It's been a while since I was a teenage girl. Nearly ten years, and I'm quite content with the growing distance between myself and the era of insecurity, depression and terror - not that any of those things disappear with the onset of adulthood, but anyway. I do read a lot about how intensely awful it is to be a teenage girl today, and I imagine an existence something like my own teen experience of body-hatred, paranoia and unrealistic attitudes toward the opposite sex, but with slim sleek smartphones and buttock-skimming hotpants instead of chunky Nokias and those baggy jeans us nu-metal-listening, 2001-era teens loved so much. So are we really so different? A quick skim over The Daily Mail would have you believe that yes, it is so much more terrible to be a teenage girl today, because you are going to be pressured and sexualised like never before, treated like a disposable object by boys raised on violent pornography, and generally set upon from all sides by consumerism, the diet industry, the music industry etc etc etc, to turn you into a pornified, pouting, passive sex doll.
So it's something of a relief to finally hear a dissenting voice in this Guardian article. Showing how the statistics on teen pregnancy and first time sex don't tally with the notion that all girls are now being pressured to be sexually active earlier than ever, Stuart Jeffries also quotes American sociologist, Danielle Egan, who says "Sexual violence is real. But to portray girls as only victims suffering from false consciousness and therefore as trapped in a sexualised culture that they can't change is a mistake". In an article which questions paranoid columnists' automatic assumptions that all 14 year-old girls are being forced to perform oral sex (and shows that legendary teen 'rainbow parties' were just that - a legend, which never actually took place, but which the media seized upon anyway as a sign of teen debauchery), Jeffries identifies how this 'moral panic' renders girls passive objects in the same way that pornography is alleged to do: "Better panic than find out, better to disempower girls rhetorically than suggest they might be forces for change in their own lives."
That's the part that always gets my goat the most. Teenage girls may often be silly, shallow, self-obsessed and lack self awareness and judgement (and my God, don't even get me started on adjectives describing teen boys and all their deficiences). But they're still people with brains, desires and agendas of their own. I know, because I was one. And I spent a lot of my late teens feeling that I'd been sold a complete pack of lies when it came to boys and sex. No one ever pressured me to do anything I didn't want, or made inappropriate advances to me. I'm sure this was partly luck, partly going to an all-girls' school. This didn't, however, stop my own sexuality from forming. I spent most of my teen years masturbating like mad and fantasising about the sex life that I was convinced my horrendous ugliness would prevent me from ever enjoying. I wanted to get laid. Does anyone ever acknowledge this about teen girls, that they might want sex?
The way our conservative media frames things, you'd think teen boys were the only ones with a sex drive and that sex only ever takes place when girls reluctantly give in to the unstoppable male desire. And again, in my own life, that turned out to be another lie. When I finally did find someone I was powerfully attracted to - and again, the force of my own desire came as quite a shock to me, because I was always taught it was my job to be desired, to be the cause of randiness, not the one experiencing the pangs of 'I must have this person NOW, or I will explode' - I was very much the aggressor, the one doing the persuading. If anyone was 'the girl' in that particular exchange, it was my male partner, who wanted us to stop and think about what were doing and be sure that it was right. And if anyone was the sly horndog who would've said anything just to make sure that sex happened, it was me.
So where is the media coverage that acknowledges girls like me, because surely I can't have been the first and last teenage girl to actually be in control of her sexuality and use it for her own, not others', pleasure? Am I to believe that I was the only 18 year old female who ever had sex just because she was horny and wanted to? Much as I'm troubled by the tales of abuse and coercion I hear occurring in teen relationships, I'm also sick of getting such a one-sided story. Not every teen relationship is a battleground in which the evil forces of internet porn and sexism are unleashed upon some poor unsuspecting young woman. As Heather Corinna writes in her brilliant essay 'An Immodest Proposal', we are guilty of sending out horribly mixed messages to young women, and the continuing focus on teen girls as 'victims' of evil sexuality is partly responsible. The 'black hole' that is so often missing in portrayals of teen sex, and indeed so much sex in general, is the woman's desire. Where is the story of teen sex that shows the girl"feeling that if she didn't do it soon, she was going to pounce on him like a hungry dog?". When I read Corinna's words, I was transported back to the sweaty dark of an October night in 2002 when I was exactly that hungry dog, and I felt like I was playing out a script no one had prepared me for. As Corinna asks, why are we still failing to reinforce the message "that women experience, initiate and pursue desire, and that it is completely acceptable to do so with great enthusiasm"?
And yes, the problem does lie in our sexualised society, but not in the way that right-wing commentators think it does. Rihanna can writhe around showing off the outline of her vulva all she wants and Beyonce can thrust her oiled butt-cheeks at the screen til the cows come home - women behaving in an overtly sexual way is not the problem. The problem is that girls are never taught to be sexual for themselves, only for someone else. If I believed for a second that Rihanna actually got off to S&M, rather than just decided to make a song about it for cynical marketing purposes, I'd be her biggest cheerleader. But I don't. I think she's making the best of her talents in an industry that isn't going to let her exist outside extremely narrow parameters, and that industry demands that she sexualise herself at every turn. Ditto 'B', ditto Nicki Minaj, ditto Nicole Scherzinger et al. You can tell me these women are 'smart', 'feminists', 'businesswomen' all you want. But until I see them say 'Y'know what? I've had enough of this shit, I'm wearing jeans and baggy t-shirt onstage tonight, and tell my marketing team to go fuck themselves', I'm not going to believe that they're not victims of a culture that tells women to constantly serve their bodies up as passive objects for consumption. Because yup, we all feel like dressing and acting sexy from time to time, but I fail to believe there's any woman who really feels like doing it 24/7. Yet we're supposed to be convinced that all that oiled-up heavy breathing and writhing from our pop stars is genuine? Please.
The real heavy breathing and writhing happens in private, under duvets, on sofas, in student residences, in jeans and t shirts and dressing gowns and all other manner of unsexy accoutrement, and my god it's wonderful. And yes, I'm troubled that teens may be growing up not realising this, and thinking that the plasticised version of sexuality that they're increasingly being sold, is the way forward. But just as I was able to appreciate the superiority of Tori Amos to Atomic Kitten, there are teen girls who will be able to see through bullshit now just as I was able to 10 years ago, and there will be teen girls who are owning and controlling their sexuality the way I was, and hopefully still am to this day. And those are the teen girls our cultural commentators keep erasing from our social landscape, and in so doing they reinforce the image of teen female passivity just as harmfully as any sexual myths. Perhaps what society really fears is not the misuses of power against teen girls, but that teen girls might realise their own power, and start to 'misuse' it against a society that would rather they sat down, shut up and looked pretty.