LOUISE O'NEILL: Virginity has been framed as something a girl must safeguard and hold on to as long as possible

Girls need to understand that sex is normal and natural, not something that needs to be contained to protect their reputation.

While both of my novels explore the impact that living in a patriarchal society can have upon the mental health of young women, it was when I began to speak publicly about my decision to write Asking For It, a novel that deals with the rape of a young woman in a small Irish town and the subsequent use of social media to circulate images of the attack, that I started to receive emails and letters from mothers of teenage daughters.

They would ask me how best to protect their daughters and their anxiety was palpable. 

Their daughters were posting too many selfies on Instagram, they told me, their skirts were too short, tops too low-cut; these young girls were behaving in ways that didn’t seem ‘ladylike’ to their frantic parents.

In the beginning I sympathised, aware that parenting a teenage girl in a culture which is constantly sexualising women (usually without their consent) must be incredibly difficult, but I began to feel increasingly uneasy. 

There seemed to be an undercurrent of fear of their burgeoning sexuality that I would wager was not extended to their teenage sons.

This heightened worry concerning female sexuality is not a new phenomenon; it is something that is enshrined into the very roots of Christianity.

Eve, the very first woman, yearned for that which she could not have, succumbing to temptation in the form of a snake (how very phallic!) and leads poor, innocent Adam astray as well. 

We are taught to believe that all humans were cast out of heaven and now bear this Original Sin as a result of a misbehaved woman being unable to control her desires.

The subsequent attempts by the Catholic Church to control and repress female sexuality have shaped the history of this country in insidious ways; words like the ‘Magdalene Laundries’, ‘Tuam Babies’ and “Mother and Baby Homes” rolling off our tongues with a shudder at the horrors they epitomise.

Irish women were seen in two categories — the ‘good girls’ who waited for marriage, who saw sex as a duty to their husbands and a necessary evil to produce children, and the ‘bad girls’ who gave into carnal lust and who were subsequently punished for their transgressions.

The men in question, of course, were never reprimanded — boys will be boys, after all.

While it would appear that we have left that archaic way of viewing men and women in the past, every so often a case will appear in the media that makes clear that is not the case. 

The Slane Girl and The Magaluf Girl were two perfect examples of this in recent times, with the respective girls being vilified for failing to control their rampant sexuality and mocked for daring to appear to actively want sex.

While we all might agree that the said sexual acts might have been better performed in private, it’s interesting to see the disparity between how the men and the women involved were treated. 

It is the Slane Girl, not the Slane Boy. We don’t know anything about him, all we remember is her eager mouth, down on her knees, looking for trouble.

David Carey, psychologist and previous Coordinator of Special Education and Programme Development at the Froebel College of Education, told me that “the double standard has been around for ages, and is, in modern times, cemented by fear of dangers and damage to women and girls. These perceptions are difficult to erase.

“Think about it, we don’t post photos of our teenage daughters in swimsuits on Facebook but we have no difficulty doing the same with photos of our sons. In general, our society views women and girls through a different lens.”

Adolescence is a confusing time for both boys and girls. It is a time of testing your boundaries, of figuring out who you are as a person. 

Exploring your sexuality is a big part of that, and is something that both teenage girls and boys should be encouraged to do in a healthy, honest way. 

For too long, virginity has been framed as something that a girl must safeguard and hold on to for as long as possible.

Parents, worried about a young woman being labelled as promiscuous or becoming pregnant during her teens, often try and police their daughters in a way they don’t with their sons. 

I spoke to Dr. Carla Stokes, one of the leading motivational speakers for young women in the USA about this and her response was illuminating. 

“I have observed that there is fine line between well-intentioned concerns about the sexualisation of girls and respectability politics, policing girls’ bodies, and adults imposing sexuality and double standards on girls,” Stokes said. 

“If a girl posts a photo of herself wearing a bikini, it could mean that she has internalised the pressure to be sexy and wants to get “likes” or affirm that she fits into societal standards of beauty, or perhaps she is simply posting a photo of herself enjoying the beach..... 

"It’s important that educators, parents and concerned adults communicate openly, honestly and non-judgmentally with girls and boys about their bodies and sexuality. 

"If we’re not careful, adults can inadvertently teach girls that their bodies are inherently shameful, dangerous or threatening, which can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other harmful outcomes. 

"In addition, harmful societal messages about gender roles teach boys and girls that girls are to blame when men and boys are disrespectful, aggressive or violent towards women and girls.”

Instead of heaping blame onto our young women, it might be more useful to look at how we have become so obsessed with female sexuality, or why we see it as some harmful entity that threatens to overwhelm our society.

I would argue that it is time for us to allow teenage girls a safe space to explore their own desires and to help them understand that sex is normal and natural, not something that needs to be contained to protect their reputation.


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