Raising girls as victims

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Photo: Getty Images

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”.

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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.

73 comments

  • Before the haters come out and say something like, "you sound like you want to raise your daughter to be an arrogant, selfish b*tch," let me jump in and say Bravo! It's not the responsibility of girls to be self-sacrificing. I'm sick of memes and cursive fridge magnets telling me that as a woman I will find happiness when I see the people around me happy.

    Commenter
    mk.mac
    Date and time
    March 21, 2013, 8:50AM
    • +1.

      Thanks for such a fabulous article, Amy. I am tired of this judgemental society. I am also tired of we adults who judge teen girls excessively about their behaviours at certain ages. I'm absolutely positive it's because we remember what we were up to when we were that age. Pot, kettle, black. Let s/he who is without sin cast the first stone.I especially like pointing this out to those in my family who ask me about Ms Nearly 17 and her behaviours/whereabouts. She's out exploring the world, becoming independent, enjoying her youth. Leave her alone.

      Commenter
      grooviechickie
      Date and time
      March 21, 2013, 10:25AM
    • grooviechickie, people are always going to judge. Yes it is irritating, and yes it would be ideal if everyone would be more understanding and supportive. But they won't. So long as anybody has an opinion that differs from others, judgements will exist.

      The greatest thing we could possibly teach our children, both boys and girls, is that the world will be full of people who have nothing better to do than judge you, and then bestow them with the wisdom to stop caring what everybody else thinks all the time and just get on with their lives.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Date and time
      March 21, 2013, 11:21AM
  • Very impressed by your desires for your daughter. I just hope I can be that fair for mine. I want to treat her the same as my son, and not be an accidental protective toolbag.

    Commenter
    Mishoni
    Date and time
    March 21, 2013, 8:55AM
    • Having grown up during 2nd wave feminism, I watch all of my friends buy truckloads of pink things for their daughters and let them wear makeup to children's birthday parties. You can blame it on society, but in doing so we abdicate ourselves from the consequences of our choices - much of everything begins at home.

      Commenter
      morning
      Date and time
      March 21, 2013, 9:00AM
      • This is a complete distortion of Steve Biddulph's book - I'm surprised SMH would run such a misleading piece.

        Commenter
        Adriana
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 21, 2013, 9:10AM
        • I agree that this article is a complete distortion of Steve Biddulphs book. I read it recently having two daughters myself. Steve's book provides very practical advice on parenting, gives solid information and research evidence to back up his claims about the problems facing girls today. I found it very useful and informative to know what the main issues of concern are (drinking, drugs, body image, eating disorders etc) and how to discuss and tackle these problems with our daughters. I really don't think that the author of this article has actually read the book in full - perhaps they are living in a bubble where they do not think that the outside world can have influence over their daughter. Once they hit the teen years peer pressure is immense on girls and as much as we can guide and discipline, we need to be very aware of what is happening to our girls in broader society. Steve Biddulph is a world renowned parenting expert, unlike the author of this article. I think I will stick with Steve's advice!

          Commenter
          Lucy S
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 21, 2013, 11:36AM
        • Agreed. "Raising Girls" is actually pretty good.

          Sure, I don't agree with every single thing Mr Biddulph says but there is value in his work. From my reading, "Raising Girls" actually says what Ms Grey is trying to say about the value of girls taking risks and learning from failures, just with a little more insight.

          Commenter
          AlexBrown
          Location
          Brisbane
          Date and time
          March 21, 2013, 11:43AM
      • With a mum like you, your daughter should be just fine. Better than fine. She'll be awesome, and the best part is she can do it without needing to be perfect. ;)

        (And oath, anybody else feeling a bit of a Julia speech coming on in relation to Steve Biddulph? "I will NOT be lectured on feminism by this man!!")

        Commenter
        Red Pony
        Date and time
        March 21, 2013, 9:29AM
        • What's that mean, Red Pony? Have you read his stuff? He cut his teeth lecturing on the mistake of how boys are being raised to value a distorted masculinity favouring outer strength and domination.

          Commenter
          Heisenberg
          Location
          thisaggression.wordpress.com
          Date and time
          March 21, 2013, 4:47PM

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