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.