Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body - Sara Pascoe (2016)
How Old Is Old Enough?
When I was fourteen, my mum made me join a drama club as punishment. I’d had a party in our house without permission, she was staying out with her boyfriend, David. It wasn’t even my idea – Hayley (puke not laxative) told me that if I had a party then Steadman would come and he would kiss me and I was pretty keen for this to happen because I hadn’t kissed a boy yet and I needed to, to prove I wasn’t disgusting. So I’d agreed and Hayley invited all the popular people from school (she knew them cos she shoplifted on demand) and they all turned up at my house with bottles and cans and this was a terrible, terrible idea because they hated me and completely trashed my house. They were sick everywhere – on the sofa, in the bath, someone was sick in the rabbit hutch and the rabbit ate it. A boy called Stuart decided to make a bonfire and started smashing up our chairs for firewood, and next door heard this through the walls and called the police. And when the police turned up Jo Summers went out and shouted that she was going to sue them because her dad was a barrister, and I don’t know if that was a lie but it definitely wasn’t the truth because her mum didn’t even know who her dad was. And I was just walking around feeling nauseous – not from alcohol, nobody gave me any, I was sick with regret and shame and because Hayley had got off with Steadman right in front of me.
I stayed up all night trying to tidy everything up but people had put cigarettes out on the carpet and poured cider on the sofa and there was too much for me to do. When Mum and David got home the next-door neighbours ran outside and told them what I’d done and they came into the house and Mum turned pale as she looked around and I begged her to hit me, because pain would be a relief from how guilty I felt. But she didn’t. She was furious and disappointed in me and David was waggling a fork while he shouted. And the neighbours were pleased that I was getting told off, but then they said that they ran a drama group on Wednesdays and Sundays and that they would let me be in it and that it would ‘keep me off the streets’. So it was decided – I did plays and danced around, I met nice people outside school, I gained confidence and I realised that I wanted to be famous, and now I AM FAMOUS so I haven’t even been punished. In your face, Mum, it’s too late to hit me now!
One of the things that I liked most about doing drama and being in plays outside school was that I knew people who were older. Boys who had cars and houses without parents in them. When I was fifteen and sixteen I had mates who were in their thirties and I thought it was because I was so incredibly mature and wise for my age. But when I got older, when I got to the age they were then and I imagined hanging out with a teenager, I felt completely different about it. Suddenly it was creepy. Sixteen-year-olds are babies, tiny, little – even eighteen-year-olds are so small and new – whoever even looked that young? But I can remember how grown-up I felt then, and earlier, since about nine. Because we age one way, in one direction, every age we are is the most grown-up we’ve ever been. So you don’t know, do you? When I was ten I thought I was fully formed and completely me and nothing would ever change. And I’ve continued to believe that at every age and then later on reflect and laugh at how young and wrong and naive I was before. I feel protective over a past me who was adamant she didn’t need or want protecting at the time. What I am trying to say is this: I got off with boys who were actually men, who were in their thirties, when I was in my teens and back then I thought it was a sign of great accomplishment, of sexual connoisseurship, and now I think its super-gross. Not illegal, I was not damaged by these experiences, but YUK.
Age and sex is an issue it’s difficult to be definite about. How you feel about it will depend on how old you are, whether you have children and how old they are. How your first sexual experiences affected you, whether you felt in control. Imagine if we were all on a staircase and each step was a month and I shouted, ‘Everyone stand where you think the age of consent should be’ – we’d find it difficult to settle, wouldn’t we? If sixteen is okay, what about fifteen and eleven months, and then fifteen and ten months? Fifteen and a half? But you can see you’re getting closer to twelve down there in the distance and that is definitely too low so we start stepping upwards again. ‘Some sixteen-year-olds are very immature,’ someone says. ‘There is so much sexual pressure on young people nowadays,’ says their friend. ‘Maybe there would be less teenage pregnancy if we raised the age of consent to something crazy – twenty?’ And on we go up the stairs, thinking, ‘Of course some people will still have sex earlier but maybe there would be less expectation to do it,’ and then we arrive and we’re very high up and we smile at each other and snort at how ridiculous we’re being – it’s just sex after all, just nudity and wiggly rubbing – and down we go again to argue about young people’s potential to make adult decisions versus the danger of leaving young people vulnerable to the manipulation of older people and so on all day until our thighs hurt too much to continue.
