Talking to boys about sexism and respecting women

We all want our kids to be respectful of others. Whatever your beliefs at home, we can agree we’d like our kids to be kind, empathetic and respectful when they grow up. Seems straight forward enough? They’re good kids. Then why does this feel like a monster task at times?

One question in particular we sometimes hear from parents is, ‘How do I raise my boys to be respectful of girls and women?’ Even in 2020, young people are still receiving some damaging messaging on the roles boys and girls are expected to play gender-wise and how women should be treated due to things like pornography, some television and pop culture, music videos, and even just from what other kids do and say in the playground. Parents are never going to be able to counteract every message our child takes in from the world around them. All we can do is try to help guide them with our own values and encourage them to challenge some of these harmful (and limiting) messages through having lots of conversations. This one in particular is a big question, and we certainly don’t have all the answers – but we do have a few tips to guide you.

Ages 5-12

  • Lead by example. This means things like, if someone you know makes a sexist comment or joke in front of your child – say something if you feel comfortable about doing so. Or if you don’t at the time, you might like to have a conversation with your child about it later and let them know why you didn’t like what was said. We all like to let off steam about other people from time-to-time, but if possible, watch language to make sure we’re not saying something disrespectful about that person – especially in terms of gender. (Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you’re not still allowed to critique a celebrity’s latest red carpet look!)
  • Let them play however they like. Why should trucks be ‘boy toys’ and dolls be ‘girl toys’? You might like to ask your son if they’d like some dolls or dress up clothes next time it’s their birthday or Christmas. If they say no because it’s a ‘girls toy’, ask them why they think a toy is only specifically for boys or girls – this will help them see how silly-sounding the argument is.
  • Talk to them about what sexism is. This is a conversation that can start young with, ‘Sometimes some people will treat others differently or badly, or view them as less than other people because of their gender,’ and can grow from there, adding more as they get older. If you feel comfortable, you could even mention examples of sexism you’ve seen yourself or occasions you’ve noticed in your own life. The easiest way to have this conversation is to talk about what you see in the media, like when watching television or an advertisement. Ask your child what they think of what you’re watching, and you can offer your own opinions too.
  • Invite them to empathise. This can just mean encouraging your son to read books, watch movies and play games with a female protagonist or from the perspective of women. This helps to place them in someone else’s shoes.

Ages 12+ 
All the above-mentioned points can also be actions and conversations that continue once they reach adolescence (well, maybe not the one about toys). You might just like to explore things a little more in depth. Once kids become teenagers, there are a few more things that become important to talk about (and talk really is the operative word here). But the good news is, the more you talk, the more they’ll take on your values and work their own brains. You don’t need to get it right every time, or talk about everything all at once. It can be as simple as pointing out something in a film or on the news, asking for their opinion and offering your own insights. It’s also important to know that gender stereotypes can be limiting for everyone.

  • Talk about the portrayal of women in pornography. This is a huge topic that deserves its own article, but just to touch on it, one of the worst places that young boys can get ideas about men and women is through mainstream pornography. Of course, not all young people watch pornography, but sadly, statistically many are likely to at least be shown it by friends if not watching regularly themselves. The good thing is, you can have vital influence over how much they take on board from pornography. Talking with your child about what they might have seen or may see can help to put things into context and make them more critically aware of what they’re watching. This includes the violence done towards women, how women are portrayed as always ‘up for anything’, how men never ask women for consent before doing something to them, how the sex isn’t centred around pleasure for women, and the unrealistic body types presented in porn. This article and this article tackle the topic in greater depth if you want a bit more help with this one.
  • Talk about issues affecting women in the news. Have they heard of #MeToo? What do they think about it? What do they think about Donald Trump’s comments towards and about women? Talking about what’s going on in the world invites them to consider how sexism can function in the world around them, while involving them in the conversation encourages them to critically think about the issues and work out what they think. Many children have a natural sense of justice and developing a strong sense of social justice is something many parents want for their children. 
  • Talk about consent (a lot). Yeah, this is a big one that could also be its own article. We address talking to teens about consent generally here, but there are specific conversations about consent that need to be had with young people, regardless of gender. Talk about intimacy, and how it’s still important to have respect in a sexual relationship even if there isn’t commitment. Talk about how, because of sexual violence (and other reasons), girls can sometimes feel like they have to say ‘yes’ to boys even if they don’t want to – so it’s important that young people let any partners know that they’re happy to hear a ‘no’. Talk about how important it is that they respect a ‘no’ the first time it’s said, and how if there’s any ambiguity, then that should be taken as a ‘no’ as well. Talk, talk, and talk some more. 
  • Talk about how gender stereotypes negatively affect men as well as women. We talk about this one here as well. It is important that boys understand that gender stereotypes can be harmful to them as well, from stifling their emotions to discouraging certain professions to dictating the way they should dress. By being aware of the messages they might be receiving from the world around them, they can decide what to take on board and what to leave on the magazine page.

