Is your relationship healthy? A checklist for girls and women

by Rachel Bell on March 10, 2020

I know a mother of a teenage girl who had been through the trauma of discovering her daughter is pregnant and taking her for an abortion. When I asked her how her daughter was doing in her relationship, the mother became a little tearful, saying she felt she had done all she could. She was clearly feeling powerless to do more or influence her daughter. She seemed emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed by the culture her daughter was growing up in. So I wrote this for her to give to her daughter. And for all girls and women seeing a boy or man.

Is your relationship healthy? Here are the signs:

1. Your partner is supportive of your interests, including those that do not involve him.

2. He understands and accepts your need to see your friends, without him.

3. He NEVER puts you down or criticises your body or your appearance.

4. He NEVER puts pressure on you to engage in a sexual act, and always checks in with you that you feel comfortable during sex.

5. He’ll use a condom and won’t pressure you to take sole responsibility for contraception.

6. He’s happy to share costs.

7. He NEVER uses language such as, ‘If you loved me, you’d do this…’, ‘Other girls would do this..’ , or ‘I’ll dump you if you don’t do this…’

8. Many boys and men consume porn, which sends the message that non-consenting, punishing and degrading acts on women is ‘sex’. Porn tells young people that anal sex is normal and expected, that women should shave off all their body hair, and that spitting, slapping, choking and ejaculating on a girl or woman’s face is ‘sex’. Porn doesn’t even address female desire. A healthy relationship is one where the male asks or gently explores how to give female pleasure. And you can tell each other what you like. Expecting anal sex, no body hair and abusive acts is not healthy or to be passed off as ‘the norm’. Spitting, slapping and choking are not the behaviours of a ‘real man’. Being uncomfortable with porn is not ‘anti-sex’, it’s anti-sexism.

9. Domestic violence means violence in an intimate relationship and can include controlling behaviours such as trying to dictate what you wear, who you see or how you spend your money. If your partner is paying loads of attention to someone else or in a relationship with someone else, and repeatedly tells you you are wrong or imagining things, this is a form of control called gaslighting. In a healthy relationship, no one tries to control the other person.

10. Being young is a tough time, with study, work, appearance, peer and social media pressures. Your partner should understand your need to study, work or enjoy hobbies to achieve your dreams and sense of wellbeing.

Your confidence toolbox to take away:

* Remember, YOU get to define who you are and your value, not the media, or another boy or man or group of girls. Practise saying, ‘I am OK with me, inside and out.’ No-one gets to say or decide that you’re ugly or a slag, YOU define that you are beautiful, you get to be the sexual being YOU want to be. Know that your most awesome beauty lies in your uniqueness.

* Everybody feels lonely, depressed or worth less than others at some point. Tap on your collarbone and repeat, ‘Even though I feel nervous/sad/whatever, I love and respect myself.’ Hang with people that see you and make you feel good. You have the right to a voice and confidence. Own both. Don’t let some schmuck who is threatened by your confidence take it away.

* Write down 10 things that are good/interesting/unique about you. This can include 10 things that you have done or are proud of. These Affirmations can be revisited when you are feeling low.

• Write down all the compliments you have received, all the people that have fancied you and all the people you get on with/have a rapport with.

Suggested reading:

Be Awesome by Hadley Freeman

13 Amy Schumer Tips On Being Sexy & Confident, Because You Define Your Self Worth

What is gaslighting?

Teaching Consent in the Classroom

by Rachel Bell on March 9, 2020

Published in TES on 13 January 2017

Tes Sex Education Special

In 2015, a police report found that 5,500 sexual assaults, including 600 rapes, had occurred in UK schools in the past three years. This statistic was only the tip of the iceberg.

The recent Women and Equalities Committee’s Inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools revealed that 59 per cent of girls aged 13-21 faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college, almost a third of 16-18 year-old girls experience unwanted sexual touching and nearly three-quarters of them hear sexist name-calling − being called a “slag”, a “slut” or a “bitch”.

