THE BLOG

Young Women Have Never Had It So Good - So Why Do We Tell Them Life Will Be Hard and Horrible?

02/12/2013 17:29 GMT | Updated 01/02/2014 10:59 GMT

There is something very weird about the new Girl Guides survey of girls and young women.

In the whole of human history there's never been a better time than now to be a young woman. Girls are outperforming boys in school and university and have more choices than their mothers - or certainly their grandmothers - could ever have dreamt of. That's brilliant. It's long overdue that this full half of the human race was liberated from domesticity and freed to do whatever it wanted (including, of course, domesticity, if that's what a woman wants).

And yet the Girl Guides survey has found that girls and young women think life is really hard, that "sexism is a daily reality", and that they face numerous "inequalities". What's going on?

The survey, of 1,200 girls and women aged seven to 21, claims to offer "a disturbing insight into the state of equality for girls in the UK". It found that 54% of the girls and young women had suffered "online abuse", 33% are unhappy with how they look, 56% of the over-16s had been on a diet, and a majority of those surveyed had experienced "gender-based harassment".

It all suggests, claim the authors of the introduction to the survey results, that girls and young women face "shocking levels of everyday sexism and discrimination" and that society has failed to create "safe and equal environments in which girls can flourish".

A few things don't add up here. Firstly, for all the overblown newspaper headlines about girls facing an epidemic of harassment and abuse, in fact most of what the survey respondents talked about seems to be pretty typical youthful stuff. So while the term "gender-based harassment" sounds awful, in the survey it covers pretty much every form of unpleasant behaviour a young person encounters.

It includes, for example, "having comments shouted at you about your appearance at school" - if there is a single person in Britain, male or female, whose appearance wasn't commented on negatively at school, I will be amazed. It also includes hearing "sexual jokes" (is being told a joke, or simply overhearing one, really "harassment"?) and seeing "rude or obscene graffiti about girls or women". Much graffiti is unpleasant, no doubt, especially the infantile nonsense scrawled on school walls - but can you be harassed by it?

The category of "online abuse" includes "having unkind things said about them on social media". This was the most commonly reported experience in the online abuse section, with 40% of respondents claiming to have experienced it. Frankly, I'm amazed the number wasn't higher - "having unkind things said about one" online is an experience that huge numbers of people go through, young and old, male and female.

By lumping such a common experience together with more serious things - such as having sexual photos of oneself shared online, which thankfully only 5% of the young women experienced - the Girl Guides survey can make it seem as if the abuse of girls and young women is widespread.

But the main thing that doesn't add up about this report on the "shocking levels" of discrimination young girls and women face is that, actually, young girls and women do not face discrimination anymore. Thank God. In fact they're doing better than their male peers.

Girls are doing better in pretty much every school exam, including new Sats exams and GCSEs. They're doing better at university, too: they outnumber male students, are far less likely to drop out, and are more likely to get a First or a 2:1.

All the evidence suggests that, for younger British women at least, all the old forms of discrimination, all the old sexist barriers to study and academic success, have been removed. Yet now we have this new study claiming to give a "disturbing" insight into the level of discrimination experienced by girls.

What this confirms is the wholesale redefinition of terms like discrimination. In the past, that word largely referred to being prevented from partaking in society simply on the basis of one's sex or ethnic background; now it means having an unpleasant experience on the internet or at school.

So even a young women who outperforms her male peers, gets an excellent degree and goes on to land a lovely job can claim to feel discriminated against by, for example, off-colour jokes or raunchy pop videos. The word "discrimination" has been denuded of its old political meaning, reduced from a description of the structural barriers that once kept women out of public life to simply another way of saying "I found that thing I just saw or heard quite unpleasant".

What we can see in this study showing that more and more young women feel vulnerable, fearful and harassed is the tragic victory of Victim Feminism, of a feminism whose main aim seems to be to convince young women that life is hard, abuse is rife, words can harm, and being a woman is a really dangerous occupation.

Old-school feminism was about cultivating cockiness among women, allowing them to express their moral autonomy and independence in the face of moralists who told them to stay at the kitchen sink; the new Victim Feminism, by contrast, is more concerned with cultivating feelings of vulnerability among women, particularly young women, and in the process it makes them feel weak and bereft rather than strong and determined.

So even as girls and young women have become, if anything, "more equal" than their male peers, perversely we have feministic surveyors and commentators coming to tell them that they are discriminated against, unloved, at risk, and that the world is a rough, dangerous place - which, ironically, is not a million miles away from the sentiments of those who once said to women: "Stay in the kitchen, love, for your own good."