ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

Raise teenage boys to challenge sexual harassment and violence

In light of the escalated awareness of sexual harassment and violence against women our society is beginning to accept we must change the way we raise our children, particularly our sons, to end this pattern of aggression.

April 2021

Geraldine Gallacher

I am acutely aware that in light of recent events parents, particularly those with teenage boys, are anxious to know how they should raise sons equipped to challenge sexual harassment and violence. Equally decent men are asking what they can do to help solve the problem.

The issue is acute and requires our urgent attention. A recent UN study found 97% of women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment or violence. Girls and young women have taken to social media to reveal a culture of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and violence committed by secondary aged boys.

Kick-off the conversation

Many larger organisations have parent or diversity networks, and these can provide a great forum for open discussion, to share ideas, and generate new ones. If you work for a smaller organisation you might it helpful to ask HR to help convene a forum.

As a starting point, you might find it helpful to discuss the following issues.

How to raise teenage sons?

What drives teenage boys who, let’s not forget, lack fully formed frontal lobes to truly understand the risk and consequences of their actions to behave this way? Let us remind ourselves that case reviews show teenage perpetrators are rarely able to understand or explain their own behaviour.

Headteachers point to a shift in behaviour since porn became easily accessible on smartphones. But porn isn’t the only problematic influence. The causes of male violence are complex and rooted deep in how society expects men to behave, and how we raise our sons.

Boys imitate the behaviour of those they look up to. Dads have a critical role to play to provide better role models for their sons than perhaps they had from their own father or grandfather. Sports coaches have a duty of care to stamp out locker room “bants” that allow boys to objectivity girls. Mums stop raising little princes. By accident or design, we all influence the behaviour of young men and are jointly culpable in their behaviour toward our daughters if we choose to remain silent.

How can we disrupt first level behaviour?

Male perpetrators do not suddenly become violent toward women. Research reveals their behaviour escalates over time through pyramid-shaped levels. It starts at base level with “slut-shaming”, victim-blaming, “locker room bants” and escalates to an apex of rape and murder. We need to disrupt these first-level behaviours, the very ones that society currently dismisses as “boys will be boys” if we are to prevent escalation.

Name that emotion

If we want our boys to understand and respect women, we first need to teach them how to identify and talk about the emotion they feel. Notice and name their emotions to encourage self-reflection and help them make the connection between an event and how it made them feel. Let them know that it’s OK to feel rather than fear vulnerability otherwise they are likely to attack rather than support vulnerability in others often through bullying disguised as banter.

Discuss stories shared on social media

This will yield better results than telling them to read about women’s experiences in the media. Have conversations as part of a family. Discuss how women are treated by men, and how boys treat girls. The desire of many teenage boys to fit in with their peer group can’t be underestimated. Reinforce your family’s values and if you hear them talk in a way that transgresses a value make it clear we don’t say that in our family.

Geraldine Gallacher, CEO, ECC

Next month I’ll look at how men can benefit from supporting women at work