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Category: Relationship Education

The right way for dads to parent teen girls

As a best-selling author and educator who works with teen girls, I tend to get streams of emails seeking parenting advice. But the calls for help I get from parents wanting to improve their relationship with a teenage daughter are increasingly coming from dads.

Despite the popular perception that it is mothers who fear losing their bond with their daughter during adolescence, it seems there are plenty of fathers seeking deeper connections too.

Many of these men tell me that they found bonding with their daughter when she was younger relatively easy, but now that her interests are more adult how, they ask, are they expected to stay relevant?

The hundreds of conversations I’ve had with teen girls (and the wide body of research that supports their claims) tells us what won’t work. Any attempt to control her changing body, or lock their princess in the proverbial tower, will be met with rightful resentment.

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries; particularly as the reality is most romantic exchanges won’t happen under dad’s watchful eye.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’… it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgment to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

Actively seeking to build the self esteem Harry Connick Jr refers to is vital work for fathers too. The gentle teasing some dads find amusing is likely to grate with a teen girl who may be hypersensitive, particularly to comments around her appearance (don’t let all the pouting selfies fool you — these aren’t necessarily indicative of a solid sense of self).

Comedian Dawn French attributes her strong sense of self to her father and in her memoir Dear Fatty, describes a parenting moment par excellence. As she sashayed down the stairs on her way to a party, dressed to impress a boy she fancied, her dad pulled her aside. Rather than delivering the almost obligatory, “You’re not going out dressed like that!” lecture, he told her she was his sun, moon and stars — and that any man would be bloody lucky to have a woman like her on his arm.

She got to the party, saw the hot boy, and decided he probably wasn’t good enough for her after all.

Smart fathers will also seek out opportunities where they can learn more about their daughter’s changing world. Whether it be by asking her to explain why she loves a particular band and listening to their music with her (hey, you sat through hours of the Wiggles, you’ve got this), or offering to take her to that Instagram famous art gallery she’s so excited by (#LetHerLead).

Smart father realise too their own world is also one worth sharing. A colleague says that some of her fondest memories of her father when she was a young girl were of going to the hardware store with him on a Saturday morning, “He’d scoot thorough the aisles looking for supplies for his latest project. When I got my first house? I found myself doing the same thing every weekend and thinking back fondly on all the things he taught me how to fix.”

We can all be taught how to fix things. Even if there are angry silences, and shut bedroom doors, bonds built on trust, empathy, and mutual respect may bend a little — but they rarely break.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 22/7/17.  

The four things we tell little girls that set them up for future heartbreak

When I run my workshops on dating and relationships with teenage girls, I find myself having to debunk some of the messages they have been fed since early childhood that are not only unhelpful, but in some cases actively harming them. How much more powerful it would be if we could just reframe the discourse early on and set our girls on the right path to develop respectful relationships for life. Where to start? By eliminating the following phrases:

“That boy was only mean to you because he likes you.”

I get it. We tell little girls that when a boy pushes or teases, it may only be because he has a crush on her in order to make her feel better. Yet although there may be no malicious intent, it’s not only confusing to equate abuse with affection, it’s dangerous. Love never uses its fists, nor does it withhold, try to control, or belittle.

What should we say instead? You can start by telling her she has smart instincts for recognising when someone is treating her unkindly. We can advise her that when this happens, she is wise to move away, and let someone she trusts (like a parent or teacher) know she feels uncomfortable. And that if that person doesn’t listen to her concerns, she should tell someone else until she is heard.

The other reason why we should ban the he-likes-you-so-he-is-mean rhetoric is because we need to stop making excuses for little boys who behave badly.  Gender violence educator Jackson Katz argues that this type of dialogue is not only harmful to girls and women, but to boys and men too: “The argument that ‘boys will be boys’ actually carries the profoundly anti-male implication that we should expect bad behavior from boys and men. The assumption is that they are somehow not capable of acting appropriately, or treating girls and women with respect.”

“Oh, is that your future husband?”

