Welcome back to our series of panel events exploring gender-based approaches to safety, highlighting the need for changes in cultural attitudes, resources, support, and local authority intervention in reducing and preventing sexual harassment and violence towards all genders.
Livestreamed on the 18th February, this month’s panel event included panellists from a range of backgrounds:
Karen Gibb, director of Mind Marvels, a mindfulness and education charity for young people
Dr. Maryhan Baker, a child psychologist
Morven Douglas, a family lawyer from BTO Solicitors
Georgia, a feminist student studying at Caledonian University
Lindsay Mullen, from Stop It Now, a charity aimed at preventing child sexual abuse
Host Heather Offord, CEO of One4Growth
And co-hosts Laura Maginess, CEO of Glasglow Girls Club,
& Ashley Scotland, CEO of Thriving Survivors
The panel discussed the best approaches to take when discussing how to be safe with young children as part of the project’s aim to reduce and prevent sexual violence and harassment. Whether it’s what young children are seeing online, how they’re interacting with others, or their own bodily autonomy, the panel provided practical advice concerning how, when, and what to teach children and young people to keep them safe.
Online safety and pornography
This proved to be a returning talking point amongst panellists, as more than ever young people are being exposed to sexual images and videos, be it in mainstream culture or through pornography websites. Maryhan for instance noted that 50% of children leaving primarily school will have seen online porn, including children as young as 7 years old. Laura further added that she had watched a BBC programme presented by Zara McDermott about rape culture in schools (available to watch through iPlayer here) which explained how the site PornHub – one of the most frequented porn sites in the anglophone world – has an algorithm geared towards showing more violent and extreme sexual content. On top of this, PornHub has only recently introduced age verification measures and vowed to delete content depicting non-consensual acts.
However, these safety measures are far from perfect. Although Heather mentioned that she has child safety features on her daughter’s electronic devices, Karen and Lindsay both retorted that as a parent, you simply can’t police everything they see, be it at school where resources to filter adult content are insufficient or through other children’s devices without the same features. Stories from panellists involved their children watching pornographic videos from another child’s phone, for instance, while sitting together in a park.
Instead, what the panellists unanimously recommended was having open, honest, and shame-free conversations about online sexual content. ‘It’s more important for us to be having these conversations with your children about what’s appropriate, about keeping yourself safe, about the dangers online, about digital resilience, than it is to have your computer’s password protected and absolutely locked down,’ Lindsay advised (21:38-53). Karen agreed: ‘When we tell kids no, when we tell adults no, […] you want to do it anyway’ (43:30-6). She instead suggested talking to children about how to engage in sexual behaviour safely, emphasising consent and bodily autonomy above all else.
Ashley spoke about the very open dialogue she has with her three children, which has been beneficial as her young boys have seen sexually explicit content online. She noted how she had informed her 15-year-old son that the pornography he sees online isn’t always consensual, and encouraged him to think critically about it and not accept it as the norm of sexual behaviour. (~23:56). What’s most important, she stressed, is that her children are comfortable to approach her with questions about what they’ve seen online or heard from other children. This creates an atmosphere of comfort and trust for when children are exposed to sexually explicit content, something that can’t be totally prevented in our age of digital technology.
Lindsay noted the need to chat to children about sharing online information, what a sexual image is, what is appropriate to share and what isn’t, not giving out passwords, and being open to conversations about their kids’ online interactions so that they can tell them about potential grooming. She had the further recommendation – especially suited to those parents who find these conversations difficult – of signposting young people to safe spaces online. ‘We’re really good at saying, “dinnae look at that”, but we’re no really good at saying, “if you do have questions, where can you go?” So sites like BISH, CEOP, Netaware […] we’ve got loads and loads of really good resources’ (33:04-30). She later explained: ‘it’s about building their resilience and building their ability of risk assessing and knowing where to go for help and support’ (48:25-35).
Karen stressed as well that a different approach needs to be taken rather than punishment. She noted how she hears parents talk about calling the police on their children, and the same threats of taking away phones or electronic advices prevents children from coming to parents with any questions or issues they might have. Instead, she stressed the need for open conversations without judgement or shame.
Lastly, Morven agreed, with the added point that it’s important that both parents or caregivers are available for these conversations. She noted how in cases of separation, two different parents may have two different approaches or attitudes to sexuality and consent, and this conflict can similarly create an atmosphere of silence around the issues. It may also create an unsafe space in one household versus the other. (~28:38). Having both parents involved is therefore important to create the most open and comfortable atmosphere for children to come forward with questions and problems they might have.
