To End Violence Against Women, we Need to Talk Differently To Boys

Calls for action following a horrible attack

There has been a renewed debate about the sexual harassment of women following the recent death of Sarah Everard who disappeared walking home from Clapham Common. Millions of women have shared their own stories of being harassed in what has become 2021’s MeToo.

The “#NotAllMen” response is rightly called out as part of the problem. Defensiveness from individuals lets wider culture off the hook. Sexual offenses in England and Wales have trebled between 2008/9 and 2018/19. It is possible that this represents an increase in reporting because more women feel confident to do so. But that rape convictions have fallen to a record low sends an alarming message: sexual assault goes without punishment.

What turns an otherwise normal male into an attacker?

The term Incel — short for “ involuntarily celibate” originated from misogynistic message boards of males who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner. Their self-loathing is redirected to hatred of women, which legitimises taking what they will not give (sex). Some of these attitudes are tolerated in the culture beyond shadowy message boards: Everyone’s Invited started sharing testimonies of ‘rape culture’ on Instagram in 2020 and had a huge response.

Incels exist — culture can indeed create involuntary celibate men. India’s culture of dowries (paying for a daughter to get married, which can render families financially destitute) leads to female infanticide on a shocking scale (part of 117 million girls worldwide), maintains surplus of males (112 males for every 100 females) that some consider a genuine security risk. In Britain the proportion of males to females is a much more balanced 51% female to 49% male, so there is no such issue. So where is ‘rape culture’ coming from?

Porn — the elephant in the room

Porn is a reasonable thing to blame. Some experts have recommended parents’ blocking pornography, to at least prompt a conversation. This seems valid, with parents underestimating their children’s porn usage. It may also be a naive recommendation, with tech-savvy teenagers running rings around their parents, and mostly using smartphones. Pornography also makes up 4% of the internet, 13% of web searches and 20% of mobile searches. Despite regulations it’s a 35-billion-dollar industry worldwide.

We need relationships education

Some commentators have argued that rape culture comes from a lack of decent relationships and education. Relationships education became mandatory in primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in secondary schools last year. The Sex Education Forum surveyed teenagers and found that over half of teenagers said they didn’t learn enough or at all about what makes a relationship abusive, what makes it healthy.

My own at secondary school was the biology with no relationship discussion whatsoever. Most young people do not have an expert like Gillian Anderson in the recent Netflix comedy drama. Being a Millennial, I remember studying Sex and The City learn what I could about sex. My relationships education came from the stylised melodramas of Dawson’s Creek or the neurotic Ally McBeal. I had no cues for how to relate to young women who I regarded as an alien species. Nothing felt realistic to my reality, with all the awkwardness of entering manhood.

Men use humour to avoid emotions

British blokey humour is an obstacle to meaningful discussions about relationships for young men. The Inbetweeners most closely resembles my teen years, with one fowl-mouthed mate, one-upmanship and no emotions. We were pretty good-natured young men, just unequipped with relationships and left to fend for ourselves. Unlike teenage girls we didn’t share our struggles so much, mostly banter. Being British, talking earnestly about anything was lame. I dread to think what the girls in our school overheard and how it made them feel.

Pressure to grow up fast closes the space for boys to develop, to discuss, to be vulnerable. Unlike teenage girls, which Western culture celebrates as beautiful, besides a few sports and music celebrities, teenage boys can too easily feel invisible and problematised as sub-men .Sexist banter comes from a place of emotional insecurity. Sexual jokes — sometimes misogynistic — masked our own insecurities, keen to look worldly.

A path to male emotional health and safer women

Teaching better relationships and sex education must be welcomed. Let’s talk to boys in a different way, discussing realistic situations, such as the house parties, nights out, and chats on social media. Let’s discuss humour and what is and isn’t okay. Let’s discuss porn and how it differs from real sexual relationships. And let’s discuss consent.

We need to create spaces for boys and young men to develop their ability to connect emotionally and build self esteem. Only then can we begin to heal our culture and end culturally-derived violence against women.

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David Stoker

David Stoker

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Policy analyst, creative nonfiction writer and experienced facilitator. A writer who paints.