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Often we wring our hands and sigh about how to raise girls in the midst of confected media panic and outrage. Girls at risk from sex! Girls at risk from sexting! Girls at risk from teen pregnancy! Girls at risk from clothes! Girls at risk from no self-esteem! Too much self-esteem!
So, it was with huge relief that I read the news Steve Biddulph, best-selling author of the parenting guide Raising Boys, had stepped into the disaster zone that is feminism's mishandling of female adolescence with his new book, Raising Girls, on "the girl question". Yes, apparently there's only one girl and one question.
Biddulph, a rather polarising character in the parenting world, says we need a more active feminism. This no doubt comes as a relief for all those anxious feminists who had no idea why they weren't hitting their targets.
Biddulph's choice of words to describe girls is revealing: they're damsels we need to “save”, they are “anxious”, their situation is a “catastrophe” and they're under “sustained assault”.
Biddulph isn't alone in talking about girls like this – in fact, there are many who make a profitable living by stoking the fears of parents in this manner. But the words used to discuss how to raise girls highlight society's fundamental problem with “the girl question” – that is, that we only seem to view girls as potential victims.
By using words that emphasise physical assault, we instil fear. We create the expectation that girls (but not boys) are fragile and in need of defending. The alarmist tone used by many of these experts sends out a message that just one mistake will ruin your daughter's life.
We treat girls' lives as a computer game in which we tell them all the things to avoid and deny as they try to advance through its stages so they won't make the kind of sloppy mistake that results in a big GAME OVER sign wafting down.
We never give girls a chance (let alone a second) when it comes to their sexuality because we refuse to believe girls are sexual. We deny the possibility. Not only that, we teach girls that anything less than meaningful, special sex will lead to ruination. The message we reinforce to them throughout all this is that while boys' sexuality has the power to destroy, girls' sexuality has the power to shame.
We refuse to let girls have the same agency as boys as they grow because there is a social fear that a girl doesn't have the same strength to recover from exercising choice, because at heart we still don't feel they have an interest or power to exercise choice. And heavens forfend if their choice is a mistake.
If we don't let girls exercise choice, make mistakes and feel comfortable about making them, if we don't help them learn how to grow from them and deal with failure – especially in a society obsessed with perfection - we are doing nothing more than confirming to them their existence as a weaker sex, as too brittle to fully and equally engage with life's struggles and choices.
There's no doubt that girls are facing significant stresses. From harassment, eating disorders, mental health issues, rising suicide rates, bullying, sexual assault (statistically more likely to occur in the home) and hyperbolic parenting experts, being a girl is a tough business.
But given society effectively creates such a pressurised environment for girls where they are told any mistake will ruin them and virginal perfection is demanded, is it really that difficult to believe that girls would oscillate between the struggle for perfection and the attempt to claw back any scrap of power or agency they may have? How much easier would this be if we gave them the space and support to make mistakes and grow?
I want my daughter to experiment with her boundaries and learn how to refine on her own terms: I want her to dye her hair ridiculous colours, wear clothes so stupid they deserve a parody Tumblr and have all the make-up application skills of Picasso after a nasty bender. I want her to fall over, let her be more artifice than actual – for a brief moment just let her play and see what she wants, how she wants to determine herself through a process of trial and error. I want her to say ludicrous things until she finds her internal mast. I also want her to go out and shag and not have to make it “mean” something or find someone amazing and have it mean everything.
I want her to call out jerks who think they can pressure her or not offer equality. Let her determine her own pleasure and desire and then seek it without fear of being judged for being a slut or victim. I believe the benefits in realistic, practical harm minimisation education far outweigh anything zero tolerance, panicking or abstinence could offer.
But I want her to make those choices with regards to no one but herself, her interest and her pleasure. Let her be imperfect and let it be on her terms so she can grow and be her own – and not society's – woman.
Right now you're thinking, “But what if she gets it 'wrong'? What if something bad happens? She will never forgive herself.” And perhaps more importantly, we as parents will never forgive ourselves. Of course we want our children to grow up happy and safe. And in a world that does inflict damaging consequences onto girls for the way they behave, it's natural that we'd want to protect them from this.
But this is precisely what is harming girls – not the length of their shorts, not who they share photos with, not who they have sex with – it's us, society, the grown-ups who are the cause of their malaise by demanding perfection from them and denying them the safety net afforded to boys (who don't have people victimising them nor fretting over their sexualisation). By wrapping girls in cotton wool, we deny them the right to stuff things up and then learn how to put it back together again.
Failure is one of life's greatest teachers. In fact, working through failure is better than any empowerment parade or the smooth waters of accomplishment. Every educated experiment helps us learn even more. Mistakes are glorious miracles that push us forward because they help us find something new and powerful within. This is not a stoic "character building" platitude we offer people to help them endure further distress; this is accepting that not everything is under our control and we cannot and should not strive towards a risk-free life for our children.
Life exists due to imperfection, not despite its presence. As Stephen Hawking said, “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn't exist ... Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”
Let's trust Hawking on this.