Why ‘Gender-neutral’ is vital to Sex Education

by Rachel Bell on September 8, 2017

‘Gender-neutral’ simply means stereotype-free – and starting with clothes labels is a step in the right direction to expressing full humanity, academic potential and healthy relationships

The John Lewis move to do away with labelling clothes ‘for boys’ and ‘for girls’ in their stores and the BBC2 programme, No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? have brought the gender-neutral conversation into the mainstream. ‘Gender-neutral’ or ‘gender-free’ isn’t about denying ‘girlhood’, ‘boyhood’, or any individual’s identity, but about recognising the harm of heavily gendered stereotypes. The terms have been misunderstood through fear or unfamiliarity – parents and educators don’t consciously limit their children. It doesn’t mean denying gender, rather it rejects narrow stereotypes. Let Clothes Be Clothes campaign is about allowing children to be free of limiting gender norms that starts with pink and blue, builds up to to passive and aggressive, and, consequently, does much more than stifling personal expression. Gender stereotypes feed into lower academic confidence and achievement and fuel unhealthy relationships. They create conditions for male sexual violence.

Tees for boys are frequently emblazoned with slogans such as Double Trouble and Little Monster – grooming them, along with other cultural messages about violent masculinity in video games, action hero movies and children’s ads that focus on weaponry and aggressive play. Boys are largely targeted with Nerf guns and Boys’ Lego sets, the majority of which promote violence and conflict. All this channels them into the ‘super-strong hero’ or ‘bad boy’ stereotype that is eulogized at every turn in popular culture, ending somewhere around lad culture, action heroes who never emote and rap artists bigging up guns and pimping. Where can boys learn that being kind and caring is part of manhood? Where can you buy a tee that reads, ‘Little acts of kindness’, ‘Get Creative’ or ‘Boys can cry too y’know!”

Meanwhile girls’ clothing is frequently tighter, smaller, decorative and therefore frequently more restrictive (so many girls’ school shoes are useless on wet days) celebrating princess culture and being pretty, sexualising girls earlier and earlier, and sending the message to themselves, and to boys, that girls’ value is on their looks and their interests lack aspiration. Pink Stinks campaign shows how pink and princess culture leads to early sexualisation – affecting physical and mental health and academic performance as the 2007 American Psychological Association report showed – with pink coloured grooming and domestic toys, falling short in spatial awareness and building play, being channelled towards girls.

In the BBC2 programme, No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? presenter Dr Javid Abelmoneim tried to get parents to think more consciously about the slogans on their children’s T-shirts by creating some of his own. He pulled out a genuine T-shirt ‘for girls’ with the words, ‘Forever Beautiful’. Let’s note here that during his classroom experiment, Dr Javid asked the girls to describe themselves and the words ‘pretty’ came up time and time again, with one girl describing herself as ‘ugly’. Parents were then asked if they’d buy their daughters a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Looks are Everything’ – as the girls had shown they’d come to believe in class. Dr Javid then showed parents tees with the words ‘Boys Are Better’ and ‘Made To Be Underpaid,’ demonstrating that by feeding girls messages such as ‘Forever Beautiful’, they’re telling their daughters that ‘Looks are Everything’, the girls have come to think that ‘Boys Are Better’ and the result is low confidence, underachievement and being ‘underpaid’. For the boys, Dr Javid showed parents a genuine tee with the typical slogan, ‘Here Comes Trouble.’ He then pulled out three more: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, ‘Tough Guys Don’t Talk’ and ‘Bottled Up and Ready To Burst.’ During episode one, we saw how the boys were unable to express themselves and deal with feelings of failure, weakness and anger, yet by the end of the gender-stereotype smashing lessons, they displayed a significant increase in empathy and self-expression, with one boy explaining how he was able to talk instead of strop. The girls’ confidence in their abilities increased significantly too, and they began to describe themselves as ’clever’, ‘unique’ and ‘happy.’

Boys and girls need all the help they can get to understand that nothing is off limits to them, there isn’t ‘boys stuff’ or ‘girls stuff’ – there’s just stuff. This is about more than allowing children the freedom to break free of limiting, stifling boxes that can impact their self-expression for life. This is more than nurturing mental wellbeing and academic potential. Gender stereotypes feed into unhealthy relationships too, denying girls and boys the enjoyment of equal, respectful friendships and personal and working relationships later on. What happens when you put a boy who has learnt to hide his feelings and act tough, who has learnt that he must be aggressive to win respect, who can only emote anger, who has learnt from the wallpaper of sexual objectification what women are for and what he is expected to get from them – what happens when he meets a girl who has internalised sexualisation to be an object for others and has not learnt to own her own voice? The result is an epidemic of teen relationship abuse where wholescale confusion around consent has replaced fun, consenting sex. Findings from the Healthy Relationships provider, Tender, tell us that young people aged 16-24 are at the greatest risk of experiencing domestic abuse. The result is schools where sexual violence in all its forms, starting with name-calling girls ‘slags’ is so routine it goes unnoticed. The 2016 MPs Inquiry into Sexual Violence in Schools told us that nearly three-quarters of 16-18 year olds say they hear labels such as ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ directed at girls regularly and nearly a third of girls aged 16-18 have experienced unwanted sexual touching. Sex Ed providers report boys feel under pressure to be sexually active early on. Both girls and boys are under pressure. And it starts with pink and blue.

Results of challenging Gender Stereotypes on BBC2’s No More Boys and Girls

A reminder of what was achieved in a matter of weeks: 

* At the start there was an 8% difference in boys and girls self-esteem. At the end it was just 0.2%. (Girls said they could do anything now, one wanted to be an astronaut)

* Boys pro-social behaviour (kindness to others) went up 10% and their ability to identify emotions improved. (Girls said the boys were more caring.)

* Girls’ self motivation increased by 12%

* Girls were 40% more accurate at predicting their test score before a test as a consequence of improved self-belief and mindset for learning and taking on challenges.

* After practising spatial awareness puzzles/ Tangram puzzles for two weeks – girls became equally adept as boys. (Girls’ toys typically lack building skills.)