Virginity: myths your teen needs challenged

There’s a lot of pressure around ‘the first time’. And teenagers should take first sexual experiences seriously, as there’s a lot at stake and significant risk (and potential for joy and excitement!) that come with sex. But there are also a lot of antiquated ideas that don’t help young people when navigating what can already feel like a minefield. Here are our talking points you can bring up with your teen around what myths around ‘the first time’ we believe need to be challenged and debunked.

Myth: the first time is supposed to hurt

Sex should not hurt. Whether it’s vaginal sex, anal sex or anything else, pain is a warning sign that the body isn’t comfortable and you should stop what you’re doing, try something else, or at least take things much slower. When you’re anxious, and if you have a vagina (this applies to the anus too), the muscles can contract to make inserting anything difficult or painful. It might be a sign that you’re not ready for this particular sexual act and/or with this person. If you’re feeling confident that you’d like to continue, then taking long, deep breaths and adding more lubrication can help relax the body and make things easier. 

Myth: women should bleed after the first time

We’ve all seen the movies or read accounts of people holding up bloodied sheets to display the proof of the newlywed woman’s just-lost virginity. The blood in such cases is meant to have come from the hymen, which is a remnant tissue just inside the opening of the vagina that’s left over from the vagina’s formation during embryonic development. The idea is that when a person with a vagina has penetrative sex for the first time, the hymen breaks – creating blood. The problem is that for many people, the hymen naturally breaks before this happens. Even if the hymen does break from intercourse, the existing tissue can be so thin, small or perforated that it doesn’t bleed. In fact, the hymen isn’t rigid ­– it’s flexible, so sometimes it doesn’t even tear at all. Note that there isn’t any equivalent indicator or measure for a man either.

Myth: girls should cherish and protect their ‘virginity’

Eugh. No, just no. All young people should think carefully about how, when and with who they want to engage in new sexual experiences. But ‘virginity’ isn’t something that makes a person any better (or worse) than someone else. It certainly doesn’t make them ‘pure’. Honestly, this is just an old, sexist idea and it’s time we put it in the bin.  Also, we might want to consider getting rid of the term itself. ‘Virginity’ stems from ‘virgin’, meaning a ‘sexually intact young woman’ (not a thing) and we shouldn’t ever consider having a new sexual experience as a loss. How can we lose something we never had? The term implies permanence and regret or sadness over giving up something ‘precious’ that you can’t find or get back. It also perpetuates the idea that sex is something to be ‘taken’, not shared.

Myth: ‘losing your virginity’ means to have penis-in-vagina sex

The problem with categorising ‘sex’ only as penis-in-vagina intercourse is that it completely erases the sexual experiences of queer people. Is a woman who’s only ever slept with other women still a ‘virgin’? Is a man who’s only ever been with other men still a ‘virgin’? Once we think about the diversity of sexual experience, it seems silly to think of someone being ‘a virgin’ before vaginal sex and ‘no longer a virgin’ after (and as we mentioned above, even these terms are antiquated). Considering sex to only include penis-in-vagina intercourse also creates an idea that this is the most important and most pleasurable type of sex in heterosexual relationships, which we know people often don’t consider to be the case, especially women.

