SALT LAKE CITY — Call it #UsToo.
A generation of girls growing up in the shadow of the millennials say they still feel prized chiefly for their looks and often feel unsafe because of their sex. Eight in 10 have one or more friends who've been asked by a boy for a sexy or naked picture.
Boys, meanwhile, struggle with old expectations: being physically strong, mentally tough and ready to throw a punch when provoked. Boys manuever a world in which an overwhelming majority of their peers say they believe males and females should be treated the same, regardless of their sex.
But behind closed doors, boys are frequently hearing — and making — sexual comments and jokes about girls.
These are among the challenges facing American teens, according to a report released Sept. 12 by Plan International USA, part of a global federation that advocates for children’s rights and equality for girls.
The survey, released as Americans old and young were wrestling with allegations of teenage sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, gives voice to a population rarely asked for their thoughts in public-opinion surveys — American children and teens ages 10 to 19.
It exposes a troubling undercurrent of sexism to which even prepubescent girls are exposed, often in their own homes. And it shows that teens are reluctant to report sexual jokes and comments because they’re worried they won’t be believed or liked, or because they think such behavior is “just part of life.”
Not all the news was disturbing. Three-quarters of the teens said they have heard of the #MeToo movement with its message that sexual abuse or harassment will not be tolerated by women or men.
And the survey reveals the extent to which a parent’s influence shapes a child beliefs, from professional goals and plans for a family to the roles men and women play in society.
But it shows that gender equality is neither present in nor uniformly desired by a generation that has been taught that men and women are essentially the same. And at least one scholar believes that the hypersexualization of the culture is an unintended consequence of the focus on gender equality.
What girls said
The survey was conducted by PerryUndem, a nonpartisan research firm based in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Plan International, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island. PerryUndem surveyed 1,006 teens between April and June of this year.
The firm found a generation of girls who embrace science or math as their favorite subjects and who want to be leaders in fulfilling careers, but who still believe that society cares primarily about how they look, regardless of what they achieve. In this, the girls echo much of what their mothers believe, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year.
In that report, majorities said the greatest pressures facing women were to be physically attractive and an involved parent and the greatest pressures facing men were to support their families financially and to be successful at work.
The pressure on teen girls to be beautiful is not only because of the influence of social media, says Barbara J. Risman, a senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families and a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Risman believes emphasis on women’s bodies and appearance has risen because it’s the last thing that distinguishes men and women as they compete equally in the workplace and increasingly share responsibilities at home.
“This focus on the body is more intense and more problematic than it was in previous generations when there were lots of ways for girls to ‘do’ gender,” said Risman, author of "Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure," published earlier this year.
“We continue to tell boys and girls that masculinity and femininity is really important, but there’s no way to show it, to be it, to do it," Risman said. "Focus on the body is what gender has become."
Lexie Kite, co-director of the Utah-based nonprofit Beauty Redefined said that females in essence have double identities: “They live, and they live to be looked at.”
“This body monitoring is called self-objectification, and it poses a serious, tangible threat to the lives of girls and women,” Kite said. “As little girls grow up, they are initiated into a world where cultural and media messages — even those from family members — tell them their bodies are the most important thing about them.”
This doesn't mean that wanting to be attractive is a bad thing, Kite added. But "Women are more than bodies, and believing that is better for healthy relationships," she said.
Tessie San Martin, the Washington, D.C.-based president and CEO of Plan International USA, said she believes the report shows there is more than one factor driving teens’ attitudes about gender. “Our youth have very clear ideas and opinions about gender and gender equality and about what factors are driving their attitudes and behavior. They want and need to be heard,” she said.
“We are hoping this effort is not a one-off but part of a broader effort to engage our youth in conversations about gender equality.”
A boys' problem?
Although 92 percent of both boys and girls say they believe men and women are equal, according to the Plan International report, 55 percent of girls say they hear boys making sexual comments or sexual jokes about girls at least several times a week. Nearly half of girls ages 14 to 19 hear these comments every day, and a quarter of 10- to 13-year-olds hear these comments daily.
Additionally, more than one-third say they heard these comments in their own family and 18 percent say they heard them from their fathers.
And girls aren’t the only ones hearing the comments and jokes. Six of 10 boys hear sexual jokes and comments about girls at least once a week, and 1 in 3 older boys hear these comments daily, said Tresa Undem, a partner of PerryUndem and the lead researcher on the project.
