Fabian Women's Network speech - the sexualisation of women and girls in British society

24 Jan 2013

The sexualisation of women and girls in British society and culture: putting families back in control


I am delighted to be speaking here this evening at this Fabian Women's Network event. Thank you Ivana and everyone at the Fabian Women's Network, and also to Cath Elliot and Unison.

I'm particularly pleased to be here on the birthday of Beatrice Potter Webb – who was one of our most important twentieth century feminists, and a key founder of the Fabian Society.

The sexualisation of women and girls

My speech this evening is about the sexualisation of women and children in British society and culture.
I make this speech as a card-carrying feminist.

I'm someone who has gone on the marches, worn the t-shirts and has the dungarees hanging in the back of her wardrobe to prove it.

As President Obama indicated in his inauguration address yesterday, feminism is one of the great movements of the last century that has helped liberate millions of women around the world.

Sexuality is becoming increasingly pornified and commodified

So what is the problem? I think sexuality is becoming increasingly pornified and commodified. 

I think a number of recent events – including the Jimmy Savile revelations, the recent political debate around abortion, and the PIP breast implant scandal – have revealed a darker side of British culture, in which the sexualisation of women and young girls is entrenched, and yet women who fall victims to problems within this culture are often seen as the problem - cast-aside, silenced and delegitimised. We see penalties paid by those who do not conform to our hypersexualised culture, and we see penalties for those who fall victim.

I want to highlight what I believe is the rise of a 'secret garden, strip-tease culture' in British schools and society, which has been put beyond the control of British families by fast-developing technology, and an increasingly pornified British culture

I am not saying sex is sordid and shameful. And I do not believe that is the view of the British public.

I do not believe that there was some rose-tinted past on matters of sexuality. Sometimes adults forget what they were like when they were young. Adolescents have always been fascinated by sex and young people have always sought to go out dressed in as little as possible or in clothes that expressly accentuated their sexual characteristics –think of mediaeval codpieces or a Victorian bustle.

There’s something wrong with society...

I reject the notion of 'Broken Britain' but... 

There's something wrong with a society as a whole when children say they have no-one to turn to for advice because their parents – outwitted by technology, and struggling to juggle work and home life – don't really know what's going on.

There's something wrong with a society when many young girls of all classes are pressurised into exposing themselves online, and are then humiliated.

There's something wrong with a society when most children say their sex education is out-of-touch, irrelevant and too little too late. And where boys end up turning to hardcore online pornography to teach them what they think they need to know.

There's something wrong with a society that normalises children of every background 'sexting' in schools.

There's something wrong with a society that sells t-shirts for little girls emblazoned with 'future porn star', and when padded bras, thongs and high heeled shoes are marketed and sold to children. And when little girl's pencil cases come with a Playboy Bunny logo.

And there is something wrong with a society where we spend more on plastic surgery than any other country in Europe as a direct result of female (and increasingly male) dissatisfaction with their body driven by a popular culture where sexuality is commodified. It is no co-incidence that one of the growth areas for plastic surgery is young girls wanting to make their vagina and its lips “neater” because pornographic images lead them to believe that they are not “normal” down there.

There something wrong with a society that has gangs of disenfranchised young men who use rape and sexual assault as the weapon of choice.

This is not about prudishness or hankering after some rose-tinted picture of childhood. What I'm here to say is that we need to work towards creating a society in which young people and adults can navigate their sexualities without risk of shame, harassment or violence.

A generation under stress

A 2008 study by Girlguiding UK and the Mental Health Foundation found that premature sexualisation and pressure to grow up too quickly are two 'key influences' in the anxiety felt by girls.

According to Dr. Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, "Girls and young women are being forced to grow up at an unnatural pace in a society that we, as adults, have created and it's damaging their emotional well-being. We are creating a generation under stress."

This pressure on children to grow up takes two different but related forms: the pressure to take part in a pornified culture at a very early age; and the commercial pressure to consume the vast range of goods and services that are available to children and young people of all ages.

Our civic space

Sexualised imagery in advertising and on billboards has become the wallpaper of our lives.

Our civic space has become defined by it – the looming sexualised advertising; the music videos that blare out at us; the fashionable online bullying; the hypermasculinised music lyrics, and the sexualised figures of women in films that are now commonplace. We're seeing an alien, warped view of sex normalised into our culture, engrained by the invisible hand of the market.

