I love Rihanna's catchy "Umbrella" tune. When it comes on Video Hits on a Saturday morning, I find myself ditching my breakfast to bust a move on front of the teev (hoping Husband will not get out of bed and see my enthusistic display). Despite it being totally danceable, the lyrics (co-written by Jay-Z and "The Dream") are also quite sweet:
"When the sun shines
We’ll shine together
Told you I'll be here forever
Said I'll always be your friend
Took an oath
I'mma stick it out 'till the end
Now that it's raining more than ever
Know that we still have each other
You can stand under my Umbrella..."
Despite the mushy lyrics, 'sweetness' isn't the first word that comes to mind when I see 19-year-old Rihanna artfully dancing around with her umbrella, dressed in fish-net stockings and black leather.
Miss Rihanna, whose album is titled Good Girl Gone Bad, isn't the first star to openly exploit her new-found sexuality by way of a provocative film clip. For Christina Aguilera it was "Dirrty"; for Britney "Slave 4 U". Rihanna's not breaking any ground here. But in the era of Bratz dolls and Pussycat Dolls, you've got to wonder what kind of message Rihanna's clip is sending out to young girls. Do grown girls all get around in their knickers? Will boys like me if I dance like a stripper?
Teen sexuality, and the way it's expressed, is a vexed issue – something parents fear, teachers gloss over and churches attempt to control. These days, it's further complicated by social networking systems. Back in the mid-90s, when I first started to notice boys, you would start hanging out on the basis of proximity (dating someone who lived close by or went to the same school), attraction (lack of facial acne = big plus) and general interest (they knew some of the same people or had a similar hobby). You'd meet boys at friends' parties, through their older brothers, in church youth groups (I suppose; back then I wasn't much of a church-goer), at the beach or on the school bus. These days kids hook up on the basis of MySpace profiles and pictures (which are often Photoshopped or posed provocatively).
The question of sex – when to start doing it, who with and why – is even more complex. Teen sexual experimentation is nothing new (just look at 1981 Bruce Beresford flick Puberty Blues). That's not to say the majority of teen girls aren't smart, carefully weighing up their decisions about when to 'go there' despite the pressures of raging hormones, more 'advanced' (or easily led) friends, and that all-encompassing quest to be cool. We also have groups of Christian teens pledging their virginity till marriage (and their parents sighing relief).
My own teens were a flurry of 'pash and dash's' and relationships with young boys who didn't know any better. Had my parents known what I was up to, I'm sure they would have locked me up in a tower Rapunzel-style. But you get away with a lot when your school results are good and you say 'please' and 'thank you'. In hindsight, had I established my own 'value code' earlier on (as you know, I rediscovered Christianity a few years ago now), and stuck to it, I would have saved myself a lot of heartache, regret, misdirected energy and misused brain space. Teen brains are oft not equipped to deal with the complications of intimacy.
The Saturday Sydney Morning Herald yesterday published a feature story on teen sex – 'Let's talk about sleepovers' by Julie Szego. According to the story, teens are 'claiming' each other, which is basically lay-bying someone you're interested in but shopping around on the side (it seems today's teens have too much choice, in every way, and bore easily). They're also embarking on sexual exploration earlier (the average 'first time' age now being 16).
The 'raunch culture' created by Paris Hilton and her posse, hip-hop film clips and singers like Rihanna, who quite literally wear their sexual desirability (think Fergie's midriff tops, Paris's thigh-scraping dresses and Britney's cleavage-enhancing halter tops) has definitely had an effect on girls. And the guys who date them. In the SMH story, one boy says: "Those [girls] who don't act raunchy and everything, well, it's not that they get ostracised, but people aren't as willing to go out with them to parties and stuff... It's a bit of a Catch-22 for girls; you're judged if you do things, and you're judged if you don't." Further in the article, a school counsellor says: "I've seen girls presenting themselves as promiscuous on their MySpace profile and then taking on that persona in reality... they'll change their behaviour to suit their profile if they think they're getting a lot of kudos." Another school counsellor interviewed by Szego says some girls are basing their self-esteem on "serious" relationships, becoming dependent on the guys they date.
Remember the Sex and the City episode where Carrie takes her 25-year-old protoge to a book party, then later discovers she's a virgin? "Is this supposed to be shocking, wagging one's (rude word) at every good-looking stud who walks by? Please!" says the 25-year-old to a perplexed Carrie. Casual relationships were de rigeur for Carrie and her pals. The female quest for the perfect man (or even a flawed one who would just love you, exclusively) was, of course, the driving force for the show (and Carrie's weekly sex and relationships column for The New York Star). But I think that the positive role of female friendship, rather than how far flagrant promiscuity (worn with Manolo Blahnik shoes) will take you, was the more empowering message the series had to offer.
Young women should be educated about their sexuality, what it means to be a woman and self respect. They need parents, teachers and role models (young female celebrities like America Ferrera, Anne Hathaway, Mandy Moore and Amanda Bynes dress demurely and shy away from the popular LA clubbing scene) to interpret the messages the media at large is sending them about how to represent themselves (after all, cute and smart is just as alluring to boys and men than sexy and flippant). There should also be an emphasis on the establishment of values, whether they be Christian-based, family or other guiding moral principles, with which they can more confidently make decisions, sexual or otherwise.
Girl With a Satchel