Petronella Wyatt is wrong about teenage "temptresses"
Our guest blog today is by Mumsnet Blogger Glosswitch, who writes in response to an article by Petronella Wyatt in yesterday's Daily Mail.
Wyatt says that, as a teenage girl, she was regularly propositioned by her father's male friends. But she pours scorn on the idea that their behaviour was in any way abusive - claiming, in fact, that it's 'predatory and precocious' girls who deserve our censure.
There's nothing like a bit of Biblical misogyny to reinforce the modern-day variety, showing all of us just how far we haven't come. Take, for instance, the idea of woman (or even better, girl) as Temptress. In 2013, should it be at all surprising to find a piece in the national press that recommends criminalizing, not predatory adult males, but their female, teenage victims?
It should, of course. But when self-described former "upper-class Lolita" Petronella Wyatt tells the Mail that "it is often precocious and predatory girls who should be arrested, and not the men who show an opportunistic interest in them", I'm somehow not even shocked.
"After all," writes Wyatt, looking back on all the times when her teenage self was groped by the likes of Oliver Reed, Robin Day and other big names, "it was Eve who tempted Adam." Yes, of course, Petronella. All the same, I think even God couldn't have imagined a punishment so terrible as the existence of Femail and pieces such as yours.
As a teenager (and since), I too have been subject to unwanted sexual advances of varying levels of seriousness. I suspect most women have. Most of us, though, aren't able to present this as just one of the perils of hobnobbing with the rich and famous. I don't know why, but once you take away the glitz, the whole thing starts to appear much more sordid and abusive. It's not lithe, lissom ladies, confident in their beauty, merrily manipulating poor little ineffective would-be rapists. Life is not one big re-run of The Benny Hill Show and even if it was, that joke just isn't funny anymore (and it never really was).
Following the Daily Mail tradition of encouraging us to drool over young girls' bodies while hating them for "making us" do it, Wyatt presents teenage girls as powerful and manipulative, having the opportunity to lead men on before cruelly dropping them . She also shrugs off any damage done to young minds and bodies with the reasoning that it didn't do her any harm:
"In the scheme of things, a grope or a fondle is hardly worthy of legal censure, yet has come to be regarded as akin to attempted murder. Sexual overtures to a young person who has not yet reached puberty are, of course, unforgivable in a civilised society. But never once was I subjected to physical force, intimidation or child abuse."
While I have no desire for Wyatt to experience distress that she may, genuinely, never have felt, her flippancy and "I'm alright, Jack" attitude astound me. It's not just that she is merely lucky never have to experienced that which she considers to be "proper" abuse, nor even that she willfully exaggerates how seriously we now take victims of "a grope or a fondle" (words far too pathetic and weak to describe the sense of violation they can provoke). It's that she makes teenage girls culpable for the actions of adult men, using logic that would delight the average rape apologist (not that Wyatt is a rape apologist – to her, groping is fine whereas rape is presumably just not "civilised").
These days teenage girls find themselves caught between the puritanical hand-wringing of those decrying "premature sexualisation" and the condemnation of those who see the natural sexual curiosity of adolescents as a justification for abuse. But teenage girls are neither passive sexual objects nor manipulative she-devils; they're living, thinking human beings who deserve respect. In Wyatt's view, it's as though the teenage girl occupies an interim world, in which her lack of experience, changing body shape and own interest in sex make her fair game for any man who happens to find her attractive. Don't touch the kids, hands off the women, but teenage girls? Go forth, gentlemen. After all, they don't know any better (it's also a good idea to get them inebriated; Wyatt describes one "admirer" who'd encourage her to drink "because, he said, I was more pliable when I was drunk").
I don't want to speculate on issues than may or may not lie beneath the surface of Wyatt's defensiveness. Some of the comments on the Mail website have an air of "well, she would say that, wouldn't she? She's damaged goods". I think Wyatt is wrong, but not because she can be written off as a hysterical woman. I think she's wrong because she's written something which is thoughtless, misanthropic and complicit in the promotion of rape culture. She doesn't like girls – manipulative little hussies – and she doesn't like men, either – weak, hormone-driven buffoons. She doesn't seem to believe that girls can be given the time and space to grow up with positive attitudes towards themselves as active sexual beings, nor that men can have enough respect for themselves and others not to prey on those who won't be sure how to respond to them. What a grim view of humanity! And I thought sex was meant to be fun.
As a mother of boys and the partner of a man, I don't have such a fatalistic view of masculinity. As an ex-thirteen-year-old girl, I feel no shame in admitting that, given half the chance, I would have been out there "leading on" Morten Harket and it would still have been his responsibility to say no (regardless of how irresistible he found my C&A Clockhouse attire). What's more, as a feminist, I wonder where the hell people got the idea that we're the ones who hate men and sex. Male or female, we're all people – and we're all capable of treating each other with kindness, empathy and the implicit recognition that everyone's body is their own.