Why ‘Gender-neutral’ is vital to Sex Education

‘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




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