Personally I think sixteen is a perfect compromise for consent law. It’s not perfect and individuals differ greatly, some people are ‘ready’ a lot earlier, some not until years later, but most of us by sixteen are capable of making the kind of mistakes that will constitute the majority of our sex lives: fancying idiots, obsessing about the disinterested, drunken doing-it that embarrasses you forever, and so on. Of course we’re conditioned by the rules and expectations of our society so I probably think sixteen is a sensible age of consent because I live in a country that tells me so. Laws that forbid sex and marrying while forcing us to attend school create space for us to be children before the graduated slide into adulthood and its expectations. But in other countries there are different expectations; childhood ends earlier. Children may work and get married before they hit their teens, just like in the olden days in the U of K.
Here is my pretend TED talk about the first consent laws. Imagine I am wearing what you recognise as my sexiest beret and on the big screen behind me emoticons are flashing up to signify how I feel about some of the information.
SARA walks on stage. She seems nervous and is holding a pointy stick.
Hi guys, thanks for coming, thanks to Sweden for arranging this. Let’s talk about the age of consent. The first recorded law concerning age and sex was created in the UK in 1275. The legal age for marriage was twelve –
SARA points her stick at a pukey emoticon with fear in his eyes.
– and this new ruling meant that ‘ravishing’ a maiden under this age ‘with or without her consent’ was now illegal. The words to notice here are ‘ravishing’, with its connotations of passion and ‘he couldn’t help himself’ ness that have continued to confuse prosecutions of rape to the present day …
… and the significance of ‘maiden’. This first ever anti-rape law only protected virgins. The original judgements on what we would call ‘rape’ and they called ‘ravishing’ were a type of property law. A girl’s virginity was for her husband; its ‘theft’ was perceived as a crime against her father and future husband rather than herself. It was the taking of virginity that was a criminal act, not the assault itself.
SARA looks at the screen. There is a delay of a few seconds, then a poop-with-eyes emoticon appears. Light titters from the crowd.
Interestingly, because male virginity has never had any bearing on male marriageability there is no mention of ‘ravishing’ young boys. Scarily, male children in the UK were not protected by age of consent laws until the 1970s, when feminist pressure groups/heroes had the wording of statutes changed to protect ‘people’ and not just girls.
Germaine Greer giving a thumbs-up emoticon.
From 1275 up until the nineteenth century, creating doubt that a rape victim was a virgin would be sufficient to avoid a prosecution – a defence technique that echoes on in the raking-through of modern victims’ sexual history as a way of discrediting their testimony.
Sombre clapping. SARA tries to cheer everyone up a little bit by doing a cartwheel but the mood is still pretty serious.
I have to stop the TED talk now because I can’t think of any more emoticons. I don’t get them on my phone – they come up as little empty boxes.
The story of how the age of consent was raised to sixteen is pretty incredible. In 1885 there was an investigative journalist called William Stead and he went undercover to interview procuresses and the girls they bought and sold. Stead realised how easy it was to trick a young girl (or persuade a poor and desperate one) into an act of prostitution. From the male customer’s point of view a guaranteed virgin was less risky as a sex partner because she would be disease-free. Some even believed sex with virgins cured sexual diseases and sought them out for that reason. Plus we have to assume that the men found the girls’ youth and inexperience a turn-on. So the virgins were worth money and there was this whole lucrative and evil business going on – and the women who ran it, who trafficked these girls, had no sympathy for their victims whatsoever, they referred to them as ‘little fools’ or sillies’. In his account of his investigations, Stead asks one procuress, ‘Do the maids ever repent and object to be seduced when the time comes?’
Oh yes, sometimes we have no end of trouble.
You always manage it though?
Certainly. If a girl makes too much trouble, she loses her maidenhead for nothing instead of losing it for money.
She then goes on to describe the screaming and fighting of girls who have changed their minds. Girls that she has had to hold down. WHAT A NICE LADY. Stead pretends that he would like to ‘seduce’ some maidens and then meets all these girls who are completely naive. They don’t know the names for body parts or that sex can make a baby or what the old man will do to them. All they’ve been told is the amount of money they will get and to expect pain.
