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To stop sexual violence, we need to change how we engage with kids

Marchers protested against sexual harassment in a Women's March in Seattle last year. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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Since the start of the #MeToo movement, our country has come a long way toward acknowledging the realities of sexual violence. Although holding perpetrators accountable is an important step, it’s not going to solve the problem. We need to prevent sexual violence, not just punish it when it happens. This means we need to understand when, why and how the factors that drive sexual violence take root — and how to stop them from doing so.

Today, sexual assault prevention strategies typically come in the form of annual workplace seminars and educational programs on college campuses. But these efforts don’t work, in part because they have a major flaw: They’re too little, too late. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 43.2 percent of women who have been raped or suffered rape attempts were attacked before age 18, while one in 10 high school girls has experienced sexual dating violence. Women between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. And in a recent national survey of adolescents, 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys reported having experienced sexual harassment.

These statistics point to one conclusion: We need to start focusing on sexual violence prevention earlier. And if we look at how and why sexual assault happens, it becomes obvious that we need to start changing the way we engage with our children.

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Many factors shape the risk that a person will become a sexual predator. But one pervasive and seemingly innocuous risk factor is belief in and adherence to conventional gender stereotypes. This gives rise to the idea that girls are (and should be) gentle, caring and appearance-focused, while boys supposedly are (and should be) strong, stoic and unemotional. It’s why you’ll see parents steering their boys toward sports and telling them to stop crying like a girl, while girls are encouraged to pursue art and music. It’s why strangers in the grocery store tell your daughter she’s pretty but rarely comment on your son’s appearance. It’s why parents discuss math and science much more frequently and in more detail with their sons than their daughters.

Gender stereotypes start early — before birth, if “Guns or Glitter” gender-reveal parties are any indication. As babies, girls are dressed in pink and referred to as princesses, and boys wear blue and acquire eight toy trucks before their second birthday. (Lest you think things have gotten better on the toy front, research by sociologist Elizabeth Sweet has shown that toys have become more gender-stratified over the past 50 years.) These choices tell children that gender is a highly important category, and, desperate to understand its meaning, kids then look around and make inaccurate inferences and assumptions about it, like the idea that boys are smarter than girls.

These stereotypes also shape kids’ everyday lives in worrisome ways. Boys who develop strong gender stereotypical beliefs have less interest in school, lower standardized test scores and an increased risk for depression, compared with other boys. Girls with more stereotypical beliefs get worse grades, behave in more sexualized ways and worry more about their appearance, compared with other girls.

By adolescence, these gender stereotypes evolve and start to fuel sexual violence. Research has shown that, compared with other teen boys, those who endorse strong gender stereotypes — for instance, that it’s natural for boys to want to admire girls and that girls should use their looks and bodies to attract men — are more likely to make sexual comments about and grab girls’ bodies. This is in part because during the teen years, male gender stereotypes start to incorporate ideals of male dominance, aggression and sexual callousness, while female ideals start to center on sexuality and attractiveness.

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In adulthood, men who adhere strongly to norms of masculinity are more likely than other men to sexually harass and sexually assault women, possibly because, as psychologists theorized in a 2015 paper, they “feel compelled to be sexually aggressive and/or coercive toward an intimate partner to maintain their need for dominance.” Because gender stereotypes are such a powerful risk factor, a 2016 CDC report argued that to combat sexual violence we need strategies that “influence both male and female gender norms.”

We won’t be able to change our country’s gender stereotypes overnight. But parents, grandparents and teachers can make headway. First, starting in toddlerhood and throughout the school years, we can encourage cross-gender interactions, which lessen the development of gendered behavior and stereotypes. Parents of girls should invite boys over for play dates and vice versa; have kids join mixed-gender sports teams. We should encourage our kids to try counter-stereotypical activities, too. And parents of boys should push against the stoicism stereotype by communicating that it’s okay to have feelings, because when boys are made to feel ashamed for feeling sad or afraid, they are more likely to turn those feelings into aggression.

Parents should also ease up on gender labels — replace “girls” and “boys” with “kids” or “students.” Teachers, too, should avoid mentioning and categorizing students by gender in unnecessary contexts (which will avoid alienating gender atypical students, too). In a series of studies designed to help us understand the development of prejudice, developmental psychologist Rebecca Bigler and her colleagues had preschool and grade-school students wear blue or red T-shirts every day in their classrooms for several weeks. (The T-shirts created a new kind of social category that the students could easily see, much like gender.) In classrooms in which the teachers never mentioned the shirt colors, students developed very little prejudice against kids wearing the other color. But in classrooms in which teachers drew attention to the colors in a neutral way — saying “good morning, blues and reds” and decorating their cubbies with blue or red labels, as teachers often do with gender — the kids developed much stronger prejudices, in that the blue-shirted kids claimed they were smarter than the red-shirted kids and vice versa. Teachers at some preschools in Sweden now avoid using gender labels, and research suggests the students in these schools develop less pronounced gender stereotypes.

We also need to talk to kids about sexism and stereotypes. When a child says something like “Only girls like to dance” — as they inevitably do — push back. Point out similarities that exist across the sexes (Don’t you know a couple of boys who do like to dance?) and differences within the sexes (Some girls don’t like to dance, right?). If you see gender stereotypes on TV, bring them up and discuss them (Why do you think four out of five of those superheroes are boys?). These kinds of discussions call attention to gender but in a potentially constructive way. They help kids recognize and push against the stereotypes they will inevitably see and hear outside the home instead of merely tacitly affirming them, as in Bigler’s T-shirt experiments.

Teachers shouldn’t shy away from discussing sexism, either. Kids now learn about civil rights and racism in elementary school, but they’re rarely taught about sexism. Yet without any knowledge of gender discrimination, kids are more likely to attribute the hierarchical differences they see in society, such as the fact that we have never had a female president, to innate differences between the sexes. Many will assume that women haven’t been elected because they aren’t good leaders or don’t want to be president. One of Bigler’s studies, which she co-authored with psychologist Erica Weisgram, found that when girls were taught about gender discrimination in science, they became more interested in science than before — perhaps because, Bigler and Weisgram wrote, the knowledge quashed their belief that they wouldn’t be capable scientists. School administrators should also incorporate formal socioemotional or anti-bias programming into their curriculum. When teachers are invested in them, these programs can boost empathy and reduce bullying and sexual violence.

It is far easier to fix a problem before it starts. Although the causes of sexual violence are undoubtedly myriad and we need much more research, we can start to chip away at the problem by instilling in our children the notion that their gender doesn’t define who they are and that the beliefs that fuel dangerous sexual scripts can change, beginning with them.