A new study has found that early adolescents around the world share stereotypical beliefs about gender in relationships, despite cultural and geographic differences. "Boys Should Have The Courage to Ask a Girl Out": Gender Norms in Early Adolescent Relationships is a qualitative, interview-based study of children between 11 and 13 years old from five poor communities in cities around the world: Baltimore, Cuenca, Edinburgh, Ghent, and Nairobi. Researchers found that both boys and girls in these cities held beliefs about gendered relationships that "are based on the conception that femininity is inferior to masculinity."
In plain terms, boys and girls from all five nations shared the opinion that boys should initiate relationships, and respondents tended to endorse stereotypical views that boys are or ought to be "romantically/sexually active and dominant" while girls are typically considered "innocent with less agency." These findings seem benign. However, collectively, they show how gender is socially constructed from a very young age: One 13-year-old girl from Nairobi said that a boy must have the "courage" to ask out a girl, "otherwise it's not a boy."
The research is part of The Global Early Adolescent Study (GEAS), which is comprised of six original studies conducted in 15 countries around the world. Together, they unveil a global perspective on gender among young people across demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is an unprecedented project, collecting some of the first data of its kind, while supporting the findings of other researchers.
In an interview with USA Today, head researcher Kristin Mmari urged people to consider gender as more than a personal reality. "We typically look at things on an individual level," Mmari explained, "so we feel like if we just empower girls, make them feel good, then we'll change." However, she emphasized, that message of personal empowerment doesn't carry over into society and social institutions, like home and school.
The researchers underscore that the ideas these young people express about gender and relationships are important and consequential. Citing various previous studies, the researchers argue that internalizing stereotypical gender norms can lead to serious negative consequences later in life.
"Gender inequalities contribute to unsafe sexual behaviors that can lead to teenage pregnancy, intimate partner violence, and increased vulnerability to HIV infection—especially for girls—as it puts them in a disadvantaged position to negotiate safe sex or to refuse unwanted sex," the study authors state. "Conversely, equal gender norms and attitudes can contribute to the capacity to feel and express sexual feelings and pleasure, contributing to sexual well-being."
Most of the children did not consider sex as part of their view on relationships, though some did. In Nairobi, for instance, respondents talked about boys forcing themselves on girls sexually. But children around the world reported "undesirable consequences for girls who engage in intimate relationships with boys," including social risks such as reputational harm as well as emotional and physical abuse.The researchers believe more studies are needed to better understand how gender norms are constructed and in what way they impact interpersonal relationships. "A better understanding of these processes could contribute to the improvement of gender equal relationships and health adolescent sexual and reproductive health trajectories," the researchers conclude.