A report earlier this year from the American Psychological Association on the harmful effects of the sexualisation of girls shows that society needs a new strategy for young women, according to a leading women’s advocate in Australia.
|Melinda Tankard Reist|
Melinda Tankard Reist, the founding director of Women’s Forum Australia, commented on the report to the ZENIT news agency, noting that instead of turning girls into sexual objects, society should teach them to “be resilient and to defend their dignity and self-respect”.
Tankard Reist is also the author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion, and Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (both books available from News Weekly Books).
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Q: A recent report published by the American Psychological Association pointed out the damage caused by the sexualising of pre-teen and adolescent girls. How serious is this problem today in your opinion?
Tankard Reist: The problem of the premature sexualising of girls is one of the most serious issues confronting us as a society at the present time. Girls are being turned into sexual objects earlier and earlier.
The messages they receive through popular culture is that to be attractive, to be accepted, you have to dress and behave in a sexual manner. There are now lingerie clothing lines for pre-teen girls, and bras for girls under 10, T-shirts with sexual slogans, and even a pole-dancing kit complete with a DVD that features “sexy dance tracks” for 6-year-olds.
Popular lines of dolls for girls feature sexy clothing and sexy personas. Gossip magazines aimed at a pre-teen readership also encourage girls to behave in a sexual manner, with pages devoted to grooming and relationships – even with older men.
In advertising catalogues, children are dressed up, made-up and posed in the same way that adults are. This suggests that children are interested in, and perhaps open to, approaches for sex.
Young girls are not emotionally equipped to process the sexual messages being targeted at them. It is difficult for them, when abandoned to their autonomy, to resist outside pressure. We are seeing the effects of this premature sexualising on the bodies of our young women in self-destructive behaviours such as excessive dieting and eating disorders, drug-taking and binge-drinking, self-harm, anxiety, depression, lower academic performance and ill health.
Prescriptions for drugs to treat depression in young girls increase every year. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are at epidemic proportions – and manifesting in children as young as 8. I am pleased the APA has taken the issue seriously – though I hope it’s not too late.
Q: Decades ago one of the aims of feminism was to end the exploitation of women, yet contemporary culture has reduced women more than ever to their sex appeal. Has feminism failed women in this area?
Tankard Reist: I must admit I found it very hard to celebrate International Women’s Day this year. I have three daughters and I see how vulnerable they are to messages about sexuality and body image and how hard it is for them to resist this. It is difficult to raise them in a culture so destructive of their self-esteem and which so abbreviates their childhood.
Many gains have been made by the women’s movement, and that needs to be acknowledged. But at some stage, efforts to end the exploitation of women were overtaken by the movement for sexual liberalism.
Suddenly, women’s freedom was reduced to women’s freedom to be sexual playthings for male arousal and pleasure. “Liberation” has come to mean a woman’s ability to pole-dance, expose herself, have multiple partners and avail herself of cosmetic surgery to enhance her “assets”.
Sexual liberalism has not advanced women’s freedom, but eroded and undermined it. We are living in a sexually brutalised culture. We are seeing more harassment, stalking and rape, more alcohol-fuelled sexual abuse and use of date-rape drugs. In general, more predatory behaviour.
While radical feminism has questioned the rhetoric of “choice” and exposed the costs to women of the so-called sexual revolution, liberal mainstream “choice” feminism needs to take some responsibility for a confused and destructive notion of freedom that underlines much of the assault we see today on women’s genuine dignity.
Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs describes how a culture of sexual display and raunchy behaviours – i.e., strippers, porn stars, pole-dancers, etc. – is actually a monoculture which does nothing to empower women. It becomes clear that it is not freedom of expression, but a strong cultural expectation for women to appear and behave a particular way.
Q: The unhindered portrayal of sexual images and messages in the media is often defended in the name of freedom of speech. It is also argued that a lack of sexual restraint is “liberating” for women. What is your opinion on these points?
