In an increasingly sexualised society, Judith Woods meets two women on a mission to teach our teenage daughters how to stay safe and say ‘no’
Sassy and glamorous in killer heels and an expensively tailored peplum dress, a petite blonde woman is addressing a hall full of teenage girls at an elite independent school. They are captivated by her streetwise New York accent, her eye-widening anecdotes, her challenging questions. And when she dispenses words of hard-won wisdom, they strain to listen.
Deana Puccio could be a City lawyer, a female entrepreneur, a top-flight careers adviser brought in to talk about investment banking, the secret of successful networking or how to smash through the glass ceiling. But Deana, 46, is a former sex crimes prosecutor from Brooklyn. And she is here with a much more urgent message to impart to these girls as they stand on the brink of womanhood, a message about sexual violence and personal safety that could save their lives, or at least their lives as they know them.
‘I’m not here to lecture you or tell you not to text boys or not to go on Facebook,’ says Deana. ‘But I wouldn’t want to be your age at this time in history: the pressure to get all those A-stars and look like Kate Moss and be perfect, and yet you still find yourself being bombarded by vile images and messages on social media.
‘You’ve got a lot of stuff going on already, but here’s the thing: I want to make things a little bit easier by telling you that it’s always OK to say “no”, whether it’s to a date who’s being too pushy, or a boyfriend who wants you to do things you’re not comfortable with, or a creepy guy at a party.’
Deana is a co-founder of Teenage Rape Awareness and Prevention (Traap), an inspirational new workshop programme being rolled out in schools across London and beyond. The other founder is fellow American and equally dynamic brunette Allison Havey, 47, a television news producer and journalist, who joins in the presentation to explain the significance of the name Traap. ‘Every grown woman has been in a situation where she’s felt trapped and either she got out and walked away or she didn’t and she got raped or sexually assaulted,’ says Allison.
‘And we don’t want our daughters – or you – to make the mistakes that we did and our friends did. So first up, let’s get one thing clear; rape isn’t a crime of passion. It isn’t what happens when a boy is so in love he gets carried away; it’s about violence, control and power.’
The term ‘moral panic’ has always had a pejorative ring to it, but if ever there was an appropriate time to panic about morality, it is now, when a tide of hard-core pornography is sweeping through the smartphones and laptops of a generation. As government and internet giants struggle to find both the will and the way to bar access for minors, these two women aim to tackle the crisis at grass-roots level with their hard-hitting presentations.
Deana takes the lead in the workshop, radiating energy and good-natured assertiveness, her sometimes unnerving directness shot through with a droll humour that defuses the tension. ‘Here’s something that’ll impress you,’ she quips. ‘A survey has shown that 54 per cent of teenage boys find hard-core porn “very inspiring”. Romantic, huh?’ The room erupts into loud laughter.
It’s a well-judged moment of levity. But Deana and Allison are under no illusions as to the unique way in which violent, coercive pornography is being normalised in 21st-century Britain. Before the advent of new media, teenage boys would consider themselves lucky to be lent an ancient copy of a top-shelf magazine. These days the average parent would be horrified by the distressingly aggressive images of sexual degradation available for free and passed around playgrounds on children’s mobiles. ‘Teenagers’ access to hard-core porn is having a corrosive effect on the way boys, and increasingly girls, view sex,’ says Allison to me later. ‘A child’s innocence can be gone for ever in the split second it takes for them to look at a screen.’
Both women came to Britain for very different reasons but, as fate would have it, their paths crossed at the school gates in North London. Allison had come to London with her family to work freelance for US TV companies. Deana, who back then had two daughters, and subsequently had a third, was taking a career break while accompanying her husband, who had been posted to the UK for his work.
‘Deana and I met on 12 September 2001, the day after 9/11, when the world changed for ever,’ says Allison, who has two children, a girl and a boy. ‘We heard each other’s New York accents and immediately gravitated towards one another in a state of numb shock. We’ve been close friends ever since.’
In the intervening years, both women threw themselves into motherhood and savoured the experience of living in another country. Then, the way Deana tells it, she woke up one morning to discover her eldest daughter was 16 and about to enter the world of dating, music gigs and parties.
‘I realised, practically overnight, that I had to do something to protect her,’ she says with a rueful smile. ‘I looked around and although there was sex education, which covered the basic mechanics, and self-defence, which covered those rare instances of stranger danger, there was absolutely nothing in between. From my work in Brooklyn, I know that 80 to 90 per cent of assaults and rapes are carried out by someone known to the victim. Girls need to be armed with common sense and self-confidence so they can stay safe on nights out and at parties and music festivals.’
