After Christmas, I was using up some leftovers while the Daughter and her friends sat round the kitchen table having one of their marathon toast-fests and sharing stories of their new lives at uni. Sophie said that, at a party, a guy had walked up to her and said: “Hello, gorgeous, I’ve got a huge —. Fancy a —-?”
The other girls fell about, but the laughter sounded obligatory rather than joyful. “You don’t have to put up with that, Sophie, darling,” I found myself saying. “It’s so disrespectful. I hope you told him where to go?”
“Relax, mum,” said my daughter. She wore that stricken, pleading look which means “Oh, God, she’s not going to go off on one of her ‘Suffragettes didn’t go on hunger strike so you could post a picture of your boobs on Snapchat’ lectures, is she?”
The girls started talking about a mutual friend, only 17. Olivia’s charismatic boyfriend was a nightmare, both aggressive and controlling. Olivia kept trying to break free, but each time X reeled her back in. “I think Liv’s scared of him, but she doesn’t want to be by herself,” said Samira. The girls murmured in sympathy. For them, there was only one thing more horrifying than an abusive relationship: being single.
Later, after they’d gone, I told my daughter I was worried about Sophie. Had she really had sex with that tosser who came up to her at a party? “You just don’t get it, mum,” sighed the Daughter. “Sophie’s not really that kind of girl. It’s just if you don’t have sex, you’re a loser. Everyone does it ’cos boys expect you to. Every girl I know’s had some bad experience where it’s got kind of abusive.”
“Even you?’ I said.
“Even me,” she said.
If I was shocked to hear that conversation between lovely, bright young women, I shouldn’t have been. A new study into adolescent relationships has found that hundreds of thousands of teenage girls, some as young as 13, have been coerced into sex or sexual activity by a boyfriend. England came out far worse than other European countries, with two in five girls aged between 13 and 17 suffering sexual coercion of some sort, including rape.
’Twas ever thus, some will shrug. Boy tries to get into Girl’s knickers is as old as heavy petting in the Garden of Eden. The difference now, as pointed out by the University of Bristol’s School for Policy Studies, is the scale of coercion and the number of teenage girls sending and receiving sexual images and texts.
Almost half of 13- to 17-year-olds have “sexted”. Researchers were surprised to discover that many girls said exchanging of explicit images with boys was a “highly positive experience”, adding to the fun of flirting. However, almost all the girls said that the experience turned negative if the boy shared the image with friends, making them feel humiliated.
It made me think of two shamefaced teenage girls I saw on TV the other night. They confessed that they became different characters on social media. You could be a bully, you could be lewd and crude, you could be whoever you wanted to be.
“In space, no one can hear you scream” goes the great line from Alien. Kids seem to believe the same applies to social media. They are seriously mistaken. Teenage courtship rituals, essentially unchanged for decades, have been discarded as our children are handed explosive new toys, which even fully-grown Members of Parliament are too immature to handle.
Boys are literally getting the message that girls are permanently up for it when the truth is girls may just feel under huge social pressure to display their wares without necessarily being ready to hand over the goods. And all this happens without any meaningful human contact.
What a pity the Bristol study didn’t include the experience of boys. “You’d be amazed what girls will do, mum,” my 15-year-old son said to me recently. I feel so sorry for him and his generation. Social media is a lawless Wild West without a sheriff. There is no map to help hormonal youngsters navigate a safe path. If boys end up with a warped view of female sexuality, it’s hardly surprising: if all girls feel obliged to flash their tits to attract a mate, it’s not the sexual freedom their grandmothers wished for. It’s just a more open prison.
Such is the confusion out there they have actually invented something called a “consensual-sex app”, which kids can use to ask their partner’s permission to have sex. Good2Go “allows the sex-initiator to forego outdated modes of courting, like foreplay, or talking to your partner”. Instead, they can hand you their phone and get you to answer a series of questions, including whether you are “Sober”, “Mildly Intoxicated but Good2Go” or “Pretty Wasted”. If you’re Pretty Wasted, the phone will instruct you not to have sex.
Who says romance is dead, St Valentine? Imagine what the Bard would have made of this new intimacy: “Let us not to the marriage of two true sex initiators admit impediment. Love is not love which makes a move when Sex Initiator 1 is pretty wasted.”
Schools should urgently put a new subject on the curriculum: Sex, Self-Respect and Social Media. Young people need to be taught that the same standards apply to your character in the real and the online world.
Finally, to girls and boys aged 13 to 17, a word of advice from your Auntie Allison. Before you press Send, ask yourself one small question: “Would I like my mum and dad to see this photo of me?”
No sexts please, we’re British.