The most significant element of Stead’s discoveries is his demonstration that once a girl has been tricked into this first act, ‘once her ruin has been accomplished’, she is likely to prostitute herself again because she has no other choice. She can never be respectable, may never marry. Her ‘seduction’ could have created severe emotional and mental health problems. Or she might be pregnant! What he pierces so beautifully is the Victorian perception that prostitutes were bad, immoral people. He reports situations that could have happened to anyone. An Irish girl is at the left luggage office at Victoria station when a smart woman approaches, addresses her by name and asks who she is supposed to be meeting. My uncle, the girl says. He sent me to collect you, the woman informs her, then pops her in a carriage and whisks her off to a west London brothel, where six men force themselves on her throughout the afternoon. Stead outlines instances of girls being tricked into owing money for accommodation or dresses they had thought were gifts, and then pressured to sell sex to pay off the debts. Or drinks being spiked and girls waking up with the deed done. The shame surrounding sex meant that girls were punished after their assault by the attitude of the society around them.
Stead, who’d tried to get the police involved and was frustrated by their uncaring attitude, felt he needed stronger proof. So he bought a thirteen-year-old girl called Eliza Armstrong for £5 from her mother. He had her transported to a brothel and drugged with chloroform. Then he entered the bedroom and waited. When Eliza awoke, she screamed for ages and nobody came to rescue her. Stead let her do this a while and then left, allowing everyone in earshot to assume that he’d ‘seduced’ her. Eliza was then transported to the continent and protected by the Salvation Army. Stead wrote up what he’d done, showing how simple and easy it was to kidnap and potentially rape a child, and this proved to Parliament that young women were not being legally protected. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was passed and the age of consent for girls was now sixteen.
Then William Stead got sent to prison because he had kidnapped that girl. Hang on, didn’t you say he paid her mum? Yes, but he didn’t pay her dad and that’s who owned her, so he went to prison for a bit. Then a few years later he died on the Titanic. He was a cool guy, I think. I tried to look up what happened to Eliza Armstrong, but it’s difficult to find much. She seems to have had a few husbands and kids. But I want the inside story, how affected she was, whether Stead was nice to her … I want to see her on the front of That’s Life! magazine: ‘BOUGHT, SOLD and NOW THEY’VE CHANGED THE LAW’ with a picture of her looking sad but you know she got £250 for her story and that’s a lot in Victorian money.
SO sex with someone younger than sixteen becomes a crime and nobody ever does it again, except it happens all the time. And as we’ve already explored, this issue is complicated. What distinguishes a sex crime? What differentiates a sex partner and a victim? For instance, this headline is pretty incendiary:
‘Judge Blames Girl, 16, for Sex with Teacher, 44.’
In January 2015 newspapers reported on the trial of a religious education teacher who’d had sex with a sixteen-year-old pupil in a PE cupboard. He received an eighteen-month suspended sentence. The story was titillating and emotive, hence its front-page dominance; the teacher had been pursued by the girl in question, the judge called her ‘a stalker’ and said that ‘if anything it was you that groomed him’. The supposed ‘victim’ had been active. It was consensual sex that she had wanted and initiated. She had been explicit, texting and seductive; how are poor RE teachers expected to cope?
If you were the judge would you have sent him to prison?*
c) Don’t know, can I have a think about it?
d) Princess Diana face.
All of the above in that order.
The attraction of youth is sensible biology. The clichés of men leaving their wives for younger women, or middle-aged ladies seducing young waiters on holiday, make great sense for reproductive purposes. Some evolutionary psychologists argue that our ancestors would have found younger females attractive not just for their higher fertility but also because they were easier to dominate, to ensure paternity certainty. When you reverse the genders, mature females who have access to their own resources and do not need the strength or support of a co-parent can opt instead for the liveliness of young sperm. Our sexual urges are often inspired by who our body thinks is most likely to get us pregnant/be impregnated by us. But that is not to excuse any behaviours – urges and drives are separate from actions, loins are not magnetically drawn towards others against our will.
My friend Sarah† teaches GCSE English so spends her working days with fourteen-to-sixteen-year-olds. I asked her how she felt when she heard news stories about a teacher having sex with a pupil and she explained she is aware all the time that she cannot be too friendly or sociable with pupils. She doesn’t give out her phone number; she rejects friend requests on Facebook.
But are the kids flirty?
