Calvin Klein: selling the degradation of women
(Trigger warning for survivors of sexual assault)
“I cannot escape one simple fact: that if we continue to subject future generations of young men to great barrages of aggressive, misogynist, over-sexualized and violent imagery in pornography, movies, computer games and advertising, we will continue to see the rates of sexual violence against women and children that continue unabated today. Or worse.”
Alison Grundy is a Clinical Psychologist with 20 years experience working with victims of sexual and interpersonal violence. We got to know each other when she asked me to address sexual assault counsellors on the sexualisation of girls, at a seminar in Sydney last year. Alison posted a comment on my piece Sexism: alive and well in Australia (reprinted here from The Drum Unleashed)which I thought deserved expansion as a guest post.
As a therapist in the field of sexual violence for 20 years now, I always thought things would get better over time. As more people became aware of the pain and suffering, the utter devastation, the long-standing and often severe psychological problems, the drug and alcohol addictions, the relationship and parenting difficulties, society would change and we would protect women and children from abuse, especially sexual abuse. In short, we would become more civilized.
But as I look at the Calvin Klein poster clearly intimating the gang rape of a woman to advertise the brand, the inescapable conclusion is that we have somehow gone badly backwards. All kinds of questions occur to me.
How can it be OK to use sexual violence as a marketing tool? When did gang rape stop being abhorrent and become “sexy”? When did gang rape get minimized to “group sex”? Why does it seem so easy for the average person to believe that a woman (often a very young woman) would really consent to having sex with large groups of drunken, abusive men?
Of course there are many complex socio-political and psychological issues involved in sexual violence in all its forms. Given that orgasm is a powerful reinforcer of behaviour -and I would argue, attitudes – if our boys and men are watching and masturbating to endless scenes of women being sexually tortured by groups of men while breathlessly claiming they want more (through gritted teeth), we can hardly be surprised that our daughters are less safe from this type of sexual crime now than ever before.
Unfortunately, as this advertisement shows, the mainstreaming of pornography and violent sexualised imagery is ubiquitous. Boys and men no longer need to be ashamed of accessing demeaning and debasing images of women. They are everywhere, condoned by society, reflecting its values and therefore proudly shared on computers and phones, billboards and catalogues.
Meanwhile the sex industry is now seen as just that, an industry as like any other in the market place. But instead of selling the newest type of skateboards to our young men it sells the degradation of women. In doing so, it reduces their humanity to what they offer sexually, and contributes to making the world a very dangerous place – especially for women and children.
We now have 30 years of research demonstrating that what we watch on TV, play in interactive games and see in pornography, does affect us, does change us and does influence our choices of behaviour.
I am still surprised that most people think sexual violence is relatively uncommon. I think this is because the victims are so blamed, shamed and persecuted they rarely speak up – and because the perpetrators of this type of violence rarely face any consequences.
There are many studies showing that interpersonal violence is so common. As a clinical psychologist it is the foundation of most of the issues I will ever encounter no matter where I work. And one of the most damaging forms of interpersonal violence is of course, sexual abuse.
In its 2006 report, the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research tells us there were more than 7000 reports to police of sexual and indecent assault in NSW in 2004. However, it is widely recognised that reports to police represent only a fraction of the assaults that are actually happening, perhaps only ten to fifteen percent.
So the Bureau’s statistics roughly translate, in the real world, to 50-70,000 crimes of this type against mostly women and children in 2004 in NSW. (The year 2004, by the way, did not differ much from the previous 10-year data and is probably reflective of the years since).
Most people would be staggered to know that only about one in ten of these reported incidents resulted in someone being found guilty in court and about half of those who were found guilty did not receive a prison sentence.
So, to summarise, a rough (and probably conservative) estimate of 50- 70,000 acts of sexual violence in one year in NSW and only 251 people receiving a full time prison sentence as a consequence of these actions. This sobering reality perhaps explains some of the high recidivist rates.
These are very complex issues, and there are very many reasons why sexual violence is so endemic in Australia. We need a much more concerted effort to bring these crimes into the light.
We need to believe victims and help them to heal with compassion and justice. We need to treat offenders with programs that accept no excuses and help them to recognise the immense damage their behaviour has caused.
But this will only happen in the context of the society we live in and the kind of world we allow. In this world, the horrifying crime of gang rape is being increasingly reported to professionals such as myself.
And this crime is being carried out on the bodies of young and younger girls. A phenomena my colleagues and I are seeing is younger and younger girls presenting – often 13 and 14 years of age – after gang rape.
I have sat in counseling with many women – often very young – and therefore just beginning to define what they would like their lives to be – who have experienced the terror and unrelenting horror of rape and gang rape. It’s a struggle that goes on and on through years of rebuilding a sense of self, a world view and working out a way of being part of a society again that not only allows the vast majority of rapes to never be punished but allows constant in your face debasement and trivialization of their trauma in billboards like this.
Where are the regulators? Where are the minds and hearts of the people who get paid to make these offensive campaigns? Maybe they can spend just an hour or two in my office any day of the week.
I cannot escape one simple fact: that if we continue to subject future generations of young men to great barrages of aggressive, misogynist, over-sexualised and violent imagery in pornography, movies, computer games and advertising, we will continue to see the rates of sexual violence against women and children that continue unabated today. Or worse.
We should be striving to be more, not less civilized. But Calvin Klein just makes this goal less attainable.