Myth: there is only one ‘first time’

This follows on from the above points. If we stop seeing ‘virginity’ as something that is ‘lost’ with vaginal sex, then what is it? The great thing is, what you consider to be becoming sexually active can be whatever you want it to be – whatever it means to you. Sex advice columnist, author and queer activist Dan Savage has a nice idea that each person has a ‘deck of cards.’ One card can be your first kiss, another when someone tells you they love you, another when you see another person naked, another when you have oral sex, another vaginal sex, and so on. It’s not about loss, it’s about new experiences – but it’s also okay if you don’t have all these experiences over your lifetime. And if any of these ‘firsts’ isn’t what you want it to be, you don’t need to count it. You don’t need to count any ‘firsts’ at all.  

Myth: the first time should be perfect

Obviously, any sexual experience should be with someone you trust, respect, and enjoy being around – especially the first of anything. But there can be a lot of pressure that any new sexual experiences have to happen in an exactly-just-so-according-to-plan way and with someone who is the love of your life (just like scenes in the movies). But for many people, this won’t be the case, and that’s okay. It’s good to have expectations, but you don’t need to beat yourself up if the ‘first time’ of something wasn’t everything you hoped it to be (so long as it wasn’t an awful or traumatic experience). You’ll get plenty more opportunities to try again in the future. And hopefully, you’ll have many experiences as you grow older that will be pleasurable, amazing and memorable.

Myth: the first time won’t be good

This is the other side of the coin in terms of how people often view first sexual experiences. It’s true that sex can be awkward or weird or funny or unfamiliar, and it can take time to work out what feels good – but sexual experiences shouldn’t be awful or make you feel worse after they’re done. There can also be this idea that because the first time is all but guaranteed to be disappointing, so a person should just ‘get rid of their virginity’, tick that box, and move on. This is why communication, consent, trust, respect, and caring about the other person’s pleasure are so important. If you have and expect all these key elements from another person, then a sexual experience is far more likely to be enjoyable, even the first time.

Myth: ‘losing your virginity’ changes you as a person

Some people will feel different after new sexual experiences. They might have new feelings, perceive new sensations, or have new ideas about life and themselves. But for many, they won’t feel any different from the person they were a day ago. Whether or not a person is having sex isn’t a personality trait; for many it’s not a big deal at all. And that’s okay. There’s a narrative in pop culture that you’re almost ‘born again’ after your first sexual experiences, but this places unhealthy emphasis on the event and for most it simply won’t be true.

Myth: you should have had sex by a certain age

Teenagers can experience a lot of pressure to have sex, particularly boys and particularly penis in vagina sex. It doesn’t help that so much of pop culture (hello American Pie) tells young people that it’s embarrassing to have not had sex by a certain age. This in part also stems from the idea that ‘virginity’ is a thing a woman has that she needs to protect, as the flip side is that men should try and ‘take’ it from them. But when to engage in sexual experiences (and how and who with) is a deeply personal matter. Rushing into sex too soon can be upsetting, or at worst traumatic. It’s also completely normal to never engage in sexual experiences in your teens or even twenties. Some people, such as people on the asexuality spectrum, may never have sex in their lifetimes. There’s no ‘right’ age, it’s just when you’re ready – whether that’s in your teens, twenties, fifties, or never.


Podcast – The Savage Lovecast (not appropriate for children, but an interesting learning tool for parents)  

You catch your 5-year-old playing ‘doctor’ with their schoolmate. What do you do?

Eeeeeek! We all dreaded this moment, didn’t we? This can be quite a confronting situation for parents and caregivers, but it’s important we don’t overreact. Child sexual behaviour is quite different to adult sexuality and we need to try and not confuse the two. Sexual exploration is actually a normal part of childhood, beginning from touching our genitals soon after we’re born. From between the ages of about three and six, kids are figuring out their identities and become particularly curious about body differences. But not every situation falls under ‘healthy exploration’, so do take in what’s happening. Are the children roughly the same age? If they are, then it’s likely not ‘red-flag’ behaviour. Are they using any toys or implements that they’re putting in places they shouldn’t? Does the situation seem coercive? These situations are more concerning, and need adult intervention.