Yeah, sometimes aggressively so. I’ve heard Year 9 girls asking teachers out on dates, or getting them to promise they’ll go out with them when they’re eighteen.
And they agree?
They might joke about it but it’s the only way to get them to shut up. Girls get crushes on teachers all the time—
And how are teachers prepared for this? What’s the training?
If a kid approaches you in that way, you have to report it to the union—
But you must have big conversations about it? Seminars and conferences about the ethics, and to prepare teachers to expect it?
Not really. You are just told to report it to the union.
The idea of grown men being attracted to teenage girls is understandably distasteful so it gets ignored. But merely wishing it didn’t happen leaves young women vulnerable. The people who break the rules (and law) are seen as bad and lascivious rather than weak and average. Surely anyone working with young people has to be given a proper framework to deal with sexual feelings should they arise? There is a difference between desires and actions – I had a lovely long daydream about Terence Peterson today and that’s A-OK. But if I physically forced a man to come on a country walk with me and threatened him until he pointed out raccoons and kingfishers and then proposed to me? That would be wrong.
While I was talking to Sarah I remembered loads of horrible things I did to male teachers at school. I had a crush on a PE teacher and in the fifth year I told loads of people that I’d got off with him in the basketball cupboard. DEFINITELY nobody believed me. I was always doing things like this. I used to pretend I’d had sexual romances on holidays I hadn’t been on and gave myself love bites on the only places I could reach, my upper and lower arms. But now it strikes me that I could have got that gorgeous teacher in a lot of trouble. It has echoes of that real-life case with its PE-cupboard virginity-taking and what unsettles me is how fledgling my feelings were. They were Bambi taking his first steps. If you’d asked me at fifteen, ‘Do you really want to have sex with Mr Humphries during afternoon break?’ I would have replied adamantly that YES I DID, sign me up and take me there. It was something I desperately desired without knowing what ‘it’ was. I was completely inexperienced and unable to envisage the reality, hungry for a concept.
Aged about twelve or thirteen, I’d begun to be scared of men. I’d always hated my mum’s boyfriends, but as I became pubescent it all intensified and I couldn’t be alone with one. Even with my dad – we had to see him once a month and I was always petrified he was going to ask for sex with me and I hated him. Men vibrated oddly all of a sudden. Everyone looked at me all the time. My uncle called me Jezebel and said I would get older men into trouble. Grown men started shouting at me from cars and vans. I was flashed at several times walking home in school uniform. On a crowded tube train a man rubbed his erection on my bottom. I felt threatened and I had no way of communicating how or why. This was all ironically coupled with a period of intense self-loathing and shame. I kept a hand in front of my mouth when talking because my teeth were so disgusting; I planned to have a nose job as soon as I was eighteen. I knew I was fat and I knew I smelled and I knew my body was full of disgusting things like pus and shit and blood. I knew that if I fancied a boy at school and put a letter in their bag they thought it was insulting and were mean. I shaved my love-bitten arms and my disappointing face while fantasising that the PE teacher would make everything better by finding me beautiful.
I have lots of girl friends now (bragging) and they all went through a similar horrible phase with their fathers. The awareness of sexuality in each other is massive but unspoken. I think my dad is still weird with me. He lives in Australia now (to get away from how sexy I am?) and last year I was at the Melbourne comedy festival and he came to stay with me and I offered that he could sleep in the HUGE double bed with me and he reacted so uptightly, saying, ‘That’s a bit Greek tragedy,‡ isn’t it?’ and then he slept ON THE FLOOR. And every time I introduced him to someone the next day he would tell them this as an anecdote: ‘She wanted me in her bed and I was like, “That’s a bit Greek tragedy!” Ha ha ha.’ I didn’t think it was weird. I have slept in a bed with my mum, no problem at all, why should my dad be different? I asked him and he said, ‘Of course it’s different.’ But WHY? Because my mother doesn’t have a penis?§ We are human beings, not puzzle pieces that accidentally slot into each other. I don’t really understand it, but incest taboo is a whole other subject for a whole other book. And you’ll have to write it cos I’m busy with this one.