There’s a swag of research that shows platonic relationships are very valuable for both genders. We shouldn’t be teasing kids who make these, nor should we be romanticising their innocent bonds. Keep in mind too that if you tease your daughter about a boy she likes as a friend, it’s almost guaranteed that when she does meet a boy she likes romantically when she’s older, she will want to keep that secret to avoid further ribbing.

“Your Dad will sit on the porch with a shotgun once boys start coming near you!”

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important  our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries with boys; particularly as the reality is much of the romantic exchanges won’t happen under Dad’s watchful eye. In fact, while 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, most of these admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

 

Cropped view of man (30s) hugging daughter (4 years), and holding 12-gauge tactical shotgun in his lap.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’….it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgement to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

“One day you will find your own Prince Charming.”

She may meet someone she wants to partner with ( and this person may, or may not, be of the opposite sex). But she may also be single for at least part of her life. In fact, one on four Australians live alone.

It’s important for all young people to know how to enjoy their own company and realise that even if they are not one of two, they are still whole.

You can have a happy-ever-after even if you are flying solo.

This post originally appeared on Kidspot – 3/3/17. 

Porn crackdown: It’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s parenting

Further to last week’s post on an alarming new type of lewd cyber scavenger hunt, I thought I’d share this Opinion piece by author, columnist, journalist, semi-retired academic and social commentator, Dr Karen Brooks. It was first published by The Courier Mail and is reproduced here with the authors permission. I was pleased to have contributed to to the discussion.  

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According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 40 per cent of all sexual assaults in Queensland are perpetrated by school-age children, while the number of young people under 19 committing sex crimes in Australia has almost doubled in five years; 770 are under the age of 15.

Experts believe the shocking increase can be attributed to easy access to online pornography, which is giving young people distorted and unhealthy ideas about sex and relationships.

In the past, for a child to sneak a peek at an adult magazine or movie was risky. These days, all young people need is a smartphone and that world is theirs. Only, it’s changed: it’s more graphic, demeaning, sadistic and brutal — especially towards women.

Currently, 80 per cent of teenagers access porn.

Kids are copying the sexual behaviours they’re viewing — whether the exposure has been accidental, involuntary or deliberate (for example, an older person showing them) — and at a time when they’re naturally curious and wanting to experiment with their sexuality, to test the boundaries.

As a result, they’re developing toxic relationships with sex, their bodies, and each other.

But it’s not only through pornography they’re being exposed to warped ideas about sex. Popular culture inundates them daily (through music, fashion, ads, movies, TV etc), and the idea that sex sells — even acceptance from peers.

When well-known celebrities, such as the Kardashians, Katy Perry, and Madonna willingly share naked pictures of themselves, claiming they’re aspirational, for a political cause or to self-promote, or US congressmen send “dick pics” as a form of flirting, is it any wonder the kids are baffled and the lines between sexuality, acceptability, and pornography are being blurred?

For young people, sending a naked selfie/sexting, has virtually become part of contemporary courtship/friendship and even a rite of sexual passage.

Yet, not only are we seeing confusion around issues of consent and privacy with this, but a growth in predatory behaviours, where young men especially bully and blackmail girls into sending nude pictures, and the girls, believing it’s a way to be noticed and liked, acquiesce.

What often happens is that trust is broken and the image is shown to a wider audience and slut-shaming occurs. The consequences of this can be personally and publicly devastating.

Not only can a young person’s reputation be shredded, the image left in cyberspace in perpetuity, but both the sender and recipient can find themselves facing criminal charges and labelled “sex offenders” (even if what they’ve done is consensual), because they’ve made and distributed child pornography.

So, what are we, as parents, adults, as a society, to do about these and the invidious effect they’re having on young people’s digital and real identities?

Firstly, it’s important to understand and accept that young people exploring their sexuality is perfectly natural and normal.

Sexting has become one of the ways to do this.

In a harrowing article in Qweekend, Frances Whiting cites Detective Inspector Jon Rouse of the Queensland-based Argos Taskforce, who reminds us, “We are not dealing with criminals, what we are dealing with is innocence, naivety, sexual exploration, and using technology to do that.’’