If both kids seem happy and aren’t doing anything dangerous, then relax. Try to stay calm and remember that this is a normal and healthy part of their development. We don’t want to shame the kids by making them feel they’re doing something ‘wrong’. It’s okay to set limits, as long as it’s not in a way that makes them feel embarrassed or punished. You can positively put an end to the activity by saying something like, ‘It’s time to put clothes on,’ ‘The sun is out, let’s go jump on the trampoline,’ or, ‘Do you two want a snack? Let’s get dressed and come into the lounge room.’ Once the friend has gone home you can have a private conversation with your child. Let them know that it’s okay to be curious about other people’s bodies, but private parts are just for ourselves; we don’t touch others’ private parts or show our own. You can still encourage their curiosity by offering to show them a children’s book on bodies that the two of you can go over together. We’ve included a couple at the end you might want to look at.

It’s okay to establish a rule that when friends are over doors must be kept open – but don’t punish them for not having followed this rule already. When your child’s friend is picked up by a caregiver, you might want to casually mention what happened, but also that you weren’t worried by it and it seemed innocent. Kids normally grow out of these sorts of activities and while as heart-attack inducing it can feel at the time, it’s unlikely to be something you need to stress over.  

Raising emotionally healthy boys

In Australia, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. It makes a bleak sense considering it’s estimated that 80% of men have a mild to severe form of alexithymia: the difficulty to identify and express emotions. Because of the traditional gender stereotype that boys are tougher than girls, it means they often receive less emotional nurturing from their parents. Boys quickly learn from media and the world around them to be ‘strong’ and emotionless (unless that emotion is anger), and even as parents, we can unconsciously teach them to avoid expressing sadness, vulnerability and weakness. These days, there’s a lot of talk about how misogyny and gender stereotyping harms women – which is important – but often the damage these do to men and boys can be left off the agenda. So, what can we do as parents and caregivers to combat harmful gender stereotypes and raise happy, emotionally healthy boys?

Build their emotional vocabulary 
Talk about feelings, and talk often. This is just great practice for children anyway. Go through the names for different emotions and what physical or bodily sensations might be linked to them. Try to use a wide variety of words when talking about your own emotions; you’re their main learning source for language.

Provide good emotional role models 
Show them through your own actions how to healthily express emotion; be vulnerable with others in situations where your sons can see. Show them what empathy, love and connection looks like. But you also don’t need to be their only role model. Watch movies and read books with them, seek out narratives that show men and boys being emotionally vulnerable and expressive, and talk about it afterwards. You might also like to invite the men in your life who you trust and are close with to come and spend time with you and your child together. 

Check in often
Ask them how they feel when something good, bad, exciting, scary and so on happens to them. Check in at the end of the day about how their day was and encourage them to put a word to it, even just one is good. Don’t forget to share your highs and lows with them as well; talking about your feelings also gives them permission to feel and to express their own emotions.

Talk less, listen more
Listen to what they have to say about how they’re feeling without judgement. Ask follow-up questions and repeat back what they’ve told you. Be empathetic, and provide responses such as ‘that sounds nice/difficult/scary/fun,’ rather than trying to offer solutions or fill in silences. It’s so tempting, we know, to try and fix the problems our children are having, but we can’t ‘fix’ their emotions. We also sometimes find it difficult to sit with silence for a while and can tend to rush in and talk, which takes away the opportunity for them to fill the space. The best thing we can do is listen. 

Don’t discourage crying
When they’re upset, ask them if they feel like crying and tell them that it’s okay if they do. Let them know grown ups cry too and it can help to make sadness pass quicker. If they ever do express hurt or sadness, don’t tell them to ‘toughen up’ or to wipe their tears away. Explain that crying releases tension and helps with sad or bad feelings; that people really do feel better afterwards. Look up the research of crying and share what you find with them; it makes for interesting reading.

