Editorial - For girls, fact is more worrying than fiction

11th July 2014 at 01:00

Ever since the myth of Persephone, in which a beautiful young girl is kidnapped by her uncle, whisked off to the underworld and forced to marry him, teens have been enthralled by tales of weird relationships filled with angst and terror and explorations of life and death.

In recent times, magic, fantasy and vampires have been added to this heady mix, but for this summer's best-sellers the focus is back on life's big issues. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars (cancer) and Looking for Alaska (suicide), is this generation's Judy Blume (bullying, foster care, grief). "Realistic pain by proxy" is how one publisher describes this type of book.

Depressing as it sounds, what such fiction does is allow young people to think about complex and sometimes overwhelming issues without having to talk them through with an adult. And, as one teacher points out, this can only be a good thing: if a student started asking questions about suicide, their teacher would be obliged to report the conversation.

It has of course always been difficult being a teenager, but it's hard not to feel that today's young people are under more pressure than ever before, so any escape into fiction is no doubt a welcome one. When the average anxiety level of a Western teen would have denoted a clinical anxiety disorder in the 1950s, perhaps it's unsurprising that more than three-quarters of headteachers are reportedly worried about students' mental health.

So what better than a holiday to relieve some of that stress now the exams are over. Older students will be taking their first trip abroad without parents and one thing you can be sure of is that it won't be just a good book they will be indulging in. It's during this rite of passage that many will succumb to the temptations of drink and sex, with the first usually obscuring any memory of the second. And in the vast majority of cases, little long-term damage is done.

Unfortunately for young women, social media, the internet, mobile phones and an insidious new misogyny are changing all that. This is, they are told, a post-feminist world, in which battles for equality have been won. But the dismantled shackles of the past have been refashioned into subtle, more sinister chains. Revenge porn (posting explicit images of former partners online without consent) and slutshaming (in which women are publicly criticised for transgressing "accepted" codes of sexual conduct) are the new controls used to keep them in their place.

The recent story about a viral video of an inebriated 18-year-old woman in a Magaluf nightclub performing sex acts in return for a cocktail is shocking (as was that of her predecessor "Slane Girl") and a cause for concern for teachers and parents. But it is not a story about a collapse in the morality of young people. It is simply one of abuse - by the club that organised the event, by the bystanders who encouraged instead of intervening and by those who filmed the event and posted it online.

We have recently witnessed the trials of historical abusers and tormented ourselves as to why we, as a society, didn't do more to protect children and vulnerable young women in the 1970s and 80s. If we do not tackle these new problems swiftly and firmly, in 30 years' time we may well be asking the same question again.



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