Increasingly, as I traverse the country speaking in schools, there are days when I feel I have entered a war zone.
It is tempting to write this depiction off as a rhetorical flourish. But I can’t think of another way to describe the levels of trauma I am encountering, especially in girls.
For more than a decade I have been speaking to students across Australia. But now I’m finding the stories girls tell me are getting worse: and they are getting worse younger.
Girls line up to talk to me about their experiences. The lines are growing longer. They will give up recess and even lunch breaks to talk to me.
Girls relate harrowing accounts. Of daily pressures to send sexual images. “I didn’t know I could say ‘no”, say some. Or “When I said ‘no’, no-one spoke to me for days. Girls describe being groped – unwanted hands on chests, or up school dresses – even in the classroom.
Many girls hate travelling to and from school on school buses – the level of harassment is unbearable.
Comments about the size of their breasts, surreptitiously taking photos – up school dresses, down blouses (so common there’s terms for this: ‘up-skirting’ and ‘down-blousing’ with thousands of images shared online).
Girls report being cat-called and wolf-whistled everyday on their way to school, from the age of 11 or 12. They hate it. They are also emotionally distressed by the rape jokes which have become a constant.
Recently, a Year 9 girl said she was taunted by boys at her school because, being of Brazilian origin, she didn’t have the stereotypical large backside depicted in porn genres objectifying Brazilian women. Year 8 girls at this same school in a wealthy area of Sydney, told me the Year 8 boys had created a list of all the girls from top to bottom based on breast size.
As if it wasn’t enough that they had constructed such a list, the boys informed each girl of their position on this list, causing them all significant grief. Girls tell me they are sick of boys talking about sex all the time and telling them how much p*rn they watched the night before.
Most girls think this behaviour is something they just have to ‘put up with’, to endure, though experiencing it as an injury to their souls. Fortunately, after hearing my message, they recognise their value and worth, and decide to stand up for themselves, to not tolerate bad (often illegal) behaviour. A common response is “We are allowed to say no and not feel bad about it!”.
Girls tell me they understand boys are under pressure too. From toxic messages about masculinity in mainstream popular culture, lack of good male role models, absentee fathers (who can be present but emotionally absent), and sometimes also from girls.
So what can we do to help boys develop into good young men?
- Be vigilant about what you allow into the home. Are you tolerating violent games? Violent music with lyrics degrading to women and girls? Are your young men consuming pornography which will give them distorted and harmful ideas about women and girls?
- Do you allow negative talk, put downs and judgement about their sister’s bodies in the home?
- Are you modelling respect-based relationships in the home (it won’t always be what you say but how you act that will impact your children the most)?
- Do you encourage your sons to be open emotionally and to talk about their own challenges in a country which doesn’t have a history of encouraging open communication about feelings and emotions?
- Engage boys in healthy activities. Help them see they can make a difference in the world.
- Fathers consider enrolling yourselves and your son in a right-of-passage program (such as Pathways and Rite Journey) to help them develop into healthy young men.
On Top, Cheryl Fagan (healthy sexuality workbook for young people)
The Mask you Live in (available through Netflix): the best film on masculinity I have seen and explores how our culture’s narrow definition of masculinity is harming our boys, men and society and unveils what we can do about it).
Melinda Tankard Reist is an author, speaker, media commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is best known for her work addressing sexualisation, objectification, the harms of pornography, sexual exploitation, trafficking and violence against women. An opinion writer, Melinda is also a regular on morning television and has appeared on ABC’s Q&A and The Gruen sessions as well as many other TV and radio programs. Melinda is co-founder of the grassroots campaigning movement, Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation, exposing corporations, advertisers and marketers who objectify women and sexualise girls to sell products and services. She has recently been appointed Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Culture and Ethics, Notre Dame University, Sydney. For more information or to buy any of Melinda Tankard Reist’s books go to melindatankardreist.com