To take at face value the idea that children can be “trapped in the wrong body” you have to view these kids as living in a bubble which no cultural messages or parental or peer group influences can penetrate, and upon which no life experience has any impact. This leaves “trans kids” very vulnerable to an essentialist theory which denies them a holistic approach to care and treatment.
If we accept that the only reason a girl says “I’m a boy” is because she really is one, it absolves us of any responsibility to examine that statement within the wider context of a girl’s life experiences and influences. It means we’re not obliged to look at the culture within which our girls are growing up in the UK; we can assume that girls are happily immune to any harmful cultural messages and experiences. We need not ask the question “Why do so many teenage girls not want to become women?”
We can’t make a simplistic causal relationship between the background culture and the rise in any phenomenon, but if we refuse to look at the culture we can’t see the direct influences on kids through the media and especially on social media platforms such as Tumblr and Reddit, and we miss what is anecdotally the typical pattern for adolescent girls to “come out” as transgender after bingeing on these sites.
Neither can we see the the wider cultural context of indirect influences which may lead girls to be more susceptible to the idea that they are really boys in the first place.
According to parents’ accounts, a significant number of the girls visiting those social media sites have initially declared themselves to be lesbians, or the parents suspect it. Internalised lesbophobia would not be a surprising result of living in a society which either sexually fetishises or denigrates lesbians. Lesbophobia is rooted in the same background cultural attitudes towards all women and really needs to be examined as a distinct category of hate crime, differentiated from the blanket term ‘homophobia.’
A picture of the background culture within which teenage girls find themselves growing up as they negotiate the journey from girlhood to womanhood has recently been starkly exposed in a slew of media reports. The picture looks bleak.
Back in August, the Annual Crime Survey of England and Wales reported that 11% of women had been sexually assaulted in childhood (this is not to minimise the figure of 3% for men which is also significant but not the subject of this post), a figure described by Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan, as “utterly staggering.”
In September, a Freedom of Information request by BBC Radio 5 Live revealed that more than 5,500 alleged sex offences in UK schools have been reported to the police in the past three years, a figure described by Chief constable Simon Bailey, head of child protection at the National Police Chiefs Council, as “the tip of the iceberg.”
Subsequently the government published its report on sexual harassment and violence in schools, finding that:
• almost a third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school
• nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16-18 year old boys and girls say they hear terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at schools on a regular basis
• 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year
Also in September, the NHS inquiry into the state of mental health in England found that 12.6% of women aged 16-24 screen positive for PTSD, 19.7% self-harm and 28.2% have a mental health condition.
On to October, and Girlguiding UK published its annual Girls Attitudes Survey, which reported a five-year decline in girls’ body confidence. Almost 40% of girls aged seven to 21 do not feel happy with how they look in 2016, compared with 27% in 2011.
“From as young as seven, girls feel the impact of daily sexist images of women and girls in the media, online and around them. Girls tell us that sexist objectification of women in the media makes them feel disempowered and that gender stereotypes make them feel that their gender will hold them back in life. They tell us they have to confront intense and unobtainable appearance pressures to be perfect and many say they feel they’re not good enough. Girls tell us that because of abuse online they don’t feel able to have a voice on the things they care about. They think sexism is worse online and girls are being sent unwanted sexualised images and videos. Girls also tell us they don’t feel safe to go where they want and face harassment from boys when they are out and about. Girls are changing their own behaviour to avoid being harassed or intimidated.”
Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project reported on the survey, adding a heartbreaking account of her own work with girls in schools.
“Even at the age of just 12 or 13, girls already know that we live in a world where women are judged, first and foremost, not on their abilities or achievements, but how closely they match up to an unrealistic, media-mandated beauty standard. They feel, deeply, that they must strive to emulate the tall, thin, white, large-breasted, long-legged, glossy-haired, perfect-skinned models they see everywhere in adverts and magazines. They specifically reference the women they have seen online, from the unrealistic body shapes of pornography to “perfect Instagram girls”
The Guardian then reported on the scale of sexual harassment and gender violence by UK university staff. Later this month Universities UK (UUK) will be publishing its report on sexual violence and harassment in universities amongst students.
We knew the range of damaging effects on girls of a hyper-sexualised culture back in 2007 when the American Psychological Association published its report on the sexualisation of girls. Dr Linda Papadopoulis’ exhaustive study “Sexualisation of Young People” commissioned by the British Government in 2010, foresaw the spread of mainstream pornography through the rise in new technologies and its damaging effects on the health of young girls as well as the rise in assaults against them. The government’s response was to commission another study, “Letting Children be Children” in 2011 (led by Reg Bailey, then Chief Executive of the Mothers Union) which was based on interviews with parents rather than the wealth of research studies analysed by Papadopoulis. The result was a greatly watered-down de-politisised version which masked the particular discrimination and harm faced by girls, failing to challenge the culture itself but just concluding that children weren’t ready for it.
The full range of the harmful effects on girls of this sexist and sexualised culture, outlined in the first two reports, is worth revisiting:
- Lack of confidence in and comfort with own body
- Shame, anxiety, self-disgust
- Low self-esteem, low self-worth
- Depression, negative mood
- Eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia
- Negative impact on body image and sense of self
- Self-harming behaviours
We see exactly the same list of co-existing psychological issues in the rapidly increasing number of teenage girls presenting to gender clinics. The difference between now and the period 2007 -10 when the reports were published, is that violent porn culture has expanded even further into the lives of young people and girls have been presented with a brand new model of interpretation of their feelings, together with an instant solution; a route of escape.
Society has already primed girls to see their own bodies as “wrong;” to view them as objects in need of changing and perfecting. The disassociation with the physical body has already been created, along with the sense of failure and self-blame. It’s not a huge step from the self-harming body-modification attempts girls already make to the idea of chemical hormones, breast-binding and mastectomy. As long as society continues to objectify and dehumanise women and value them as commodities above all else, more girls will see themselves as failing to be “real” women and we’ll see more vulnerable girls wanting to opt out of womanhood altogether.
Nobody lives in a cultural vacuum. The very recent and unprecedented phenomenon of “transgender kids” has been given saturated media coverage over the last couple of years and we find that the group most desperate to change to the opposite sex is adolescent girls. Perhaps this should suggest to us that something is wrong with the culture we have created for them. Perhaps we need to join up the dots.