Schools urged to teach feminism

8th August 2008 at 01:00

Teachers should combat teenage girls' use of sexualised language by teaching feminism in class, an academic has recommended.

Jessica Ringrose, lecturer in the sociology of gender at the Institute of Education in London, found that schoolgirls regularly used terms such as "slut" and "whore" to describe themselves.

She conducted a series of interviews with teenage girls to study their social habits, and found that sexualised language abounded. They also boasted about being good at oral and anal sex.

Dr Ringrose said that, almost 40 years after the feminist revolution, teenage girls still define themselves according to male desire. They feel that "everything is at stake" if they do not appear sexy or feminine in the right ways.

To combat this, she said that space should be made in the curriculum to discuss feminist issues.

"Pupils shouldn't assume that we've met every target in gender equality," she said. "How, then, do you explain the way popular culture portrays women?

"We need to find a place in the curriculum to look at violence against women and sexist bullying."

Almost half of all women in Britain have experienced domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.

Lessons in feminism could also tackle popular myths about gender equality. "Girls may do better than boys in tests," said Dr Ringrose. "But it doesn't matter how they perform academically, they still don't get paid as much in the workplace. And they're faced with dilemmas about balancing home and work."

for example, a school-leaver who goes into hairdressing, a largely female profession, is paid half the salary of a classmate who becomes an electrician, an area of work still dominated by men.

Despite defining themselves according to male desire, the girls in Dr Ringrose's study understood the limits of such behaviour. Some criticised a classmate for talking about her thong whenever she passed a boy. "The boy wouldn't like her, he'd like her body," they said. "Just hearing `Oh, my thong is giving me a wedgie' doesn't give much of her personality, does it?"

Dr Ringrose said debates in class could bring up pupils' use of language, and what it implied about their identity and self-esteem.

And, while it is widely assumed that boys need male role models, she believes that it is just as vital that girls have strong female ones.

Self-assured female teachers can provide a model of femininity that contrasts with that of Paris Hilton and Christina Aguilera. Similarly, teachers can talk admiringly about positive feminist role models such as Beth Ditto, the outspoken lead singer of US band The Gossip.

"We need to reinvigorate feminism," Dr Ringrose said. "Teenage girls are struggling to find a positive identity that's not completely defined by their sexuality. Positive role models can help them find the strength to resist being sexualised by men's needs."

`Every Time She Bends Over, She Pulls Up Her Thong: Teen Girls Negotiating Discourses of Competitive, Heterosexualised Aggression' by Jessica Ringrose.

A way of asserting power over men . and each other

The study of the social habits of teenage schoolgirls by Jessica Ringrose, of the Institute of Education in London, found that many choose usernames such as "slut", "whore" and "freesex" on Bebo, the social networking site.

Daniella, 15, included the following tagline in her profile: "Hi Im Daniella And ii Like It Up The Bum Just Like Your Mum! And I Suck Dick For amp;#163;5 =]".

The girls' pages also included references to sexual practices and positions and to selling sex.

They defined their own desirability by their willingness to meet men's needs.

They carried stationery bearing the Playboy bunny, despite an awareness of its association with nude models. Marie, 16, said: "With girls it's just the bunny . It's just a good cartoon."

But Dr Ringrose found that girls needed to be careful how they played out their sexual willingness. If they crossed an invisible line, their behaviour ceased to be desirable, and became "slutty".

And, while it was acceptable to call yourself a slut, the girls did not want to be accused of sluttiness by anyone else.

The interviewees attacked a classmate because "she has got a nice figure, but, like . she shouldn't show it off to everyone".

Another classmate is described as having "a stunning figure". "That's why boys like her," an interviewee said. "She lets boys come up to her and touch her bum." This girl wins approval, however, for her ability to "stun" boys.

Dr Ringrose said: "We see that slut is also a sight of awe and identification (even fetishisation) for girls, for the power it potentially commands over men."

Terms such as "slut" and "whore" also provided a socially acceptable way to express assertiveness, aggression and rage - characteristics that are usually frowned upon in girls. It was their way of managing anger and competition.

"Girls and women are not offered space to express aggression, while boys are," Dr Ringrose said. "Everyone gets angry, but girls' anger is read as `mean' or `horrible'. As one teenager points out: `They don't say boys are mean.'"

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