My adolescent fear of men did not extend to the ones in Take That. For years I emanated hot love for them constantly, like electric heat escaping from an open window, but hotter, HOTTER THAN THAT. The hours in bed before sleep were so frustrating. I would listen on a Walkman as Mark and Gary sang about how much they loved me while I became more and more alert and twitchy. I hadn’t learned to masturbate yet, so there was no relief. It was physically painful. I’ve had actual relationships with people who I loved less. My feelings were real. My plans were solid – I completely believed I would marry one of Take That because of how my parents had met. I thought it was my destiny.
Our house had a cupboard full of scrapbooks filled with Dad’s face. There were Polaroids of my mum sitting outside Nanny Babs’s house surrounded by olden-time girls in flares. To know that Mum had just picked him and then found him obsessed us. I decided that’s how I would get a boyfriend. Cheryl and I would watch Top of the Pops very expectantly, waiting for that ‘certainty feeling’ to happen, then we’d know: ‘There he is, let’s track him down!’ But we didn’t have any epiphanies so we simply selected our future husbands: Cheryl chose Robbie Williams and I chose Mark Owen, because she likes jokes and I’m scared of masculine men.
High-status individuals like Mark and Robbie are attractive because the animal, non-logical aspect to our psychology believes them to be great for breeding – they have power and access to resources, that’s the kind of shit that keeps babies safe and fed! When guys have talent or good looks there is the additional bonus of great genes that would be inherited by offspring. Subsequent children would be more likely to become high-status too and then have surviving children themselves. It’s a double win. Fancying someone is always a smokescreen for biological probability work; it might feel super-sexy, but it’s mostly bodies doing maths. Of course we’re not usually consciously aware of it, so we find reasons to explain away attraction, creating logical explanations: ‘Oh, it’s because that person is a great dancer,’ or ‘I love the way he plays guitar,’ but subconsciously our bodies are trying to get us mating with those who would make and support the finest children.
Teenage girls getting obsessive about famous people is so common it’s a cliché. I could claim it’s ‘universal’ but nothing ever completely is. Some teens may have a rare condition that causes them to believe they are a potato and thus only fancy famous potatoes? I’m sure people who grow up in nomadic jungle cultures without a TV don’t lust after pop stars – they might ache for a handsome cloud they saw or a tree with a face carved in it?¶ No matter the target, the passions of pubescent young women are understood as a phase in sexual development where feelings are explored for the first time via projection and so within a safe context. I was licking and pressing myself against posters on the wall that could not touch or press me back. It was a one-sided adventure.
These crushes are powerful, idealistic objectifications. Sometimes their object might be a teacher rather than a TV presenter or a musician. Mr Humphries was as distant and unknowable to me as Take That were.
My dad quit being in his band soon after meeting my mum. He doesn’t often talk about that part of his life, but he once told me about having girls chasing him, and the dissonance created when strangers say they ‘love’ you. It must have been weird for him to see me and Cheryl living that in the other direction. My dissonance was reversed; how could Mark not know me when I loved him so much? How could he not feel it? I know that the feelings experienced are as real as anything, it’s the target that’s fictionalised. I used to have in-depth fantasies of what would happen if I ever met Mark Owen. There were various lead-ins: he might come in to award prizes at school,|| or spot me in the crowd at a concert. Or, most likely, Take That would be driving in a limo through Romford and it would break down on Marshalls Drive, WHERE I LIVED. I would just be walking home in my school uniform and would move straight past the sleek black car, assuming some local celebrity like Frank Bruno to be inside. But then Howard gets out and asks me for directions to Manchester. I am surprised but able to hide it, pretending I don’t recognise him. It works because I am a great actor who does drama outside of school. The band are a long way from home; their limo driver needs to find a garage, which will take ages, but Howard really needs the toilet. I invite him and the rest of the band into my house.
‘Don’t worry, Mum won’t be back for ages,’ I say coolly and then show them around our two-bedroom terrace. They can’t believe how mature I am, and how down-to-earth I make them feel.
‘Beans on toast, guys?’
The band are starving and haven’t had any normal people’s food for years, but I make it for them and it is delicious. Luckily Kristyna isn’t here or she would come in and spit choc ice at them like when Steve Penfold came round. Everything is going smoothly and the guys all really fancy me and are having a respectful discussion about who is going to have sex with me. I don’t tell them I’m a virgin or anything, I just look out of the window and act older and then suggest, like it’s just occurred to me:
‘We could all get in the bath?’
