Rachel Carlyle meets the American duo who believe that British parents are dangerously naive about social media
Every parent of a teenager should wish that they were friends of Deana Puccio and Allison Havey. Between them, these two unnervingly straight-talking New Yorkers have spoken to 17,500 teenagers in more than 100 British schools; they know their most intimate thoughts, their hopes, their fears — and what they get up to online.And their conclusion? That many parents are dangerously naive and uninformed about their teenagers’ lives, especially when they become sexually active. It doesn’t help that the landscape has changed so utterly since we were teenagers; how many of us know that 15-year-old girls are under pressure to have anal sex by boys obsessed by online porn, that 16-year-olds are using dating apps, that dates on Skype and FaceTime are more common than real relationships?
“I’d say the change between what we did as teens and what our teenagers are doing is as huge as the shift from the 1950s world of dating and proms to the wild sex and parties of the 1960s,” says Havey, 49, a former TV journalist and mother of two teenagers, aged 19 and 13. She set up the RAP (Raising Awareness and Prevention) project with her fellow expat New Yorker Puccio, a former sex crimes prosecutor, in 2013; they’d originally met at the school gates in London in 2001.
The idea was to fill the gap between sex education and self-defence classes (“too late if you need that”). They started by teaching girls about consent and personal safety, and extended their audience to boys and included social media, body image and pornography because of the huge demand from schools. Their first book, Sex, Likes and Social Media, is published this week, and it has an uncompromising message to parents: we must talk more to teens about their sex and social lives.
“I don’t want to offend anyone because I have lived here a long time, but Britain can feel a little bit Victorian and naive at times,” Havey says. “Yes, it’s awkward having these kinds of conversations, but none of us can be a prude any more.”
Parents say their children aren’t sexting or watching porn. But if everyone says that, where are the statistics coming from?
As they see it, the main changes since we were teenagers are early sexualisation, the extreme connectedness and immediacy of social media, and a seeping into mainstream culture of misogyny and violence from hardcore online porn. The average age for a boy to look at porn is 11.
“We talk to parents who say their children aren’t sexting or looking at porn, but if no one’s child is doing any of these things, where are the statistics coming from?” asks Puccio, 50, the mother of three daughters, aged 19, 16, and 13.
Puccio and Havey agree that the main problem is that teenagers are inhabiting a world that we don’t know much about, so we feel we have little to offer. “Our generation is always playing catch-up. As soon as we’ve learnt about Instagram and how Snapchat works it’s all about Snapchat Story,” Puccio says.
They give two examples from their talks to show how the landscape has changed: a Year 9 boy (aged 13 or 14) who wanted to know if you still needed consent for anal sex because it wasn’t “real sex”, and the 17-year-old boy who wondered that if a girl was lying semi-comatose on the ground and mumbled a yes, did that count as consent?
“Other boys started nodding, so it was clear they also wanted to know,” Havey says. “These are the kinds of questions they are grappling with, and parents need to know this and get talking.”
The only way to understand internet porn is to look at it
Be bold, take five minutes to find out what your sons are looking at online (82 per cent of boys aged 13 to 18 in Havey and Puccio’s survey of 3,000 teenagers view online porn — and nearly 50 per cent of them think it offers useful pointers). Be prepared for a shock; there are no sexy ladies on car bonnets. “You’re more likely to see three men and a woman where she is crying in pain,” Havey says.
The authors began giving talks about pornography to boys in schools after girls at their sessions begged them to tell boys that they didn’t want to do the porn-inspired sex acts they were being asked to perform (mainly anal sex and hard oral sex), and they felt pressure to look like porn stars, including shaving off their pubic hair. “Stress to your boys that they are going to be looking at sex acts that don’t show pleasure for women, and it’s not a healthy portrayal of real sex and intimacy.”
Talk about how pornography is addictive. “You end up needing more hardcore images and you may end up having trouble with sexual performance in real-life situations,” Havey says She suggests watching (and getting your sons to watch) Gary Wilson’s TEDx talk on porn and neural pathways.
Does your child really know what consent means?
An alarming number of teenagers are confused by consent because of the blurred lines caused by violent porn and music videos, and lyrics where the woman first says no then gives in to his superior powers of persuasion. Puccio points out that there is no legal definition of consent, other than to give your permission freely, which is open to argument in a court case.
“What we try to drive home to kids is how important it is to articulate clearly what it is you want, that consent is finite, not a ‘free pass’,” she says. “If you are kissed passionately it doesn’t mean oral sex is a given. If you say yes to one sexual act, it doesn’t mean another is on the table.” They recommend that teens and parents watch a YouTube video called Consent: It’s Simple as Tea, which compares consent to offering someone a cup of tea. “We say, if you are confused, wait for enthusiasm — if she isn’t enthusiastic simply zip up and go,” Puccio says.
It’s futile to ban sexting
Trying to ban sexting is probably as futile as banning pornography. Much better to take a practical yet uncompromising approach, Havey and Puccio argue. “If you preach or judge they will shut down. So we need to talk them through it: the irreversibility of it — it’s not like sexy Polaroids we could tear up after the relationship ended.”
It’s crucial to point out that under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 it’s illegal to take, hold or share indecent images of persons under 18. “Teens always find this surprising,” Puccio says. “We say to them, ‘Do you want an impulsive reaction at 15 to ruin your opportunities in later life?’ ”
Indeed, one teenage audience was horrified when a GP on the admissions board of a leading medical school, stood up in one of the authors’ sessions and revealed that the university hired an IT consultant once it had selected its preferred candidates to weed out those with morally questionable or unethical images on their social media feeds.