* BIGGEST CHANGE Boys’ bad behaviour went down 57%. (Boys learnt to express themselves, talk and not strop or get so angry.)


Want to read more?

See my Strategies for Challenging Gender Stereotypes




Being A Man Starts with Challenging Gender Stereotypes Age 3

by Rachel Bell on November 21, 2016

“Will people laugh at me if I colour a princess?” asked my five year old son, when we were talking our regular talk about his friendship woes at school.
“Jayden said to me ‘You’ve got a purple hoody,'” my eldest, age seven, confided, a bit downcast. Jayden will have said this in a mocking way. I know all about Jayden. I have two sons and this is a snapshot of their experiences of the heavily gendered culture in the last two weeks. Pro-actively challenging limiting gender stereotypes through parenting and education from pre-school will help boys survive the limiting norms of masculinity that they’re under immense pressure to conform to. Norms that stifle their expression, exploration and stamp out their rich and varied humanity.

Of course I let my sons know that nothing is off-limits to them, that there isn’t Girls’ stuff or Boys’ stuff, there’s just stuff. Of course I don’t stick to blue, brown, navy and grey when I’m buying their clothes. My sons are physically active and sporty (the eldest clocks up seven timetabled sports activities a week) and many of their interests fit into what’s considered typically boyish: football, BMXing, skateboarding, Lego Ninjago, Scalextric, Minecraft, Star Wars, dinosaurs and Pokémon trading cards. My seven year old used to enjoy My Little Pony on telly and we appreciate Sylvanian Families (for which my eldest’s friend picked on him) however, my boys ‘fit in’ yet still can be called up by their peers for straying from a narrow type. When my boys get picked on at school I feel angry that the sheer insanity of thinking a colour belongs to girls could affect their sense of self. I feel sad for my own children and for Jayden, because he has been groomed by a gendered world without being given the tools to question it. Let’s just say Jayden’s parents took him out of school for his birthday in Reception year to see Transformers. Rated 12. Superhero culture is the backdrop to little boys’ lives and what does it tell them? That it’s not just about being strong, it’s about being SUPER strong – t­he actors playing the roles in films beef up to inhuman proportions, their ‘Blockbuster Bodies’ and ‘Superhero Abs’ used to sell men’s magazines.


Photo: Patrick Giardino for Men’s Health UK

Superhero Culture sells a masculinity defined by leadership, physical prowess, rescuing women and winning respect with aggression and weaponry. When adverts come on between TV programmes I shout, ‘Those children aren’t real! They only show boys with guns, and girls who love pink! Those children are actors!’ My sons groan as they enjoy being sold toys but I know I’m getting through to them. My eldest son was five when he said, ‘Mummy, don’t be cross but there’s only one girl in Angry Birds and she’s pink.’

Campaigning group Let Toys Be Toys won a scientific research award for their 2015 study, which found that adverts for construction sets, action figures, vehicles and toy weapons only showed boys and that play is ‘aggressive’. Girls appear in ads for dolls, grooming, nurturing and are only active when dancing. A glance at Let Clothes Be Clothes shows the onslaught of boys’ clothing encouraging them to be Little Monsters and Double Trouble, grooming them for a more adult popular culture in which the Bad Boy is eulogized at every turn. Being annoying, arrogant and disruptive is in, wanting to learn, be responsible or respectful is out.

Er no, boys will be held accountable for their actions.

Er no, boys will be held accountable for their actions.



This lovely tee is from www.freetobekids.com who say, ‘Is there any other phrase out there that perfectly expresses just how little we think of our boys capacity to be good, kind, empathetic people?’ 

Where can boys learn being vulnerable and having feelings is allowed? Where can they see men celebrated in caring roles? Men celebrated for speaking the truth? Where can you buy a T-shirt that says, World’s Coolest Reader? The documentary film The Mask You Live In by Jennifer Siebel Newsom of The Representation Project shows the hidden suffering and vulnerabilities of American boys and young men who are under pressure to act tough to ‘Be A Man’. This short from The Representation Project, Masculinity In Popular Culture, encapsulates the hyper-masculinity presented as the ideal. The documentary trailer demonstrates how our culture has feminized traits such as empathy and kindness and rendered them unmasculine. The trailer shows how respect is linked to violence. It shows young boys breaking down from the weight of loneliness, the burden of covering up their true selves.

So what can we do to counteract the hyper-masculine models that surround boys?Point out men in non-stereotypical roles – male dancers, male nurses, charity workers, male creatives, to show boys that they are allowed to be caring, individual – and human. Encourage a questioning mind in response to media representations on TV, in film, in adverts and books. Make sure boys understand it’s OK to feel hurt, weak or vulnerable, that men cry. Encourage communication by asking questions and giving full attention (even if you just say ‘Mmm’ or ‘I see’) for a response. Name and acknowledge feelings by saying ‘That must have really made you mad’, ‘I can imagine you feel really sad about that.’ See my posts, Bringing Up Boys and Strategies for Challenging Gender Stereotypes and How To Be A Pro-Feminist Dad for more ideas.

With too few role models who open up about pressures on boys and men, role models who can articulate the personal and societal benefits of relationships based on equality, it’s up to parents and educators to spell it out that intimacy with friends, with partners, with loved ones, is a normal survival strategy of being human.

The website for International Men’s Day – this year the theme is Stop Male Suicide – tells us that 54% of teenage boys who had experienced a mental health problem ‘put a brave face on it’ or kept it to themselves. This month the former professional footballer Andrew Woodward courageously took off the mask he’d been suffering behind since age 11 to bare his vulnerability to the world. Suffering is part of life. This is what being a man looks like.

The Being A Man festival is at London’s Southbank from 25 -27 November.

XXX Schoolgirls Wanted

by Rachel Bell on September 11, 2016

What did I learn from listening to survivors of prostitution? That school age girls are most in demand – and it’s not only for sex but ‘despoilment’

‘I’ve answered phones in enough brothels to know the most common question is always, ‘What age is the youngest girl you have?’ writes Rachel Moran, a survivor of the sex trade and author of must-read memoir Paid For: My Journey through Prostitution. Moran documents her lived experience of johns’ (men who pay for ‘sex’) demand for children in her blog post, Prostitution and the Commercial Value of Youth.

