The Vagenda

I Was A Teenage Sexist. Here’s How I Grew Up

Group of Young Men Wrestling Playfully --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

I’ve a feeling I might be preaching to the converted here, but it’s occurred to me in the last few years that feminism is actually rather of a Good Thing. People who I’ve never spoken to about sexism or misogyny have struck up conversations with me – an Actual Man – about wage discrepancies, the Daily Mail’s notoriously woman-phobic Femail section and the Blurred Lines video, and I’ve had something to say about them in return. Not exactly a shocker for a feminist blog, right? But I have something to confess to all of you.

Here goes.

I was a teenage sexist.

I’m a moral, caring and well-educated (a 2:2 counts as well educated, right?) man, and back in high school I probably had more female friends than male. Yet at the same time, I did, said and thought things that I’m ashamed to recall. Sadly, I was far from exceptional among the boys I went to school with – and not one boy, girl, man or woman ever picked me up on my behaviour, urged me to reconsider or told me it was wrong.

The old “I was just going along with what everyone else was doing” excuse is the oldest and most cowardly in the book (invoke Godwin’s Law to your heart’s content here) but it genuinely rarely ever occurred to me to challenge the status quo on women. Trying to convince girls to go out with me was a constant pursuit throughout my teens, and it wasn’t uncommon for a girl to have her boobs fondled without permission almost as soon as she began to wear a bra. This was all seen as a “bit of a laugh” by the boys, and the girls seldom complained. At the time, I considered this evidence that they didn’t mind at all. And it was a culture that was ingrained – girls were labelled either frigid or sluts depending on how sexually active they were, yet boys were never subject to the same judgements. So far, so horribly, horribly normal.

Today, when reading stories about boys pressuring girls into sending explicit texts and pictures, and viewing hardcore pornography on a regular basis, I find it hard to judge. I hate to admit it, but there’s a part of me that wonders if one of the reasons I didn’t do those things at school is because the technology didn’t allow it. It’s become a cliché, but finding a discarded porn magazine in a hedge was a big event a dozen years ago. Teenagers today have free porn practically on tap.

Strangely enough, there was no epiphany that changed my views or behaviour. You can’t change people unless they’re ready. However, there are three things that, looking back, I think were significant factors in me realising the error of my ways.

I’m a music writer and so, unsurprisingly, I’ve long held a borderline-unhealthy relationship with music of all kinds. At the age of 16, I became briefly obsessed with an above-average power-pop band called Nada Surf. Digging deeper into their back catalogue, I found the song Mother’s Day. I used to listen to this a lot and some of the lyrics really stuck with me. “What do you see when you look at a girl? Is she a game you want to win?” “Do you have friends who would be proud if you went in for the kill? Do you have friends who would do it even against her will?” As far as anti-rape statements or feminist views in rock music go, Mother’s Day hardly reinvents the wheel. However, it was the first time I’d been confronted with these kinds of questions, and it made me think about the answers. As a teenager, when you begin to question the world around you, you realise how wrong some of it is. Why are female celebrities expected to pose half-naked while male ones aren’t? Why are women treated the way they are? Why do men earn more than women? These were all things that had barely crossed my mind.

Secondly, soon after, I had my first proper girlfriend (although reading this, I’m sure you’re wondering how that happened). A few weeks into our burgeoning relationship, she told me her faith meant that she didn’t believe in sex before marriage. Again, this was a viewpoint I’d never even considered before, and made me think about sex in new and very different ways.

For a start, I’d never even considered that girls might even like or want sex. At that age, sex was something girls would either let or not let you do to them, and their own desire didn’t come into play. My girlfriend, conditioned by years of schoolboy chauvinism, feared that I’d break up with her there and then when she told me this news. When I said that I cared about her and respected her wishes (I was clearly already a bit of a nicer person by this point), her reaction was such that you’d have thought she found £1,000 down the back of the sofa.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I simply grew up. I read, I thought about things, I met people, I had conversations, I discussed ideas, I went to different places – the usual stuff. It’s not been easy to face up to things and write this piece, but I bet it’s nothing compared to what being a girl at my high school was like.

This is why making feminism a mainstream idea and the norm is so important to me as a man. It’s impacted the way I think about discrimination across the board. And it’s my belief that, one Blurred Lines discussion at a time, all of us can come round to seeing the world this way: that is, for what it really is.


6 thoughts on “I Was A Teenage Sexist. Here’s How I Grew Up

  1. Great piece and I think this is much needed positivity. Certainly makes me feel a bit better about the upcoming generation, exposed to shite like Geordie Shore and porn on demand, and that some sucked in to it can and hopefully will come out of it and have a ‘hang on a minute’ moment like the author. I do imagine this piece will get some ‘once a sexist, always a sexist, kill him’ comments (anyone remember the Vagenda piece about the bloke who confessed to having once been a train groper?) but I for one think it’s great. Thanks JR.

  2. This is really good to hear. I wish more of my male friends would take an active interest in feminism like this and consider it a human right’s issue (which it is) and not a ‘women’s issue’. I am a feminist now but when I was at school I swallowed a lot of misogynist and deeply homophobic attitudes (from students and teachers alike) without questioning them at all. It was only after we left and two close friends came out to me that I realised how absolutely horrendous school must have been for them.

  3. Good article. I agree with your sentiment, and although not proud, I can relate to most of what you describe, as commonplace as it is. Unfortunately, not enough is done to quash this ‘norm’ for teenage (or simply ‘male’) behaviour, in its early stages. Because of this, many don’t grow out of this frame of mind as the author did, and find it harder, (or simply don’t want) to change later in life. Similar to school-years, they still don’t like to set themselves apart from the pack

  4. Thanks for writing this! It’s encouraging to see how attitudes can change over time. I’m approaching my 30s now and I think a number of my male friends (although sadly not all!) have come to similar conclusions as you. I hope that our generation will help to teach the next one that treating women and girls like this is not OK, and break that macho pack mentality you described.

  5. I LOVE seeing stuff like this, it’s so important to be having these discussions together, men and women. Feminism dosent just help women, it helps men too because it teaches them that there is no need to hide behind the mask of “masculinity” which prevents boys and men from opening up about how they feel and pushes them towards a small handful of designated masculine interests and hobbies that they are allowed to persue.