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 

I’m beginning to think we need to find our idols elsewhere

by Rachel Bell on January 13, 2016

After a youth spent with Jagger and Warhol, Jerry Hall is marrying patriarchal conservatism made flesh, Rupert Murdoch. Of course Jerry’s ex, Mick Jagger, IS the establishment too, accepting his knighthood whereas David Bowie, always the subversive outsider, wanted nothing to do with it. The death of a great idol, David Bowie, and the marriage announcement from Jerry Hall, got me thinking how we really need to find our idols elsewhere. One Direction, today’s equivalent to The Beatles, come from the conveyor belt of manufactured pop, The X-Factor. Women rewarded with idol status in music tend to be those selling commercial sexual empowerment. Taylor Swift and Adele stand out in an identikit landscape where Beyoncé, Rhianna and Miley Cyrus  – and their appropriation of the porn and sex industries – are considered edgy. Lady GaGa may challenge but it’s debatable whether she’d be a star if she hadn’t got her kit off so much. See Madonna. Kate Moss is called an idol because she is an extremely popular model. And some women love her style. I like the way she gets away with partying like a man, but stripping for Pirelli and Playboy and keeping her mouth shut isn’t what my kind of idol looks like. Kim Kardashian is seen as an idol for her beauty, fortune and mastery of digital age self-promotion. Girls and young women have been sold sexism as sexual liberation, and the message that sexual empowerment is the only type of empowerment worth having. As Carrie Fisher tweeted when haters criticised her for not ageing well – youth and beauty are not accomplishments.

Many men idolise men who have made lots of money. Men and boys treat footballers as idols but unless the footballers are using their position to do something useful – Cristiano Ronaldo has been named ‘most charitable athlete’ while David Beckham just got an award for his effort for UNICEF – this is a pathetic indictment of what masses of men value. Footballers could change the world by speaking out against sexism and homophobia in football, but they don’t. Sportswomen are worthy idols because they are breaking down barriers and showing girls and women that there are alternatives to being celebrated for being hot.

Bowie was an idol for me because he refused male stereotypes, was handsome, elegant and made arresting music like Five years. I idolised Micheal Stipe for the same reasons. For my muso friend Janey, it’s always Nick Cave. Our idols were outsiders. Of course, contemporary music is full of intriguing characters with something to say but unlike Bowie, they tend to stay on the edges of the mainstream. Jeremy Corbyn’s swift rise showed there is a movement of youth hungry for anti-establishment figures. Now I admire plenty of women who are pretty and famous – Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Dormer, Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler – but it’s their words and deeds, sometimes simply the roles they choose and refuse, that make them admirable. But mostly, I find my idols elsewhere. I admire the women who fight for the right of all women to be seen as human. Human rights activists like Finn MacKay, whose speeches showed my younger self that the politics of feminism touches everything – it is anti racism, it is anti war, it is anti poverty, anti Austerity, anti male violence, pro-abortion rights, pro affordable housing, pro environment and so much more. A radical feminist, Finn MacKay, brought Reclaim the Night marches back and is an example of truly owning your own voice: her speeches fire passion and fight, create bonds, mobilise, motivate and move to tears.

Hillary Clinton is an idol of mine for telling the world that ‘Women’s rights are human rights are womens’s rights’, so too is Julie Bindel, Rachel Moran, Denise Marshall, now deceased, and Karen Ingala Smith, just a few of the many devoted to the struggle of ending male violence against women through prostitution, rape and domestic violence. Those who inspire me are outsiders challenging the status quo, such as Sisters Uncut, Southall Black Sisters and Jean Hatchet, using Twitter to take on sexism and rape culture in football. The feminist movement, like many political movements, is filled with courageous women taking on the most controversial stances – anti-porn, women mattering more than a football – in the face of rape threats, death threats and daily abuse. I think many will agree that activists and writers such as Malala Yousafzai and Nawal El Saadawi are indeed idols. With David Bowie gone and idols from Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Paul McCartney embracing the establishment, there’s another chum of Any Warhol who remains one of the true cool cat’s of that era: Bianca Jagger, President and Chief Executive of the Biana Jagger Human Rights Foundation. As Emmeline Pankhurst said, ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.’