She was 15 when she became homeless and prostituted. When I went to hear Moran and other survivors of prostitution from Space International speak at the event, Prostitution: Behind the Scenes, one thread stood out: the demand for school age girls. One survivor tells us of one the world’s most popular pornography sites, Pornhub, offering a $25,000 college scholarship. Another tells of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Nevada auctioning off a girl’s virginity. Johns get off on having the power of being the first to deprave female innocence and the ‘unmarked’, as described on America’sNext TopBunnyRanchVirgin.com. ‘Demand for younger and younger girls is not only for sex,’ says Moran, ‘It’s about ‘despoilment.’

At the event, Moran also remarked on how it is the younger girls and women in society who are more accepting of prostitution, a mark of the success of popular culture and the pro-prostitution lobby to normalise the inextricably linked porn and sex industries – to sell them as a career choice. Teen role models from Kate Moss, Daisy Lowe, Kylie, Katy Perry and Billie Piper have all glamourised these industries, in music videos, Playboy and Belle du Jour. Britney just keeps it coming with her ad for new fragrance, Private Show. Boys and young men are told that being a john is part of being the man with hip hop music videos from Candy Shop to Ayo Technology. Teen channel BBC3 did a stellar job for the pro-prostitution lobby with the programme Prostitution: What’s the harm? Young viewers found out how to run a brothel in a rented apartment, referred to by the presenter as ‘where the magic is about to happen.’ They learnt they should prepare a nice bath for the john and leave a tray of tea and ginger nuts or a nice bit of shortbread for him while he’s having a soak. They learnt how to be an Internet sex worker – eat lots of nice crunchy yellow pepper and lettuce at home to look good. The lad mag era of the nineties helped to normalise pole dancing, lap dancing and ‘sex work’ with features on sex tourism and jokes about prostitution– seeing the number of British men paying for sex rise to one in ten. In countries that have adopted the Nordic model, which criminalises the buyer, decriminalises the seller and supports them to exit with viable alternatives, prostitution has reduced. France adopted the Nordic Model, recognising prostitution as exploitation, earlier this year. Send the message prostitution is not inevitable, not a right, and demand decreases, allowing gender equality to improve.

This month, campaigning organisation Not Buying It and the ASA will meet to discuss an end to porn and sex ads in the press, most notably in The Sport, which is almost all page 3 style pictures of women. In a recent issue of The Sport, one entire page is devoted to advertising 32 porn films of ‘babes in uniform’. School uniform.

Sport schoolgirls

In the teen section on Pornhub, ‘broken teens’ ‘get used’, gangbanged and tied up while masked men force ass to mouth (inserting something beyond the limit into the anus, then forcing the female to take it in her mouth) torture on them, whilst they are restrained, saying no, and making pained sounds. A generation of boys have grown up with gonzo porn – gagging, strangling, urinating on, getting off on women’s debasement as their Sex and Relationships Education. Male violence against girls and women in England and Wales has reached a record high with child sex abuse prosecutions rising by 15.4%. Police find perpetrators in possession of extreme pornography including the torture and rape of children. The Everyday Sexism Project is awash with school girls recounting the sexual harrassment they experience on the way to school.

End Demand UK has collated Home Office statistics including this: 50% of women in prostitution in the UK started being paid for sex acts before they were 18 years old. Child prostitution is a global epidemic, with demand rocketing during any big sporting event. Articles like this on the Rio Olympics offer a tiny window into the alternate reality. In prostitution, as in as in porn, the despoilment of the young female is all. This is not fantasy. The damaged, traumatised, raped and dead girls and women are the victims of this parallel reality we call ‘sex’.

Back Not Buying It’s campaign here.
Listen to survivors at Space International here.
Read about Culture Reframed, working to champion equal, consensual sex and highlight the harms of porn here.




Bringing Up Boys: 5 tips off the top of my head

by Rachel Bell on June 6, 2016

Bringing Up Boys is the subject of a debate at Cheltenham Festival this Thursday 9 June and the brilliant campaigning organisation Let Toys Be Toys are on the panel. They asked their Twitter followers what is important about raising boys so, as a mother of two primary age boys and a campaigner on Challenging Gender Stereotypes, here’s what I chimed in with.


Illustration by Squid, squidishere.com


  1. Expose boys to a wide range of activities from solitary to group, from active to not. Be clear that nothing is off-limits, or ‘for girls’.


  1. Big up caring male role models from fathers to charity workers to nurses and expose boys to male creatives and male individuals who go their own way. With music stars, sports stars, superheroes, violent characters in video games and rich men celebrated as the acceptable male role models, the pressure is on boys to be super-strong, physically courageous or aggressive, excel at physical activity or making money – or fail at ‘being a man’.


  1. Make sure boys know they are allowed to show their feelings, feel vulnerable, scared, insecure or worthless. Young men are the group most prone to suicide. This can be challenged.


  1. Cultivate a questioning mind. ‘Ask, were there any girls in that film? What did she do? Did the men in that film show their feelings? Did they resolve conflict in any way other than fighting?’ I knew I was instilling a questioning mind in my son, when, age five, he said to me, ‘Mummy, don’t be cross but there’s only one girl in Angry Birds and she’s pink.’ He has learnt to notice inequality.


  1. Having a male role model is great to keep lines of communication open in teen years – to talk talk talk to boys about porn as separate from sex, about porn as a money-driven ‘industry’ that eroticises female non-consent and inequality. Understanding consent is paramount.


Ok, that’s five tidy tips. I noticed the talk is about young men, too. So…


Show boys how to stick up for themselves and others with their words, self-belief and conviction – to give bullies the finger and not be a bystander to sexist, racist or homophobic abuse.


Train them up to be self-sufficient. Show them that men clean and cook. Training in the art of conversation is a good life skill. Listening to women and not talking over them is, too. (I’m talking about giving men the benefits of  ‘seeing’ the diminished freedoms of the female experience.) All this equals a better chance of pulling.