The “Young People and Sexting in Australia Report” (2013), states we need to “recognise that sexting can be an expression of intimacy… Framing sexual expression only as a risk does little to alleviate anxieties or feelings of shame that young people may experience in relation to their sexualities.”

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, who works with thousands of young people across the country, agrees. She warns against moral panic and shaming. She also knows the abstinence approach — with sexuality and technology — doesn’t work.

She argues, “We urgently need to teach all young people about what respectful relationships look, sound and feel like.”

But when we provide them with very little in terms of “relevant, engaging relationships’ education”, we fail them.

We need to rethink sex education, at home and schools, and focus on intimacy, emotions; how we feel as opposed to what (not) to do. We need to have frank discussions about power, control and how pop culture exploits our sexual insecurities as well as entertains. How technology can be both positive and misused — the choice is ours.

But when the adults in a young person’s life and the popular culture in which they’re submerged can’t role-model healthy relationships, with each other, sexuality or technology, then how can we possibly expect our kids to have them?

Rouse says there’s only so much authorities can do. He warns parents, “you’re paying for these devices (phones etc), you’re providing these devices… take some responsibility for what’s happening on them… it’s not an invasion of their privacy, it’s parenting.”

Rouse believes we’ve let kids down.

It’s time we step up.

Dangerous games: ‘Girl on girl porn score the most points’

The following post was the lead Opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph 30/0/16.

In it, I discuss a game teens in the Newcastle area are playing. It may shock you. It certainly shocked me. In an OpEd piece like this you don’t have enough space to unpack in any detail what needs to be done ( 700 words doesn’t begin to cover explaining what is happening AND presenting a plan for moving beyond this stuff).

But we can do the latter here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and brainstorm solutions.

I’ve been working with teens for over 22 years. I thought nothing could shock me. I was wrong.

Earlier this week NXFM radio hosts Nick and Sophie contacted me to discuss something they’d seen while out for dinner with friends in Newcastle. They’d spotted a young man running through the streets naked. Moments later, they saw two teen girls streaking too.Sophie’s friend, a social worker, later saw the girls (now covered up in robes) and asked them what it was all about.

Cash.

Apparently, a number of schools in the area are engaged in a scavenger hunt (organised via a closed Facebook group) as part of their end of Year 12 celebrations. The object of the game is to post increasingly risqué images online in order to score points.

Entrants pay to compete and the winner of the competition earns the prize pool, currently reported to be $2,000.

The girls explained they were going home to film themselves engaging in explicit sex with each other and upload this as “Girl on girl porn score the most points. We just want the prize money.”

End of school high jinks and nudie runs may seem like harmless rites of passage in Australia.

Viewing explicit porn is sadly also a rite of passage for this generation who have grown up with it; the average age of first exposure to pornography is 11.

Watching p#rn is common for teens. (Pic: iStock)

Almost one in five young people aged 16-17 say they, or a friend, have received sexually explicit images of someone else.

But teens producing and uploading their own naked and sexually explicit images to a social media site in order to win a competition is a recent phenomena fraught with the potential for deep regret.

If participants are under 18, sharing naked images online may see them in trouble with the law (while the age of sexual consent is 16, anyone who produces, possesses or distributes images of anyone under the age of 18 may be convicted on child pornography charges and placed on the child sex offenders registry — even if the image is of themselves).

 Regardless of the age of those involved, as we have recently in the news with the revelation that there are Australian web sites aimed at collecting sexually explicit images of teen schoolgirls (images often taken without these girls consent) once such images are uploaded, it is virtually impossible to delete these should those pictured later wish to do so.

While news of a sexually charged online competition may have shocked me and the colleagues I discussed this with, police and educators in the area have seen this type of game raise its ugly head before.

Back in 2013 local news reports warned of teens filming themselves performing lewd acts as part of a scavenger hunt competition held that year. Alleged incidents brought to the attention of authorities then included vision of young people engaged in group sex, and a film of a student with a mobile phone vibrating in their anus.

Yet despite stern warnings from police and school administrators, it seems the stakes have only been raised higher.

