Are sexual rights inadvertently undermining empowerment of young girls and boys?

I am very glad not to have had to navigate the pressures of being a teenager with sexual autonomy in this era of digital porn and hypersexualisation of young girls and women in the mainstream . Having been in the sexual and reproductive movement for more than a decade and then a mother of a teenage girl, I have now come to question our practice as feminists advocating for access to information and services in the area of family planning and believe we need to equip young people with more understanding of the emotional risks of entering sexual relations. 

There is general acceptance among sexual and reproductive health rights advocates that young people are sexually active so we have to equip them with resources and family planning tools to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. Logical right? 

But is in fact the messaging around sexual rights a double edged sword? On the one hand we want to respect bodily integrity and the right for sexual autonomy, your body, your choices. And that of course means the right to make bad decisions, poor choices! But we don’t yet live in a gender equal society and we know now with the
advent of the internet and its impact on social media and digital pornography that misogyony has flourished. I am not against pornography and am a frequent user myself but when you learn that some 40% of images of digital porn depict graphic violent and degrading scenes of young women, and is increasingly shaping how young men and women understand sexual relations, surely its time sexual rights advocates take a strategic pause and evaluate the impact of our messaging.

Many of us are parents and worried about issues of safety, violence and emotional well being of our young girls and boys .Are they emotionally ready to deal with rejections and break ups at such a young age? Yes, girls and boys have always ha
d an innate interest in one another, but  the stakes are higher when it progresses to sexual relations and that level of engagement invariably comes with emotional attachment. So how do they navigate it all when even we adults struggle in the dating  jungle?

The rise of adolescent mental health problems appear to stem from self esteem being undermined with anxieties from body image to popularity. Understanding sexuality is supposed to be empowering but the pendulum has swung the other way.

Stigma can go both ways, slut shaming as well the pressure that young girls and boys desirability and likeability is tied up to their sexuality which is being dictated by pop culture, mainstream media and yes, digital pornography. We need to understand what are the lived experiences of young girls. Are they really exercising sexual rights or are they in fact being sexualised? Are their experiences in fact empowering and pleasurable or are young girls and boys becoming tools of pleasure or of peers they are trying to please and being objectified by the digital and media world.

I did not become sexually active till I was 19 and very glad I waited and wonder now why kids in this generation feel somehow entitled to be sexually active at such a young age. Sex workers who are seeking to promote their rights to work are not in any way suggesting that it is acceptable for under age girls and boys to enter the sex work trade but yet we, progressives seem perfectly happy to accept that young girls and boys have agency to navigate sexual relations.

Clearly we cannot control access to porn, that genie is out of the bottle. What we can do however is begin the honest conversation about the advantages of delaying sexual relations and that there are downside risks  and there is no pill or intervention that can prevent emotional fallout and waiting until you are older and developed maturity and good coping skills to weather affairs of the heart is to exercise sexual rights.


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