For more like this, read here. And do camping, Forest School, fire and den building and back-to-nature stuff at any opportunity.


Sexist culture grooms sexist boys

by Rachel Bell on April 19, 2016

MPs are launching an inquiry into sexual harassment and violence in schools. This article describes the lad culture that is making girls’ right to safe education a sexist joke. A head in Milton Keynes sent 29 girls home from school for wearing short skirts which she believes fail to protect them from boys’ sexual harassment. Of course instead of blaming the victims she should have had major words with the boys about girls being humans, not sex objects, and run a Healthy Sex and Relationships programme by Tender, The RAP Project, Yes Matters, or theCHAT, with the boys on the front rows. Instead, girls lost out on their education again. The week before that it was reports of sexual bullying of girls and silencing tactics in class.

UK Feminista have known about this dire situation for school girls for years. Delivering workshops to pupils to help them challenge stereotypes and abusive behaviour, and delivering training to teachers on gender equality, they have witnessed shocking examples of sexism firsthand. Earlier this year, they commissioned a report, The State of Sexism in Schools. A 2015 BBC Freedom of information investigation found that 5,500 sexual assaults occurred in UK schools in last three years, including 600 rapes. Boys’ sense of entitlement to women’s bodies is clear. The culture they’re consuming is pointing and laughing at and objectifying girls and women as mere body parts and they’re clueless about consent.

Sexualisation, gender stereotypes of both men and women, not seeing girls and women in the media in diverse roles – this all damages boys too. Studies show that even the mildest sexual objectification of women makes men more callous towards them. From violent video games in which men use and kill prostitutes to music videos where one man possesses a group of sexualised women to footballers use of the sex industry, raping women and abusing underage girls while keeping their hero status, boys learn that being violent and feeling power over women is the way to be a man. No wonder 35% of boys aged 11-16 think it is justified to abuse women. The normalisation of the porn and sex industries tells us it’s fun to view girls and women as sexual commodities and boys who don’t like it are at risk of being labelled gay or anti-sex, while the girls are bullied for being virgins. The heavily gendered culture prevents boys from forming healthy friendships with girls and later, working relationships with women. It feeds into homophobia as the mould of masculinity narrows to a cardboard cut-out. It puts pressure on boys to fit into a type that doesn’t allow them to know the full range of their humanity. With such little cultural celebration of men in caring roles, boys learn that being gentle, kind, not overtly physical are not ‘masculine’ behaviours.  As Yes Matters who campaign for and provide Healthy Relationships programmes understand, the culture is grooming young people to become victims and perpetrators.

Culture Reframed recognises that porn is the digital health crisis of our age. They are developing programmes to help professionals respond to porn’s impact on sexual violence, negative self-image, depression, addiction, sexual dysfunction and a long list of health problems. The Women’s Equality Party call for compulsory, age-appropriate sex education and a sexual harassment policy in schools, universities and apprenticeships. They recognise the need to be pro-active on challenging gender stereotypes and the value of promoting a range of female role models. As their first policies document states, ‘It is reckless and cruel to continue to ask our children to navigate the complexities of sexting, revenge porn and sexual consent with so little support.’ I have written a Gender Equality policy for pre-schools and primaries because challenging gender stereotypes early on will help build healthy relationships at secondary level.

In her book Living Dolls, Natasha Walter sums up the gendered culture that feeds sexual assault – a murder of the mind for many victims – and high suicide rates in young men. ‘There is a real need to examine the wider culture in which we are bringing up our boys. The assumption that women are there to be objectified rather than seen as fully human, to give others pleasure rather than share in pleasure, is too often embedded in the culture around young people. Too often, boys are encouraged to believe that they must cut themselves off from nurturing, empathetic and intimate behaviour to become fully masculine. As long as we tolerate these assumptions in the name of normal masculinity and femininity, then we will find it tough to challenge the culture of sexual violence.’





Strategies for Building Children’s Resilience To Gender-Stereotypes and Sexualisation

by Rachel Bell on March 14, 2016

  1. Challenge kids’ perceptions that pink is for girls and blue is for boys and let them know that any colour, clothing, toy or book is for them. Too many pink toys signpost girls to grooming and beauty – and in turn, early sexualisation. Let boys know that not all girls only want to play princesses, some like dinosaurs and running too!


  1. Since Disney Princess launched, it’s no longer what will you dress up as but what Disney Princess will you be, compounded by the fact that supermarkets offer few alternatives. Our kids deserve the chance to play-act a wider range of roles than superhero or princess. Avoid putting kids into boxes with ‘Pirate and Princess’ parties and be creative with themes such as animal, book character, a colour, nature. With dressing up outfits that market a doctor costume for boys and a nurse outfit with pink trims for girls, this is about not limiting your child’s aspirations.


  1. Call up sexist, homophobic or racist language such as, ‘That’s too girly’ or ‘I’m not playing with that, that’s for girls’, ‘That’s so gay’, or similar that equates the feminine with less value. Call up anyone who says. ‘Stop crying like a girl,’ – it’s totally sexist and teaches boys that feeling vulnerable or expressing emotion is a sign of weakness. Use every opportunity to remind kids that no product or media is ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ – they can wear, read, play with and watch what they like.


  1. A note about ‘tomboys’. Girls are girls. Some just like their jeans and don’t rate Frozen. Calling a girl a tomboy is like saying she’s an ungirl, denying her her marvellous girlhood and marking her out as different. If a girl has noticed that running like Rey is cooler than walking like Elsa, she’s pretty smart.


  1. Use any talk or play around Disney or Barbie to talk to your kids about realistic body shapes. ‘Do girls and women you know look like that? No.’ (tiny waist, unnaturally long, stick legs, feet not designed for walking. Notice how sexualised Disney princesses are – see Elsa’s ‘makeover moment’ in Frozen.)

Alternatives: Lottie Dolls are dolls with child bodies. Watch Tree Change Dolls on Youtube and see why putting stripper/plastic surgery make-up on Bratz dolls is such an ugly act.


