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Challenging harmful sexual attitudes

Challenging harmful sexual attitudes and their impact

Harmful attitudes and ideas about sex and gender can support abusive sexual behaviour. It's important to challenge these ideas to help your child develop positively.

Parents text content

Attitudes which support abuse

There are lots of products in society, for example pornography, as well as some magazines, video games, music lyrics and videos, that can present harmful messages about sex and gender.

These ideas can take hold in young people’s peer groups, defining what is cool and respected, so that even if a young person avoids sexist media, they can still be influenced by its myths.

Such harmful messages include:

  • In sexual situations, normal values about how other people should be treated and respected don’t apply – in fact they can get in the way of 'good sex'
  • Male sexual arousal should be acted on, this is ‘sexual freedom’ – and anyway it’s too strong a feeling to resist
  • Sexual activity is mostly about satisfying male sexual desire
  • Sexiness is primarily about how someone looks (most importantly the woman or girl), rather than their character or the personal connection between sexual partners
  • Sex is enhanced by breaking boundaries, for example, by persuading someone who is initially reluctant, or by using aggression
  • Men and boys should be admired for their sexual activities; whereas women and girls should be negatively judged (for example, ‘stud’ versus ‘slag’ labels)
  • Sex is like a ‘battlefield’: boys should try to get as much sex as they can and girls should resist – so when it does happen, it’s a conquest for the boy (but often a source of shame for the girl)
  • People should be negatively judged for being gay or bisexual

Even when people don’t explicitly make these claims, they can be powerfully communicated through shared jokes and put-downs, as well as admiring and copying those behaviours that fit with them, and ignoring and ridiculing those that don’t.

When a peer group buys into these ideas, research shows that it becomes a ripe context for abusive and harassing behaviour, especially from boys towards girls.

Boys get ‘lad points’ for approaching sex as a conquest with little regard for girls’ feelings. Girls can find themselves having sexual acts forced upon them, being tricked into them, and feeling as if they have to comply. And the circulating messages teach girls to focus their self-esteem primarily around their looks, and put them in ‘no-win’ situations where they feel devalued both if they engage in sexual activity and if they don’t.

These ideas let both boys and girls down. They make it harder for everyone to have personal and equal relationships, as well as mutually enthusiastic, respectful and satisfying sexual activity.

What you can do

Keep a look out for things that might mean your teenager or their peers are giving these ideas air-time. For example:

  • jokes that make light of harmful sex; 
  • enjoying the discussion of people as sex objects, with no apparent respect of their thoughts or feelings 
  • promotion of sexual activities which are not clearly mutually desired – for example, comments like ‘I’d do her’
  • frequently rating and comparing people on their looks; 
  • putting pressure or tricking a peer into doing something they might not want to; 
  • glamourising things like porn, pimping and impersonal sex.

If you think your child may be behaving like this, find a moment to explore it with them.

  • Take an approach that challenges the behaviour whilst not shaming them, and invites them to think about the strengths in resisting these messages.
  • If your child becomes defensive, don’t let this put you off sharing your thoughts – research has found that even if people argue back when challenged about their attitudes, they often still mentally shift them.
  • Avoid too much confrontation – for example suggest they think about what’s been said and talk to you further about it at a later stage if they’d like.
  • Brush-offs and put-downs can at first floor us (‘its only a joke!’, ‘lighten up’, ‘I’m not hurting anyone, relax!’). You might want to have a statement or two lined up to challenge them, drawing attention back to the feelings and rights of other people or the strength involved in resisting pressure (for example, ‘The best jokes don’t need to put people down to be funny’).
  • Whether or not you are aware of your child being exposed to porn,talk to them about its messages 
  • Talk to your child’s school or college. Find out what they are doing to promote a sexually safe school culture, and ask your child. How do teachers respond to sexist language, or to discussions of porn or sexual image sharing? How are positive principles for sex and relationships taught? If they don’t seem to have a thoughtful and effective approach, encourage them to rise to their responsibilities here, and invite other parents to join you in the conversations

Parents text content

Although the pressures on boys and girls are often different, they can both drive a narrow focus on sex and attractiveness.

This can reduce young people's self-esteem and involvement in life’s opportunities. So be proactive about spending time together; in what you say and do find ways of affirming them; and support them in building their identity around all of their interests.