Blog: When will we stop telling girls how to dress and start educating boys?

From Wikipedia © Raimond Spekking
From Wikipedia © Raimond Spekking

“How often do we tell our daughters what to wear – but rarely tell our sons what respectful sexual relations are?

“How often do we warn our daughters about provocation – but rarely talk to our boys about consent?

“How often do we justify the cruelty of boys? And ask our girls to avoid it.

“How often do we thoughtlessly accept that boys will be boys.”

I saw this quote as a Facebook strapline for an article on and it immediately grabbed my attention.

The article was an edited version of an address former Victoria Police commissioner Ken Lay gave at Monash University for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

It grabbed my attention because growing up I was told similar things: that I shouldn’t dress a certain way – short skirts, low cut tops – because if something terrible happened to me, if I got sexually assaulted, for example, people might say I invited it. I shouldn’t get too drunk because, as a girl, I am more vulnerable to being attacked than a boy.

Even if said with the best intentions – to protect a child – to make statements like these to a young girl is harmful and dangerous and just plain wrong. Of course we should teach girls to look after themselves but this is not the right way to do it. This kind of language and rhetoric shames girls and makes it easier for the minority of men who abuse women and girls to  get away with it.

Yet, as Lay says, people say these things everyday ‘…as easily as taking a breath. We don’t even know we’re doing it.”

But what do we tell our boys? Most of the time nothing.

Lays says: “These double standards can result in many women feeling an intense, silencing guilt about their own abuse or alienation.”

It was this rhetoric that made me keep quiet in embarrassment and shame when I was walking home one day, wearing a mini-skirt, and two boys, in broad day light, put their hands under my skirt and touched my bum several times.

Scared I decided not to walk, as I usually would, under the subway but along the main road where they followed. When one of the boys came up to touch me again I managed to grapple with him and push him to the floor. Embarrassed he ran off. His friend just stood there and slowly walked back the way he came.

I never told any of the adults in my life about this at the time. Why? Perhaps I felt that because I was wearing a mini-skirt it was somehow my fault or that is what they would say to me, ‘I told you your skirts were too short!’ or perhaps I thought it was just ‘boys being boys’ and I shouldn’t make a fuss.

This shaming of girls is everywhere. Just look at some of the reactions to a picture celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay posted of his young daughters (16,17 and 14) wearing mini-dresses at a birthday party:

‘Boys will think they’re easy pickings’.

‘These girls are just asking for it’.

Ramsay’s response to these comments was spot on: ‘Sick minded people… my job is to teach my son how to respect girls.’

Inconvenient truths

More men must stand up and acknowledge these double standards and that there is a fundamental problem in society when an estimated 1.4 million women suffered domestic abuse in the UK last year. (Australia has a particular domestic violence problem. Up to  September of this year 63 women have been killed by domestic violence and there were 12,561 women who were victims of assault in NSW last year.) Approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales alone every year.

I can’t tell you the amount of conversations I’ve had with men who fixate on the few women who make false rape allegations like it’s an epidemic, or who are instantly suspicious of any women who makes a rape allegation (particularly against a male celebrity) rather than acknowledge sexual abuse by men against women is a massive problem in Western society.

Lay sums up this attitude perfectly in his speech:

“Claims of sexual assault inspire a higher level of suspicion than claims of theft, fraud or street assaults. Our doubt is much higher for women. Almost as if we assume women have less credibility whether it is in sexual assault or family violence. I can tell you that the vast majority of sexual assault claims and family violence claims are legitimate. To those men who fixate on the bogus claims, I say to you that you are being intellectually dishonest. You are emotionally cherry-picking data to make a case that women fundamentally lack credibility. The data doesn’t agree and nor do I.”

Just recently men’s rights activists tried to highjack the discussion about domestic violence against women at the hands of men claiming one in three domestic violence victims are men – a statistic that was quickly denounced by leading domestic violence experts.

Just because women point out that there is a big problem in society with violence against women it doesn’t mean they are tarring all men with the same brush or denying there are male victims too; far from it, we are asking you good men, the majority of men, to help us combat these problems by speaking out against the perpetrators and the antiquated stereotypes and attitudes these offenders often use to justify their actions.

As Lay says: “It’s not enough to consider ourselves good men because we don’t bash women.”

If you’re a father, a husband, a brother, a boyfriend, a male role model for a young man or women you need to educate yourself about the problems women face at the hands of men and teach those young ones, and some of the old ones, that this behaviour is not acceptable- ever – and that women are to be respected and treated equally to men.

That starts by not upholding antiquated stereotypes or by insinuating somehow that a male life is more important than a female life. It is not.

When I was a child one of my Dad’s male friends told me that because I was a woman I was ‘inferior’ to a man. I didn’t know what the word meant at the time and when I looked it up I was perplexed as to why he would tell me such a thing. But it happens all the time and can have a very negative impact on young girls.

Even the media does it. One example is the 2013 CNN coverage of the Steubenville rape case where two sixteen year-old boys were convicted of the rape of a sixteen year old girl. After the sentencing the reporter went on to lament the destroyed lives of the sex offenders and how their ‘promising futures’ were destroyed and that “The most severe thing with these young men is being labelled as registered sex offenders.”

What about her life? Because they’re boys, are their lives somehow more worthy? That’s the suggestion here. Perhaps the boy’s parents should have taught them more about having respect for women and their sexual boundaries i.e it is not acceptable to have sex with an unconscious person.

We must teach boys from a very young age to respect girls, to treat them as equals and what consent means. This all starts at home, and carries on in school and other outside influences.

I hope that these harmful attitudes and behaviours towards women will die out and no longer be tolerated by men or women. But the fact is, however, that equality, sexual assault and domestic violence statistics show us that, although the situation is improving, right now we are a long way off this goal.