  1. Encourage mixed friendships and play that will engage everyone – den building, music, dancing, party games. There are too many divisive messages out there telling girls and boys how different they are. Mixed play will help them see their shared humanity, which helps boys see through sexual objectification of women as they mature and promote healthy relationships. (Studies show that even mild objectification of women makes men more callous towards them, as they are seen as less than human.)


  1. A Let Toys Be Toys study finds that advertising on UK television featuring construction sets, vehicles, action figures and toy weapons only featured boys playing, and they were shown as active and aggressive. Girls appeared in ads for dolls and toys focused around nurturing, grooming, performance and relationships, and were rarely active, except when dancing. Be conscientious about exposure to ads and start a discussion about what it means to be a girl, what it means to be a boy. Try ‘Boys can do ballet, let’s rent Billy Elliot, women’s football is the fastest growing sport in UK’ for starters.


7.5. Don’t follow the herd when it comes to activities – encourage boys to try choir, girls to do skateboarding. Don’t limit their opportunities to express themselves without fear of judgement.


  1. Seeing positive role models has a hugely beneficial impact on girls’ aspirations and performance. Talk about and expose your kids to positive role models, such as sportswomen, artists, designers, authors, scientists, programmers (Ada Lovelace was the first!) women in STEM subjects, campaigners and leaders. Find local women to look up to, too. Its important that boys see women in a wide range of ‘doing’ roles too. Show boys a wider range of role models such as charity workers, environmental campaigners and men in caring roles.


  1. Is one of the first things you say when you see a girl, ‘You look pretty’? It’s lovely seeing girls all dressed up but as so many of us say this, try drawing attention to something other than the way she looks first.


  1. Talk about the body as purposeful, to be active, for doing rather than being valued for what it looks like. Promote a ‘can do’ attitude to physical activities. Frame exercise and sports as ‘being strong’ as well as health and fitness.


  1. Promote positive body image and healthy eating. Resist talking about dieting and fat-ist language. Let your child hear you say, ‘I love my body’ (just try it, even if you don’t feel it!) and don’t express negativity or shame about your body or your child’s. 1 in 3 children aged 5/6 say their ideal body shape is thinner. (Source: Women’s Equality Party first policy document)


  1. Openly challenge sexism in the media – Why is there only one female character in this film and she’s the eye candy? Why is there so little women’s sport on TV? Why are most of the women celebrated in the media for being ‘hot’ /underdressed? Encourage a questioning mind. As my six year old boy said, ‘Mummy don’t be cross but there’s only one girl in Angry Birds and she’s pink.’

Be mindful about the normalisation of the porn and sex industries with female performers on X-Factor and strippers on family shows such as Britain’s Got Talent. When kids become exposed to wider media, talk about photoshopping and unreal photos shoots as just fantasy.


  1. Body ownership

You can introduce the issue of consent, setting boundaries and body ownership with a child as young as three. If a child says ‘Stop tickling me’, emphasise to them that you have stopped because they asked you to and it is their body. Or, ‘I think it would be nice if you gave aunty a hug, but it’s up to you.’

theCHAT.org.uk teach body ownership, the concept of privacy and explain what is wrong and right about photo-sharing to kids as young as three. Plus, see the NSPCC Talking Pants campaign.

* Instill confidence in children that they are as good as, as important, as anyone else. Children don’t report for fear of ruining other peoples’ /family lives. See footballer Adam Johnson case of abuse of 15 yr old.

* Instill a sense of bodily integrity and agency in your child. No matter what a person wears, no matter how much the culture shows women’s bodies as commodities to throw away/display/decorate a body has intergrity and deserves respect.

Boys and girls need to know that asking each other, ‘Are you OK with that?’ is essential to healthy relationships. Why?

*NSPCC: 10% of boys age 12/13 are addicted to porn, which eroticises non-consent. That’s just the addicted, the rest will see it even if not looking for it

* 30% of rape victims are under 16

* There were 5,500 sexual assaults in UK schools in last three years, including 600 rapes. Read more here. Plus culture of normalised sexual bullying such as labelling girls ‘sluts’ and groping

* Simon Bailey, Children’s Commissioner reports that 85% child abuse in England undetected. Family abuse a large part.


  1. Use scientific terminology – vagina, penis – to describe body parts. Matter-of-fact, unembarrassed language empowers by reducing chances of shame and non-verbalisation about bodies and of abuse. Use of scientific language is OK with primary age. As kids mature, talk about sex as natural continuum of healthy relationships.


  1. Gendered culture and sexualisation damages boys, too

Superhero franchises present a hyper-masculinity that isn’t just strong, but SUPER strong (see actors’ bodies) and too many male representations show resolving conflict with aggression. The pressure is on boys to fit into a type that doesn’t allow them to be caring and kind or feel permitted to show vulnerability. To be fully human. Seeing girls as sexually objectified is detrimental to boys’ enjoying mutually respectful friendships and working relationships.

As Natasha Walter writes in Living Dolls There is a real need to examine the wider culture in which we are bringing up our boys. The assumption that women are there to be objectified rather than seen as fully human, to give others pleasure rather than share in pleasure, is too often embedded in the culture around young people. Too often, boys are encouraged to believe that they must cut themselves off from nurturing, empathetic and intimate behaviour to become fully masculine. As long as we tolerate these assumptions in the name of normal masculinity and femininity, then we will find it tough to challenge the culture of sexual violence.’

Sexualisation shows boys to view girls and women as objects, as less than fully human. At its extreme, it grooms developing men to use and abuse them.


  1. Never tell a child, ‘He’s mean because he likes you.’ As Joanna Schroeder writes, ‘it equates love and romance with abuse.’ Call up bad behaviour otherwise it suggests the victim is to blame. Don’t romanticise kids’ friendships, let them enjoy the childhood opportunity to enjoy strong friendships with the opposite sex.


  1. Dads should recognise their immense power as a role model for sons. Let boys see your gentle side as well as your strengths. Show boys that parenting is man’s work too. Encourage communication and emotional intelligence.