And at the same time, cosmetic surgery is increasingly normalised. Last year in the UK, almost 9,500 women underwent breast augmentation surgery.

Turbo-charged by technology

We've seeing an extraordinary growth of new technology, which is accelerating these issues at warp speed.

Findings from Beatbullying reveal that 28% of 11-to-16-year-olds have been deliberately targeted, threatened or humiliated by an individual or group through the use of mobile phones or the internet.

According to Cindy Gallop, an advertising consultant, the average age kids view hardcore porn has dropped from 11 to eight. A recent YouGov survey found that 27 per cent of boys are accessing pornography every week. 

And there are series of modern issues that schools and families must confront – such as the rise of 'sexting' and 'slut-shaming' in schools. Mobile phones allow young people easy access to all kinds of online content, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate.

Mobile phones are also being used for so-called 'sexting' – the sending, often unsolicited, of sexually explicit messages.

And yet, at the same time, fewer than one rape victim in 30 can expect to see her or his attacker brought to justice. Plus nearly one in five of all women in England and Wales report that they have been the victim of a sexual offence since the age of 16.

A prison, not a liberation

Let me be clear – this isn't about moral decay; it's about the problems with myths of women's unconditional sexual availability and object status, and the undermining of rights to sexual autonomy, physical safety and economic and social equality.

These are right that have been fought for, and must continue to be re-won. On this day in 1973 - 22nd January – the birthday of Beatrice Potter Webb as I mentioned at the start, the US Supreme Court recognised women?s rights to reproductive autonomy.

This pornified culture tells girls in particular that they are only valued as a sex object. It tells girls that the most important quality they need is 'sexiness', and not cleverness, sportiness, application or ambition. It encourages a culture in which children are viewed as sexually available. It silences voices, and attacks autonomy.

The issue is bigger than Page 3, prostitution or lap dancing clubs. It's bigger than that. These are symptoms, not causes.

For so long, it's been argued that overt, public displays of sexuality are an enlightened liberation. But I believe that for many, the pressure of conforming to hypersexualisation and its pitfalls is a prison. And the permanence of social media and technology can be a life sentence.

Parents and teachers have a duty to ensure that children develop a healthy view of sexuality, distinct from this porn version that is swamping and infiltrating British life. Because it's a very specific form of sexuality that's being imposed, on children and adults: a porn version. This is what kids are dealing with on a daily basis.

Young people are accessing far harder pornographic images than 10 or 15 years ago. We have to ask, does that influence what they themselves put out on the internet?

Too many young girls are absorbing from the popular culture around them that they only have value as sex objects. A survey by girl guiding showed that the second most popular career idea for girls aged 7 to 21 is to be a beautician. We must make sure that ambition is never blinkered.

And the messages being sent to our boys are just as limiting and restrictive: be macho, be strong, don?t show your emotions. 

Sexting, slut-shaming and the rise of the ‘strip-tease culture’ in British schools

I want to talk about what's happening in our schools. Because I think that many teachers and parents are struggling to cope. Whereas parents are not likely to allow their children to watch an 18 film, they are powerless when it comes to this culture, accelerated by phones, and the internet.

I think one of the symptoms of the culture that has grown is that young girls and women are subject to 'slut shaming' and sexual bullying in schools. The truth is that slut-shaming shames us all.

There seems to be a blurred distinction between sexting and bulling. New technologies, but an age-old double standard, by which sexually active boys are to be admired and 'rated', while sexually active girls are denigrated and despised as 'sluts'.

Girls feel coerced into sharing pictures. Boyfriends normalise it – it's the whole 'If you really love me' argument. And it's often basic sexism, with girls being seen as boys' property. Let me pay tribute to people like Dr Jessica Ringrose who have done extensive research on this issue.

I fear we're seeing the rise of a 'strip-tease' culture in British schools, and British culture, with the British family unit left marginalised. It's hyper-sexualized British culture in which women are objectified, objectify one another, and are encouraged to objectify themselves; where homophobic bullying is normalised; and young boys' world view is shaped by hardcore American pornography and other dark corners of the internet.

For many young boys and girls, it's a world without warmth or respect.

