In October, I’ll say goodbye to my Girls Out Loud mentee.
Mentee sounds quite formal, but it doesn’t feel formal. Mentee sounds professional and distanced, and we spend loads of time looking at Dogs on Instagram. It’s a little more relaxed.
There’s a special tie between us, knotted with a thin thread that we’ve spent time weaving since our first session. At first that thread was fragile, held loosely, both of us convinced the other might drop their end at any moment.
Now that thread is really strong. We both have tight hold.
So I’m sad that in a matter of weeks I’ll be voluntarily letting go of it.
She’ll be fine. She’s tough. She’ll let go with a sassy flip of the hair, setting her shoulders back the way she does when she’s being brave. But I can’t help worrying. It’s Year 9 next. I remember Year 9. Year 9 is when shit gets real.
Lately she’s been talking about boys and boyfriends. At the beginning of the year boys were annoying and disgusting. Now they make her cheeks blush.
She’s had a year of support from Girls Out Loud, and GOL Girls take no prisoners. But despite that, and knowing I’ve done all I can to prepare her for the cluster bomb of feelings coming her way, I do worry.
Year 9 could spell her first broken heart. Gah, I remember it. The first cut is the deepest. Damn you, David. He dumped me in the middle of the footy pitch. Everyone saw.
We didn’t have smartphones then. But her iPhone never leaves her hand.
Maybe, given what Girls Out Loud has seen and heard before, and looking at research like this, she’ll get her first unsolicited “dick pic”. She might be asked to send a naked picture of herself. She might find herself alone with a boy at a party, a first kiss. It might be exciting and joyful and a memory that she’ll remember with a smile when she’s ‘old’. (I’m 31, and ‘old’, according to her).
It could be disappointing. It might not have been what she’d wanted. Worse, she may have an experience like that with a boy that she doesn’t like. Uninvited. All of that, without our little thread.
I’m worried because I sat next to my ‘Little Sister’ in our “Girl Code” session and listened to her say: “if a boy wants to have sex with you, and you say no, he might hit you.” She said that like it was normal. Like that’s just the way it is. One or two others solemnly nodded. The rest, thank god, were quick to lambast that sort of behaviour.
I’m glad she said it. We got the chance to discuss why that should never happen, and what to do if it does. What happens when there’s no safe space provided for girls to say this stuff? To hear it discussed and corrected, gently, but assertively, by women they look up to? They might have missed Maths that day but I think they all learned something more valuable than long division (or, whatever, I was in bottom set).
I’m worried because one of the other girls piped up: “we’ve not had any sex education since year 6.” I don’t know if that’s correct. Teachers tell me it shouldn’t be. Can’t be. Because that would mean the last time anyone talked to my Year 8 ‘Little Sister’ about sex was in primary school.
Even if that girl is wrong, even if she’s had more sex ed but forgotten (though the rest agreed with her) – it clearly didn’t resonate. She didn’t remember it. None of them did. I’m worried because none of the girls on our table could tell us what “consent” meant. Not even that they’ve not understood the word: that they’d not really got the concept. Which is such an important one. Not just for sexual relationships, but any relationship.
I’m worried because since my Little Sister says she last had sex education, “Me Too” has happened. It’s happened massively, globally. She can’t have missed the hashtag. But she’s missed its meaning. Nobody has told her about saying no. Not really. Not well enough for her to think she can, without imagining she might get hit. I was amazed that fear is still the first language of sex ed.
I could tell from the conversation around the table that attitude toward young women and their one day sex lives hasn’t changed much. It’ll hurt. Only do it when you’re able to deal with the consequence of a baby. Once it’s done there’s no going back. That’s it. You’ve given it away – the one treasure you had as a woman, gone.
We’re still using language devoid of words like love or pleasure. Sexy. Fun. Kind. Respectful. A majority of Brits support being taught about orgasms in school sex ed. But the idea of enjoying sexuality made all the girls on our table visibly shrink down into their blazers. They’d rather talk about STDs than that. Of course, I’m not saying anyone should encourage anybody to lose their virginity. Or get into relationships. Or to even be interested in sex. Especially, of course, those under the age of consent. It’s a fine line, and I’m not for one minute suggesting we climb up on the dining hall tables and shout SEX IS GREAT, GIRLS! Give it a go! Not at all.
But the truth is many will give it a go, soon. Or they will soon after that. They might not have done had they had space to talk and think about their decisions. And when they do, some are doing so without any knowledge other than what they’ve done is “bad”, slutty, shameful. And when they do get into relationships, or what they think are relationships, it appears they do so without knowledge of how to be safe. Some of the girls on our table didn’t know what the word contraception meant. In 2019. I know that’s a big sciencey sounding word, but we pressed them, rephrased it… What sort of things can you do stop pregnancy or STDS? Some of them muttered something about ‘the pill’ and condoms. There were shrugs at injections or coils – other options. That’s not enough. That’s not informed. We’re talking about putting hormones in your body. Hormones that change how your body works, how your emotions work. Viruses that stick around for life. We’re teaching them about molecules and atoms, they’re not too young to get this stuff. And it isn’t just ‘use a condom’. It’s teaching girls to feel they have a right to stop in the heat of the moment and request a condom is used. And, as Caitlin Moran so fabulously puts it in How to be Famous: to “gather your dignity around you like a fur coat”, and to get up and leave if that request is not respected.
Where is the conversation about what makes someone worthy of their time?
We spent a good chunk of time discussing what happens if a boy asks them to have sex because he’s fed up of waiting. This question sparked the most discussion. It was like a terrible episode of The Moral Maze on Radio 4 (I’m an old 31). They went on and on about how they might put it to him kindly that they’d rather not be pressured into that, thanks. Maybe another time. One of the girls casually looked up from her phone and said “That’s easy. Bin him off.” I almost high fived her but then remembered that probably wasn’t cool. And this is just the girls. What are the boys being taught? Equally vulnerable to pressure. Equally misinformed? I can’t imagine they’ve fared much better.
My Little Sister has a crush. They’ve been texting. She’s pretty sure she’s in there, because “nobody else fancies him”. Which I always think is good criteria for finding a suitable partner.
It’s the summer holidays, so we’ve not met in a while. I wonder how her romance is going. I hope when they’re texting she feels a little tug on that thread. I hope she remembers what we’ve discussed. That she holds those words tightly: consent, respect, and empowerment.
So when I’m not there, when the thread’s been cut, she remembers. She becomes her own mentor. Maybe she can be a mentor for others. The ones that were stuck in Maths, perhaps.