We Care about Megan but Not about 'Suzie'

Article excerpt

We live in a society that is not terribly good at protecting young women. The same tabloid newspapers that spent this week making a show of searching the Continent for Megan Stammers routinely drool over the bodies of actors and singers barely out of training bras or send paparazzi to hound young women like Charlotte Church until they are forced to seek legal help. Magazines and billboards are plastered with nubile prepubescent-looking models while real prepubescents are turned away at police stations for reporting rape. There's only one consistent message: young girls are not deemed to have any agency over their own bodies, or their own lives.

In this culture, young women are not treated as sexual beings, merely as sexual objects. The weary moral panic that crotch- flashing music videos and Playboy Bunny pencil cases are somehow "sexualising" young girls betrays the prejudice: female-bodied people can never really be sexual, only "sexualised", and once they are tainted, once they start rolling up their school skirts and watching Rihanna grind her behind on YouTube, then the damage is done.

People who grow up being told that they have no agency are less likely to behave as though they do. Girls are imagined as constantly teetering on the edge of helpless harlotry, where what's at stake is not their personhood, but their purity. Celebrities and middle- class girls, however, are tacitly assumed to be worthier of our anxiety than the teenage care-leavers who were the targets of grooming gangs in Rochdale and Rotherham.

When 15-year-old "Suzie" - not her real name - tried to tell police in Rochdale that she was being forced to have sex with strangers every night by a gang of adult men who controlled every aspect of her life, she was dismissed as a prostitute. "These men would be picking me up as soon as I got out of the school gates at three o'clock and taking me to houses," "Suzie" told the BBC. "We'd go in and I'd basically be told to go into the bedroom and to take my pants off and they'd come in one after the other. Even my own dad rang social services to get help."

Nobody, however, was prepared to help - neither the police nor social services. "Basically, they'd told my mum and dad that I was a prostitute and it was a lifestyle choice and that because I was only six months off turning 16 they wasn't gonna do anything," she said. …