Parents, There’s No Vaccine For Sexism—But Diagnosis Goes A Long Way

Parents, There's No Vaccine For Sexism—But Diagnosis Goes A Long Way
“When we gloss over the icky parts of being a girl and focus on how strong, equal and powerful they are,” writes Finkelstein, “when we don’t address the unpleasant and creepy experiences that are a girl’s inheritance, we do them a disservice. We contribute to their confusion.” Pictured: Women’s March, Washington D.C., January 20, 2018. (Susan Melkisethian)

April 2020 marks the 19th anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness month: a time to raise visibility about sexual harassment and abuse and share how it can be prevented.

In many ways, it’s been a great year for women. Our daughters have gotten to witness powerful moments of progress like an all-woman spacewalk, Lizzo and Billie Eilish at the Grammys, and—thanks to the #MeToo movement—the conviction of serial predator, Harvey Weinstein.  

It gives me hope for a brighter future for my daughter. And if she’s ever harmed, she might get justice. I desperately hope she never is, yet there’s an outrageous chance—one in five!—that she will be. #MeToo is the analgesic; I want the vaccine.

Despite the rise of public discussion of sexual harassment and toxic masculinity from Hollywood to the White House to the world of sports to college campuses, young girls still live in a world where sexism and harassment—sometimes subtle yet persistent, sometimes not—are alive and well.  Research shows that 87 percent of girls between the ages of 18 and 25 have been sexually harassed. Misogyny is a disease endemic to our culture. 

In my twenty years as a psychologist, I’ve seen countless girls and young women struggle to identify current or past treatment as the harassment or belittlement that it is. This is reflected in research: almost half of those who reported experiencing harassment also said they didn’t see “gender-based degradation and subordination as problems in our society.”

This discrepancy between girls’ life experiences and what they consciously believe is dangerous. The disparity sets them up to swallow the degrading messages about their gender, putting them at risk for harmful relationships and mental health challenges.

Even if they can identify harassment, many girls stay silent. A large survey of children aged 10 to 19 shows only about half felt they could tell someone if they were sexually harassed. And research shows that seven out of 10 girls will be harassed before they leave high school. In most cases, girls report no one has ever discussed sexual harassment with them. 

There is no sexism vaccine for toddlers, tweens and teens. But there are adults who can and should intervene early to help inoculate girls against internalizing the culture’s view. Interrupt that and we help keep their self-esteem and dignity intact.

We often hear about the crucial need to teach boys empathy and respect in order to end sexual harassment. But if girls are to have empathy and respect for themselves, we’ve got to get real with them.

Parents of girls today are “woke” compared to their own parents: They bring their daughters to Women’s Marches, ensure they have books with strong female characters and buy them RBG paraphernalia. But they don’t get down into the weeds of gender bias and sexism with them.

Instead, we gloss over the icky parts of being a girl and focus on how strong, equal and powerful they are. When we don’t address the unpleasant and creepy experiences that are a girl’s inheritance, we do them a disservice. We contribute to their confusion.

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It’s confusing for adults too. We’re simultaneously trying to teach girls that what they choose to wear and how they express themselves are decisions that should be made freely and without fear—while also teaching them that their decisions are steeped in a patriarchal system they can’t always see. 

Incidents that aren’t physical or violent are often minimized because their effects are invisible. Incessant objectification and diminishment send a poisonous message that girls are less powerful, less safe and overall less valued than boys; that their personal space and dignity don’t matter. These psychological paper cuts accumulate, becoming festering wounds of self-doubt.

Girls need our help deciphering a world that dehumanizes women, yet tells us we’re equal. A sunny “girls can do anything!” attitude just isn’t enough.

It’s our job to help them identify the contradictory messages they’re swimming in so they can make sense of why they can feel simultaneously powerful and disempowered by something as seemingly innocuous as, say, a selfie. 

As adults we don’t have all the answers. But we have the sophistication children lack to lay out the dilemmas they’re facing. The question is how do we do that in a way kids can absorb?

Cultural critique generally elicits eye rolls and tuning out by kids who’d rather be binging Friends. Luckily (okay not really), the culture provides endless opportunities to identify in real time the many moments that demean and dishearten our girls. The widely undervalued notion of listening and noticing can provide girls with the clarity they need to understand they are being viewed through a prism that is not of their making. The relief this brings cannot be overstated.

When we explain to the eight-year-old she’s being sexualized when the lab tech collecting her urine winks and tells her to call him when she turns 18, we help untangle her shame and place blame where it belongs.

When we tell the ten year-old she is being stereotyped and made to feel fragile when the boys at school say girls don’t play football, we help her better understand her confused, angry feelings.

When we insist that a teenager’s morality ought to be based on values like kindness and honesty and not on sexual activity, we give girls the space to tune into their authentic desires and make good decisions for themselves. 

When we nag them to be safe, we can also empathize with how unfair and constricting it is that they must constantly assess the risks of how they dress, where they walk, who they smile at, which parking lot they use. And we can insist they deserve an environment free from unwanted comments or sexual advances that make them feel uncomfortable. 

As parents we need to remember that sexism is like an infectious disease and children breathe in the respiratory droplets of their parents’ biases. The accolades they receive from us for modesty and passivity can lay the groundwork for harassment and assault. Our constant compliments on their appearance are a poisoned chalice; getting femininity “right” may be seductive to them and others in the moment but it constricts their sense of self. We should commend them for critiquing things they find troubling on their phones, in the media, and, yes, in their parents’ unconscious biases.  I know, it’s easier to parent kids who fit in and go with the flow but that river is rocky and sharp-edged and they will get hurt. 

By noticing and appreciating our kids’ experiences, and giving shape and color to their concerns, we can help build resistance to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and more serious harassment. With our guidance, over time, they will learn to spot indecency and demand respect before they internalize it and believe it’s deserved. They’ll go from trying to diagnose what’s wrong with them to diagnosing what’s wrong with the culture.

And then they will fight to eradicate this plague, making a month dedicated to sexual assault obsolete.

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Jo-Ann Finkelstein has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and a Masters in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University. She is an Expert Blogger for Psychology Today and is at work on a book about gender bias and sexism for teens and their parents. Follow her on Twitter @finkeljo.