The last few weeks of press and social media coverage about violence against women and girls has been upsetting and exhausting. Many of us have been through a range of emotions; anger, sadness and despair, whilst reflecting on our own personal experiences of misogyny or assault, bad memories surfacing after decades. Some of us will have been worrying about making our workplaces or communities safer, and many of us will have felt stressed as parents, wondering how we can both protect our children as well as raise them to be kind, thoughtful, sensitive human beings who value equality between the sexes, and a fair society.
When we live through difficult or traumatic times, it can be the thought that things can change for the better that keeps us hopeful. In recent weeks we have perhaps seen a tipping point reached, outrage on Twitter, and an outpouring of personal testimonies on Instagram about misogyny, sexism and violence against women and girls. It has been powerful, appalling and draining, but so important, and potentially it heralds a sea change.
But we have to go beyond social media and hashtags if we are to create change.
We have to ‘turn the super tanker’ that is sexist behaviour. In fact we have to do more than turn it, we have to stop it. And that will not be easy but feeling like we can all do something practical may shift us from despair and anger to feeling more empowered and optimistic.
Whether we are raising boys or girls there are practical steps we can take to inch closer to a kinder, safer world for all. Some of the following you will no doubt already be trying, but perhaps there will be new resources you were unaware of or an idea you are interested in tentatively exploring with your young person.
(I will assume that messages about basic respect for other humans and being kind to others are already well covered)
1. A good time to have difficult or sensitive conversations is when you are side by side with your young person, for example in the car or walking. Sideways conversations take eye contact pressure off and can allow for a more relaxed environment.
2. Don’t try to cover the whole topic at once. Drip feed topics, and see if any engage their interest to explore, or ask if they have been discussing these issues at school, as a way in. Keeping it low key is less likely to cause them to shut down through embarrassment
3. Asking if friends have been affected by recent events is another way to raise the topic, so that they don’t feel you’re ‘getting at’ them or making it about them.
4. Encourage talking between them and their friends and discussion of these topics, but also ensure your child is confident to express their opinion even if their mates don’t always agree.
5. If they feel the topic doesn’t affect them, it may be worth gently asking how they would feel if ‘x’ (a female they care about e.g. sister, cousin, family friend) was affected, and reiterating that it is a topic that affects everyone. They can help ‘x’ by being ready to be an ally even if they can’t see the relevance to themselves yet.
6. Talk about how to be an ‘ally’ (to be a supporter and protector of those they care about). This is more relevant for boys (allies are generally from the ‘more privileged group’, and support those at risk, so in this case males supporting females), who can use their position to challenge poor behaviour, sexism, inequality and culturally common but unacceptable actions.
7. Talk to them about calling out unacceptable conduct, not by humiliating the perpetrators but if possible by defusing situations, being clear about what is and is not ok, and by saying ‘stop, that’s not cool mate’ (or whatever the current equivalent is).
8. For the boys, it may help to ask their female friends what they would like them to do if they witness difficult situations, and to tell them that they are keen to be allies.
9. If they worry that they wouldn’t know how to react in the heat of the moment, then try getting them to ask themselves the questions ‘What would ‘Y’ do?, with ‘Y’ being a person they respect and admire (parent, older sibling, teacher, even a celebrity/ sportsperson they respect). This will be a useful technique throughout life, to guide them in a positive way.
What to cover?
· From year 6 onwards, consider having conversations about the fact that sometimes females will experience behaviours that are unfair or unpleasant because of their gender. Open the topic and reassure your child that they can talk to you about anything they witness or experience that makes them uncomfortable.
· Consider using scenarios that are age appropriate to gauge how they might respond, or to hear what they think of a situation.
· For year 6 that might be how they would react to a boy lifting a girl’s skirt up in the playground.
· For early teens, you might wish to talk about inappropriate language (banter is only funny if both sides think it’s funny, for example) or touching, sharing of photos or porn.
· As they get older (but when it feels appropriate to you) topics such as consent, sex (including ‘stealthing’ – the removal of the condom during sex without consent, which is sexual assault), respecting boundaries, not sharing or discussion personal information/ sexual experiences with peers, and trust are all essential to cover.
· It is important to keep reassuring them that you are there for them, nothing is off limits if they need to talk, and that you are talking about this not to embarrass them but to protect them. As a Police Doctor I regularly assessed and supported young women who had been raped or sexually assaulted, which was truly harrowing, but as GP I also supported several young men accused of sexual assault or inappropriate behaviour but who had genuinely believed that they had misunderstood a situation. The more young people learn pre-emptively about consent and sex, and the more they can talk to reliable, supportive adults about concerns, the less likely such tragic situations will arise, or that young women will be so dreadfully affected.
There are some brilliant websites and hashtags to follow if you are looking for more ideas, and if you love a good ‘high school’ film with brilliant messaging and an uplifting storyline then you might also like to watch Moxie on Netflix (probably ok from age 14 up as it covers sexual assault topics).
Great websites and campaigns include #HeForShe and #EverydaySexism. If you are feeling strong and want to understand what’s happening to some young people across the UK then read the testimonies on Everyone’s Invited. This new campaign is a #MeToo for schools, and a disturbing read. (You may wish to ask your own school what they are doing to respond to the recent media coverage about toxic culture and to address violence against women.)
Addressing these issues will not be easy, but we have reason to feel positive and hopeful if we take practical steps to talk to our children, role model allyship and respectful behaviour, call out misogyny and sexism, and work with our schools to create a safer, more compassionate culture around sex and gender equality. There is work to be done, but as parents raising considerate, thoughtful teens, perhaps we can stop that super tanker.