I guess I’m used to the clicks, whistles, stares, comments and beeps on my way home from work across a busy part of town. I have different responses for different things and they’ve almost become a part of my daily routine. I’m not OK with it, but I don’t think about it as much anymore.
Today, though, was different. As I walked past 4 boys on a street where other children were playing, the tallest one said “hey, sexy” and whistled. A few seconds later, one of the younger boys echoed his words and whistled as well. I was taken aback and was tempted to process what had happened as I continued to walk, but stopped and simply said “you don’t talk to girls like that” in a stern tone whilst maintaining eye-contact with the boys.
They looked to be between the ages of 10 and 14.
The behaviour modelled by the older boy was almost instantly replicated by one of the younger boys. This was, inside of our little situation, a representation of something bigger that had happened in the boys’ lives: this behaviour has been modelled to them and they have adopted it. I don’t believe a 10 year old boy would instinctively greet a woman on her way home from work with “hey, sexy”.
(As a side-note: the 10 year olds I taught a couple of years ago would never have said “hey, sexy” as I came into the classroom. What is it about context that casualises things that at times seem unacceptable/unusual/crazy?)
Just as I was a victim of objectification and degradation, the boys are victims of a failed culture frame in which they have been taught that they are primarily sexual and not worthy of meaningful interaction: they have been devalued, too.
The boys had been taught to believe things about women and about how they should behave. Perhaps it’s fathers who treat women like sex objects or less than what they are in other ways, perhaps it’s how men treat women in music videos the boys watch, perhaps it’s seeing women portrayed as sex objects in lads’ mags (these ingredients of our culture are important when thinking about the beliefs that lead to that behaviour.)
How do we stop/change this?
I’d love to hear what you think. Why did the boys act as they did? How/where did they learn that behaviour? How can we re-educate?
You already know what I think about the role of the media in encouraging harmful beliefs about ourselves and others but as I carried on home, my thoughts centred around a couple of other solutions today.
Male Role Modelling
Men have such a significant role to play in combatting sexism/devaluing. I believe that this takes 3 things: men respecting themselves enough to not consume trashy material or play into the stereotypes on offer, rather to excel and develop and be challenged; men respecting each other enough to create a holistic, stimulating, respectful culture (I’m not sure that had the boys been on their own, they would have acted in the same way: there is power in numbers and in the group mentality); and men respecting women enough to not stare at them like they are pieces of meat or talk to them in a way that robs them of some part of their humanity – both in one-off encounters and relationships.
Female Role Modelling
I don’t think there is ever reason to place the blame for this behaviour on us, but there are things we can do to help stop it. For a tiny moment this afternoon before I spoke out, I froze. I’m well-versed in sexism and objectification and education in relation to those things, but I froze – I felt like I had been reduced to something to be looked at and had no power. But we do have power. 2 things: speaking out and objecting to being reduced – both during incidents and in general on whatever platforms we have; and occupying space without reducing ourselves. I might one day have sons the age of the boys I encountered this afternoon: they will know their mother to be much more than her appearance. The boys and men I know now need to know this, too: I am physical, I am sexual, but I am intellectual, professional, spiritual, creative, and a whole lot of other things. I will fill the space I have with all I am and can be.
Right: over to you! How do we stop boys from thinking of and treating girls/women as sexual objects?
PS: 2 minutes before this happened, I heard that Tesco had decided to age-restrict lads’ mags sales to over 18s as a response to the Lose the Lads Mags campaign. Not enough, but a step in the right direction that, teamed with this week’s news from the Co-op, heartens me and makes me think we are moving towards a culture that doesn’t generate the kinds of beliefs from which this behaviour can spring.