Pressure on teen girls to be sexually active is intrusive, unfair and damaging

SO, you’re a girl, and a virgin.

Welcome to social and cultural intrusion, adult pressure, peer pressure, internal pressure (all those hormones) and legal pressure (don’t do it before you’re 16, or you’re in trouble).

Do it and it might end up on the internet — not the actual event (although anything is possible), but the knowledge that you have finally had sex.

Probably not the greatest sex, either — anyone who says their first time was fantastic is either lucky, or lying — but with the added possibility of your status from virgin to non-virgin going viral, it’s hardly the moment of love’s young dream marketed to you in fairytales.

This does not happen to boys. The assumption is that boys get rid of their virginity as soon as they can, in a straightforward, if endearingly inept, manner. Girls are not allowed to do this. Our culture cannot cope with this idea. Thankfully, a new wave of young women is rebutting this expectation, and writing — frankly, honestly, openly — about girls and sex.

Journalist Radhika Sanghani, 24, has just published her first book, Virgin, which is fearlessly frank and funny, and tackles the nitty gritty of sexual exploration.

“Boy’s virginity is covered a lot in culture — think of movies like American Pie,” she says. “The message is that it’s very uncool to be a virgin in your late teens, if you’re a boy. Nobody acknowledges that girls have a similar pressure.

“There is an expectation to be sexually active, especially once you’re at university. There’s still an old-fashioned idea that girls want candles and mix-tapes romance — whereas, actually, what girls often just want is sex.”

And previous generations didn’t have to contend with social media.

She tells me an anecdote so frustrating I want to scream: “Social media intensified the pressure, especially on younger girls. I spoke to one 16-year-old girl who regularly has Brazilian waxes, because she said that if anyone found out she had pubes, it would be all over Facebook and her social life would be ruined.

“In an environment where girls’ appearances must be impeccable in order to be attractive [fuelled by the influence of women’s magazines, television, film etc], and if your appearance is not impeccable, then this may make you feel insecure.”

Of social media pressure, she says: “There’s also a trend for couples-selfies — one hashtag is #After Sex Selfies of couples’ faces. Trends like these are all over social media and if you are not actively involved, then you feel alienated.”

And, yet, if you do have sex and enjoy it you are seen as fair game: “It’s really important not to slut-shame,” says Sanghani, who recently wrote about how both Marianne Faithfull and Jacqueline Bisset criticised Rhianna and Miley Cyrus as ‘sluts’.

Pressure on teen girls to be sexually active is intrusive, unfair and damaging

“Twenty-first century girls today don’t deserve to be labelled ‘rubbishy sluts’ or chastised for being ‘obvious’. All they’re doing is acting naturally, in just the same way that Bisset and Faithfull probably did. Dressing sexually is just what teen girls do. They’re at the mercy of puberty, following the demands of their red-hot hormones,” she wrote.

Yet role models continue to walk a fine line. “Older teens might see Rhianna or Miley Cyrus as successful performers and business models celebrating their bodies, while younger teens might think that in order to be attractive you need to take your clothes off,” she says.

While every generation freaks out about the next one — Elvis was too sexual, Madonna was too sexual, now Miley and Rhianna are too sexual — perhaps the latter are not ideal role models for younger girls. However, instead of worrying about twerking (which, by the way, Miley says is — ahem — all behind her these days), perhaps we should be looking more at male role models for young boys.

Pressure on teen girls to be sexually active is intrusive, unfair and damaging

The former Sheffield United player, Ched Evans, just out of jail after serving half a five-year rape sentence, is being considered for his old job.

Which would mean young boys could have a poster of a convicted rapist on their bedroom walls as a football hero. Yet, we are too busy worrying about what Rhianna isn’t wearing.

“We live in a culture that is obsessed with the female body and female sexuality,” says Irish writer, Louise O’Neill, author of Only Ever Yours.

“It seems to me that women are encouraged to look and dress in a sexual manner, but if they are to act upon their own sexual urges, they risk condemnation.

“There is still a double standard, a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude that excuses young men for having a lot of sexual partners, while women who do similarly are called whores.

“The fetishisation of female virginity, and, in contrast, the demonisation of male virginity, only exasperates this problem. Young men are encouraged to lose their virginity as quickly as they can, to man-up.

“This enforced masculinity and macho culture is just as harmful to young men as to women, allowing them little space to be themselves, or to develop their sexual identities at an individual pace.”

Nor has anybody been talking about female masturbation, at least not until Caitlin Moran.