Our challenge is to look beyond a “just say no” plea for restraint; an approach we know is rarely effective in changing behaviour. It is to look beyond our own shock and instead to examine a culture that tells young people that sex sells. A culture that tells them fame (or indeed infamy) is aspirational, regardless of the price paid for the social media hits.

Hollywood film Nerve, a current favourite with teens, explores what happens when young people compete to post outrageous videos. The movie unpacks the complex psychology behind this kind of dangerous risk taking and the impact it can have on real life.

The movie argues that the only way to win in a game that encourages you to be a social conformist is not to play in the first place.

It takes real courage to not be a player, or a voyeur.

And it takes real courage to realise that although some of the conversations we need to have with our teens may be uncomfortable and confronting, the need to have these is urgent.

Sleazy pick up lines now available in a size 000


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“Hide your daughters.”

“I’m only here for the ladies.”

“Stud Muffin.”

You might expect to see these kind of slogans brandished across a T-shirt worn by Benny Hill or Hugh Hefner; by a bloke who hasn’t yet got the memo that being viewed as a player is no longer fashionable.

But thanks to Best & Less, these very slogans are being offered up for babies in its latest catalogue. Heteronormative stereotyping and sexism sold from a tiny size 000.

It would be tempting to dismiss these baby rompers as nothing more than a bit of harmless fun. But why must we impose limiting gender stereotypes on little boys and encourage others to view them as having one-track minds, or more bizarrely still, as the type we need to protect our daughters from?

Messages like these sow the seeds for stereotypes that harm both men and women.

And while much has rightly been made on how viewing girls and women as mere prey harms them, there has not been as much discussion on how these type of attitudes harm boys too.

Dr Andrew Smiler, author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, argues that stereotypes that view boys and young men as being barely able to control their sex drive risk becoming a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. These beliefs may lead to destructive hyper-sexuality, unwanted pregnancy, and less fulfilling relationships.

He argues too that despite the cultural assumption that boys only ever want one thing, the reality is that many young men yearn for far more than a mere conquest when they are dating. They want companionship, connection and emotional support.

In the course of my work with young men in schools through the Goodfellas program, I have found that when we first introduce the topic of male sexuality there is initially much chuckling and bravado in the room. But once my male presenters start to unpack the stereotypes, they see shoulders drop in relief and there is always a respectful, genuine interest in having a different conversation.

The boys we talk to report feeling cultural pressure to date and to be promiscuous. Those who don’t conform to the message that all boys just want one thing start to question whether in fact they are normal.

This from 15-year-old James: “I have lots of girls as friends but that doesn’t mean I only like them as I want to do something to them. To be honest, they (girls) are sometimes easier to talk to than my mates. It’s insulting to me, and to them, to imply otherwise.”

Indeed it is. And it’s vital we give all our young people the skills they need to critically assess culture in this way.

As an educator and mother to a daughter, I have given her the skills she needs to question and talk back to marketing messages and media portrayals of women that would limit her.

And I’ve given the same gift to my son too.

Because messages that would reduce baby boys to their penises? They’re for dummies.

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This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph and posted online at RendezView 2/6/16

Time for solutions not more talk

Regular readers will know I have spent the past six months as a volunteer Board Director for a new women’s shelter that is opening in Sydney’s northwest, The Sanctuary. Like most Australians, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by the headlines about women dying at the hands of their partners. In my work with teen girls, I hear more and more stories about young girls who are already trapped in relationships that are dangerous. My team of presenters at Goodfellas report the young men they work with also express concern about the men in their lives who make home a frightening place. 

Part of the solution lies in educating youth and broadening awareness through my writing and work in the media. My more hands-on work at The Sanctuary is another more practical part of the way forward.

I’m  happy to do everything from running our social media, to writing media releases, to helping with fundraising. But I am particuarly proud of two of the initiatives I’ve instigated for this refuge. One is The Sanctuary’s partnership with local boys’ college Oakhill. The other is connecting our work to the broader community through the establishment of an Ambassador program. Here our Ambassador Sarrah Le Marquand explains why this connection matters to her.  This guest post was first published in The Daily Telegraph 5/4 and posted online at RendezView.  

Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself.
Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself. Photo by Hills Shire Times.

It might sound a bit rich coming from someone who writes and speaks for a living, but talk alone is cheap. Heightened awareness of certain issues is vital, but unless that awareness eventually translates into action then words are just words.

Which is why, at a time when certain aspects of the national discussion regarding domestic violence threaten to descend into a he said/she said slanging match, it is on-the-ground measures and community solutions that are making a real impact.

Late last week I had the privilege of touring The Sanctuary, a new shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence that will open in Sydney’s northwest suburb of Castle Hill this week.

A state of the art facility equipped to provide three months of crisis accommodation for six women and their young families, The Sanctuary is a collaboration between the local community and Women’s Community Shelters that has become a reality despite no government funding.

To see first-hand the generosity of volunteers, including welcome packs for each family put together by male students from a nearby high school, is to see first-hand the triumph of action over talk.

There’s no navel-gazing lectures and petty point scoring on domestic violence here. Just good men and women making a real difference in the lives of victims.

Sarrah Le Marquand also spoke about her visit on Radio 2UE. You may listen here: 

Domestic violence in teenagers — why aren’t we talking about it?

In the United States, the entire month of February is devoted to Teen Domestic Violence Awareness. Here? The dating violence young people experience remains a silent epidemic. But the uncomfortable truth is that teens are one of our most vulnerable groups and very few of those experiencing abuse feel equipped to seek help.

The statistics are the stuff of nightmares for many parents who may well be clueless to the fact their child is even dating, nevertheless in a toxic partnership. While 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, 20 per cent of those in a tween relationship (11-14 year olds) admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

Even more worryingly, surveys show that 33 per cent of teenagers report knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked or physically hurt by their partner.

Alarmingly, Australian research also indicates that young women aged 14-19 may be up to four times more likely to experience physical or sexual violence than older women.

For teens experiencing dating abuse, reporting this to a trusted adult is often particularly problematic. Many remain silent as they fear they will get in trouble from their parents for dating in the first place.

Others keep quiet knowing they will have to face the perpetrator everyday at school, or for fear they will be asked to change schools to avoid their ex.

Some fear being alienated by their peer group if they speak up while others don’t yet have the language to even identify the behaviour as domestic violence and simply don’t know how to describe what is happening to them.

Roxanne McMurray, manager at Leichardt Women’s Community Health Centre, works with young women from the age of 13 and says she hears from many girls that age who are in extremely abusive relationships.

“They often don’t realise what is happening to them isn’t OK or that it is domestic violence,” McMurray says. “They will start to talk about a boyfriend who monitors all their social media interactions, tells them who they can and can’t talk to, what they can and can’t wear … On the surface this looks to a young girl who has bought into the knight-in-shinning amour romance rhetoric that their partner is just being protective. Even when he hits them, they make excuses: ‘It’s because he loves me so much and gets so jealous.’”

With all the work that’s been done on raising awareness about domestic violence in the last 12 months, why are our young people not hearing these messages and spearheading change?

While adults need to debunk their misplaced, and dangerous, belief that young people aren’t already dealing with these adult and complex issues, McMurray argues we need a more targeted approach to raise awareness in teens.

“There’s a misplaced belief that teens are soaking the education campaigns aimed at adults in too,” she says. “They’re not.”

This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph and shared online by RendezView, 6/2/16

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How young men will help put an end to domestic violence

The following post was originally published by RendezView 15/10/15.

 

Like most Australians, every time I hear news reports about yet another woman who has died at the hands of her partner, I feel horrified.

And as at least one woman gets killed as a result of domestic violence every week, I find myself feeling horrified often.

But how does one move from anguish into something more constructive that might form part of the solution?

As an educator and author I’ve dedicated my career to date to working with young women; empowering them to know their worth, encouraging them to deconstruct limiting gender stereotypes and teaching them how to develop and maintain respectful relationships.

But putting an end to violence against women and children cannot just be the work of women; we desperately need the passion, creativity and hard work of good men too.