Bodily autonomy and consent
This was another key theme, and the question arose of ‘when’ it’s a good idea to talk to children about bodies and boundaries. The answer unanimously was: as soon as possible. Not only because children are being exposed to sexual content at a young age, but as Maryhan pointed out, because children have their own sexual curiosity, which is very normal.
Laura stressed the need to tell children accurate words for their anatomy so that they can fully articulate if and how their bodily autonomy has not been respected and if they’ve been assaulted. She told a story of a court case that was thrown out because the child didn’t know the correct words to use when describing the bodily abuse (~15:00).
Ashley too spoke about her young daughter (aged 3) about setting boundaries, not only for her daughter’s own body, but other people’s too. ‘We talk about our body parts and we talk about not touching other people’s body parts because of course her hand’s down my t-shirt and it’s about setting those boundaries. I know I’m her mum, but let’s set those boundaries and that we don’t put our hands down other people’s t-shirts’ (23:48-24:05). Instilling a sense of respect for other people’s bodily autonomy from a young age is not only age-appropriate for young children but a great life lesson to instil throughout their development.
There was one caveat to this conversation that arose through an audience question, which asked what to do when children who are informed about their bodies and use the correct terminology may be mocked by children who don’t. Maryhan’s advice was to prepare them for this scenario: ‘It’s also explaining to our children this is what it’s called, but you may find friends that don’t call it this this way. Being honest that sometimes some people feel a bit embarrassed about having these conversations, because otherwise we don’t equip them’ (46:00-14). Heather agreed it’s important to address this and instil confidence that they are right to use the correct terminology.
Lindsay explained that it is especially important to come across as confident because PSE guidance – although being revised with mandatory sex education – is often inadequate and depends upon the delivery of non-specialist teachers. For instance, she noted that the focus tends to be on contraception rather than safety or consent – especially a worthwhile conversation to have with children with ASD – and so either this needs to be addressed or parents need to have frank conversations to fill in these gaps (~41:13). Georgia agreed from her experiences that there is often a discrepancy between what’s said in classrooms and what’s said in the playground, making it difficult for young people to navigate sex education.
Ultimately, the panel agreed that any anxieties about taking away their children’s innocence with these conversations should be put aside. Ashley summarised succinctly: ‘I would rather have these conversations with my children where I knew that they were being educated and they were being informed in a way that was safe for them. I see the conversations I have with my children as ways to protect them as they grow and not just in their childhood but right into their adulthood’ (47:55-48:16).
Educating ourselves as adults
Morven and Heather agreed that our upbringings can make it difficult to have these conversations with children: ‘I find it really, really awkward as well, and I probably had the same upbringing as [Heather] and just didn’t talk about it and certainly wouldn’t use the actual words.’ (16:08-17). But it is precisely for this reason that Maryhan recommends taking the time to educate ourselves as adults about children’s sexuality and to tackle our own discomfort around it. ‘We have to educate ourselves that it’s not shameful. We’re meant to seek pleasure and gain pleasure from our bodies. So we need to have that reflective practice with ourselves about why does this feel uncomfortable for me? Have I been raised in a way where that sort of behaviour has been seen as shameful? What might I need to do to help myself?’ (30:21-42). She mentioned Brook’s traffic light system which is a helpful resource about children’s sexual behaviour (and what is and isn’t appropriate), and she noted that many of the behaviours in the green (i.e., appropriate) make adults uncomfortable because we’ve inherited feelings of shame about our own bodies. However, she noted that children can pick up on our discomfort even if we do take the time to talk to them, so it is important to overcome the stigma.
Ashley felt that when it comes to British prudery, that attitude needed to change for similar reasons. ‘We as British people, [we feel]: no sex please, we’re British. There is that attitude that sex is shameful, sex is bad, and I think that attitude and that narratives needs to change’ (25:00-18). She emphasised the importance by saying: ‘If some of the people who’ve got lived experience had had those conversations as children, they might not now be adult survivors’ (50:14-27).
Maryhan agreed: ‘We can change the language. We don’t need to make it one around fear, we don’t need to make it one where we’re approaching a subject that we feel uncomfortable about or it’s icky or shameful. It’s just about using the right language at the right time, and giving them just enough information for them to digest’ (11:47-12:05).
Laura herself admitted having to look up difference between vulva and vagina in order to educate her daughter. It’s okay as adults to admit that our education was inadequate and our feelings of shame unhelpful, so that we can overcome them and provide better for future generations.
In summary, the panel provided practical advice on chatting to children as early as possible, avoiding punitive measures, creating a safe, open atmosphere for conversations, and educating ourselves out of shameful attitudes. Please join us next month on the 18th March for our panel concerning the successes of women, both in the modern age and throughout history, as we celebrate International Women’s Day.
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