Find healthy outlets for their anger
There’s a line of thought that girls are taught to feel and express every emotion but anger, whereas for boys it’s the reverse. We don’t want to discourage their expressions of anger when they do feel angry, but we can help them find healthy channels. Encourage them to go for a run, shoot some hoops or read a book when they’re wound up. Listening to or playing music can be another good release. Let them know that anger is acceptable, but hurting other people or things is not. It’s not good to yell at people, but if they need a release, screaming into a pillow can be helpful. Ask them what they think are some good ideas for managing and expressing anger and come up with a plan together for when they do get angry in the future. For some people, talking about problems and worries help, whereas for others it doesn’t, and they prefer alone time. Try not to be judgemental about how your young person feels their way with this because we all have different strategies that work.

Talk about gender stereotypes and the harm they can do
Ask your son what they think it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘boy’. If they come up with any of the usual stereotypes, ask them why they think that and where they learned it. Talk about gender stereotypes when consuming media, such as starting a chat after watching an action movie with macho protagonists. Ask them questions like whether they think it’s okay for a boys or men to cry or want to wear some makeup or wear a dress. Talk about the ‘ideal man’ and whether they think all the cliched attributes that come with that are healthy. Talk about what gender stereotypes might be and where they came from, and direct their attention to how they’re starting to change and that it’s a good thing. Ask them what sort of man they want to be when they grow up, what sorts of qualities and characteristics do they value in the men they admire, and how you can both help them get there. 

You notice that your 15-year-old daughter has started skipping meals. What do you do?

While it’s Women’s Health Week, we thought we’d tackle an issue that’s on the rise in teenagers – particularly teenage girls. In Australia, 3% of girls and 1% of boys aged 14 and 15 met the diagnostic criteria for anorexia and bulimia. And the rates for teens who don’t meet the criteria, but who still show early signs for these disorders or worrying thought patterns, are much higher. One study showed that, of the 14- and 15-year-old participants, 54% of girls and 19% of boys said that they had been afraid of gaining weight in the last four weeks. Forty-three per cent of girls and 20% of boys said that they had felt that they had lost control of their eating or felt they had eaten too much in the last four weeks. Two thirds of girls said that they would be at least a little concerned and 15% said they would be really upset if they gained one or two kilograms in weight.

While this is a problem for all genders, due to sexism, objectification and beauty standards for women, girls most often take on the pressures to conform to thinness standards. Feeling the need to control eating can often be a sign of other pressures going on in a person’s life, like anxiety, stress or issues with mood. Like always, having a chat with your child about what’s going on with them is the best place to start. You can bring up that they’ve not been eating much at dinner, or that they’ve brought their lunch back home, and that you’ve noticed – but we don’t want to shame them or make them feel guilty. Just ask if there’s anything that’s making them feel stressed or upset at the moment. They might bring up a tangible problem that the two of you can work on together, such as stress about schoolwork or friendships. If their worries are more ongoing or abstract, such as generally feeling low or anxious, or if they say that there’s nothing wrong but keep persisting with these behaviours, it’s probably a good idea to look into professional counselling for them. It’s also time to seek professional help for your child if you’ve noticed they’ve drastically lost weight, they’re refusing to eat, are really struggling to eat, or are taking excessive measures to lose weight.

Don’t be afraid either to talk to your child about society’s expectations of bodies, and the types of bodies they see in magazines and social media. Starting young with these conversations and/or talking often will help them to critically consume messages from the world around them. Ask them if they think the bodies they see in the media are normal and achievable. Ask them if they believe this is the only way to be beautiful. Talk about what other kinds of beauty can look like. Talk about the importance of ‘inner’ beauty vs ‘outer’ beauty. Talk about how sexism tells women that their body is the most important thing they can offer the world. Challenge their misconceived ideas if they have any. It’s also important to watch our own behaviour around our children with these sorts of things. If they see us complaining about our weight, or talking negatively about other people’s bodies, they’ll take on these messages. Same if they see us drastically restricting food intake. By role modelling good behaviour around our kids, we can at least create a home environment that encourages a healthy relationship between our bodies and our hearts and minds.