’t imagine that the phenomena Pearson documents here are unique to our time (only the technology has changed, perhaps), but it’s simply undeniable that depictions of sex, talk about sex, and claims that the more sex, the better, are pervasive in our culture today. That such a change should have no consequences at all seems exceedingly unlikely.