Deana’s professional experience as a prosecution lawyer with the Kings County District Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn is ideally suited to her new role. Her bureau, where she worked with adolescent victims, was so successful that it became the inspiration for the gripping procedural TV crime drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. No wonder her sometimes graphic stories, told with fluency and speed, resonate with truth: the vulnerable teenager who succumbed to horrible exploitation by her predatory PE teacher, believing he loved her; the girl who got drunk at a party, fell in with a bunch of boys, got into their car and was raped by them all; the 15-year-old who sneaked out to meet her friend’s bad-boy cousin and crawled home, traumatised by a violent sexual assault but too scared and ashamed to tell her parents what had happened.
Here at Channing Girls’ School, the year 11s, aged 15, are hooked on her every word. Her almost matter-of-fact delivery serves to convey the fact that such tales of appalling sexual violence are, if not commonplace, then only one poorly judged decision away. ‘If you go to meet a boy, make sure you know his name, his address and his telephone number; you’re bright girls, so do your research. And always tell someone where you are going,’ says Deana. ‘If you go to a party with friends, make it absolutely non-negotiable that you arrive and leave together. If you’re at a music festival, tie a bell to your tent zip – awareness is power, ladies.’
Until now, Traap’s workshops have been confined to the private sector, in which head teachers typically have more freedom over budgets and the curriculum. But it’s an important area that the state system can’t afford to overlook – nor can boys’ schools. ‘A lot of the feedback we get from girls is that we really need to talk to boys,’ says Allison. ‘If their only blueprint for sex is hard-core porn, then they expect extreme things from girls that just aren’t acceptable.’
Figures jointly compiled by the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and the Office for National Statistics earlier this year revealed that around 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year, and more than 400,000 are the victims of sexual assault. According to NSPCC figures, 35 per cent of all sexual crimes recorded in 2012/13 were against children and young people aged under 16. Keeping our young people safe must surely, then, be a priority. But first, adults must persuade them to take the risks seriously. And Deana is someone teenagers instinctively take advice from.
Observing her in action is like watching a masterclass in teenage psychology as she skilfully addresses her audience. ‘So, ladies, you’re doing GCSEs this year; that’s fun, I bet. Well, it’s a hell of a lot worse living with you, I can tell you.’ More riotous laughter.
‘But you know, we are your parents and we love you. So if it’s 2am and you are at some party and your friends have disappeared and you have that little voice in your head saying something is wrong, 99 per cent of the time, that voice will be right. So call us [your parents]; we’re not that bad. We might take away your laptop for a week, and that’s terrible, but if you don’t ring us and you stay at that party with those drunk friends of friends, something genuinely terrible could happen.’
There’s no lecturing, no scolding and the hushed silence from the schoolgirls speaks volumes about their engagement with the themes. ‘We girls are brought up to be liked and to please – I should know. I once had this awful guy pressing himself up against me in a subway carriage and I just stood there because I didn’t want to move away in case it offended him! Who cares if you offend some random guy who you don’t even know? You don’t owe anybody anything. Your only responsibility is to yourself and if you make a mistake, so what? It’s no big deal. You are the one who has to look at yourself in the mirror every morning and live with your choices.’
HOW TO STAY SAFE ON A NIGHT OUT
- First do your homework: make sure you know his surname, address, school.
- Make sure someone you trust knows who you are going out with and where you are going, and stick to public places.
- Always keep some money tucked away so that you can get yourself home if necessary.
- Make sure your mobile is charged so that you can call home if you need to.
- Stick to the plan – if you arrive at a party together, leave together.
- Don’t get isolated or leave friends behind.
- If your friend has gone missing for a while at a bar or party, look for her – she might be in trouble.
- Don’t get drunk – the more vulnerable you are, the more likely it is that someone can target you.
- Keep extra-alert. And remember the danger posed by the ‘date-rape’ drug Rohypnol. It is out there!
Deana and Allison are in the process of writing a book aimed at teens; if they write the way they speak, it should be in every family home in the country, and mandatory for school libraries. ‘We hope it will be read and bought by parents and carers not only for the teen in their life but so that they can have an insight into what young women are facing in today’s world where there are so many freedoms and so many dangers,’ says Allison.
According to Pete Gittins, the assistant head of Channing’s Middle School, the year 12s were given a presentation earlier in the year and were so impressed they urged the school to organise the same talk for the year 11s.
‘We’ve asked Deana and Allison to design lesson plans around certain issues,’ says Mr Gittins. ‘We also hope to get them to talk to our year 13s about gap-year safety and moving away to university. The impact on our girls has been tremendous, and the fact that these women are North London mothers with children the same age means that our students can really relate to them.’
It is a view echoed by the school’s head girl Millie Barber, 17. ‘After I sat through a Traap presentation, I left feeling really empowered and aware of my own personal safety, but not in a frightened way, more of an alert, strong way.’ Alert, strong, empowered, aware: all the qualities any mother would want to impart to her daughter, or indeed son.
As Traap seeks to roll out its programme nationwide, there can’t be a parent in the land who doesn’t want their teenager to benefit from the sort of hard-hitting advice that our children need to hear, and more crucially, to heed.