Real Living: Feminism, girl-power and the teenage sexual fall- out

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
ON THE TABLE in front of me are photographs of two young women: on the left is the frank stare of the beautiful, expensive, Harvard-graduated Miss Elizabeth Wurtzel; on the right the pudgy, headscarfed scowl of Miss Sarah Cook, aged 15, mother of two. Cook sprang to fame three years ago after "marrying" a Turkish waiter, by whom she later had a son. At roughly the same time, Wurtzel could be found sprawled gorgeously across the pages of the men's magazines, promoting Prozac Nation, an account of how she grew up with depression in America.

This week, on the same day that Cook gave birth to her second child - this time by her 17-year-old neighbour Anthony Dighton - Wurtzel sent out a call for women "to learn what it means to be besotted by something other than a useless bloke". She challenged women to become obsessive about something to the degree that men are about football, to throw themselves into the world of work or intellectual pursuits, and to put the drive to get hitched on the backburner. "Get a life, girl," was her message; therein, she proclaimed, lies the future of feminism, therein lies equality.

Someone once observed that "The myth that girls mature faster than boys was made up by middle-aged men trying to have sex with teenagers." It seems to me that much of the frustration and depression experienced by women in their mid-twenties occurs as a result of this myth, in the hiatus between sexual maturity and and the confidence of empowered adulthood. As the father of Cook's second baby apparently remarked, "Sarah always tried to act older than she was."

Without question her parents were complicit in this premature maturity; both Sarah's relationships were conducted with their permission. Wurtzel, who meticulously documented her early sexual encounters, was likewise seen to be (or at least acted) old beyond her years. Now that she is writing as a grown woman, after a decade of fairly concentrated sexual activity, Wurtzel's call for women to stop treating themselves as bait for men seems faintly comic.

It is not that teenage girls aren't sexual, but our physical memory is shortlived. We have little recollection of pain, and less of pleasure. Even trying to re-run the recent touch of a lover is tough work on the old synapses and it is perhaps for this reason that the extraordinary ants-in-the pants sensation of female teenage sexuality is largely ignored. The thrilling novelty of sexual sensation is a mainstay of male rites- of-passage stories; the little boy with his hands down his pants has become a stock character of modern cinema. The fictional representation of the first sexual experiences of little girls, by contrast, are either traumatic, or non-existent.

I am prepared to admit that girls and boys develop at different rates, but the constant reinforcement of the idea that girls mature faster than boys becomes a dangerous one when applied to sexual relationships.

The charts are filled by teeny groups proclaiming eternal love, a preoccupation that is reinforced by girls' magazines. When all about you there is talk of love, how do you differentiate it from the thrill of sexual encounter? Sarah Cook, for one, could not. Her boyfriend recalls that, after sleeping with him for the first time, "Sarah told me she loved me and wanted to be with me." True maturity lies, not in being able to walk the walk and talk the talk, but in being able to tell the difference between crush and commitment.

Wurtzel, as the young, popular face of feminism, has nothing to offer fifteen-year-old Sarah Cook, saddled with two children and no education. Girls like Sarah have suffered the sexual fall-out of both the first feminist revolution and the girl-power ethos of the Nineties; she chased men, she made the first move, and now she has to cope with the consequences. In fact contemporary feminism rests uncomfortably on paradoxes of its own creation. Wurtzel can refer to men as "useless", and generalise about their football obsessions without fear of a comeback from the opposite sex. Likewise, when teenagers, drunk on their spurious maturity, decide to fall in love and have babies, the blame is placed on the father, the parents, the school, the patriarchal system, whatever.

Certainly her parents let it happen, but the motor in this is Sarah herself, who, like a good little feminist, did what she wanted to do, and wouldn't let any man stop her.