Teenage girls need the space to explore their sexuality and adult men must stop exploiting them (The Independent)

In the last few months alone we’ve seen Simon Danczuk’s sexts to a teenage job applicantpanics about websites such as sugardaddy.com, and difficult conversations about groupie culture.

It is always the same characters: a young girl and an older man.

The response to each of these situations has been equally predictable in its simplicity. With the world at large appointed the arbiters of teenage girls’ respectability, it is unsurprising that we so eagerly lap up news splashes which entangle them in irresponsibly termed ‘sex scandals’.

On the one hand you can view girls as meek and innocent, erasing any agency or emerging sexuality and framing them as fodder for subordination by a more powerful man.

On the other you can see them as dangerous and seductive, absolving all responsibility from any bumbling old man who falls prey to their wily charms.

Take, for example, the 13-year-old embroiled in the Doug Richards trial, which ended last week with a not guilty verdict. Richards’ defence was that he had reasonably believed her claim that she was over the age of consent. We are now to view her no longer as an exploited 13 year old, but as a deceitful temptress tricking respectable adult men into bed.

Or, the 17-year-old who exchanged a series of explicit texts with Labour MP Simon Danczuk, after she asked him for a job as a case worker in his constituency office. Newspapers pointed out that the teenager in question had worked as a dominatrix in the past.

What both victim-blaming and moral panics lack is a crucial engagement with power and how it operates in a highly unequal society.  Young women bear the brunt of a system skewed against them socially, economically and politically.

Teenage girls should be allowed to engage with their sexuality but this should happen safely and freely.

Acknowledging power presents another option – one where we don’t demonise teenage girls for exploring their sexuality, but where we do expect adult men not to take advantage of it.

Respecting the agency of teenage girls requires us to place the responsibility firmly with the adult. Perhaps most challenging of all, it asks us to value girls and women as equal members of society.

It may seem preposterous that this isn’t our default position already, but in a society suffering from deeply entrenched gender inequalities it is perhaps unsurprising. Young girls and women should be allowed to explore their sexuality freely and safely. And older men should be able to control themselves.

Originally published on The Independent.

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