So when I joined a committed group of people in my local community working to establish a new domestic violence shelter in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, called The Sanctuary, I wanted to initiate a partnership with the largest boys’ school in the area, Oakhill College.

It is these lads who can help us ensure that one day, our refuge may no longer be needed. Because while shelters are focused on creating crisis accommodation for women and children, they are also focused on early intervention and prevention work.

This is why all 220 of the Year 10 boys who will be adopting The Sanctuary as their own were briefed about why a refuge is needed in their local area, and about what they as young men can do to help curb violence.

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This initiative was also featured in The Daily Telegraph 14/10

They then did further research — including looking at the underlying issues that drive domestic violence such as gender inequality and sexism — and started creating their own anti-DV posters they will carry when they join in our local White Ribbon march in November.

The boys will also now begin making up Welcome Packs (toiletries, chocolates, etc) that can be given to women and children as they arrive at the shelter. The attached gift card will simply read, “We care about you and we are glad you are safe. This gift is for you to show you that you’re valued.” This small act of kindness has the potential to have a huge impact for both the giver and the receiver.

Their English teachers have also now begun brainstorming ideas for how they can embed this work across their curriculum. The staff love the social justice focus and also the opportunity this creates for the application of learning in the real world.

And like with all projects that young people feel a sense of ownership over, it will evolve in ways none of us can even anticipate at this early stage. From the simple (the lad who approached me to say, “Danni, this really means a lot to me and if you want I’ll get some friends and go door knocking to get you more money”) to the more innovative (there’s talk of producing and performing plays, and of making film projects).

Why has the initial response from these boys been so positive?

The boys have been encouraged to realise they can be part of the solution.

When I first met these boys, I looked straight into their eyes and told them I knew they were gorgeous young men who felt just as distressed as I did by knowing not all women and children are safe in their own homes. And I told them I knew they would welcome the opportunity to learn and be voices of difference.

So often too we forget that in homes where there are violent men, there are young boys who are not violent. Rather, there are boys who feel scared. Boys who feel angry. Boys who feel powerless.

Boys who want to make things OK.

And while I am incredibly grateful for the enormous contributions of the women who work tirelessly in this field, in my community I have been inspired to see there are plenty of men who want to step up and make things OK as well.

There are fellow Sanctuary Board members, like Hills Local Area Commander Rob Critchlow, who helped get the ball rolling here by seeking out a location to establish a safe shelter and managing security concerns. And the Centre Manager for Castle Towers, Martin Ollis, who convinced his QIC Board to donate a fully refurbished property to The Sanctuary rent-free. There’s the Assistant Principal at Oakhill, Bob Munday, who jumped at the opportunity for his boys to be The Sanctuary’s advocates.

And there are these young men.

All are true champions for change. Their attitudes reaffirm that most men in Australia respect women and children and believe that the current culture of violence is unacceptable. And those who feel otherwise are discredited and put on notice.

Update 30/11 – I was asked to speak to Brisbane Breakfast FM radio 97.3 about this initiative for White Ribbon day. You may listen to this animated discussion here:

I don’t believe self-defence training is “victim blaming”. And I’m a feminist.

I’m a proud feminist. And I’m the CEO of Australia’s largest provider of in-school workshops for teen girls that help develop self-worth and resilience. And I promote self-defence classes to young women.

Here’s how, and here’s why.

The uncomfortable truth? Teen girls are likely to experience violence in their lifetime; this can occur in a wide range of contexts ranging from schoolyard bullying and peer based aggression, through to street based harassment and stranger intimidation, through to physical assault and sexual violence.

And while we all agree this is a situation that needs to be urgently addressed, where feminists disagree is on the kind of advice, if any, which should be given to girls given this reality.

Some argue passionately that any attempt to modify young women’s behaviours is in effect victim blaming, and that the onus on change must always be placed squarely and solely at the feet of those who would harm.

I agree that often the dialogue on what women should do to stay safe, particularly after high profile media reporting on the death of a woman, can become (sometimes unintentionally) focused on what women wear, where they choose to go, whether they chose to drink alcohol. It focuses on limiting women’s freedoms.

