Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Answer Isn't Aunts

In today's Observer there is an article discussing psychologist and writer of Raising Boys Stephen Biddulph, and his recent discovery that young girls are in crisis. He says that what's needed is more female influence at home, namely an "aunts army" ( ). I am not one to complain about an article in a national Sunday newspaper raising awareness of the fact that young girls are having a horrible time of it, that they suffer record highs of anxiety and self esteem issues. I am even hopeful that such a discussion will move towards a recognition that there are links between the low self esteem of teenage girls and the high rates of domestic violence against adult women.

What does make me angry is the suggestion that these things ultimately come from poor mothering. He believes that "no girl and her mum always get along and no mum can meet all her daughter's needs," without providing a lot of evidence for this belief. Perhaps it's because women just can't get along with all those hormones?

I would like to offer a personal case study and hypothesis to counter Stephen Biddulph's theory.

Meet Vicky. She is ten years old. She is brighter than average and comes from a liberal background. Both of her parents are teachers, and she has been brought up to understand that asking questions and being curious are routes to happiness. She will happily agree that she loves both of her parents and gets along with them equally. She is popular at school and on friendly terms with the majority of her classmates. At school there is a seating system whereby students in a class sit according to how well they perform academically. Vicky has always sat at the 'top' table throughout her primary school career, and this is considered 'cool'.

Vicky is now twelve, and goes to state comprehensive school. It's been a bit of a shock to the system. Classes are no longer banded and people sit wherever they want. She sits anywhere, because she no longer has a close circle of friends. Vicky is now aware that she has buck teeth and a crooked nose. It's not to say that these things weren't true before, they had just never really been important. Now they are pointed out on a daily basis by boys that she knows are stupider than her and have no particular claims to beauty themselves. At home, things are still very happy. Vicky still loves both of her parents, but in the last two years has become closer to her mother. There are things she needs to know that she would just rather not ask her father about and, as things turn less pleasant at school, it is less embarrassing to tell her mother than her father.

Vicky is now sixteen, and she has her first proper boyfriend. He is a clever boy and she has wanted him to be her boyfriend for a year. Their burgeoning relationship is soured by the fact that almost everyone else in her year believes she is a lesbian. Girls in her gym class cross to the other side of the corridor when she walks past, and have loudly asked the PE teacher if Vicky should be allowed to watch them changing. One classmate asks Vicky's boyfriend, "If you're going out with a lesbian, does that make you gay?" when he sees them kissing. This time, it is usually other girls who tease her. Vicky has friends now, though only one close friend and she's not even entirely sure about her. She has learned that people will change allegiance very quickly and finds it difficult to trust her peers. She is aware she is poorer than her friends. At home, things are happy but strained. Vicky has become very close to her mother, finding her an excellent confidante and a person that can be trusted. But it is becoming increasingly clear that her mother has mental health problems, and it will be another two years before she is diagnosed with chronic depression and has to stop working. She also suffers from incapacitating migraines and Vicky feels very responsible for her. She knows that when she finishes school, she wants to get a job and start paying rent to her parents.

At the end of the academic year, Vicky's boyfriend breaks up with her. He won't tell her why. They never had sex, and Vicky thinks that must be the reason.

Vicky is nineteen. She has just moved away from home to go to university. She is living with her boyfriend, and they live a bus ride away from the university campus. Vicky likes her boyfriend because he is older than her, and this shows that, if he likes her, it must be a good thing because he has experience. He also has a serious medical condition, and Vicky likes feeling needed. She is doing well at university, and enjoys once again being in a culture where working hard and being clever are a Good Thing. But she doesn't really make friends at university. It's difficult, living away from the social centre, and her boyfriend doesn't really feel like going out with a bunch of people who are so young. This makes Vicky feel special, though she does wish she had someone she was close to. She speaks to her mother almost every day on the phone for long conversations and knows that she can go back to visit whenever she wants. But she misses having someone to be close to.

Vicky is twenty-one. She is being emotionally and sexually abused by her boyfriend, who she is about to marry. Vicky doesn't quite understand that this is what is happening. She knows that she does not want sex with her partner, and that it often makes her cry. He wants her to do things that frighten her. He likes having sex with her when she's not excited, and it hurts. She also believes that most things that go wrong are her fault. She knows she is not beautiful, and believe her partner is the only person that would have her. She thinks the alternative to being with him is being entirely alone. Vicky still talks to her mother, though her partner doesn't like it - he complains that she laughs more with her mother than she does with him. She rarely sees her any more, and worries that this is because her mother doesn't like spending time with her any more. She does not recognise that her partner makes her mother uncomfortable. It sometimes crosses her mind to tell her moth that she is unhappy or frightened, but she is scared that her mother will want her to leave her partner and she will be alone. Her partner does work for her father and her brother, leading Vicky to think that they like him more than her. Vicky is very depressed. She is about to finish her university career with a good degree, but doesn't know what to do afterwards. She would like to carry on academic study, but knows that she must work because her partner's health means he cannot carry out a regular job.

Vicky grew up in a family of strong women. She had female relatives she saw regularly: her mother, her maternal grandmother, her aunt and one of her older sisters. All of these women were remarkable role models in their own right. Her mother was always approachable and practical about any problem; her grandmother volunteered for charities like Cruise Bereavement well into her senior years; her aunt worked for a shelter for women escaping domestic violence; and her sister was a strong and fearsome woman who raised three children on next to no money. Vicky did not tell any of these women she was abused by her husband until after they separated. This was for many reasons, but mostly because her abuser had made her believe two frightening facts:

1) That despite all evidence to the contrary, their relationship was perfectly normal. More than that, it was an ideal.
2) That he was older and more experienced than her, and no one would believe what she said over him.

This case study shows two things that I think Stephen Biddulph is missing. Firstly, it doesn't matter how many strong adult female influences a child has in her life, if she falls into the trap of a clever abuser she will suffer and be miserable. Secondly, while we allow sexualised cruelty against young girls at such a formative age, they are going to grow up confused enough to be easy prey for abusers.

Vicky was lucky enough to wander into the path of some very good people who helped her gain the strength to leave her husband and grow close to her family again. I wish all victims of abuse could be this lucky.

Scratch that - I wish no one were a victim of abuse to begin with.