Stocksy. Photo: Stocksy
Over the past week, I had the very great privilege of being invited to speak to girls in Melbourne and Sydney at 'Girls Write Up'. In its inaugural year, the day long event is the brainchild of the marvellous women at the Stella Schools Program and brings together girls between the ages of 12-18 to learn from women writers working across a broad spectrum of mediums.
Although I was commissioned to deliver a workshop teaching girls how to 'write from the heart', it was I who left feeling invigorated and inspired. Australia's young women have so much to say - we just have to take the time to sit down and ask them what they want us to hear. During the course of the day, we explored some of the things they were passionate about - things like refugee advocacy, disability activism, online bullying, sexual objectification, and the difficulty in figuring out who you are and who you want to be.
Many of them expressed frustration at the treatment they received whenever they did speak up about their passions, particularly when those passions were feminist in nature. Most seemed familiar with the impulse to quietly remove yourself from public interactions after having suffered one too many comments about their looks, their value and their intellectual capabilities.
Unfortunately, these girls are learning early one of the core lessons of the online world - if you're a woman, especially one with an opinion, abuse is par for the course. The nature and scale of that abuse increases depending on what it is you write or speak about, but it generally always falls back on simplistic attacks about your looks, sexual currency and so-called 'feminine' attributes. With the exception of the very real (and, sadly, very common) threats of violence that become part of the backdrop of your working day, most of these insults are laughable. That men (and it is almost always men) think the easiest way to destroy a woman is to call her some combination of 'fat', 'ugly' and 'unfuckable' is symptomatic of their belief that women only exist as manifestations of male desire: "I am objectified, therefore I am."
But one of the funniest accusations levelled at women is the one which mocks us as being 'attention seekers' whenever we speak out on issues we're politically passionate about. When I posted a topless photo of myself in protest of victim blaming attitudes on Channel Seven's Sunrise program, in amongst all the unsolicited dick pics and comments about how gross my breasts were came the inevitable comments about how I was nothing more than an 'attention seeker' just looking for my 'fifteen minutes of fame'. It's interesting how many people are so practised at associating femaleness with vapidity that they cannot compute a woman's political or social activism could have any kind of integrity beyond the desire to have people pay attention to them.
Even more interesting are the perceptions held around women and the kind of attention we are entitled to seek. We are not allowed to want attention for the things we care about on our own terms - but at the same time, we're also told we have to accept attention for the things we don't want. Complaints about street harassment or unwanted conversation with men who won't leave us alone are overwhelmingly met with derision or even hostility. We're told that these are just 'compliments' and that we should be 'flattered'. We're chided for not giving men a chance to get to know us, because how can the human race survive if men can't approach strange women on the street or yell obscenities at us from car windows?
This is just one of the many frustrating contradictions forced onto girls and women: we aren't allowed to seek attention for the things we care about because that's egotistical and arrogant, but we have to accept attention we don't want because rejecting it means we're up ourselves. In both cases, this 'attention' is controlled by everyone who isn't us and we just have to suck it up and accept what we get. And what does this result in? An overwhelming number of girls who not only question their right to speak up but also doubt their right to say no.
I want to disrupt this impulse to silence our young girls while telling them they have no right to autonomy over their bodies. I spent years staying silent about things I cared about because I didn't believe I was entitled to speak up. And I spent years accepting intrusive, creepy attention I didn't want, because I had learned that I wasn't allowed to say no. I know how much it hurts to have all power taken out of your hands and given to people who don't care about what you have to say, especially not when it involves telling them to leave you alone.
This is what I said to those young women at Girls Write Up: I want all of you to go out into the world and become huge, strident, passionate attention seekers. Don't be afraid to be the smart young women you know you are. You are all valuable and important, and what you have to say matters. You matter. You have just as much right as anybody else to demand attention for the things you care about, and you have just as much right as anybody else to reject attention that you didn't ask for.
We should be proud of young women for standing up for what they believe in. Let them be attention seekers. Let them know they're worth it. Because they bloody well are.