This would work better if we had a Jacuzzi but we don’t. We do have a head sprayer shower attachment that we can use to swirl the water around a bit though. We could stick that on, and then I would let the ‘lads’ do whatever they wanted to me.
My fantasies were a way of testing what I could imagine letting them do. On my side it was always supplication and subjection. I would envisage acts of hurt and humiliation and reassure myself, YES, I would let Mark Owen do that, that’s how much I cared for him. I didn’t have any intention of receiving pleasure from him, other than his brief attention. Even if he wanted to do a poo on me. Or put things inside me or kick me, that would be fine because he would know that I existed, and so, for a few brief moments, I would.
I consider my teenage daydreams to be evidence of several things:
1. I had a bundle of very sexual emotions. Lust. Desire. Need for connection.
2. I did not understand those emotions yet. No concept of consensual sex or my own pleasure and how I might find it.
3. I am lucky I never met Take That.
Not because they would’ve taken advantage of me but because I would’ve embarrassed myself horribly by force-feeding them breakfast foods. I did try and meet them. I always wore my best red velvet top to concerts in an attempt to catch their eye. And then, in 1995, ROBBIE LEFT THE BAND. I considered suicide for a bit, then realised, hang on, he’s split off from the pack, he’s weaker – more vulnerable, I’ll marry him instead! I found out he was coming to LONDON to present The Big Breakfast for a week. So I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps immediately after stealing from her purse. Cheryl and I got up at 4.30 a.m. to catch the train to Stratford, where the show was filmed from 7 to 9 a.m. The other girls screamed when Robbie came out to chat and do photos, but I just stared at him, willing him to notice me like an intense, completely creepy fourteen-year-old creep. After a couple of days my mum hid her purse and banned us from going any more in case we got murdered. So I ran away to live by the canal near where The Big Breakfast was filmed. I lived there for about five, maybe six hours before it got cold and busy with potential murderers and I came home.
Such inebriating fandom is a childish rehearsal of adult feelings and can be experienced by girls as young as nine or ten. Yet admitting that children can have sexual emotions or motivations can be unsettling. Perhaps the fear is that acknowledging fledgling sexuality might excuse those who believe sex with children is morally okay. But while I would be first in the queue to protest the sexualisation of kids (padded bras for eight-year-olds and saucy slogans on six-year-olds’ knickers), it seems to me that by choosing to ignore children’s sexual development, we have not worked out what it is: play. And practice. You know how lion cubs fight and tumble with each other all the time? That’s part of the training for being an adult lion. They are building muscles and learning techniques of attack and defence. It’s cute to watch because they are small and ineffectual but displaying adult actions. They give bites that don’t hurt and scratches that don’t penetrate. And when they take on a grown lion they are tolerated or ignored. Adult lions don’t fight the cub as an equal and then claim, ‘She was jumping on me like she wanted a proper ding-dong. What’s a guy to do?’
And so we reassess the solitary educator, like the RE teacher in the news story. It’s not a crowd full of screaming fans he is faced with, but a persistent student with his phone number, annoying and fervent. And he needs to empathise with young women like her, who seem powerful and full of agency, but who are in a formative life stage and vulnerable to damage. That’s why the law must protect young people from those who have power over them. Not because their virginity is precious or because they are too young for desire, but because true consent can only be given between equals. That’s why the moves a student makes on a teacher have no bearing on his or her level of responsibility. But I think you knew that already and were waiting for me to catch up.
So far, so Anglocentric. In the UK any adult attracted to children under sixteen is called a paedophile and feared/hated/vilified/used to sell newspapers. But that is not true of all countries. Here is a map with some countries’ minimum age for sexual consent labelled – it gives a good idea of the range across the globe:
Even with only twenty or so examples you can see the huge disparity. There are also countries that have no formal age of consent law, places like Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In these countries sex is not permitted outside of wedlock, but there is no age limit on when a girl can be married.
Of course I’m biased, because I have been conditioned by my culture and society to believe that childhood is a human right. I cannot separate myself from OPINIONATED opinions that children shouldn’t work, should be able to go to school and should not be married to men three times their age. And it’s this cultural difference that prevents an effective conversation about this. Someone might argue, ‘If you live in a country where loads of your friends and relatives got married when they are thirteen or fourteen, that will seem normal to you.’ But the normalisation of child marriage doesn’t stop it causing emotional and physical injury and (sorry to be melodramatic) DEATH.