  1. As boys mature and become exposed to more sexist media such as video games and music videos, help them challenge the way culture aligns manhood with violence and feeling power over women.


  1. As mainstream porn – which is hardcore, body-punishing and violent – fills the gap in up-to-date Sex and Relationships Education for boys from age 12/14, talk, talk talk to boys about what a healthy, consensual relationship looks like. It’s never too early to start on that. When age-appropriate, make sure girls understand that sex is about pleasure. (Many teen girls cite being afraid of sex because of what they have seen in porn.)


  1. Be pro-active and speak up about these issues – start a conversation with another parent, complain to manufacturers, retailers and book publishers about sexist products or advertising and contribute to the campaign groups listed. Let your school or educators know about your kids’ experiences of the pressures they feel from the wider culture, suggest ways they can engage with the issue.

Building Children’s Resilience To Sexualisation and Gender Stereotypes

by Rachel Bell on March 7, 2016


I’ll be sharing some really practical strategies on this at the all new festival for International Women’s Day, POWThanet, this Saturday 12th March. Mums, dads, carers, aunties, uncles, grandparents, educators of girls and of boys all welcome – I’ll be at Turner Contemporary, Margate, in Foyle Room 3 at 4pm. I’m also really up for hearing parents’ and carers’ own experiences of the heavily gendered world affecting their kids –it’s what spurred me on to write a Gender Equality policy for pre-schools and primary schools. Kids need all the help they can get to navigate the bonkers culture that sees a girl dampen my four year old boy’s confidence by telling him his orange squirrel tee is ‘for girls’, that sees a girl made to dress up as a princess to get into a party. Meanwhile, it was World Book Day! so here are some great places to find books that celebrate equality and diversity, books with girls in their own adventures, books with caring boys, single mums or dads, same sex parents, mixed race families, kids who are free to be themselves and not boxed in by Princess and Superhero culture.

A Mighty Girl – one-stop site for books, films, media and awesome facts and stuff about girls. No princesses waiting to be chosen or rescued here

Letterbox Library – booksellers that celebrate equality and diversity
PearlPowerclub – books for 4-8 yr olds about a girl who strives for gender equality
Let Books Be Books –  do you want your child to think certain books are ‘off limits’ or they are getting it wrong because it’s labelled for the opposite sex? This campaign group asks book manufacturers and retailers to stop dividing kids’ books by gender
RivetingPress.comgirl-positive publisher of comics and books promoting and encouraging smart and strong independent girls

And two of my faves:
Girls Are Best by Sandi Toksvig
Set women’s herstory straight with this book that’s full with myth-busting fun facts about girls’ and women’s achievements. Read the Florence Nightingale bit.
He Bear She Bear by Stan and Jan Berenstain

Books that teach body ownership/consent:
Your Body Belongs To You and No Means No teach 3-7 year olds that they are in charge of their bodies and can choose whether to give physical affection etc. Go to A Mighty Girl for these and read this useful link re book, I Don’t Own My Child’s Body

For books on healthy relationships and recognising unhealthy ones for 9-12s and teens, check out this post: 20 Mighty Girl Books For Tweens and Teens About Healthy Relationships

For Grown-ups:
@DadvPink on Twitter
Living Dolls by Natasha Walter
The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard is an easy-reading way to walk in a girl and woman’s shoes for a day
The Macho Paradox – Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help by Jackson Katz is a book every man should read. It’s about hip hop, sport and masculinity in pop culture








A last word on lad mags: The real reason they closed

by Rachel Bell on January 18, 2016

I was one of the first people to write about the disgustingness of lad mags, along with a brave blogger called Charliegirl, so, ten years later, I thought it fitting that I be one of the last. FHM and Zoo have closed, joining Loaded, Nuts, Maxim and Front in the ‘end of the lad mags era.’ Generally, mainstream media have attributed this end to boys’ and men’s media habits moving online, where they can see porn for free. Yet lad mags had a strong online presence and even Nuts member of staff, Pete Cashmore admitted in the press that, ‘The official reason given was that the magazine was losing money hand over fist, but we believed this to be so much hooey.’ Attribution should in fact be directed to the human rights activists who campaigned from the moment lad mags appeared on the bottom shelf next to Bob the Builder magazine.

lads mags

The years of campaigning started soon after the founding of Object, a human rights organisation set up in 2006 to challenge the sexual objectification of women and the normalisation of the porn and sex industries, and culminated in Lose the Lad Mags, a joint campaign from Object and UK Feminista. Along with Mumsnet, these organisations gave voice to the girls, women, men and incredulous parents who saw the harm of lad mags. Not only did lad mags tell a generation that being a sexist was funny, cool and the right of ‘real men’, they targeted children. Nuts and Zoo were sold at pocket money prices, around 60p, along with the sweets at the tills of supermarkets, garages or on the bottom shelf with coverlines ‘Incredible new Batmobile’ and ‘Amazing photos of babes getting together’ side by side (Nuts, 2005). It’s the end of lad mags because of this campaign to get them off the lucrative bottom shelf of every supermarket and newsagent in Britain, off the counter and off the endless, invasive window displays of WH Smith – and displayed like all other porn – covered or on the top shelf. As Pete Cashmore also recognised, ‘It was obvious we’d become more trouble than we were worth.’

Photo: Guy Bell

Photo: Guy Bell

Object began by going straight to parliament. They met with the Home office and Department of Culture, Media and Sport and got an MP to raise a debate on lad mags in Parliament. A motion passed, calling for a ‘socially responsible regulation of the press’. Object got the National Federation of Retail Newsagents to issue new guidelines (voluntary) on ‘how lad mags should be displayed to avoid customer complaints.’ Years of campaign work followed, including conga-ing down the aisles of Tesco in pyjamas, asking why the chain banned shoppers in pyjamas as ‘offensive’ but continued to stock soft porn. Men and children joined in the activism and contributed to gains made – the Co-op put an age restriction on lad mags following a petition from Damian Carnell of Nottinghamshire Domestic Violence Forum, who took issue with the police that pornographic material was being sold to boys. When UK Feminista joined Object to forge the Lose the Lad Mags campaign, supermarkets then faced the threat of legal challenge – with their sale of lad mags breaching sexual discrimination laws and supermarkets own ‘no porn’ policies. Finally, the mighty Mumsnet came aboard and supermarkets put their soft porn on the top shelf.