Challenge Porn on International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women

by Rachel Bell on December 15, 2015

Sentencing the murderer of teenager Becky Watts, the judge, Mr Justice Dingemans, broke down and cried. The sixteen year old’s step brother, Nathan Matthews, inflicted over 40 injuries on the school girl and dismembered her body. November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In court, Matthews confessed to watching porn on a near-daily basis and the jury learned of a video about the rape of a teenage girl found on his laptop. The judge flagged up Matthews’ obsession with ‘borderline legal’ pornography showing ‘petite teenage girls’ with older men. How many more girls and women must suffer rape and die before society recognises porn as a form of male violence against women? Culture Reframed is leading the way. It the first public health promotion NGO to recognise and address sexually violent pornography as the public health crisis of the digital age.

Whenever I write about the harm of porn, at least one man will send comments demanding evidence that links porn with sexual violence. They want a study, they want facts and figures. There are plenty of cases around the world in which men have raped and murdered women in attacks that mirror the pornographic images they were viewing beforehand. In one case it was a boy raping his little sister. How many girls and women must suffer and die before such men will desist with their aggressive denial? The people mending the broken bodies and minds of children and women at the NSPCC, at Rape Crisis and any organisation supporting victims of sexual violence don’t demand such stats. They have the human stories in front of them. Still, the NSPCC have collected evidence of porn’s impact on young people. More than four in 10 girls aged 13-17 in England say they have been coerced into sex acts, according to one of the largest European polls on teenage sexual experience. Research from the Universities of Bristol and Central Lancashire found that a fifth of girls had suffered violence or intimidation from their teenage boyfriends, a high proportion of whom regularly viewed pornography, with one in five boys harbouring ‘extremely negative attitudes towards women.’

In the absence of up-to-date Sex and Relationships Education, porn is where kids go to learn about sex. In porn, anal sex is the norm. Many other punishing acts are the norm so if you want to know what the 1 in 10 kids aged 12/13 who think they many be addicted to porn are watching, read my post. Allison Pearson wrote about what pornography is doing to girls in The Telegraph this year. In her article, Pornography has changed the landscape of adolescence beyond all recognition, she quoted a GP treating growing numbers of girls presenting as incontinent and with internal injuries caused by frequent anal sex, participated in because ‘a boy expected her to.’ This backs up another study of British teenagers which found that their first experience of anal sex occurred within a relationship yet was ‘rarely under circumstances of mutual exploration or sexual pleasure.’ Science teacher Carol Perry, who set up to provide Sex and Relationships education, says, ‘Porn sex is a phrase coined by teenage girls referring to non-intimate/loving, aggressive, all about the boy sex that the girls commonly felt pressured to have. theCHAT campaigns to raise aspirations for girls and all young people to have good, mutually pleasurable communicative sex.

Even without the injuries, trauma, rape and deaths of girls and women at the hands of porn-addicted boys and men, the existence of porn that eroticises violence against girls and women is enough. Why does our society in which one in three women will be a victim of sexual violence at the hands of men in her lifetime do so little to challenge it? To challenge an industry bigger than Hollywood in which 90% of top watched rented scenes have physical or verbal abuse towards the woman? To challenge the eroticisation of child rape within the family? Family abuse is ubiquitous in porn with narratives such as First Time With Daddy. When I open Pornhub, the free and accessible site where the UK’s 12 year old boys go (the typical age a boy will look for porn) these are the videos immediately available: Dad wakes up step daughter in bed; teen slut face fucked so hard she drools; Young Blonde Seduces Step-brother. Categories along the bottom include: 18 and abused; College, Young Teen, Virgin and Exxxtra Small Teens. Becky Watts was murdered by her step brother.

In her lectures, and in her book and film Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, the internationally acclaimed scholar, author and activist, Gail Dines, highlights how porn grooms boys, with examples like this promotional copy for Anally Ripped Whores: Do you know what we say to things like romance and foreplay? We say fuck off. We take gorgeous young bitches and do what every man would like to do.

The pornographers tell the aroused, ashamed and possibly traumatised boy what real men want and do. Porn grooms boys to see violence and power over women as a badge of real manhood. Beeban Kidron’s documentary, InRealLife, enters the world of porn-addicted 15 year old Ryan, who recognises with some sadness that he is unable to see girls as human. They are just bodies. ‘I find now it’s so hard for me to actually feel a connection for a girl,’ Ryan says. Porn harms boys and men too.