This is never helpful. This is never OK. And it tends to assume that men who would harm are strangers lurking in dark alleys, waiting for their next vulnerable victim. As the statistics on domestic violence here in Australia clearly show, this is not always the case.

However, if self-defence is framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor, it can do much to shift this type of thinking. In fact, at the end of our sessions, many girls have approached us to explain how for the first time they felt understood; “I’ve always felt like maybe I must have somehow been to blame for my boyfriend hurting me like that. I now know that it had nothing to do with me …”

Importantly too, there must be an emphasis on the fact that we must also never blame a victim who doesn’t (for whatever reason) act assertively or fight back when in a threatening situation. Any of us, even trained professionals in the army or police force, can freeze in the face of danger. By explaining the body’s instinctive fight, flight or freeze survival mechanism, again much can be done to alleviate victim blaming and shaming.

In this age of body-image angst, self-defence classes also challenge the myth that women’s bodies are merely ornamental. Girls can be fast, strong and powerful; they can set physical boundaries. They can take up more space.

And girls can learn how and when to set verbal boundaries: “Stop! I don’t like it!”. Self-defence classes encourage girls to find their voices which is in contrast to the passivity-push that would have us believe girls should be sugar, spice and all things nice; seen and not heard.

In addition, girls are encouraged to shout-out not just for themselves but for others too; we also teach ethical bystander behaviour. There is great strength in connecting girls to each other and in fostering a sense of sisterhood.

And let me tell you, girls love all of this. Our self-defence workshop would be one of the ones girls rave about the most in their evaluations of our work. There is always laughter, giggling and a real delight in feeling powerful rather than powerless.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence to show self-defence classes can be useful in certain contexts. After news of an English women who had been trained in martial arts beating her sex-attacker unconscious broke recently, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that it was her own knowledge of self-defence that had saved her in an attack too; “After fighting off my attacker … (I kicked, scratched, punched, wrestled him to the ground, and told him he was a motherf****r) … I am baffled as to why self-defence has become so apparently outmoded, because it helped me when I needed it most. I grew up with a mother who used to run workshops for women who were victims of domestic violence in South London. It was she who taught me to face my attacker kicking and screaming, and in doing so she saved my life.

“That’s not to say that I might not have frozen … you cannot predict how any human will react, and I speak only for myself — but I am baffled that it is not taught more in schools. Why not have kickboxing and martial arts in PE lessons? Ultimately, extra-curricular karate lessons proved more useful to me than netball ever did.”

And what do the schools we have worked with say?

I have had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running these courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions their girls had been harassed on trains and knew to follow their instincts, move away quickly and to let other adults around them know they were feeling unsafe. Importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.”

And I have had many, many messages from teen girls that have told me that they suspect knowing that it is OK to set boundaries (and how to do this assertively) has kept them safe in a myriad of different situations. Everything from being bullied in the playground by other students, to being cornered at a party by a guy they trusted who tried to coerce them into sex.

Doctors Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey, women’s self-defence advocates and founders of site “See Jane Fight Back!” also argue: “Self-defence challenges the belief that rape is thwarted only by the perpetrator “coming to his senses”, through bystander interference, or divine intervention. “Yep. In a perfect world? It would not be necessary to focus on how women and girls can learn assertiveness and self-defence skills. But we do not yet live in that world.

And while the vital work to help curb violence continues, so too should the programs for girls and women that provide options and strategies for keeping safe.

Knowledge is power. And I choose to pass power on.

This post originally appeared in News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

 

A teen girl’s guide to surviving Valentine’s Day

The following extract is taken from the book for teen girls I co-wrote with Nina Funnell, “Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships.” It is published by Harper Collins and may be purchased here. 

Loveability Shareable 6

I had been single for six months when I was writing this chapter. Most of the time, I felt genuinely excited about what the future might look like, and I knew it would be grand, with or without a partner. However, there were some things that sent me falling into a spiral of self-despair, such as when I saw a card in a newsagent that read ‘Happy birthday to my darling wife’. What if no one ever bought me a card like that again? I had received my share of romantic cards in the past, from my ex-husband and ex-boyfriend, but I wanted more! Was I doomed to a card-less life? Curse you, Hallmark! *Danni waves her fist in the air.*

Well, take that pain and multiply it to the power of ten and you get Valentine’s Day for singles. True? Suddenly the world is filled with playful cards for cool couples to giggle at together, and mushy cards for the old-school romantic types. Oh, it’s a day for lovers.

