Department of Family Services – Domestic and Sexual Violence Services

CONTACT INFORMATION: Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
703-324-5730 TTY 711
12011 Government Center Parkway, Pennino Building, Floor 7, Suite 740
Fairfax, VA 22035
Toni Zollicoffer

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month – Talking about Gender to Prevent Sexual Violence

exit website button circle  SAFETY ALERT – If you are in danger, call or text 911.

Research on children’s identity development show most children understand their own gender between the ages of 2 to 3, but our understanding of what gender means is impacted by our experiences of the world as we grow. Adults can often reflect their own ideas about gender through the stereotypes we reinforce to children and to each other.

two women in kitchenWhen children are very young, boys with female friends may be called a “ladies' man” or girls may be called a “heartbreaker.” While usually meant as compliments, these assumptions about the gender expression and sexuality of children show up long before they are old enough to date. Adults may also excuse aggressive behaviors of young boys toward girls with statements, like, “he only chases you around the playground because he likes you” or “he’s just teasing.” Sometimes called a “boys will be boys” attitude, this teaches girls they are responsible for how boys treat them and teaches boys they can break girls’ boundaries without consequences. 

Later in life, sexual violence and harassment are often seen as a normal part of adolescence and adult life. Teenage boys are often excused for making sexual comments about their female peers or insulting other boys using sexist or homophobic language. They are also taught to accept bad behavior (think: wrestling, hitting, or pranks like pulling someone's pants down or stealing their clothing) as a joke, which violates their bodily autonomy. Teenage girls are often told they are responsible for the way they are treated sexually by adults telling them not to dress provocatively or to “just ignore” sexual comments about their bodies made by other teens or adults.

As we grow older these attitudes about gender can impact our relationships and inform how we behave. For teens and young adults, boys can feel pressure to prove their masculinity by having sex early and often, and girls can feel pressured into having sex to keep or satisfy the boys they date. Youth with LGBTQ identities may have a particularly difficult time with gendered expectations because they often do not align with norms of their assumed gender.

The ideas we teach children and teens about gender continue into adulthood. Street harassment, in which men shout sexual comments at women in public spaces, is often dismissed or seen as a “compliment.” Men sharing naked photos of women or talking about women in sexual ways with other men are dismissed as “locker room talk” or a “normal” way for men to talk about women. Transgender and nonbinary people are asked publicly and by strangers and acquaintances about their genitals and whether they have had surgery to change parts of their body. Fathers are expected to “protect” their daughters’ sexuality and threaten any boys they date with violence. Women who marry men are expected to “meet the sexual needs” of their husband by having sex whenever their husband wants to and can be pressured into doing things sexually they do not want to do. These behaviors reinforce the idea that it is normal to violate or control others’ bodies.

These ideas directly impact how people are treated when they experience sexual violence. Girls and women who talk about being sexual assaulted or harassed say they are often not believed or seen as overreacting. Sometimes they are blamed for where they were or what they are wearing when they were assaulted, seen as “inviting” the violence they face. Boys and men who experience sexual violence may struggle with their identity, as masculinity is often depicted as being dominant or strong. They may be rejected as victims because of the assumption that men always want to have sex. Transgender people of all genders experience physical and sexual violence at some of the highest rates and are assumed to be sexual predators when the way they present their gender is seen as “wrong” or even “dangerous.”

We can teach people of all genders to respect their own and others’ bodily autonomy throughout their lives. Adults can help young people build skills of respect for their partners and learn to recognize sexual assault or abuse if it happens to them. Healthy relationship behaviors can be modeled for children by asking permission before hugging them or teaching them to ask before taking a toy away from someone else. These behaviors show children they can make choices about their own body and to be respectful of others’ bodies. This can also show them you are a safe person for them to come to if they experience sexual violence.

Many of us don’t learn about the impact of gender roles until we are adults, but it’s never too late to talk about how these roles impact us and our relationships. Simple actions, like telling someone a sexual comment is inappropriate or being an active bystander if someone is harassed in public, push back against these attitudes and behaviors. You can make a difference and show survivors of sexual violence that you are a safe person to come to if they need help.

If someone in your life tells you they have experienced sexual violence or harassment, it is important to:

  1. Thank them for telling you. It can be difficult to share what happened, and by telling you, they are trusting you with this information.
  2. Listen to and believe them. One of the reasons people do not come forward when they experience violence is because they are afraid that they will not be believed. By believing and not interrupting them, you are reinforcing they did the right thing by telling you.
  3. Ask how you can help and support them in how they want to move forward. It is important to empower someone to make their own decisions about n what they want to do next. Experiencing sexual violence is a situation where they were unable to make their own choices, and you can give that power back.
  4. Seek resources. It can feel devastating when a loved one tells you they have been hurt. Make sure to utilize resources available to them and to you if you need support. Get information about the Domestic and Sexual Violence 24-Hour Hotline.

If you learn someone in your life has been violent toward others or harassed someone, you can:

  1. Identify the harmful behaviors and tell them you are not OK with them treating someone that way. It is important to hold individuals accountable for their own actions and be clear that harming others is unacceptable.
  2. Identify what healthy relationship behaviors look like. By reinforcing these behaviors, you are helping reframe norms about healthy relationships in your family and community.
  3. Remind them they can control their own responses to anger, frustration, pain, and peer pressure. Reassure them change is possible and you believe they can do better.
  4. Seek resources. The Anger & Domestic Abuse Prevention & Treatment Program (ADAPT) program is available to people over 18 who have used violence against a partner or family member to understand their behavior and practice healthy coping strategies. If you are concerned about the behavior of a child or teen, you can contact youth-serving professionals like a school social worker or mental health professional to find resources.

Want to learn how to talk to children and teens about this topic? Register for an upcoming, free “Unpacking Gender” workshop at the local library most convenient for you.


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Fairfax Virtual Assistant