To save the lives of women and girls, the solution must lie with educating boys and young men about what it means to be a man. I suggest the Scouts start doing equivalent good work as Girlguiding UK, which produces the largest annual survey of girls’ attitudes and encourages them to reach their full potential. The Scouts could start by promoting masculinity as caring and raise awareness of gender stereotyping. I suggest Pornland is on the national curriculum, as part of compulsory age-appropriate Sex and Relationships Education that challenges porn. According to The Guardian, InRealLife is ‘a film no parent and no teenager should miss.’ Culture Reframed is a multi-disciplinary team of academics and experts developing online education for parents, health professionals and educators to address the role of pornography in sexual violence, unhealthy relationships, Internet addiction, depression and other health problems. 25 November is followed by 16 days of activism. Act.

Unreported rapes of teen girls show smashing sexism and rape myths is essential in school

by Rachel Bell on November 10, 2015

This week The Children’s Society report finds that thousands of sex crimes against 16 and 17 year old girls in England and Wales were unreported last year. With only 1 in 4 cases against children leading to a conviction and a 5.3% conviction rate for rape in the UK, girls, understandably have little faith in the criminal justice system. Girls do not report because of fear of reliving their trauma, the culture of shame, going to court, being judged, fearing the perpetrator and not being believed. But BBCThree’s Sex on Trial clearly demonstrated other deep-rooted factors at play.

Uncertainty about what constitutes rape, sexual exploitation, a crime and consent coupled with a culture of victim blaming is behind the staggering extent of underreporting. The programme showed just how skewed sympathy is towards the perpetrator, with many participants more concerned for the rapist’s self-inflicted ‘ruined’ life (there was a great faith in British justice from participants) than for the female victim. Rape myths are flourishing as participants seemed to expect the victim to fight off the rapist, blaming her for having a previous relationship with him. The Children’s Society report finds that not wanting the perpetrator punished is another reason for non-reporting and this down-playing of rape and excusing of rapists was all too apparent in Sex on Trial. Disturbingly, many female participants disclosed their own unreported experiences of sexual violence on the programme, which gave minimal air-time to the impact of rape. The formal complaint made to BBCThree by campaigning organisation Everyday Victim Blaming is an insight into the rape myths that feed into underreporting and the shamefully low conviction rate.

While society and the law must address why girls’ are not reporting, the question we must ask is what the hell is going on with boys and men? Where does this sense of entitlement to girls and women’s bodies come from? UK Feminista, an organisation that supports people to campaign for a world in which women and men are equal, are developing a project called Schools Against Sexism. This includes workshops with pupils, including giving them the tools to campaign themselves, and training and resources for teachers and parents. The project includes supporting schools to implement a whole school approach to tackling violence against girls including sexual bullying, harassment, relationship abuse, sexting and pornography. This work adds to the End Violence Against Women Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign and the amazing work in schools from charity, Tender.

UK Feminista logo

UK Feminista’s Sophie Bennett says. ‘Demand for workshops and teacher training has been huge. The teachers we meet tell us they are desperate for support to challenge sexism in the classroom. Time and time again, girls and boys tell us they feel pressure to look, think and behave according to harmful gender stereotypes. School is a key site where sexism is experienced and sexist attitudes develop, but it’s also a key site for change.’ The organisation is also building a body of research on the state of sexism in schools. A conversation with a male teacher and consultant living on my street this morning gives a glimpse into how bad it is. He tells me that boys routinely call girls ‘bitch’ and ‘gash’, he recalls a male pupil simulating sex behind a female teacher as she bent over, and of cases of unpunished sexual assault and alleged rape. Then he tells me about catching a twelve year old watching bestiality porn. ‘Do you see a lot of porn on boys’ mobiles in the playground?’ I asked. ‘Of course.’ he replied. ‘They are swamped by it.’ And as Sophie Bennett of UK Feminista says, ‘Porn eroticises non-consent.’