“Nearly half of (boys) heard these comments from male family members. It’s kind of stunning,” Undem said. “It’s pretty clear from this data that men are making jokes in front of boys about women, but (the men are) not making the same jokes and sexual comments in front of girls.”
The researchers also asked the girls if their friends had been asked for sexy or naked pictures from boys. Eighty-one percent said at least one friend has. Two-thirds of boys say they have a friend who has asked for such pictures.
“This is actually a boys' problem, a men’s problem, not a women’s problem,” Undem said. “What stands out, when you look at what the boys are internalizing, all this is reinforcement about strength and toughness. This is not just about girls. It’s about boys, and they’re feeling many pressures, as well.”
Weston Ivins, a high school junior in Vernal, Utah, was not part of the national survey but said he hears people tell others that they’re “acting like a girl” a lot, and says he often hears sexual comments and jokes when in the company of other male teens.
Occasionally, someone will object, but “there’s very few people who will push back against it,” Ivins said. “Teenagers, that’s just how we are; we’re trying to be cool, and that’s just how it is.”
Ivins’ thoughts on the subject might help to explain the discrepancies in the answers of teens nationwide. For example, Ivins said he believes that boys and girls can compete as equals in the classroom, but he answers “somewhat agree” to the statement “I believe men and women should be treated equally.”
“It depends on the situation,” he said, adding that differences in physiology and anatomy have to be taken into account. In the national survey, 82 percent of boys said they've heard someone tell another person to "stop acting like a girl."
One-third said they feel societal pressure to be in charge or dominate others. Forty-one percent said society expects them to be aggressive or violent when angry, and 35 percent said society expects them to be strong, tough and to "be a man" when they feel sad or scared.
These views were echoed by adolescents who attend a "Girls Inspired" support group run by WholeKids Emotional Wellness in Sandy, Utah.
Asked what society expects a woman to do when angry, a 13-year-old said, "to calm down and be OK." Asked what society expects a man to do when angry, the teen replied, "to fight it out and yell."
Researchers also examined correlations between the teens’ views and the political affiliation of their parents, as well as whether their parents filled traditional gender roles in the home, such as the mother performing most of the housework and child care. They found no association between the parental roles at home, but they found a correlation between parents' thoughts about gender equality and what their children believe.
They also found that children of Republican parents were less likely to perceive sexism as a problem, and more likely to believe full equality of the sexes already exists. Children in Republican households were also more likely to be comfortable with traditional family roles, the report said.
San Martin, the executive director, said the survey was not political in nature, but its findings reflect other research that has shown that adult views toward gender equality differ more by party affiliation than by gender.
“In this context, it made sense to explore how the affiliation of the parent might have an effect on the child’s view," she said in an email. "It was not a surprise that affiliation played in young people’s views. But party affiliation is one of many factors, and correlation is not causation."
How parents can help
Haylee Bladen, founder and clinical director of WholeKids Emotional Wellness, said that in her work with teens, she tries to convince them that they don’t have to be perfect, the societal expectation that hangs over all the others.
Teen girls struggle on two fronts — their worries about their looks, made worse by the constant sexual comments and remarks from boys, she said.
“I hear girls talk about this a lot — how inadequate they feel,” she said. “I’m sure these girls are hearing inappropriate things all day, and I’m sure it does affect their self-esteem.”
One clear message of the Plan International Survey is that parents have a tremendous effect on how their children navigate their teen years, and what they believe about men and women.
Undem noted that teens who expressed views supportive of gender equality and its effects also had parents who had strong feelings about gender equality and had shared them with the teen.
“Simply talking about it would probably go a long way,” Undem said.
Likewise, Bladen said that parents’ choice of language has a big effect on what their children believe, even if the parents are not deliberately trying to influence the child.
“Most of the time it’s not intentional. A lot of girls are sensitive and internalize things more than we think. It’s really important that we watch our words and use really empowering language,” she said.
Risman, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes that gender is inherently a system based on inequality and that society should move beyond it. “What we really need is a fourth wave of feminism that is about diminishing the importance of gender — raising children to be children and not to be good little boys or good little girls.”
She recommends that parents de-emphasize the importance of gender to their children. One way to do this is to provide gender-neutral toys to children, which is something else the PerryUndem survey found associated with teens who believe strongly in gender equality.
Said Risman, “People say ‘raise good men.’ I think the way out of it is to raise good people.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified Barbara J. Risman's university affiliation. She is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, not the University of Chicago.