Sex and sexuality

Over-ruled, dejected, denied. Gaslighted, rejected, undermined…

One of the most distressing aspects of the Everyone’s Invited testimonies for me has been around the way in which many victims have reported being met with a terrible and terrifying lack of support. Not only from the institutions they are a part of, but most particularly from their friends.

NB Parents may be interested in looking at the complementary article I published separately in ‘Teaching with Traction’ (access via the home page of my website – click on the ‘Teacher’ sign up button). This article talks about ways that schools can systemically help shut down the facilitating behaviours that create cultures where peer to peer abuse goes unchallenged. 

A number of the girls and young women contributing to ‘Everyone’s Invited’ record that, having brought together the courage to tell their friends – often the first line of disclosure in safeguarding situations – they have been rejected. Their cry for understanding, compassion, help, denied. 

It is clear to see how has been a massively compounding dimension to the suffering from the original experience of abuse. For those friends to admit that wrong has been done – to name, own, acknowledge the abuse would be to rock the boat too hard. The status quo in their peer group would never be the same again. Or it’s all just too overwhelming – too dangerous, beyond them emotionally…Better to ostracise the victim than to risk going overboard.

Finding themselves gaslighted – told that they are wrong is more than disconcerting, it’s destabilising – these girls and young women report. They are told how they feel is wrong. That the other person involved is also a friend who couldn’t have…They have got it wrong. They were drunk…That they were wrong to put themselves in that situation. Somehow, it’s them, not the perpetrator who is at fault.

This is what isolates the victim further – causing them to doubt themselves, to ruminate and revisit the event. Because their brain and body are telling them that something’s not right. They have to live with the primary fear – that they have suffered. And the secondary fear – which is that no one will listen. And indeed they haven’t. It would take immense courage to step up to report to an authority figure after learning that the friends who you thought had your back, are manifestly conditional in their approach to your belonging.
I will never forget some training I had as a safeguard lead with a social worker who made the point that by the time a child had worked his or her way round to telling a teacher, they have probably already had a litany of broken trust behind them:

  1. Testing the waters by telling friends – who are overwhelmed and behave in denying or rejecting ways.
  2. Telling a relative – who perhaps is also overwhelmed and unable to face the idea that most abuse perpetrated by adults on children is very close to home…an aunt, uncle, family friend, grandparent, step-parent…the ramifications are too painful, there must be some mistake, or the child must somehow be wrong…
  3. Their behaviour will be most likely the next form of disclosure. The recipient of the abusive behaviour will either go inward, withdraw and be a shadow of themselves, or the opposite, behave in explosive, unregulated, provocative and challenging ways. Having had their trust broken at least twice by people close to them, their confirmation bias will notice people who don’t listen, don’t see them, who are showing signs of not being facilitating or worthy of trust.
  4. By the time they come to a person in authority it really is the last chance saloon for them to feel – and be – met. What they have learned about reliability in their attachment figures has been very disrupted. This is why it is so crucial that professionals are well trained to be the first receivers of disclosures of distressing and difficult lived experiences.

When we see problematic behaviour like this, it is important to think about what the needs are – what are the skills that are needed?

Clearly whether a boy or girl – the victim of peer to peer abuse of whatever sort needs to feel safe, be supported. To be able to be seen and soothed in their hurt.

The inability to do this in the friendship group speaks to some needs:
1.To learn how to be present to other people’s experiences and distress – with compassion


  1. To recognise and manage their own anxiety and overwhelm.

    1. Part of that is having the skill to label what’s going on – and know what resources they can being to the situation.

      1. To have a framework of thresholds and choices for action – when and how they can get the appropriate external help from adults.

        1. This framework needs revisiting and re-internalising during adolescence when the drive to independence is so strong. 

AS our children grow, it is now more important than ever to teach them how to handle the exposure that they will have to life’s challenges. How to listen to each other, how to manage confidentiality. How to have a sense of boundaries, and agency – what to do, what the options are, when a situation is too difficult, too dangerous, affecting them too intensely, making them feel too different, for too long.