Last month, the Women’s Equality Party launched their first policies and pledged to make age-appropriate Relationships Education – including on sexual consent – compulsory. WEP say, ‘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.’ The WEP want to see schools addressing entrenched ideas about gender, help boys and girls challenge what they see in the media, teach mutual respect in relationships and show boys as well as girls that caring for others does not make you weak. Of the 85,000 girls and women raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted each year, only 15% report it to the police. A quarter of these reports are not even recorded as crimes. Unreported crimes of sexual violence means unpunished perpetrators, free to rape again. And they will. We need to talk about rape.

Men! Quit Being Freaked by Feminism and Join its Male Allies

by Rachel Bell on October 10, 2015

On 24 and 25 October I will be at the Feminism in London conference, the Chair of which has received rape threats, death threats and threats to her family. An end to male violence against women is one of the key priorities that has energised the fourth wave of feminism, why this conference exists and has grown to host internationally acclaimed speakers from Shami Chakrabarti to Nawal El Saadawi. Feminists have struggled to end male violence pretty much on their own. When I say feminists I mean the women and girls who are awake to this global pandemic that the media treat as ‘unrelated’ incidents. I mean women who never want to see another teenage girl raped by her boyfriend, wives battered by their husbands, women fleeing stalking ex-partners who want them dead. I mean Rape Crisis, women’s charities and refuges, women campaigning for Sex and Relationships education while hardcore porn fills the gap, women who are academics, artists and activists. We work our asses off through the pain as many of us have been broken by male violence. Yet isn’t this all rather strange? Male violence is a problem with men so why is it side-lined as a women’s issue? Where are the men standing by us? Where are the community voices speaking out against the violent men who kill two women a week and leave their children motherless? At this year’s Feminism in London, there is a line-up of workshops run by men has under the umbrella title Male Allies.


Feminism in London honours the suffragettes with the colours white, purple and green

Feminism in London honours the suffragettes with the colours white, purple and green

The White Ribbon campaign get men involved in ending sexual violence, often getting sports teams to pledge. White Ribbon UK, headed up by Chris Green, a man who for whom no question is too small, have always been a strong presence at the conference. This year they’re running a workshop on Gender and the Arts, debating how limiting, stereotypical film roles for women and a minority of women directors influence gender-based violence. Men, Sexism and Patriarchy, run by the Men’s Development Network, will address the unaware sexism men carry, identify how Patriarchy benefits and deficits men, and show men how to stop being sexist. Engaging Men in Feminism looks at the stereotypes and misconceptions underlying modern masculinity. Participants will leave knowing how to talk to the boys and men in their lives about the pressures to act in certain ways and how to express their whole selves. This is run by the Great Men project, set up by The Great Initiative. The Great Men team have delivered school workshops on gender equality, masculinity and violence prevention to over 3000 teenage boys since the project began two years ago. Another workshop, Men as Carers, asks if men as fathers can contribute to their well-being and women’s empowerment, if boys need male role models to grow into caring, non-violent adults.

David Brockwell, Great Men Project Manager

David Brockway, Great Men Project Manager

Since the first Feminism in London conference in 2008, I’ve noticed the smattering of men in the audience grow. Could some of the twenty-somethings simply be clued up to where all the coolest, smartest girls go? Last year I decided to ask. I met Clive Eley, who runs the Good Lad Workshop in universities, teaching young men about positive masculinity and consent in reaction to Lad Culture and the rape crisis on campus. Good Lad Workshop joins international male-led campaigns such as HeForShe, A Call To Men and the long-standing US organisation Men Can Stop Rape. And while Twitter has brought a tidal wave of male violence and silencing tactics on women, it has allowed feminist men like @mydaughtersarmy to speak out with us.

November 25th is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Why do we need it? The website has all the sorry statistics. The fact that 1 in 3 girls and women will experience some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime is a cause and consequence of inequality. This is a problem with ordinary men, powerful men, famous men, with the school boys accountable for 5500 sexual assaults including 600 rapes in the last three years, as revealed by a BBC Freedom of Information investigation last month. So what every man should be asking is this: ‘What can I do to help end violence against women?’ If men are bystanders to sexism and other men’s violence, we fuel the culture in which it thrives. Ending male violence is the feminist issue that men can really help with, and really make a difference to.