Tankard Reist: The barrage of sexual images in popular culture cannot be justified on “free speech” grounds when it is causing so much damage to vulnerable children who need protection.
Online networks of paedophiles also use “free speech” arguments when trading in images of children being raped. In Australia, a prominent social researcher, Hugh Mackay, said recently that there was too much censorship and that no one was harmed by the mere downloading of child porn.
He completely ignored the fact that every download fuels a demand for more images – and often more degrading images. This attitude also ignores the harm done to the child whose image is used again and again for sexual gratification around the world.
The APA study and other research, for example by the Australia Institute and by my organisation, Women’s Forum Australia, provide solid evidence for the harm being caused by plastering society’s wallpaper with sexual images.
What we are witnessing is not liberation but oppression. It is not liberating for young women to be told every-day that their only power is in their sexual currency. It is not liberating to convey to women that their freedom lies in participating in their own exploitation. To portray the sexual as the only value of a woman is not liberation, but rather oppression.
Q: What are some of the effects you have seen on adolescents and women regarding the consequences of a culture that increasingly puts no limits on sexual expression and behaviour?
Tankard Reist: Young women are facing huge pressure to conform to a sexualised norm.
The “norm” is that young women have an insatiable appetite for sex. This is a cultural assumption that women should be having sex – at least daily – and something is wrong if they’re not. There is profound pressure from the media for young women to be sexually attractive and active. Without this they are thought of as abnormal and unfulfilled.
Young women are compromised by a sexual free-for-all in which they come to expect only cold soulless encounters – where they are always expected to give out sexual favours with little in return.
The recently released book, Sex Lives of Australian Teenagers, by Joan Sauers, demonstrates this. It makes bleak reading, revealing how little real love there is in the sexual – I was going to say “intimate,” but there’s little real intimacy either – exchanges between young people.
Q: What can be done to promote a healthier view of women in the sense of a greater respect for their dignity and their role in society?
Tankard Reist: We need a new strategy for women and girl advocacy.
We need to empower young women especially to be resilient and to defend their dignity and self-respect.
The decision not to submit to hypersexualised messages and to live above the dictates of the culture, needs to be seen for what it is – a radical and defiant alternative lifestyle.
Young women deserve better than to be treated as merely the sum of their sexual parts. They need to be given encouragement to develop their minds, their intellects, their deeper inner lives, rather than wasting hours in trying to get their bodies to conform to an idealised oversexualised type.
We need more social protection of girls, and even more so because of the excesses of popular culture and the sexual danger this puts them in. As Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of The Body Project, points out: “Although girls now mature sexually earlier than ever before, contemporary … society provides fewer social protections for them, a situation that leaves them unsupported in their development and extremely vulnerable to the excesses of popular culture and to pressure from peer groups.”
We also need to be investing a lot more in raising decent men. There are many men who share the concerns I have raised here. But there are other men – and it is primarily men – who create the demand for the sort of material that strips women of dignity and respect. It is mostly men who commit sexual crimes, who traffic millions of women and girls a year into the twin industries of pornography and prostitution. It is mostly men who buy pornography and prostituted women.
I don’t have any easy answers here – but I’d like to know why we aren’t doing more to bring out the best – not the worst – in boys and young men? Boys are also demeaned and brutalised by a culture that conditions them to this type of behaviour.
In a Melbourne suburb, a group of 12 boys sexually humiliated an intellectually disabled girl, then sold the DVD of the abuse to students at high schools in the area for five dollars each. The DVD was also shown online for some time before it was removed. But many people defended their behaviour, saying it was just a bunch of boys “having a bit of fun”. As long as this attitude prevails, then there is little hope for our girls.
We need a new global movement prepared to stand up against corporations, advertisers, the sex industry, the makers of violent video-games and demeaning music-clip and Internet sites. We need the same momentum as we’ve seen drive recent movements against global warming and world poverty propel a new movement for fighting our toxic cultural environment.
– This interview is reproduced by kind permission of ZENIT.org news agency.