There’s an amazing young woman going into UK schools and telling girls that having their skirt yanked up is in fact sexual assault. Sophie Bennett of UK Feminista has delivered their workshops to 2,200 young people as part of their Schools Against Sexism project, while their teacher training programme, working with Teach First and the Institute of Education, has trained 1000 trainee teachers in gender equality and consent. UK Feminista and the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) – who gave evidence at the MPs Inquiry – have led the call for a whole school approach to tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence. EVAW launched their Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign in 2012 calling for guidance for schools to respond to sexual violence, teacher training on gender equality, consent and respect, and structures in place that end the minimisation of sexual abuse. UK Feminista are currently creating a ‘one stop shop’ online resource hub for pupils, young people, teachers, parents and governors where they guidance on implementing a whole school approach to tackling violence against girls including sexual bullying, harassment, relationship abuse, sexting and pornography. Part of that approach is introducing age-appropriate Sex and Relationships education for all children in all schools. EVAW teamed up with The Everyday Sexism project to create an #SREnow microsite with a petition approaching 50,000 signatures. The recommendations from the Women and Equalities Committee also include a whole school approach from primary.

In October 2016, following campaigning from the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), Universities UK published its report into sexual violence at universities. While consent workshops are gaining some momentum at UK universities, EVAW believe that given the scale of sexual assaults and harassment, our universities should aim for a standard of protection on a par with safeguarding. UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson has joined the call for an end to campus assault around the world. Experts working in healthy relationships education agree that prevention work must be taken seriously and begin sooner − at primary, or even preschool level. Here are some of their suggested strategies.

Teach body ownership
Katia Heller’s CNN article I Don’t Own My Child’s Body shows how we can communicate to children that only they are in charge of their bodies, and can say no. Heller told her four year old daughter ‘I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won’t make you do it.’ These situations should be framed as a question not an instruction. Diane Hansen’s book, Those Are MY Private Parts helps children recognise abuse and say ‘No’ in rhyme format. Books such as Your Body Belongs To You by Cornelia Spelman and No Means No: Teaching Children about Personal Boundaries, Respect and Consent by Jayneen Sanders is for ages 3 to 6 and show children that they can choose whether to give physical affection and receive physical touch. For example, if a child says stop tickling me, you stop and tell them that you have stopped because they asked you to, that it is their body. Find many more resources like this online at
A Mighty Girl

Education Coordinator Cordelia Morrison of the charity, Tender, who use drama-based workshops to teach healthy relationships, says, “Identify opportunities for children or young people to both ask and be asked for consent, for example, asking a child if you can hold their hand. Being able to practise giving and asking for consent can empower young people with the skills to negotiate future encounters.”

Use scientific terms for genitals
The provider, Big Talk Education, reach children as young as three, with gentle discussion of the parts of the body that are private and should not be touched unless the child wants, for example a sore area that needs checking out by a parent or doctor. Like theCHAT, an SRE provider set up by Science teacher Carol Perry, who train teachers too, they see the importance of using scientific terms for genitals. This isn’t about children growing up too quickly, it’s about preventing and recognising sexual abuse. In the event of a child being inappropriately touched, a child will have the vocabulary to give exact information. For example, ‘He touched my Noo-noo’ will not carry the same clarity as ‘He touched my vagina’. Research shows that an educated child is much more likely to speak out if they are subjected to abuse.

Use the NSPCC’s Talking Pant’s campaign and discuss respecting others’ boundaries
The NSPCC’s Talking PANTS campaign is for children ages 4-11 and has one simple message shown by its ‘Underwear Rule’ – what’s in your pants belongs to you. It informs children of their rights over their own bodies and protects them from potential abuse. Tender use it with primary age children and those with SEN, saying, ‘The NSPCC’s Underwear Rule lays the foundations for the topic of consent through non-sexual interactions.’ Emphasising the importance of talking with a trusted adult if children feel unsafe, unsure or threatened in any way at any opportunity.

