Good Girls

There was a time when I railed against being referred to as a “girl” in a professional context, without really internalising why that was. It was infantilising women, diminishing them – I got that. But it was more an intellectual understanding of theoretical significance than deeper understanding. It was pretty irritating though. And the men I challenged about it were pretty irritated too – I was considered a troublemaker. A pointlessly troublemaking troublemaker, who would play the “sexism card”. But that’s the thing with feminism. As a younger woman I knew feminism was important, but had little first hand experience of sexism or of curtailed opportunities. And if the worst sexism I ever experienced was to be called “girl”, well I guess that’s bearable. I’m glad I challenged it – I suppose on one level I must have understood it’s importance, but struggled to articulate it except through stock phrases.

I think I understand it better now, in this post-Saville moment. In the wake of the grooming ring convictions. Because it is so painfully obvious that the lived experience of so many women – and girls – is so much worse than mine. And because as I’ve got older and through my line of work (in which I include this blog), I’ve seen so much visceral hatred of women, and hatred of their behaviour and transgressions (some of the stuff I’ve come across on facebook and twitter lately – including by teenagers – is vile, misogynist, threatening and violent – and highly concerning).

And although it appears on one level more benign than overt rape threats, the infantilising of women is the janus face of the womaning of girls. Our society slips easily from one to the other, unaware it is doing so – one moment we are child-whores, the next we are just girls again, expected to revert to the submissive role girls are trained to fulfil from our earliest days – our unwomanly assertive behaviour dismissed as aberrant. Always sexual, responsible for our own lives and actions only when it suits the circumstances.

I recall first hand that teenage girls are individuals with opinions and with needs and with sexual and other desires. Nobody was going to tell me what I couldn’t do until I was sixteen. But then, I made some pretty poor life choices when I was a teenager : most of us develop independence before we develop good judgment, and if we are lucky we get a chance to lose from mistakes that have not wrecked our life prospects. Luckily for me my poor life choices were the result of my own judgment, not exploitation – I came to no harm and it’s all part of growing up. So yes, some teens may be willing participants in sexual activity, for example with a peer. But it’s all in the context. Ostensible choices may not be real choices when one participant is in a position of authority or power or with pastoral responsibility and is much older. There the focus must be on the responsible adult and his choices. Where my husband comes from they don’t have a bright line law based on a (historically) arbitrary age of consent – they have an age of consent overlaid with “close in age” exemptions known as “Romeo and Juliet laws” – so the focus is on imbalance in relationships determined by reference to comparative age. Many US States have a version of a Romeo and Juliet law, and although it is possible to disagree with the detail of the provisions, in principle it seems a more nuanced approach to the difficult issue of vulnerable young adults than ours.

All those gazillion media personalities who we now know to have been involved in sexual exploitation of girls – they fall way outside the margin of appreciation (to borrow a legal phrase). But that these men were bold enough to behave this way in such numbers, to rationalise their behaviour as part of an acceptable lifestyle (along with the many others who turned away telling themselves it was just something that people do) – that exemplifies the problem. They are the logical conclusion of this damned hypocrisy. “They are sexually active, they know their own minds” they tell themselves. “They were up for it. They agreed. They didn’t say no…” Of course they didn’t. They were “good girls”. The good, submissive, girls we have trained them to be. The good, submissive, girls we are expected to be, even as women. And they knew they would be patted on the head or called whores if they told.

You’ve been warned boys. Don’t call me a girl.

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16 thoughts on “Good Girls

  1. Any age of consent is arbitrary. Treating it as intended for the protection principally of females, to put it neutrally: there will always be some who have passed the magic birthday and are not emotionally ready to give a real consent – and others who have not but are. To introduce a variation based on the age of the male would be confusion worse confounded.

    Where you have a clearly defined position of power, fine, have a higher (but still arbitrary) age. But take the case of a male teacher who talks his way into the bed of an immature recent school-leaver of nineteen – not good, not what teachers should do, but can you seriously send him to prison for it? What if she is twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two? Where do you stop?

    R and J laws should take the form of a policy of not prosecuting when R is still very young; I would not care to put a figure on it, perhaps no more than 18 months older than J, and J is – here comes an arbitrary figure again – fifteen. Juliet, I seem to remember, was fourteen, and however young Romeo is that’s too damned young!

  2. As for “girls” I wouldn’t dare – but why is it all right for a woman to walk into a meeting of men and say “Morning, boys”?

    In some contexts the words “chaps” and “fellows” are used unisex – what does anyone think about that?

