A community meeting led by the Safe Coalition at the Scarsdale Woman’s Club on Denim Day, April 24, focused on social beliefs about what is “masculine” and “feminine” and how those are a risk factor in sexual violence.
The presentation coincided with a similar session led by the coalition for juniors at Scarsdale High School.
The purpose of the programs was to empower people to make their own shift away from harmful societal norms as a way to stop violence in our lives, families, relationships and communities before it starts.
To implement change, it’s incredibly important to have conversations with each other and with family members about gender roles and gender norms and shift away from norms that support aggression toward others. We know there are gender stereotypes that have an impact on sexual assault. We know men have been typecast as aggressive, strong individuals, while women are thought of as meek and soft-spoken. We know such ideology can be damaging, and much of it can be blamed on movies, music and other forms of pop culture and social media.
So why, if everyone already knows about these issues, does sexual assault continue?
It’s time to move the conversation forward and into the home. As indicated in a survey of SHS juniors, less than half of the kids are having these conversations with their parents and therein lies the problem.
As soon as children are old enough to play with others on the playground, parents should be teaching them how to share, telling them not to take things that don’t belong to them and, most importantly, telling their kids not to hurt others. Young children need to know that what they enjoy playing with or dressing as isn’t an indicator of who they are as a person. A boy shouldn’t feel pressured to grow up playing with trucks and baseball, just as a girl shouldn’t feel obligated to play with dolls and dress up.
Those may be small lessons, but such lessons will guide kids as they get older. The lessons can be built upon, to be as age-appropriate as they need to be, depending on how old the child is. By middle school and high school, parents should be talking to their kids about sexual consent and what it means to give as well as seek consent.
Rather than blaming movies, music and social media for attitudes that amplify the culture of aggression, it’s time for parents to pivot their attention to what they’re teaching their own kids and what attitudes they display in their own lives.
Safe Coalition coordinator Lauren Pomerantz said these topics must be discussed at home to “shift the culture and the way we think” with the purpose being to “take away the shame and the blame and the fear.”
At the SHS presentation it was evident the messages teens hear are very fixed sexual and gender norms, Pomerantz said, and that it’s hard to be accepted if you sway from those norms.
But those rigid norms don’t necessarily have to be true. If we can create more flexible gender norms, she said, that certainly would help change the culture.
That means parents should be more flexible in their thinking, less judgmental and more accepting. Adults have to be mindful of the subtle messages we give to our kids. The language we use and how we speak to people, especially our children, should be without judgment especially as we talk about issues of gender, sexuality and about consent.
“The small shift you can make in your own house is very important,” Pomerantz said. “That’s where kids learn the most.”
“Connecting the Dots,” a 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, documented how social norms that support aggression or coercion are linked to bullying as well as physical assaults of children, intimate partner violence, sexual violence, gang violence and elder abuse.
On the positive side, the report also showed protective factors, such as connections to a caring adult or access to mental health services or having skills to solve problems nonviolently, can lessen the likelihood that a community will experience violence. That is why the Safe Coalition is encouraging these conversations among students and has begun reaching out to parents. The whole idea is to change the culture so as to prevent all types of violence from occurring in the first place.