Tender also teach teach consent to children age 4-11 by encouraging respect of other’s boundaries and acknowledgement that not everyone feels the same about different activities or interactions. For example, some people like hugs, some only like hugs from close family/friends.

For teenagers aged 12-18

Begin by asking what the age of consent is and what it actually means
The RAP Project Co-Founder, Allison Havey, says, “Everyone appears to know it is 16. We advise that if you suspect a person is underage or has lied about their age, wait, and get to know them first. We also suggest avoiding hookups and getting to know a person before physical intimacy takes place. But the question, ‘What does consent actually mean?’ is a good opener for discussion.” Havey says, “Under the law, consent is to give your permission freely to have something done to you sexually or you do something sexual to someone else with no encumbrances or threats of any kind. Most teens think that lack of consent only occurs when one is threatened with physical force. Explain that consent is also finite, and needs to be asked for each time a partner desires an act of intimacy. If someone consents to a sexual act on a Friday, it does not mean that he or she is consenting to it again on the Saturday. If someone consents to kissing, it doesn’t mean that they are consenting to other sexual acts. If someone has performed a sexual act in the past, they should not be expected to consent to that or any other sexual act in the future. Encourage students to come up with their own scenarios.”

Clarify that consent is an enthusiastic ‘Yes’ and talk about alcohol
Teach that consent is not merely the absence of ‘no’, but the presence of a free and enthusiastically given ‘yes.’ Tender’s Cordelia Morrison says, ‘If someone is ever unsure if their partner is consenting to something, it is their responsibility to check.’

Allison Havey of The RAP Project says, ‘Alcohol creates confusion in young people around consent. One 17-year old young man asked us the following during a presentation: ‘If I am with a girl who is lying there nearly passed out, who has been drinking, and I ask her if we can have sex, and she mumbles ‘Yes’, is that consent?’ Several fellow male students nodded, eager to know the response. The answer is No. Co-Founder Deana Puccio always advises the following: ‘Wait for enthusiasm. If your gut feeling is telling you that a potential partner is not coherent enough to give consent, put it away and move on.’

Boys need to be taught to hear ‘No’ respectfully, rather than buy into the ‘Men need to be persistent to get what they want’ role or ‘Real men are dominant’ messages that come from porn and popular culture. Carol Perry of theCHAT sees how lad culture and pornography nurture a predatory mindset in boys. “We discuss the way some boys might start an evening thinking, Let’s see what I can get away with, looking for vulnerabilities, the girl who is drunk, or dressed in a way that’s perceived as ‘easy’. A girl can get categorised so she’s not seen as a whole person.

Use the ‘One of you is drunk’ scenario
theCHAT see the importance of spelling out a very typical scenario, using a ‘drunk’ sexual partner, as this is an area where teens, whatever the gender, typically victim blame. Carol Perry describes how she approached it with 13/14 year olds recently: “We describe a scenario where a couple – deliberately non-gendered – have been together a few months and are out at a party. One of them is more drunk and not really in a state decide anything, the other is feeling very amorous and carries on regardless. “We ask, ‘Who is responsible?’ Perry says, “The response is almost always that around half of the audience, boys and girls believe the more drunk party is equally responsible. Then we ask, without judgment, ‘Why do you think being drunk makes them as responsible?’ The answer is usually that they shouldn’t get so drunk, they’re taking a risk. Then we ask if anyone disagrees. The audience will hear a peer counter them and say the person ‘helping themselves’ is actually responsible, which is powerful to hear from a peer. That’s when we come in and back up that person with a statement like, ‘It might be silly to get so drunk but it’s not illegal. It is illegal to touch or penetrate someone sexually without their permission/consent. In legal terms it’s black and white. Rape & sexual assault are serious crimes. You can get up to 15 years in prison for good reason. And it can have a devastating and long-term effect on a victim’s mental health.’ This really gets the message across.”