  3. I always say ‘morning guys’ in a mixed group and have never yet had a g**…sorry- woman object to it!!
    On the age thing…sorry to sound incredibly pompous (for which i make no apology)..but with a background of prep/public school and Army…it is incredibly simple: As a schoolteacher or media person you are in a position of TRUST and RESPONSIBILITY and you just NEVER break that trust…particularly with immature vulnerable females. Sadly the ‘lefties’ in the media clearly don’t have the same moral code…more’s the pity!

  4. [...] You’ve been warned boys. Don’t call me a girl [Pink Tape] [...]

  5. Calm down dear, it’s only a blog! [Ducks for cover and makes his will].

  6. What a load of tripe, it takes a creative mind indeed to link calling females ‘girls’ to sexual abuse, its patronising just as calling a guy ‘boy’ would be, but sexist and linked to sex abuse?! I think someone has been drinking too much of the feminist kool aid. Are we now going to be told that calling a person of the female sex ‘woman’ is sexist as well?

    • No Lucas you are not going to be told you can’t call us women. Also, I don’t object to being called creative. I think you will find if you read it a little more closely that there is no suggestion that those who use the term “girls” are sex abusers. The post is about social attitudes and how they affect all of our behaviour – both women and men, girls and boys.

  7. “As for “girls” I wouldn’t dare – but why is it all right for a woman to walk into a meeting of men and say “Morning, boys”?”

    It’s less offensive because of the balance of power and privilege. No one acts as though the “boys” are inferior, or only there on their looks, or the exception to the rule – so it isn’t reinforcing decades of dismissive and sexist attitudes.

  8. Marjorie: You may be right – but any employer seeking formally to ban “Good morning, girls” had better make the edict run both ways!

    I have known women in senior positions address “you boys” in a thoroughly dismissive way – based on their age, not their gender. I obviously don’t know how they would treat much younger female colleagues.

    As a matter of interest, Marjorie, if all present are female, and it happens, how do you feel about one of them calling the rest “girls” then? When a man does it (saying “boys” of course!) in an all-male meeting I find it a bit silly, but no worse than that.

    • Andrew, I wouldn’t use “you boys” any more than “you girls” in a meeting. I might use it in another context or to mark some inappropriate childish behaviour. But that said I agree with Marjorie, whilst sexism is unacceptable the context is different so that use of the term “boys” is not always directly equivalent to use of “girls”. It comes with more baggage.

  9. Different baggage but not necessarily more.

    And that’s the point. The fact that more women than men are victims of the abuse of power and privilege and more men than women (not necessarily consciously or intentionally) perpetrate it does not make it more or less objectionable when done by a man or a woman respectively. How wrong it is depends on how severe it is in the particular case; the woman who arrives last at a meeting of her peers and say “Morning, boys” is at the very low end of the spectrum; “Morning, chaps” is even less serious.

  10. Actually, I think the phrase “you boys” comes with just as much baggage and stereotyping, just of a very different nature. You are right that to refer to grown women as girls is plainly demeaning. I am equally prepared to accept the linkage in some quarters with seeing women as ripe for subjection. However, my experience of “you boys” is that at least with some women, it links with the infantilising of men and stereotyping them as incapable of acquiring maturity, that women are inherently more mature and virtuous. This is plainly far less damaging but it is very irritating.

  11. It all depends on context and manner: I know one woman from whom “Come on boys” – often followed by “How about a swift half before going home” – is acceptable. nay welcome, and another from whom it is an insult. I fear that any management which forbids the g-word must extend the prohibition to its male equivalent too.

  12. And I’m still wondering how we feel about the use of either word if all present are of the same gender? I would occasionally use “boys” in that case: I remember saying “Well, boys, it’s back to the drawing board” when an idea fell through.

    • Andrew – you had it before: it’s all about context. Banning terms doesn’t fix the underlying problem, and not all uses of the term “girl” or “boy” are offensive, inappropriate or remarkable – we all use those terms, and probably if we are honest we all use them slightly inappropriately at times. But there are definitely contexts in which both terms can be patronising, demeaning, offensive or discriminatory.

  13. Submission may be manifested in a multitude of ways whereby a woman relinquishes sexual or personal control to another, such as acts of servitude , submission to humiliation or punishment such as erotic spanking , or other activities, at times in association with bondage . The level and type of submission can vary from person to person, and from one time to another. Some women choose to include occasional sexual submission in an otherwise conventional sex life. For example, a woman may adopt a submissive role during a sexual activity to overcome a sexual inhibition she may have. A woman may choose to submit full-time, becoming a lifestyle slave .

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