They also then get ripped to shreds for being too sexy. Enormous pressure is put on very young girls to be sexually active, to give in to boys’ “demands” and to acquiesce to various requests. But the moment they comply, they face a stringent backlash.
One 14-year-old girl tells me, “If you’re talking to a guy or you text with him, he will ask for a picture.” I ask why girls feel they have to comply. “You’d feel like you don’t want to let him down – you think he likes you for who you are and he promises not to show it to anyone, then you send the picture and then he’ll never speak to you again. The guy shows his friends and then the friend puts it up on the internet and then for the girls it’s horrible – her friends will turn against her and call her a slut, and the guys at school will all come up and say they saw the picture and she’ll lose all her friends.” As extreme as it sounds, versions of this story are relayed to me again and again, by girls from all backgrounds.
What makes the cycle of pressure and judgment even more powerful is that, thanks to social media, there is no escape from it, even at home. With this absolute internet focus comes instant, easily accessible porn. In a group interview, one sixth-form girl tells me: “The view of women through porn creates assumptions – it means [boys] just expect women will take it, the man’s in control; and I don’t think they can separate that the woman is acting and that isn’t what relationships are really like… most of the boys will probably have been watching it since about 14 – that’s how they learn about sex.” Another 17-year-old girl agrees: “Boys in my school were watching porn in Year 7, possibly earlier. They started circulating pictures. And they were also making rape jokes – like saying, ‘You’re so hot, I’d rape you.'”
In a heartbreaking Everyday Sexism Project entry, one schoolgirl wrote: “I am 13 and I am so scared to have sex it makes me cry nearly every day. We had sex education in Year 6 and I felt fine about it, but now some of the boys at school keep sending us these videos of sex which are much worse than what we learned about and it looks so horrible and like it hurts, and at night I get really scared that one day I will have to do it.”
Nothing has emerged more clearly from the Everyday Sexism Project than the urgent need for far more comprehensive mandatory sex-and-relationships education in schools, to include issues such as consent and respect, domestic violence and rape. It’s not just girls who need it. For boys, porn provides some very scary, dictatorial lessons about how they are expected to exert their dominance over women. It is unrealistic to expect them, unaided, to work out the difference between online porn and real, caring intimacy.
When we carried out an online poll, asking people whether their school sex-and-relationships education had covered issues such as domestic violence, assault or rape, more than 92% said these issues were never raised at all. These statistics were borne out by numerous entries from girls and young women feeling confused and anxious about sex and consent. Huge numbers simply had no idea they had the right to say no.