Sex & Damaging Attitudes – Hear Them; Challenge Them; Change Them

Headlines today focus on children’s worrying attitudes towards relationships and sexual interactions.  Distressing, though unsurprising, girls are subject to “sexual harassment” in schools.  Challenging this needs to be a co-ordinated approach beginning with children’s voices while examining messages around them shaping those views.  Children’s conversational interactions, their words in dialogue and chatter, often steeped in the mundaneness of the day-to-day, contain incredibly powerful messages which adults need to listen to, reflect on and respond to affecting culture shift, a change in attitudes for a safer tomorrow.

A number of sessions with children in local town schools leading up to the holidays involved open-ended discussions on broad themes.  Children spoke freely sharing opinions on where the risk and dangers related to summer break may lie.  Listening to children who were classmates swiftly highlighted some startling differences between boys’ and girls’ beliefs.

The boys mainly gave short answers, often a word or a phrase, and were focussing on dangers which could be relevant to anyone such as floods, fires, being contacted on X-Box by people they didn’t know or being knocked down by cars.  The girls tended to offer more narrative.  A number of the girls’ answers were very specific to interactions with the opposite sex linked to their personal safety, even some of the youngest girls.  Some included specific references to sexual violence, linking drinking to being taken advantage of and risk of sexual assault from boys when wearing less clothing.*

A few days later our two daughters saw a lunchbox they liked – neon pink and black, sequinned, emblazoned with “Girls Can Change the World”.  We bought them one each for back-to-school.  The 8 year old returned from her first day back with: “Mummy?…. Bobby** said ‘Girls CAN’T change the world, you’re missing the T!’ when he saw my lunchbox.…”  By mid-week, 4 more boys had commented on the wording, all discrediting the assertion.  Unsure how to challenge the boys, she had chosen not to, remaining quiet.  Children never commented on her previous lunchboxes.  What was it about this one which attracted attention?  Why only boys commenting?  Why the need to be so vocal in challenging the statement on the lunchbox?

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Reflecting on where these attitudes may stem from, and in an effort to begin challenging them, examining parallel examples can be illuminating.  Attempts in early September to reinforce uniform guidelines saw some schools reminding girls that disregarding school policy & guidance on skirt hem-lengths could be inviting unwanted sexual attention.  This opened a number of heated discussions on Twitter around victim-blaming attitudes.  Similarly, recent discussions with fashion retailer Matalan, centred on young girls’ bras, included lengthy discussions with a male executive at Headquarters about the word “modesty” appearing on the labels.  By collaboratively exploring the definition of the word “modesty” and its antonym “immodesty,” and the constructs potentially created when applying them to girls’ undergarments, the wider implications of the label word-choice including victim-blaming language were considered.  Following a shared learning experience, culminating with a presentation on sexualised clothing and child sexual abuse,  a positive outcome was reached.  The word “Modesty” has now been removed from the labelling on that line of girls’ bras at Matalan altogether.

Is there a connection between readily accepted societal messages and prevailing understanding around sex and healthy relationships for our children? Could challenging some of these perceptions be a key part of the solution to ending sexual violence against girls? Well it can’t make the current context any worse…listening to the children’s views, and reading today’s news reports, we desperately need to try something.

Valuing children’s voices is not just an act of  kindness, or even just good practice.  It is essential and plays a critical role in changing attitudes which can lead to children learning about safer interactions and reducing the perseveration of behaviour which can ultimately lead to sexual violence.   Listening can be the simplest starting point for change – please let’s all do what we can.  Start by listening.

Victoria talks about girls speaking out in the UK .

* Teachers supported children to enhance understanding that what a girl/woman wears is never a form of sexual consent, and unwanted sexual contact or sexual violence is never a girl/woman’s  fault, regardless of what she is wearing.

**Boy’s name changed to protect identity.

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