Parents and schools can work together better to be more real about the types of difficulties our young people encounter – either within themselves – or in their friendship groups. And we need to be more pro-active, pragmatic and open about it.

What happens between the last year of primary school and the world of 14-18 year olds that enables the currency of objectification (upskirting and nude pictures), the dehumanisation and gamification of relationships to occur (the lists, the scoring)…the ‘pornification’ of expectations and early sexual encounters…the popularity of slut-shaming and the wall of silence around ‘rapey’ behaviour…?

What is the soil that nurtures these behaviours…? As the mother of an 11 year old reading the articles and testimonials – both professionally and personally, this has been a preoccupation that has come to the forefront.

From the beginning of these revelations in March, I have been immersed in this preoccupation, from working with staff on INSET days on how to tackle the ‘don’t snitch’ culture, to doing workshops with young people to increase their capacity to be on their own side and find their voice – or at least have a better range of tools at their disposal to step outside of and even call out toxic dynamics in their peer groups. This has been something I have majored on since 2013 when my work on tackling the ‘Mean Girls’ culture hit the press.

Now I look at my own daughter and the interactions she is starting to have with other girls and boys – well into puberty, reaching the end of Year 6. For these children, the actuality of their sexuality is starting to dawn with all its pleasures, possibilities, and pitfalls…

As her parent, I feel hyper attuned and sensitive to some of the ‘banter’ she describes…and it’s very easy to feel alarmed, and threatened by the long shadows of darker possibilities in the future…It is easy to identify the anxiety. But what propels me in my purpose writing today – is looking at what we can do about it to future-proof our kids. To abuse-proof them – and strengthen them to be upstanders, not bystanders when what they see and experience around them gives them that ‘uh-oh’ feeling….and when that sense of wanting and needing to be an insider with their peers can lead to compromise and – without meaning to, contribute to a peer group culture that green-lights coercive, controlling, abusive, power, and status-driven behaviour. Or facilitating a culture of secrecy around things that are getting out of control.

SAFEGUARDING IN THE HOME
Cultures of safety – values of psychological safety and structures for whistle-blowing.