Object succeeded by first getting MPs and the public to wake up to the damaging content of lad mags. Lad mags framed their sexism as ‘loving women’. Zoo loved them so much that they encouraged readers to send in pics of their girlfriends’ tits for assessment to see which one deserved to win a boob job. They loved them so much they made jokes about exploiting prostituted and trafficked women ‘fresh off the boat’. Lad mags defended their sexism by saying, ‘We’re not porn’ but not showing the inside of a vagina or a nipple on the cover was not the point. Like porn they commodified women, telling men that women exist solely for their sexual gratification. Interviews with girls focused on sex acts common to porn, hardcore porn ads ran on the back pages and in, Zoo’s case, a Porn Dictionary including B for Bukkake, taught young men how they could gang together and ejaculate on a woman’s face. FHM online helpfully linked to a video. Photo shoots borrowed from hardcore porn, such as FHM’s cover of Paris Hilton bound naked in microphone lead. Boys could go to the magazine’s websites and watch videos of girls stripping and lapdancing. One Zoo video was set up as if the girl was being stalked as she undressed at home, another showed a girl being severely frightened in a ‘prank’. Lad mags totally normalised and promoted the use of the porn and sex industries. In essence, they groomed boys and men to become johns. Object and UK Feminista were supported by trade unions, equality groups, 18 top lawyers and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, and understood how our culture’s blanket sexual objectification of women undermines equality and feeds into male violence against women. As Dr. Sasha Rakoff who set up Object says, ‘Rape, sexual assault, cat calling, domestic violence, teen relationship abuse, it all happens because of attitudes.’

Lad mags may be gone, page 3 may be gone in print but The Sport, which features pornographic pictures of women on almost every page, is sold as a ‘newspaper’. It equates tits and ass with sport. Object and No More Page 3 may be gone but
Not Buying It have launched to continue the fight against sexist media. As well as a crisis sexual violence against women across our universities, these words from John Stoltenberg, a founder of Men Can Stop Rape, outline what lad mags gave a generation of boys: ‘Lads’ magazines have a low estimation of their readers. They promote self-loathing, and the notion that for them to feel better they have to have power over women.’


Lad mags said they empowered women by giving ‘real girls’ their stamp of approval for being hot enough. True empowerment comes from joining a feminist campaign, changing attitudes, changing the law and keeping feminist history alive.

Further reading:

Lose the lad mags campaign timeline of events 

I’m beginning to think we need to find our idols elsewhere

by Rachel Bell on January 13, 2016

After a youth spent with Jagger and Warhol, Jerry Hall is marrying patriarchal conservatism made flesh, Rupert Murdoch. Of course Jerry’s ex, Mick Jagger, IS the establishment too, accepting his knighthood whereas David Bowie, always the subversive outsider, wanted nothing to do with it. The death of a great idol, David Bowie, and the marriage announcement from Jerry Hall, got me thinking how we really need to find our idols elsewhere. One Direction, today’s equivalent to The Beatles, come from the conveyor belt of manufactured pop, The X-Factor. Women rewarded with idol status in music tend to be those selling commercial sexual empowerment. Taylor Swift and Adele stand out in an identikit landscape where Beyoncé, Rhianna and Miley Cyrus  – and their appropriation of the porn and sex industries – are considered edgy. Lady GaGa may challenge but it’s debatable whether she’d be a star if she hadn’t got her kit off so much. See Madonna. Kate Moss is called an idol because she is an extremely popular model. And some women love her style. I like the way she gets away with partying like a man, but stripping for Pirelli and Playboy and keeping her mouth shut isn’t what my kind of idol looks like. Kim Kardashian is seen as an idol for her beauty, fortune and mastery of digital age self-promotion. Girls and young women have been sold sexism as sexual liberation, and the message that sexual empowerment is the only type of empowerment worth having. As Carrie Fisher tweeted when haters criticised her for not ageing well – youth and beauty are not accomplishments.

Many men idolise men who have made lots of money. Men and boys treat footballers as idols but unless the footballers are using their position to do something useful – Cristiano Ronaldo has been named ‘most charitable athlete’ while David Beckham just got an award for his effort for UNICEF – this is a pathetic indictment of what masses of men value. Footballers could change the world by speaking out against sexism and homophobia in football, but they don’t. Sportswomen are worthy idols because they are breaking down barriers and showing girls and women that there are alternatives to being celebrated for being hot.

Bowie was an idol for me because he refused male stereotypes, was handsome, elegant and made arresting music like Five years. I idolised Micheal Stipe for the same reasons. For my muso friend Janey, it’s always Nick Cave. Our idols were outsiders. Of course, contemporary music is full of intriguing characters with something to say but unlike Bowie, they tend to stay on the edges of the mainstream. Jeremy Corbyn’s swift rise showed there is a movement of youth hungry for anti-establishment figures. Now I admire plenty of women who are pretty and famous – Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Dormer, Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler – but it’s their words and deeds, sometimes simply the roles they choose and refuse, that make them admirable. But mostly, I find my idols elsewhere. I admire the women who fight for the right of all women to be seen as human. Human rights activists like Finn MacKay, whose speeches showed my younger self that the politics of feminism touches everything – it is anti racism, it is anti war, it is anti poverty, anti Austerity, anti male violence, pro-abortion rights, pro affordable housing, pro environment and so much more. A radical feminist, Finn MacKay, brought Reclaim the Night marches back and is an example of truly owning your own voice: her speeches fire passion and fight, create bonds, mobilise, motivate and move to tears.