God it’s horrible – it would be easier to respect cultural differences as none of our business and not talk about child brides. I am so tempted to skip it, write about something flippant instead. I’ve got loads of stories left, I haven’t told you about the time I accidentally took speed or about this guy Ben who could only have sex to the Cheers theme tune – why would I talk about something I have no experience of? Should I be barging in, giving my unasked-for judgements on a situation I don’t understand? Then I remember I don’t care, I have the microphone, I worry about this and if I’m completely wrong then you are allowed to disagree with me in your book.**
I read about a young woman from Yemen called Najood Ali. When she was nine she was married to a man in his thirties. On their wedding night he beat and raped her, and this treatment continued for months until Najood took a taxi to the courthouse and demanded a divorce.
Yemeni law allows the marriage of children, but forbids sexual intercourse until they have reached the wonderfully vague age of ‘suitable’. Najood’s lawyer managed to successfully argue that she hadn’t, and while the judge suggested she go back and live with her family for three years until she was of appropriate age (this is a common solution granted to young girls who are badly mistreated by their husbands), Najood said no and was granted a divorce. She was ten. It was the first case of its kind, and it has strengthened the movement against child marriages in her country.
Around fifteen per cent of Yemeni girls will be married before they are fifteen years old. There is a respectful understanding between families that mature men who get married to pre-pubescent girls will not have intercourse with them until they are menstruating; however, there is little policing of this and, until Najood’s case, no blame for those men who disobey. In 2013 an eight-year-old died from uterine rupture and internal bleeding after her forty-year-old husband had sex with her on her wedding night. I think we can agree arguments about cultural conditioning weaken when children are killed by penetration. The physical damage is an unquestionable sign that their bodies are not prepared for sexual intercourse. The statistics speak for themselves. Girls aged fifteen to nineteen are twice as likely to die in childbirth as those in their twenties; girls under the age of fifteen are five times more likely to die. Giving birth as a teenager, particularly below the age of fifteen, carries an increased risk of obstetric fistula because the pelvis is smaller.
Najood Ali’s story of mistreatment is horrific but not unique. Beatings and forced sex are used to subdue and oppress young brides, who are understandably upset at their new lives. Their experience is no less traumatic for being common. What happened to Najood also illustrates the economic reasons behind child marriage. Her family were poor. By marrying her they gained a bride price and lost the expense of feeding and clothing a female child who was never going to be a financial asset. In every country in the world the worst problems faced by girls and women are connected to poverty. Studies and statistics demonstrate that the more education a female child receives, the later (on average) she will marry. Education opens up her earning potential as an adult and it is only through this process that women will have a more equal role in their societies. ‘So that’s that solved,’ say the UN, ‘thanks Sara, we didn’t realise it was so easy.’
I know they’re being sarcastic.
History shows us that morality and attitudes to sexuality evolve slowly through a process of discussion and sharing ideas. We won’t all agree, but that shouldn’t stop us talking about how we feel and listening to each other. We have to lead this. And we will confabulate and we will assume and we’ll be subjective but we mustn’t let a fear of making mistakes keep us quiet. Writing this book I’ve realised a really obvious thing, that GROWING UP DOESN’T STOP. The changes, the unrecognisable past selves – it doesn’t even slow down. I’ve learned so little. The extra years of adulthood only really gift me some resilience of experience. When I was young I didn’t realise how young I was, and now I am old and I can’t believe how childish my life is or how foolish my decisions are – like when a guy tells you he needs the Cheers soundtrack to get an erection and you still sleep with him like an idiot.
I think about what my life would be like as a mouse; it would be so much simpler and perhaps easier. But mice can’t play the trumpet.
Mice can’t write books and be grateful to their readers. And a mouse can’t be filled with hope for the future.
* Oh great, another quiz!
† Her parents could spell.
‡ You know, cos Oedipus did it with his mother. My dad is pretty clever.
¶ There she goes, insulting the very people whose habitat was destroyed for the printing of this book. (E-habitat if you’re on a Kindle.)
|| ‘Simon’ from EastEnders had done this because his dad was our head of year. Maybe one of the other heads was related to Mark? The gates were open between celebrity-land and Gaynes School.
** Congratulations on your book deal, it’s about incest if I remember rightly?