  1. GOOD LISTENING IS FOUNDATIONAL – create a listening culture – a culture of psychological safety – concern, compassion, collaboration. Be ready to ATTUNE to your child and teen…to what they say,  as well as what they push out into the world in behaviour that shows signs of dysregulation. Listen and ask questions that help kids evaluate behaviour that they see around them and filter what is appropriate for them to deal with alone, with friends, with you, with teachers. Help them learn to triage what are signs that someone’s behaviour is indicating that they need boundaries, they need help.
  2. Create a non-judgmental space for them to tell you things and the psychological safety for them to be able to explore the more challenging and sometimes disturbing elements of growing pains with you.
  3. Always make sure there is a payback for them coming to tell you…be strategic. How do you want them to feel after confiding in you? They have come to you for a reason – for help processing the ‘stuff’ of life. Help them develop a sense of agency, choice, autonomy as you scaffold their thinking and praise them and steer their reflections in an encouraging AND ‘real’ way.
  4. Help them learn how to be a good listener to others. Catch them doing that well in the home – and praise them for it.
  5. Be realistic. The pandemic has intensified online activity for everyone who has the access to it. It is inevitable that children and teens will have been affected by the deeper dives into darker aspects of life that we would rather they were not exposed to…BUT try to avoid consequences ALWAYS involving access to the phone or access online. This needs monitoring and limiting of course – but you want them to be open with you about the secret lives their peers are having online.
  6. Inform, empower and equip our kids by actively preparing them for the transitions from the innocence of childhood into and through their growth and initiation into their sexual selves. Make no mistake, talking about sex and sexuality is all about health and safety. Emotional and physical and sexual health and safety. Help them be the best boss of their body they can be. That starts by understanding and appreciating their bodies. And understanding what feels good, what feels right – kind touch, boundaries, and consent.
  7. The data you need to know to help pace yourselves in this task: 10 is the average age for the first encounter with porn. By 14 nearly half of teens report having seen explicit images of other teens on their phone or other people’s phones. 50% of teens lose their virginity by 16. 30% of people regret their early sexual encounters. Due to the influence of porn, some people are actively damaged by them emotionally and physically. Porn accounts for radical shifts in what early sexual encounters are like – and makes a huge contribution to participation in harmful sexual behaviours – not only emotionally, but also physically in the unexperienced. It norms oral and anal sex. Porn norms completely advanced sexual practices like BDSM (Bondage, Discipline / Dominance, Submission / Sado-Masochistic) activities without setting out any of the important pre-amble that makes any sexual encounter (let alone higher risk activities) both consensual and pleasurable. Porn accounts for unrealistic views of the human body. It over-stimulates and under-contextualises and is addictive, meaning that ‘real’ intimacy is not fast paced or stimulating enough. IT brutalises. Alongside porn are the edgy filmed materials that get passed around that are provocative, that are misogynistic, homophobic, that norm cultural contempt and dominating behaviour. That are driven towards status, popularity and ‘likes’ at the expense of others. Educated children and teens make more informed decisions, have fewer regrets, and better relationships. Get on the front foot and help them stick to their guns and self-advocate for successful relationships.
  8. Gird yourself to have some of the hard conversations earlier. Sex for pleasure not just procreation aged 7 or 8. Different expressions of sexuality at a similar age. By 9 at the pre-smartphone point – about risk factors online -what is for adults only and can’t be unseen – what pornography is – that their hearts and minds are not ready for it – it’s for adults only.
  9. Investigate filters for blocking sites, tracking activity on devices: keywords, alerts of risky online behaviour…BUT this does not replace the requirement for transparency about online activity. From an early age if possible be your child’s guide by the side. Look at what’s going on in the Chat together with them and discuss the tone, the content. Look at the elements of ‘banter’ and unpack and clarify the scale from inappropriate to unacceptable.
  10. Give them the language to label what’s going on. Appropriate / inappropriate are catch-all terms that are over-used and rather vague. There is a spectrum around this. With young kids you can talk about what gives them an ‘uh-oh’ feeling – or use that as a shortcut – a gateway to enquiry. Appropriate, inappropriate, inconsiderate, rude, prejudiced, offensive, unacceptable, threatening, violent, harassing, beyond the red-line. Help them name it more accurately, think about the impact and importance – the WHY it’s so unacceptable, the way SAFETY is compromised.
  11. Help them connect that with the bodily experience they have – let them learn how to tune into their inner-wisdom. Their ‘spidey-senses’ of what happens in their bodies when safety and values of decency, dignity, respect is compromised.
  12. THEN help them connect this with their agency. Not simply to identify and analyse – but to take ACTION and be an upstander. What’s a defcon 5 issue – what that looks like, what you can do, defcon 4….right up to going nuclear with  Defcon 1 when they have seen or heard or been witness to something that is so ‘egregious’ that there is an imperative to take it to the top – and how to do that.

We worry that – for example – talking about sex and sexuality proactively will sexualise our children.There are vast swathes of evidence that this is not the case. Looking at the data from The Netherlands, Iceland, the comparatives between US states that do or don’t address sex education with a proactive and pragmatic approach – it is clear that equipping and empowering young people with information before they need it leads to better decisions, fewer regrets, lower rates of unplanned pregnancy or STIs.We worry that talking about mental illness, depression, anxiety, self-harm will ‘give children ideas’…that they will become self-diagnosing drop-outs who just don’t ‘get over it’. There are still profound worries that talking about gender will propel us into a cultural norming of transitioning.For years now, we know that 50% of mental illnesses will show their hand by the age of 14. 75% by the age of 23.From a young age our children are dealing with a LOT. And it’s our job to ensure they know -and feel- that they are not alone. That they can speak out – and know they will be heard. This is a vital strand in enabling us to steer young people through the tricky relational waters whose depths and dangers the Everyone’s Invited movement have exposed.If we want to head off some of these cultures of disrespect and danger at the pass, we need to re-orient ourselves and retune ourselves to the worlds our kids are in. To be brave, to be realistic, and to be an empowering resource to them, so that they can go on to inhabit their power – stand strong – and make the world a better place for them and their friends. With love and gratitude.Emma.

More to explore

Just say no!

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