Hillary Clinton is an idol of mine for telling the world that ‘Women’s rights are human rights are womens’s rights’, so too is Julie Bindel, Rachel Moran, Denise Marshall, now deceased, and Karen Ingala Smith, just a few of the many devoted to the struggle of ending male violence against women through prostitution, rape and domestic violence. Those who inspire me are outsiders challenging the status quo, such as Sisters Uncut, Southall Black Sisters and Jean Hatchet, using Twitter to take on sexism and rape culture in football. The feminist movement, like many political movements, is filled with courageous women taking on the most controversial stances – anti-porn, women mattering more than a football – in the face of rape threats, death threats and daily abuse. I think many will agree that activists and writers such as Malala Yousafzai and Nawal El Saadawi are indeed idols. With David Bowie gone and idols from Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Paul McCartney embracing the establishment, there’s another chum of Any Warhol who remains one of the true cool cat’s of that era: Bianca Jagger, President and Chief Executive of the Biana Jagger Human Rights Foundation. As Emmeline Pankhurst said, ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.’

Challenge Porn on International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women

by Rachel Bell on December 15, 2015

Sentencing the murderer of teenager Becky Watts, the judge, Mr Justice Dingemans, broke down and cried. The sixteen year old’s step brother, Nathan Matthews, inflicted over 40 injuries on the school girl and dismembered her body. November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In court, Matthews confessed to watching porn on a near-daily basis and the jury learned of a video about the rape of a teenage girl found on his laptop. The judge flagged up Matthews’ obsession with ‘borderline legal’ pornography showing ‘petite teenage girls’ with older men. How many more girls and women must suffer rape and die before society recognises porn as a form of male violence against women? Culture Reframed is leading the way. It the first public health promotion NGO to recognise and address sexually violent pornography as the public health crisis of the digital age.

Whenever I write about the harm of porn, at least one man will send comments demanding evidence that links porn with sexual violence. They want a study, they want facts and figures. There are plenty of cases around the world in which men have raped and murdered women in attacks that mirror the pornographic images they were viewing beforehand. In one case it was a boy raping his little sister. How many girls and women must suffer and die before such men will desist with their aggressive denial? The people mending the broken bodies and minds of children and women at the NSPCC, at Rape Crisis and any organisation supporting victims of sexual violence don’t demand such stats. They have the human stories in front of them. Still, the NSPCC have collected evidence of porn’s impact on young people. More than four in 10 girls aged 13-17 in England say they have been coerced into sex acts, according to one of the largest European polls on teenage sexual experience. Research from the Universities of Bristol and Central Lancashire found that a fifth of girls had suffered violence or intimidation from their teenage boyfriends, a high proportion of whom regularly viewed pornography, with one in five boys harbouring ‘extremely negative attitudes towards women.’

In the absence of up-to-date Sex and Relationships Education, porn is where kids go to learn about sex. In porn, anal sex is the norm. Many other punishing acts are the norm so if you want to know what the 1 in 10 kids aged 12/13 who think they many be addicted to porn are watching, read my post. Allison Pearson wrote about what pornography is doing to girls in The Telegraph this year. In her article, Pornography has changed the landscape of adolescence beyond all recognition, she quoted a GP treating growing numbers of girls presenting as incontinent and with internal injuries caused by frequent anal sex, participated in because ‘a boy expected her to.’ This backs up another study of British teenagers which found that their first experience of anal sex occurred within a relationship yet was ‘rarely under circumstances of mutual exploration or sexual pleasure.’ Science teacher Carol Perry, who set up theCHAT.org.uk to provide Sex and Relationships education, says, ‘Porn sex is a phrase coined by teenage girls referring to non-intimate/loving, aggressive, all about the boy sex that the girls commonly felt pressured to have. theCHAT campaigns to raise aspirations for girls and all young people to have good, mutually pleasurable communicative sex.

Even without the injuries, trauma, rape and deaths of girls and women at the hands of porn-addicted boys and men, the existence of porn that eroticises violence against girls and women is enough. Why does our society in which one in three women will be a victim of sexual violence at the hands of men in her lifetime do so little to challenge it? To challenge an industry bigger than Hollywood in which 90% of top watched rented scenes have physical or verbal abuse towards the woman? To challenge the eroticisation of child rape within the family? Family abuse is ubiquitous in porn with narratives such as First Time With Daddy. When I open Pornhub, the free and accessible site where the UK’s 12 year old boys go (the typical age a boy will look for porn) these are the videos immediately available: Dad wakes up step daughter in bed; teen slut face fucked so hard she drools; Young Blonde Seduces Step-brother. Categories along the bottom include: 18 and abused; College, Young Teen, Virgin and Exxxtra Small Teens. Becky Watts was murdered by her step brother.

In her lectures, and in her book and film Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, the internationally acclaimed scholar, author and activist, Gail Dines, highlights how porn grooms boys, with examples like this promotional copy for Anally Ripped Whores: Do you know what we say to things like romance and foreplay? We say fuck off. We take gorgeous young bitches and do what every man would like to do.

The pornographers tell the aroused, ashamed and possibly traumatised boy what real men want and do. Porn grooms boys to see violence and power over women as a badge of real manhood. Beeban Kidron’s documentary, InRealLife, enters the world of porn-addicted 15 year old Ryan, who recognises with some sadness that he is unable to see girls as human. They are just bodies. ‘I find now it’s so hard for me to actually feel a connection for a girl,’ Ryan says. Porn harms boys and men too.

To save the lives of women and girls, the solution must lie with educating boys and young men about what it means to be a man. I suggest the Scouts start doing equivalent good work as Girlguiding UK, which produces the largest annual survey of girls’ attitudes and encourages them to reach their full potential. The Scouts could start by promoting masculinity as caring and raise awareness of gender stereotyping. I suggest Pornland is on the national curriculum, as part of compulsory age-appropriate Sex and Relationships Education that challenges porn. According to The Guardian, InRealLife is ‘a film no parent and no teenager should miss.’ Culture Reframed is a multi-disciplinary team of academics and experts developing online education for parents, health professionals and educators to address the role of pornography in sexual violence, unhealthy relationships, Internet addiction, depression and other health problems. 25 November is followed by 16 days of activism. Act.