You can start simple and you can start today. Hear the gobby one in your beer crowd throw about some sexist banter? Call him up on it. If he’s a dad, ask him if he wants his son to grow up believing he’s better than his mother, if he wants his daughter to grow up in a world where no matter what she achieves, she doesn’t matter unless she’s hot. Challenging everyday sexism puts you in good company: Ryan Gosling, Daniel Radcliffe, John Goodman, Byron Hurt. Question why Punishtube exists. Question why addiction to the porn and sex industries is the third biggest cause of debt among men. Listen to women. Ask a woman close to you what she does to guard against male violence every day. Talk to boys and young men about what it means to be a man. Start challenging the hyper-masculine culture of hip hop, of the World Wrestling Federation, of war, the sexism and homophobia of football, the tough guy stereotypes in video games. Show boys that they are allowed to be kind, caring, gentle, sensitive, to like My Little Pony. Allow them their full humanity. Don’t let anyone get away with saying ‘Like a girl’ in a derogatory way.

Look up the organisations above to get ideas to help. Order The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help by Jackson Katz and read his 10 Things Men Can Do To Prevent Gender Violence right now. Going to Feminism in London will awaken and motivate the proactive, good man in you. It will disprove beliefs about ‘angry feminists’. We are passionate. We want a fair world. We want a safe world. This is a conference to fuel your intellect, fire your humanity. I’m serious. You’ll find guys just like you there.

For further insights on how to stop being freaked out by feminism, read this on being a male ally or feminist dad.

Speak up like a woman

by Rachel Bell on September 27, 2015

I had never heard of the BBC broadcaster Barbara Sturgeon and now I want to be one of the girlfriends who do karaoke with her, and I’ve never cared much for that. This week I met Barbara as she trained a group of women, including me, in public speaking. We are to become a group of Ambassadors for the Oasis charity, a domestic abuse service based in Margate. Barbara is funny. She has an intelligent, easy wit and humour. She made us feel safe. She made us laugh out loud. This confident speaker with more than twenty years experience persuaded us to use a microphone and really own our voices. All the women in the group felt passionately about ending male violence against women and girls. Some appeared wonderfully confident at public speaking already. Others less so. Some had experienced some form of male sexual violence – unsurprising since the odds are 1 in every 3 women.

Giving a woman the confidence to use her voice is a beautiful feminist act – a beautiful womanist act. As girls, we speak up less in a classroom with boys. Boys can get more attention from teachers and their presence and behaviour can intimidate girls. In the workplace we watch as men’s opinions win more recognition, they dominate discussions and talk over us. In social situations, we sigh as they talk over us some more, talk louder and the things we say disappear. We retreat from challenging things in public or being impolite to those who annoy us when we see how those that do are regarded as unfeminine, weird or bolshy. In her book, Do It Like A Woman, Caroline Criado Perez recalls tempering her personality at school, saying, ‘… I was talking and the boys were talking – but the other girls were more or less silent…it came to me in a flash that the boys didn’t like that I was as loud as they were. Somehow, even at the age of eleven, I knew that it mattered what boys thought of me.’ Do It Like A Woman interprets the gender dynamics of our public voices from school to the workplace, including conferences where men outnumber women. Following a talk on astronomy, attended by one woman for every 15 men, astrophysicist Sara Seager recalls, ‘I was the only woman who asked a question.’

Domestic violence, that can begin with controlling words and put-downs, serves to strip us of our sense of self, to destroy our identities. Many women have described rape as murder of the mind. Men’s desire to silence us leads them to kill two women every week in England and Wales. On Twitter, men try to silence us with threats of rape, torture and fatal violence. So helping women’s voices to rise up is deeply symbolic. And we owe it to the collective of women to tell our stories, to demand our human rights and speak for those who cannot.

For any women in the group who have experienced male violence, becoming an Oasis ambassador can transform suffering and give it meaning. The opportunity to speak up about male violence against women can turn their intimacy with pain and anger into a force for good, purpose and change. The groundbreaking Amina Scheme gave women this rare opportunity. The brainchild of the brilliant Denise Marshall, the recently deceased chief executive of the charity Eaves for Women, it gave survivors of male violence the chance to use their experience to peer support other victims. To truly comprehend women’s suffering is their strength, their power. Denise Marshall saw this, she saw beyond the victim, she saw a valuable resource, she saw women who know a hell of a lot, women who could educate the police force, the justice system, the government about tackling men’s violence. Thank you Oasis and Barbara Sturgeon for giving women a voice.