Recently, I delivered a healthy relationships workshop at a primary school. We started by playing a drama game, where we asked the children to pretend to be different types of people. A superhero? Lots of air-punches. What about a girl? The girls laughed awkwardly, while the boys pouted, pretended to cry, and fell to the floor.
“Why are you down there,” I asked the boy nearest me. He beamed, and said: “Cos girls are scaredy-cats and they, like, faint and stuff.” “OK,” said my co-facilitator, “how do the girls in the room feel about that?” A pause. Shuffling. One girl eventually volunteered: “It makes me feel sad. And it’s not fair. We’re not all the same.”
As workshops for the charity I work for – Tender – go, this is a fairly typical example. As adults, increased dialogue around gender and equality can generate belief that society has changed. However, my facilitation experience has taught me that children are a more honest mirror of progress: they show you what they see, not just what you want to hear.
For many young people, the concept of equality is aspirational in value, but, as our activity demonstrated, difficult in practice. It’s hard to think of a session where the ideal of fair treatment isn’t compromised: “If a lad came in wearing a skirt, I’d laugh”; “Girls want a guy to tell them what to do”. Discussions typically reveal that family influence, bolstered by mainstream and social media, play a strong role in shaping the way children reproduce gender stereotypes and the power dynamics they go on to mimic in their early relationships. Overwhelmingly, boys still absorb that they should be bold and emotionally invulnerable; girls, that they should be accommodating, even when uncomfortable. As a result, their expectations of relationships can become defined not by partnership, but by “who is in charge”.
We explore healthy relationships through drama-based exercises, peppered with warning signs or excuses for unhealthy behaviour. In one workshop, students performed a scenario where a young woman was coerced into going on a date with a man she had just met. We posed the question: what if something bad happens to her on the date? “Well … what does she expect?” one student shrugged.
I have listened to teenagers discuss this scene with almost no acknowledgment of the perpetrator, despite him having most of the lines. It’s common for young people, and girls in particular, to interpret safety guidance – don’t walk home alone, don’t send that picture – as meaning that they are to blame if someone harms them. “She should know better”, “she could say no”. They are used to hearing about violence “happening” and how to “avoid” it.
For most young people, it’s a new experience to talk about how, for abuse to happen, someone is responsible for doing it. It can be uncomfortable to consider that someone would make such a choice: even more so if the abuser’s choices are not so far from those they themselves may have made. I’ve seen boys adamant that they would never hit a woman become quiet and introspective when presented with examples of coercion, for example.
To create healthier relationships between genders, we work to define core values such as empathy, respect and accountability. For some young people, “respect” equates to unwavering loyalty or obedience, which can quickly turn problematic. For others, it’s accepting someone for who they are, not what they can do for you.
We also explore physical and emotional boundaries, why these matter and how perceptions of gender can disrupt them. Once, when discussing consent, a student told us that “men fuck, women get fucked”. Erasing the narrative of men as pursuers and women as gatekeepers – one that also excludes LGBTQ+ identities – starts with unpicking stereotypes that cloud our ability to truly treat others as equals.
With the excusing of abuse still commonplace, accountability is crucial. In our sessions, no problematic statement goes unquestioned: not aggressively, but to unpick its origins and potential impact on others. Children are encouraged to articulate how they feel and think: to question and listen to each other’s views. We provide opportunities to role-play conflict resolution and students begin to develop a vocabulary to negotiate, speak up and apologise, sincerely, for causing hurt. After one programme, a 17-year-old boy who had a history of assault and intimidation towards partners concluded: “If a girl says no, I now understand not to try to persuade them. No means no.”
Domestic and sexual violence have until recently been taboo topics, meaning societal consciousness has been predominantly informed by personal belief and media misrepresentation. Now, with the introduction of statutory relationships, sex and health education, schools are required to educate about them. However, despite impressive commitment by many, without time, training and resources, many teachers report feeling ill-equipped for such sensitive topics.
Unfortunately, there are some whose entrenched personal beliefs are difficult to reconcile with their safeguarding responsibilities. I once delivered sexual violence awareness training where a staff member repeatedly insisted that shaming “promiscuous” behaviour in young women would keep them safe. Without enough funding to return to the school, we had to advise that he was prevented from teaching RSHE.
Children are hungry for accessible spaces in which to discuss their views, explore boundaries and evaluate how their choices can help, or harm. I have seen as many boys find relief in unravelling this as I have girls and young people who identify as LGBTQ+. They can begin to contextualise their experiences and seek empowerment through being part of the solution; to build positive self-esteem without devaluing or harming others. To explore healthy emotional outlets, strengthen support networks and enjoy positive relationships that enrich their lives. This, surely, is what every child deserves.