We stress that if you have any doubt, the responsibility lies with the person choosing to do the doing. If you want to do something sexual with your partner, the responsibility lies with you to check for consent, not with your partner to say ‘no’ if they don’t want to. Being drunk is not an excuse. This is supplemented with discussion asking ‘What is coercion? What kind of things do people say to be coercive? How do you deal with that? Give examples such as:
‘If you really loved me, you would have sex with me.’
‘Everybody else is doing it.’
‘If you won’t have sex with me, I’ll find someone who will.’
‘But you’ve been flirting with me all night.’
‘I didn’t realise you were such a prude.’
Practising strategies in role-play can be very effective and empowering.

Encourage ‘Checking in’ and self-reflection
“Checking in with one another is something that can be encouraged across a whole school, and can start as early as nursery and reception,” says Perry. “It’s about being respectful, telling them what you’re going to do and making sure people are comfortable with it. It has the added benefit of reducing conflict and improving behavior.”

Tender advise to check in with yourself about how you feel teaching the topic: “You may feel comfortable leading an open discussion with one group of young people, but less so with a more challenging, older or unfamiliar class. If the topic is not in your comfort-zone, don’t panic or feel bad: you are still capable of teaching the key messages, but might just need to approach it differently. There are a lot of good resources out there to help boost your and your students’ understanding of consent. Tender’s own Facilitator’s Pack is full of exercises you can use to make the topic fun and accessible.

Does consent need to be taught differently to girls than to boys or is there a one-size-fits-all approach?
While one might imagine that single sex groups would give pupils the safe space to speak out and share experiences without fear of shame, embarrassment or being labeled, Tender find that by see using drama, participants experience what it’s like to be ‘in someone else’s shoes’, which increases empathy and understanding –an emotional, as well as an intellectual response. Other providers see the benefits of working with a mixed group. Allison Havey of The RAP Project says, “We leave this entirely up to the schools we visit, as they know their students maturity and issues better than we do. It is also a personal opinion, but I hope to engage the mixed groups enough to allow them to exchange their ideas, their concerns, their feelings with their friends. It is true, one or two schools this has not worked so well, and the Lad element overwhelmed the girls. But for the most part, sharing concerns works well with a mixed group. Deana might support single sex groups, so it differs. What does happen in most cases, be it single or mixed groups, is young men and women come to us individually to discuss a question, a problem or an incident for advice after our presentations.”

Carol Perry of theCHAT says, “Boys and girls are ideally taught about consent together to understand the world from each others’ points of view. Social norms around stereotypical gender play a big part. For example, girls are often taught to ‘Be nice or good girls’ and not hurt people’s feelings. Strong and assertive girls can face a backlash. Victim blaming affects girls while boys can be labelled as potential perpetrators.” Perry also finds that inviting pupils to write down any questions anonymously is a great way to measure how much they do or don’t know and what concerns them.

Big Talk Education use a single sex approach for primary age children as they are both potentially vulnerable. From Yr5 to Yr9 (9 to 14) we tend to work in single gender groups (or allow children to choose the group in which they feel safest or happiest. Lynette Smith says, “From as young as Y5, (aged nine or 10) we explain to boys the importance of being very careful, to ask before touching anyone’s body. As boys move onto senior schools we are able, in single gender groups, to really enforce this, explaining that in intimate relationships, some young people (especially girls) don’t feel confident and assertive enough to actually say no when they’re not happy with the level of intimacy. Generally, however, Big Talk Education encourage mixed groups from Yr10, age 15, to aid communication and understanding. They say, “We’ve seen a serious decline in young people’s ability when it comes to face-to-face communication. These skills seem to be deteriorating as young people use IT as a premier and often preferred message of communication even within very close relationships.”

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 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 ‘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,


  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.’ 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