'Slag'. 'Slut'. 'Sket'. 'Ting'. 'At-risk'. 'Vulnerable'. 'Exploited'. Whether you are listening to a group of young men discuss girls, or a professional working with young women, the labels are inescapable and pervasive.
Young women on the fringes of society are at the eye of a twin storm. Their peer groups use language rife with derogatory slang, over sexualised rhetoric and rampant objectification. And the professionals around them, perhaps a youth worker like myself, social workers or teachers, will describe them using sector jargon - 'in need', 'amber-alert', 'at risk of exploitation' - each word capable of deciding the level of help received.
No wonder there is a crisis in self-esteem among young women. According to the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, a quarter of girls at the age of 14 show signs of depression. Girls this young should be exploring their identities, empowered and feeling able to do anything they want, not struggling with their self-worth. But how can you develop a strong sense of self when you are constantly being told who you are?
The terms we use to describe people, particularly women, matter. Numerous psychological studies have shown that the labels we use to describe others can affect our ability to achieve and our sense of self. It can be observed through two effects: the 'Pygmalion Effect', where higher expectations lead to higher performance and the inverse 'Golem Effect' where lower expectations lead to poorer performance. At its core, these studies prove the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy: you can speak an issue into being.
So, as professionals, might we be doing damage by only referring to a young woman's needs and risks, rather than highlighting her strengths and assets?
I don't mean to suggest that the terms used by professionals do not serve a purpose. They are short hand for overworked and under-resourced services to quickly grasp the level of vulnerability and the key risk factors affecting a young woman they are working with. They ensure that risks are not missed or ignored when passing a young woman from one service to another.
However, I frequently work with young people who regurgitate the labels professionals ascribe to them when describing themselves. "I have conflict management issues, miss. I'm a high risk case." Or sometimes young people who vehemently reject the labels repeatedly given to them. "I'm not vulnerable. I'll fight anyone." I recently worked with a young woman who refused to attend group programmes because she had been told repeatedly that she was disruptive and displayed anti-social behaviour. Her experience of being excluded from school meant she was deeply hesitant to try any new form of training or development, as she believed she was a risk to others.
At Leap Confronting Conflict, we have launched a new programme of work for young women identified by services as vulnerable to sexual exploitation or gang involvement. Our vision for this programme is to enable young women to develop a deep sense of value, allowing them to declare to the world "I am worthy and I matter." We aim to use this to help them grow flourishing, positive relationships with their peers and support networks and reclaim joy in the experience of being a woman.
The programme takes what is known in the sector as an 'assets based approach', meaning we attempt to balance the risks identified for the women we work with, with the strengths they already possess. We have developed a new evaluation strategy, which measures a young woman's resilience, engagement with services, emotional intelligence, confidence and support network in addition to areas of vulnerability.
We are careful in all of our one to one work, as well as our group training to build from these strengths and to use them as a way of tackling the risk areas identified. We are committed to never reporting on our work with young women without including an assets framework, in order to help bring balance to the effect that negative labelling may have.
We all want to feel fully seen, fully heard, fully understood. Young women, already at the mercy of patriarchal attitudes and a gender imbalanced society, need services that recognise their strengths and fundamental abilities. If we build these up, and celebrate them, perhaps we will be more able to achieve the changes we seek when working to support these talented and able young women.
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