Wednesday 22 October 2014

Working the hooker look

Our daughters are dressing provocatively, but do they understand the consequences ask Aida Austin

AIda Austin

Published 04/09/2010 | 05:00

It's 1am and I'm waiting outside an under-16s disco for my youngest daughter to appear. I watch a stream of girls pour out into the cold and I'm oddly mesmerised by a young girl whose red corset is failing to do its job. Her breasts have almost escaped their confines and her buttocks burst out of her shorts, like two pale dumplings. She looks sexually available and cold.

Her friend, wearing a bra top and hot-pants, hasn't got the hang of heels yet and clings on to the red-corset girl for support. At first glance they look about 18, but have the coltish grace of 13-year-olds.

They're joined by hundreds of other girls, spilling like a river of soft-porn stars on to the street. Now they clatter past my car window on vertiginous heels, flashing chilly thigh and cleavage.

These girls are working a look. The hooker look. And it doesn't look good.

Eileen Hogan, a lecturer on gender in UCC, uses a different term: 'porn chic', she calls it. She says that young Irish girls are trying to negotiate a complex world of adult sexuality while simultaneously being bombarded by soft-porn-style images in the media, which are unremitting, impossible to ignore and difficult to process.

"In Ireland, in the 1990s," Hogan explains, "there was a feminist backlash and the media became alert to this cultural shift. They began to re-brand soft porn as 'cool', as something women could reclaim for themselves. Advertising companies started to market the idea of 'sex as fun' and porn glamour was relentlessly promoted."

I think of the red-corset girl and the extent to which the porn-chic look has been successfully normalised. I wonder how teenagers themselves interpret this look?

I ask my 17-year-old daughter and a group of her friends what they think about porn chic.

"If you dress like that, it doesn't mean what you think it means," Abbie, a pretty, lissom girl who has just finished school, reassures me. "You do it because you just feel kind of prissy if you don't."

She tells me about a recent experience, when she arrived at a party and hadn't made much of an effort; she was wearing skinny jeans and flats.

"I felt out of place -- everyone was wearing short skirts, heels, whatever, and I wasn't getting any attention. I just felt kind of embarrassed -- like I was wearing too many clothes. I'm not going to make that mistake again."

I remark that this is like some weird inversion of the 'Emperor's New Clothes' moment and she humours me with a smile. "I suppose so, yeah," she concedes.

Do they feel under any pressure to wear overtly sexual clothes?

She answers: "Kind of, otherwise you're viewed as prim or a prude."

The other girls nod their heads in agreement, but there's a palpable nonchalance in their assent; it doesn't appear to bother them, this enforced conformity to a hyper-sexualised norm.

Siobhan, who is 18, explains: "It's just the way things are. It's all about looking 'hot' -- you have to look sexy. You only think about it looking sluttish if you're on your own, say if your friends are late and you're on the street, waiting for them to turn up. In a club, everyone's wearing the same. It's like a uniform."

My daughter asserts that "girls rate themselves on how sexy they look, especially when they're about 14 or 15, because it's all you ever read about in magazines. And on TV, they're always talking about what appeals to boys, what boys like. It's everywhere -- MTV, music videos, online. You get cop-on, though, as you get older."

Is this hooker look basically underpinned by girls' desire to be desired? Among the girls, there is complete consensus on this -- all of them reply, "yup".

Just how important is it for girls to be rated highly by boys for being sexy? I ask 16-year-old Clare, whose response time is one second. Her answer is unequivocal. "It's important," she replies, "definitely, but girls rate each other on their sex appeal to boys as well. We rate each other, especially when we're getting ready to go out."

Eileen Hogan believes that "girls are being sold a lemon. In Ireland, they're being instructed by the media on how to perform sexually, in terms of their image. Girls are told how to become an object of lust, but also how to deny. In the same newspaper or magazine, for example, you'll find images of topless, digitally enhanced, nubile young women juxtaposed with articles about poor academic performance, depression or low self-esteem in females".

The print media seems to nod in two directions at once, embracing a vulgar and reductive form of female sexuality, but also giving column inches to the misery and confusion it causes young girls.

I'm curious as to whether this obsessive media focus on women's sexual desirability encourages girls to look at themselves mainly through boys' eyes?

"I reckon yes," Clare responds.

"Not always," says Abbie. "It's mainly when I go out to parties and clubs. In the day, we knock around in hoodies, and boys are around then too."

So there is respite at times? Abbie confirms that there is, "of course, more so, as you get older".

These girls are confident, bright and autonomous, but this doesn't seem to mitigate the fact that they tend to view themselves through boys' eyes. Do they believe that their own are not of equal value?

I sense the window for dialogue is closing; they're off to a music festival tomorrow and have other things on their mind, but Siobhan, who seems to be more politicised than her peers, answers. "Only 13pc of Irish TDs are women." The other girls are listening and she sums it up for them -- or at least I think she does because there's no demurral. "We do have power, but it's still a man's world."

I want to ask them whether they are confusing sexual power with real-world power, if they believe that 'pornifying' their clothes is genuinely empowering, but they're starting to laugh now and I get up. I sense my time is up. They switch on 'Friends'.

I ask Hogan for her own, personal view on porn chic -- does she believe it empowers women? "My head and heart refuse to accept arguments that porn chic is empowering," she says. "Young girls dressed up in hooker wear are obviously highly sexualised, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they are enjoying their femininity or their sexuality."

Talking with my daughter's friends, I'd been struck by their cheerful acceptance of the hyper-sexualised cultural status quo. The normalisation of pornography's standards of beauty, through music videos and the internet, seemed not to impinge in any obviously damaging way.

Opening debate about these complex issues is something adults, especially parents, could embrace with sensitivity but without any timidity at all.

The power of the media can be challenged by encouraging girls to question the ideology it hard sells so relentlessly. Perhaps it's up to us, as adults, to help girls explore -- for themselves -- what it means to be fully sexual, as opposed to sexy.

We need to take our eye off the ball that has been kept in play for far, far too long -- the one-dimensional 'sexy' ball.

I, for one, have to say I'm bored with it (and I don't mind being viewed as a prude).

Irish Independent

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