“Teenage girls learning to explore their bodies should be viewed in the same starkly simple terms as teenage boys,” write Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, in The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide To The Media. “And yet the issue is cloaked not only in a scary amount of complexity, but also with a certain gross-out cringey vibe that women feel long into adulthood.”

Why is masturbation normalised for boys, but not for girls?

Meanwhile, when you are female, transitioning from child to adolescent, writes Moran in How To Be A Woman, is “a bit like becoming famous….from being benevolently ignored — the baseline existence of most children — a teenage girl is suddenly fascinating to others, and gets bombarded with questions: ‘What size are you’? ‘Have you done it yet’? ‘Will you have sex with me’? ‘Have you got ID’? ‘Do you want a puff of this’? ‘Are you seeing anyone’? ‘Have you got protection’? ‘What’s your signature style’? ‘Can you walk in heels’? ‘Are you getting a Brazilian’? ‘What porn do you like’? ‘Do you want to get married’? ‘When are you going to have kids’? ‘Are you a feminist’? ‘Were you just flirting with that man’? ‘What do you want to do’? ‘WHO ARE YOU’?”

Teenage boys don’t suffer this level of intrusion — at least not at a mass-cultural level.

In equal measure, we over-police and perv over teenage girls, obsessed with preserving what society has long prized — the intact hymen. Irrespective of the human being attached.

In some cultures, this hymen is regarded as more important than the actual life of its female owner — see ‘honour’ killings.

Meanwhile, most teenage girls — like teenage boys — just want to get on with it. Yet they have all this cultural baggage to climb over, all this social expectation to wade through.

We could start by bringing them up to be confident, self-assured, and comfortable with their bodies. Then we need to back off, shut up, and leave girls to be themselves.


Sarah Craig, 18, Co Louth

“I’m in two minds about what Rhianna and Miley do on stage. On the one hand, I see them as independent women with their own brand at the peak of their careers. But on the other hand, I am aware that a producer and a record company, dominated by white males, has created that image.

“These women are objectifying themselves and everything is down to their image.”

She believes their on-stage antics put older teens under pressure to behave in an more overtly sexual way. “In the nightclubs girls don’t leave anything to the imagination and it’s sad,” she says.

Their raunchy performances contrast sharply with the work of young actress Emma Waston’s He for She Campaign. “It looks to raise awareness of sexual and physical violence against women. But the images that Miley and Rhianna portray almost undo all of the work being done by such campaigns.”

Laura Gaynor, 19, Co Sligo

“When I first saw Miley at the VMA awards I was really judgemental. I thought it was totally inappropriate and she shouldn’t be on TV. But when I sat down and thought about it, I saw it as really important for young women to push the boundaries. I realised she is her own person and it’s not my place to judge her. That judgement comes from growing up in a country where old-fashioned views [are still present]. It’s up to us to question what is appropriate.”

Parents need to keep their children safe online, she says, but they need to be open minded, too.

“It’s important for parents to see all sides of the spectrum. It’s appropriate not to show a six-year-old sexualised images but when it’s a 14 or 16 year-old, then constantly turning off the TV is not necessarily a good idea. It encourages repression — it’s better to talk about things in the open.

“We need to push the message out — just because someone dresses in a certain way that they deserve to be assaulted or threatened by men in a certain way.”

She believes we should “lighten up” about the twerking incident. “I see people of all ages doing it — it’s not such a big deal,” she says. “In a year’s time people will look back and ask: ‘What was all the fuss about?’. The fact that it gets people talking is a good thing.”

Joanna Siewierska, 17, Dublin

“I wouldn’t treat Miley or Rhianna as role models. For a lot of people my age this isn’t the reality. But I wonder about younger children aged nine or 10 watching Miley singing Wrecking Ball on the TV?”

She says it’s important for parents and the education system to “point girls in the right direction”.

Instant access to the internet has a significant role to play, she believes.

“I didn’t have a smart phone when I was younger — now 11 or 12 year-olds have one. They are fantastic for communication but I’m not sure how I would have coped looking at celebs walking around in skimpy clothes.”

“I know for the stars it’s comedy, it’s satirising their image, but do you think kids know this?

“I’m lucky that my friends — male and female — don’t put pressure on me to look a certain way. On a special occasion there’s nothing wrong with showing a bit of skin when going to a concert or to the beach but we shouldn’t feel the pressure to be always sexy or wearing perfect make-up.”

On-stage antics put older teens under pressure. In the nightclubs girls don’t leave anything to the imagination


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