At the beginning of the year, it felt like the social media influencer Andrew Tate was dominating all my conversations. My group chats pinged with alarm. At the school where I teach, colleagues expressed despair at just how far his misogynist messages had spread. How had a man who many of us had never heard of until last summer garnered such a huge following, resulting in his content on TikTok being viewed more than 12.7bn times? Why were more people searching for him on Google than arguably the world’s best known influencer, Kim Kardashian? Why did his followers stand by him even when he claimed that rape survivors bore some “responsibility” for their assault? How, after #MeToo, could a version of masculinity so lacking in compassion, empathy and respect for women be so popular? The over-35s seemed blindsided – parents especially.
In the frenzy to regain some sense of control, many parents looked to schools. Courses for teachers on how to tackle Tate’s views were advertised, and sold out. In the WhatsApp group chat for year 6 parents at my son’s school, it was no different – “speak to the school” was the advice when I raised the issue.
As a teacher, though, this didn’t feel like enough. Teachers can’t be the only guards against such a huge problem – to expect so is to pile an impossible responsibility on to an already overworked profession. So I wondered: when much of this harmful content is accessed at home, what conversations should parents be having with our children, particularly our sons?
It is completely understandable that rapid technological advancements have caught parents unawares. The messages of misogynists such as Tate and violent sexual content are easier to access than ever before – according to reports, around 50% of children see violent porn before the age of 18. As parents, the path of least discomfort may be to take the position of the three wise monkeys. If we don’t see or hear of misogynist content, then what need is there to speak of it? The conclusion may be to not view the issue as “live”, in our homes at least.
Wilful ignorance, however, does not protect us from our own accountability. Schools alone can’t do the necessary work of preparing pupils for the world they are living in. Primary and secondary schools do teach relationships, health and sex education (RHSE) to pupils – thankfully it is now mandatory, and online safety is included within it. But given the scale of the problem before us, it is nowhere near enough. And because of stretched resources, the danger is that schools, particularly where influencers such as Tate are concerned, will revert to lecture rather than dialogue.
The primary aim of a lecture is to impart knowledge. What it does not always provide is the embedding of understanding. Our young people may well know that they need to have consent in their sexual relationships, but that is different from understanding what consent, or indeed the lack thereof, looks like in the real world beyond an assembly, PowerPoint or workbook.
That’s borne out by the stats: Ofsted reports that 79% of girls who responded to its survey of 32 schools and colleges stated that sexual assault happened “a lot” or “sometimes” between people their own age. Meanwhile, 64% and 68% said the same respectively for unwanted touching and feeling pressured to do sexual things they did not want to. Schools absolutely should do more to tackle these problems. But so too should parents.
Our first step may be to think through what these unprecedented times mean for our children. That means accepting that if we do not tackle the issue with open dialogue, often and early, we risk allowing boys to fall under the influence of misogynists such as Tate. In the void of our silence, boys are left to navigate a world that both tells them to abhor sexual violence (#MeToo), and supplies readily available depictions of it as an avenue through which they can explore their sexual identity. It is no coincidence that the Tates of this world lure in confused boys with the soothing promise of becoming an “alpha male”.
We should lean into this discomfort. We can begin by making sure we instil in our children, from infancy, an understanding that their bodies are their own and that others must respect their boundaries. We should acknowledge that, no, we do not have all the answers, but are prepared to do our own research to find out. Importantly, we must accept this isn’t a one-off conversation about “the birds and the bees”. These issues will need revisiting again and again.
As much as the internet may feel like the enemy, it is also, perhaps, one of the strongest weapons in our arsenal. There are countless books, blogs, toolkits and influencers whose business it is to tackle issues of consent in honest, clear terms. We can use them and their output as launchpads for discussions with our children.
We must also know a little more about the water in which our children are swimming. How many of us can say we have dipped our toes in? That means logging on to sites like Twitter and moving beyond our echo chambers to catch a glimpse of what other “conversations” take place on such platforms. Above all else, we must approach these discussions with an intention to not merely tell, but to listen.
Lola Okolosie is an English teacher and writer focusing on race, politics, education and feminism
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