As Ofsted warns of sex abuse in schools: How can we raise boys to respect girls?

·5-min read

A new Ofsted report has revealed shocking levels of sexual abuse and harassment in UK schools. 

The watchdog spoke to more than 900 young people after thousands of stories of harassment and sexual misconduct were shared by pupils on the website Everyone's Invited. 

Its findings show that sexist insults, online bullying, upskirting, groping and rape "jokes" have all become almost "normalised" in our schools, with girls being routinely harassed for nude images which are then shared on Whatsapp or Snapchat by their male classmates. 

It's clear that we need to raise our boys to respect girls - but how best can parents, already doing a difficult job, do that in today's society? Here's how to begin.

Indoor low angle image of a tensed worried young woman feeling tired during working on the laptop at home.
Online culture is beyond the experience of many parents. (Getty)

Mentally arm boys to resist peer pressure

Tanith Carey, parenting expert and co-author of What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents, believes that we need to give boys the tools they need to resist peer pressure in a school environment where almost every child has the capacity to access damaging hardcore pornography in seconds on their smartphones. 

"The hypersexualised images of men in porn mean that boys over-conform to these stereotypes, thinking they have to act and behave in the brutal, unfeeling ways portrayed there," she told Yahoo. 

"Not all boys feel comfortable with this, but even if they don't, they fear they will be ridiculed or dismissed as unmanly if they say 'Hey, this isn't OK.' 

"That is why boys need to understand the social machinery they are part of and be given the skills and words to stand up to their peers when they see girls being assaulted or abused."

Get dads to talk

Father and son time

While all parents, teachers and other carers have a part to play, it's especially important that dads and other male role models take particular responsibility. 

"Part of the reason all this misogyny is being perpetuated, despite other strides made by women towards equality, is that boys are raised to believe they have to present brutal unfeeling facades in order to appear manly," said Carey. 

"So if you’re a dad, help your son by talking about your feelings and allowing him to express his. For example, not telling him ‘man up’ if he’s upset or ‘be brave’ if he’s crying. 

"Stick up for other people when you see them being bullied or abused and teach your son to do the same, too." 

Start conversations early

Dads and male carers can talk to sons about what's right from early on. (Getty)
Dads and male carers can talk to sons about what's right from early on. (Getty)

Few parents really want to speak to their young children about porn or sex, but this can mean that we are often leaving it too late. 

"While these issues may seem like a long way off when they are little, it's never too early to teach kids about consent and boundaries," said Carey. 

"We should have many little conversations about consent and the importance of mutually respectful relationships throughout their lives. For example, even before kids know what it is, you can start the conversation about harassment by talking about the importance of equal relationships and teaching them that they should always be asked if they want to be hugged." 

When children become curious about sex at around the age of seven, it's important to make sure that they understand it's not just about making babies. 

"Explain that it's also a special way grown-ups have of showing love for each other," says Carey. 

Read more: Immediate review into sex abuse in schools

Talk about porn

As soon as you think your child might come across porn, which unfortunately may well be when they are still in primary school, it's important to speak carefully about it. 

"Talk about how, in the same way the action in adventure movies isn’t real life, pornography isn’t real sex. It’s a performance designed to shock and make money," said Carey. 

"Proper age verification on porn would help,"she said. "In the the meantime, we need to tell our young children that there are much better, healthier and more accurate sources of information about sex when they become curious."

Set ground rules with technology

Teenage boy using smartphone at home
Talk to teens about why porn is not the same as sex. However embarrassed they may feel. (Getty)

Despite all our best intentions, it's not realistic to expect our children never to own a smartphone. But if you're worried about porn access, social media or other online influences, talk to your child's school about daily phone access and try to come up with a mutual boundary-respecting plan with your child. 

For example, you might insist on knowing your younger child's social media passwords but promise not to check their accounts unless you feel you have reason to be concerned.

Read more: Report on sex abuse in schools roils Mexico

A mum from Hertfordshire, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Yahoo that her fears were first raised when her 12-year-old eldest son started to use troublingly adult and sexualised language. 

The parents made the difficult decision to check their child's search history, as well as asking him about where he was picking up such language. 

"We'd not looked at his phone before as we wanted to create a mutual trust and respect," she said. 

"It materialised that during the time school returned between lockdowns, children were allowed their phones on them all day because it was seen as a Covid 19 risk to keep handing them back in. 

This had lead to Porn Hub being watched at break times." 

By speaking to their son, and the school, the couple managed to improve the situation. "We reported it to the school and they immediately introduced a COVID-19 safe way of managing mobile phones, as well as talking to the year groups about respect and consent." 

The Life Edit
The Life Edit

Watch: Review launched into sex abuse in schools

Report on sex abuse in schools roils Mexico

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