Quantitative research on sexting has found rates as wide as 15% to 40% among young people. Many teenagers do not even use the term 'sexting' indicating a gap between adult discourse and young people?s experiences.

Heading in the wrong direction

One of the first acts of the Tory-led Government was to close down the highly successful Healthy Schools programme. Spending cuts to local authorities have in some places meant that there is no one to make sure young people's sexual health is a priority and to enable the NHS and council services, particularly schools, to work closely together. The Government announced a review of Personal, Social, Health and Economics (PSHE) education more than a year ago. But it appears to be sitting on the results of the review. Perhaps they think that, if they close their eyes to these issues, the problems will just go away! They won?t.

This is a Government that has created chaos by an unnecessary mega-reorganisation of the NHS and of our public health system. Until we get back a Government that cares, it will largely be up to Local Authorities to try and carry on the task of empowering young people and families.

And the Department of Health's sexual health policy document has been delayed 19 months and counting... 

The remedies – a national conversation between parents and their children

Let's turn to remedies...

Remedies will take place in the context of the family. And it is families I want to empower in this debate.


For too long the left have allowed the right to dominate that dialogue around the family. I think that we should take it back.

As somebody of immigrant of background I care passionately about the family. First generation immigrants often believe passionately in the family - whether they are Jamaican, Nigerian, Jewish, Irish, Bangledeshi, or Vietnamese. For many first generation immigrants, it is all they have.

For me, family isn't code for a heterosexual family with 2.2 children. Families come in all shapes and sizes.

And let me be clear - I don?t think feminism has undermined the family. On the contrary, it is the pressures of the market and the deindustrialisation of many communities that have shattered community and family ties.

Do we really have to just accept things as they are? As parents we're told - often by our own kids - that we've just got to live with it - that the world has changed. But I don't think we should simply throw our hands up and accept the world – and the all-consuming market - as it is. We need to talk about how we put families, and not the lowest common denominator of the market, back in control. We've got to build a society based on open-minded family values, and not 'anything-goes' market values. 

To those parents who spend sleepless nights worrying about what's going on at their children's school, what their children are going through, and what the future holds for them - I understand your concerns.

To those people who say that we too often shame and belittle the girls and women in this country, as they come to terms with their own sexuality - I stand behind you.

To those of you who say we must speak up for the family – I will.

Changing the wallpaper’ of children’s lives – more Jessica Ennis, less Paris Hilton

So what would I do to clear some space in this culture for open-minded British family values to shine through? Well, it's definitely not teaching girls ludicrous abstinence schemes. But we must change the wallpaper of children?s lives.

We need a sex education revolution in ordinary British schools. We need to look at Statutory Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). Sex education, must focus on preparing young people to form healthy, respectful, emotionally fulfilling relationships, and also deal with issues of self-esteem.

Schools should encourage girls to value their bodies in terms of their physical ability. We need more Jessica Ennis, less Paris Hilton.

We need to look at how gender equality issues could be more central on the educational agenda, and throughout the curriculum.

Parents should be given information and support to educate their children about the issues – families, not markets, should be put at the forefront. Parents are a powerful force in shaping their children?s attitudes to gender and sexuality and have a vital role to play in supporting their children to cope with and contextualise sexualised images and messages.

We must make it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material across all media. We also need to help our young people use new technology and media safely.

Internet users should have to make an active choice over whether they allow adult content or not.

We must look at 'child friendly' computers and mobile phones where adult content is filtered out by default.

But perhaps most of all, we need to start a national conversation between parents and their children about sex, pornography and technology.

Before I answer questions, I'd like to thank some of the people who have done such important work in this area. Thank to Ivana Bartoletti and the Fabian Women's Network and Unison. Thank you to Kat Banyard and Emma Burnell. I also want to pay tribute to those who have done important work and research like Dr Jessica Ringrose, Linda Papadopoulos, and organisations like BeatBulling and NSPCC, and also Fiona Mactaggart MP. 


These are just some of the areas we must explore as we shine a light on this world, and find our voice.
We cannot shield kids from the modern world. But we must let open-minded family values shine through in our society.

These are big issues that speak to people's sense of wellbeing and emotional resilience. That's why I think we must put families at the heart of the debate on public health.

Thank you all for listening.

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