And don’t they love sharing their love (read: flaunting it)? When I used to teach in high schools it always amused me that many girls relished carrying around their cards, flowers and teddy bears all day. They didn’t leave them in their lockers — oh no, half the thrill was in showing them off. And it seemed that the bigger the bear, the bigger the love must be.

I really don’t begrudge those who are struck by Cupid. Love is a beautiful thing worth acknowledging — every day, not just on Valentine’s Day. I really am a romantic at heart, too.

But when you’re on the outside of it all, it can sting.

I called Nina after the ‘no cards for me’ incident and she gave me such great advice: receiving a card like that never makes someone feel as wonderful as it makes those who don’t receive one feel worthless. ‘It’s a whole big mind mess up,’ she said. ‘Don’t fall for the Hallmark moments.’

See why I love Nina? See? Gold star for relationship advice!

And you know what? One of the best Valentine’s Days I ever had was when I was single. I decided to tackle the day head-on. I invited all my single friends over for dinner and encouraged them to bring each of the other guests a card, chocolate or flower. We ate, laughed and were merry.

And in addition to the very funny and thoughtful gifts I received from my guests that night, I actually did receive amazing bouquets of flowers from two guys who liked me but understood all I could offer them was friendship. They just weren’t quite right for me, and I wasn’t going to compromise.

In my experience, the more you have going on in your life and the more comfortable you are being single, the more other people will want to be with you. You will also be less likely to just jump into any old relationship so you can have the ‘Hallmark moment’.

Apart from throwing a ‘Single and Fab!’ party like I did (or as one friend likes to call it, a ‘Galentine’ party to celebrate your best gals), you might like to try the following ideas for coping with Valentine’s Day when you’re single:

• Focus on all the love you have in your life. Give hand-written notes (or cards and flowers if that’s your thing) to your best friends and favourite family members. I always feel better when I am loving towards others; some of the love definitely bounces back.

• Be daring. Send a note or a card to someone you have a crush on. (Do it anonymously if you prefer; Valentine’s cards were traditionally meant to be sent by secret admirers.) It will be quite thrilling — trust me. A friend of mine and I did it when we were in the senior years of high school, and writing out our notes, hunting down our crushes’ addresses and then mailing them off was such delicious, laugh-until-you-snort fun!

• Author Emily Maguire offered me this top-shelf suggestion: ‘Young single women who love all the hoopla associated with Valentine’s Day … could consider embracing it all for a good cause. Like organise a red velvet- swathed, heart-shaped, chocolate filled, white-teddy-bear-decorated, rom-com screening fundraising event for a related cause such as marriage equality or safe-sex education.’

• Go totally Grinch and have an anti- Valentine’s Day party. I’m talking about getting together with your friends and watching horror movies rather than romantic comedies, wearing your PJs rather than party frocks and making the talk a relationships free zone!

• Take some time out to do a loving kindness meditation. It’s an ancient Buddhist practice in which you sit quietly and wish love, peace and happiness on the people in your life, including yourself and even people you dislike. People who do it regularly boost the feel-good chemicals in their brains and make themselves more likely to experience loving moments in everyday life — basically, they become their own love factories. After studying this effect, the psychologist Barbara Fredrickson believes it’s time to rethink our whole concept of what love is. The passionate, romantic, Romeo and Juliet type of love may be more of a myth, while true love is all the little moments when you have a positive emotional connection with another person during your day. Sure, you might have such a moment with a romantic partner, but you just as easily might have one with a good friend, your little sister or that random person who just held the door open for you because you had your hands full. ‘If you don’t have a Valentine, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have love,’ says Fredrickson.

From "Loveability: An Empowered Girl's Guide to Dating and Relationships."
From “Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships.”
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