Blame it on music videos, blame it on padded sweatshop bikinis for girls, blame it on what you will. I'm no Mary Whitehouse, but there's no doubt about it: things have changed for boys and girls growing up now and not in a good way.
French and Saunders were being hilarious on the telly. Blondie, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper, Grace Jones and Madonna were smashing it on MTV. We had a woman Prime Minister, for good or ill. Respect and equity between men and women seemed to be the norm and this continued through the rave and Britpop subcultures of the ‘90s and beyond. It’s no surprise the metrosexual male came out around that time…
But then things changed… slowly, slowly there has been a discernible shift towards a much more overtly sexualised culture for kids. Blame it on music videos, blame it on padded sweatshop bikinis for girls, blame it on what you will. I'm no Mary Whitehouse, but there’s no doubt about it: things have changed for boys and girls growing up now and not in a good way.
I was aware of it happening, it was something me and my mates chatted about now and again over pints. Then one day something I saw in a playground shocked me and made me decide to do something about it.
While my husband took our eldest child around the playground, I was sitting in the car feeding our youngest, idly keeping half an eye on what was going on outside.
Four kids who I’d say were all under eight were playing very happily, swinging, sliding, running, jumping, laughing, being silly, showing off with all the usual wondrous, joyous brilliance of everyday childhood. Normal, well-fed, dressed and watered (probably middle-class, not that it matters) kids. Then the three boys climbed up high onto the climbing frame and started cat-calling the girl - the friend they were just playing with – and making all kinds of weird, lewd noises.
Then "Hey sexy lady!" said one of them, “come over here and have your booty spanked,” and another started making faces at her, smacking his backside and twerking or whatever that thing is they do. The other boys joined in, throwing down insults and more and more degrading and pornographic abuse. As if in slow mo the girl's head slumped down, her face crumpled up and she fell to the floor in a heap, eviscerated. She looked totally defeated.
I could see it so clearly: the realisation she was experiencing - that moment of understanding that her whole world and her place within it had changed in an instant.
The boys watched her cry, did nothing, carried on regardless, seeming to forget immediately all that'd happened while the girl sobbed on the ground. She cried for ages.
That day, as I was pinned to my baby and my car seat and not able to do much about what had just happened, I thought a lot about what could be done. It was a blatant case of bullying - but it was also the clearest demonstration I’d ever seen first-hand of everyday sexism among such young children and the vengeful, mean effects of an over-sexualised online and media culture on our kids.
Later, speaking to friends and sharing the story online, I learned that this – or something very like it - was a common scene in schools, play spaces and on the streets all over the country.
It seems to me that encouraging parents to talk about this stuff among themselves, as well as with their kids, is part of the solution. So is educating and empowering kids to recognise sexist bullying and harassment and the gender stereotypes it’s built on. This means accepting that even primary aged children are seeing and dealing with these issues on a day to day basis and that it’s up to us to help them call it out and stand up to sexism.
So that’s why I set up Kids Call it Out - to promote dialogue, provide a space to get these issues out in the open and share ideas with parents, kids and schools. This also means lobbying the government to introduce compulsory PSHE in schools, even at primary level (we've got our work cut out there given recent government setbacks, but that’s a different story).
I’ve since been joined by friends, parents and people I don’t even know - given the amount of support we have received in the short time since we went public, it seems we’ve hit a nerve. Together – and with good humoured insistence - we can show our kids and ourselves that sexist bullying and behaviour, as well as irksome gender norms, have no place in our world.
Follow Kids Call It Out on Facebook and Twitter.
Juliette Morton is a mum of two, writer, global education and development consultant @JLMConsulting and the Founder of Kids Call It Out.