Nina Funnell writes that girls are learning to read their value as a person in terms of how their physical appearance is received by others.
“Destiny enjoys singing, dancing and, of course, pageantry” announces the beauty pageant’s MC as a made-up blonde in a white gown sashays across the stage. Did I mention that Destiny is a five year old child? Welcome to the world of Toddlers and Tiaras, an American reality TV series that follows the lives of children and their families as they prepare for and compete in beauty pageants.
Having recently sat through a Toddlers and Tiaras marathon (as research for a book chapter) I now consider myself an expert on winning children’s beauty pageants.
The first thing you need is a pushy and obnoxious mother who has no problem with screaming at her child. In one episode a mother screeches “Flirt! You’re not flirting!” as her six year old daughter practices her routine. “Stand up straight, suck your tummy in!” directs another. In one episode a girl cries in pain as her mother attempts to force an earring through a closed up ear piercing. And another ignores her five year child’s cries of protest as her eyebrows are forcibly waxed adding that her daughter “is just a bit, kind of terrified” because the last time “the wax was way too hot and it actually ripped off her skin”.
The second thing you need to do is fake-it-up. From the age of about two girls begin to wear fake hair, fake eyelashes and fake teeth sets (known as “flippers”). Almost all girls get fake tans with a number owning their own spray tanning machines at home. One four year old is taken on “diva days” where she is “treated” to facials, manicures and pedicures. Others have waxing, teeth whitening and chemical hair straightening as well as weaves and hair extensions.
And then there is the all-important clothing. “Glitz” outfits – dresses decked out with diamantes and other jewels – cost between five and ten thousand dollars. One mother admits that she has spent more than $15 000 that year alone on pageants, adding that if she saved the money her family “could probably live in a bigger home, but [winning Miss America] just feels like my daughter’s destiny.” Her daughter is only three. Other mothers talk about taking “second pageant jobs” to pay for the expensive and numerous competitions.
Then there is the cost of hair and make-up, professional photography and photo retouching (airbrushing), and the price of pageant coaches who train the girls. Brandi, a thirty-one year old Prozac-popping coach who thanks God for bringing her to pageantry, offers her six year old clients bonus advice on picking up boys, “I tell them to get with the smart boys- the nerdy ones- because when they grow up, they’re going to be the rich ones, and you can be a trophy wife”.
On pageant day parents wear tacky customized t-shirts displaying their child’s name and photo. Three year olds have “before and after” shots displayed on the show like on diet product advertisements. One mother feeds her child three cans of red-bull energy drink before competing to keep her “perky” during competition. A six month old girl already has seventy pageant titles to her name. Girls perform sexualised dance routines imitating MTV video clips. And boys compete too. One ‘Little Mr’ is introduced by the MC as “Matthew”, adding that “Matthew’s favourite person is his daddy in heaven”.
While the show may sound exploitative and crass, it is actually documenting the appalling and exploitative behaviour of stage parents who live vicariously through their children’s achievements. It’s incredibly cringe worthy to watch but the show offers an important window onto a world which many of us are only aware of through the adult outputs of the industry in the form of Miss Universe winners and runner-ups.
Meanwhile, the media continues to laud individuals such as Miranda Kerr and Jennifer Hawkins (and to a lesser extent Jessinta Campbell and Rachael Finch). These women, as supposed role models, teach little girls (and stage parents everywhere) that the easiest way for a girl in today’s society to achieve fame, fortune and success is to win a beauty competition.
It’s hardly surprising that little girls are now feeling anxious about their bodies at an earlier and earlier age. Nor is it surprising that they are learning to read their value as a person in terms of how their physical appearance is received by others. Seeing little girls being judged, scrutinized and assessed over their appearance is truly distressing. Even worse, the fact that this process is not only normalized but actually celebrated by their parents is just horrific.
Equating a girl’s self worth with her appearance is a dangerous and destructive game and one that the media encourages girls to play from a very early age. Parents should want to protect children from this message, not teach it to them.
Oppose US child beauty pageants coming to Australia
If you haven’t watched it already, this ACA video is a must-see. It provides further evidence for the sheer ugliness – and harm – of child pageant culture. We meet the American woman behind plans to bring this toxic child exploitation fest to Australia in July – and the Melbourne woman who will run it here. She is already preparing her young daughters for entry. One reveals she doesn’t like wearing make-up – but that is clearly of insignificant to her mother who is too busy organising her daughter’s body waxing to care. Someone who does care is Julie Gale, my colleague and friend from Kids Free 2B Kids who also appears here.
Teaching girls their value is in their physical beauty
Many readers will have seen the documentary Toddlers and Tiaras revealing the child exploitation that is the US beauty pageant industry. A five year old begging not to have her eyebrows ripped out. Little girls preening, strutting, pouting, beckoning to the judges ‘come here baby’, kissing their finger and pressing it to their backsides in a gesture indicating they are smoking hot, the suggestive dance routines and sexualised costumes, parents investing thousands of dollars to turn their daughters into big haired, grotesquely made-up sexy dolls. In the words of Melissa Wardy of Pigtail Pals:
Teaching young girls a very narrow version of beauty, transforming their bodies so that their beauty can be measured and judged, or to use their sexualized bodies to earn money for the family is disgusting…When you add to this the chemically dangerous spray tans, butt glue, nail glue, eyelash glue, hairspray, and cosmetics applied to these tiny, developing bodies, it is not a stretch to say these pageant programs are both emotionally and physically abusive.
After viewing some of the episodes online I thought – at least this is one toxic US export that hasn’t infected our shores.
I can’t think that any more. Because this toxic pageant culture is on its way to Australia. Universal Royalty Beauty Pageants will open for business in Melbourne in July.
The July pageant, for babies to adults, costs a minimum of $295, which includes a compulsory beauty competition, modelling and make-up workshops.
Optional extras include tanning, dressing like a celebrity for $50 and a photo and autograph session with American beauty pageant star, five-year-old Eden Wood…
Melbourne-based Kristin Kyle, helping organise the event, said it was already attracting interest from across Australia and New Zealand. The winner will take home a laptop, a rhinestone crown, a 1.5m trophy, an “official supreme royalty banner” and a stuffed teddy bear.
In its marketing material, the event claims to foster a “positive, fun-filled atmosphere” by encouraging self-confidence, education and “striving to be your very best”.
Making girls conform to stereotyped norms of female beauty
Here’s what I had to say about child beauty pageants on Channel 7’s Morning Show today. Naturally I disagreed with the pageant mum who said it was about “Playing Barbies” and “It’s what girls should do” and the Sunshine Coast pageant organiser who likened pageants to “sport” and said they were about being “beautiful and having fun”.
Collective Shout is planning action against child beauty pageants in Australia. Check the website for details and updates.
I write with regards to the current Rivers advertising campaign that features a representation of a dead woman lying under a couch, with the title ’10 Deadly Deals’.
No To Violence Male Family Violence Prevention Association is appalled that any organisation, company or individual would seek to promote any product or service by using imagery that celebrates violence and abuse towards women. This campaign plainly seeks to trivialise an issue that affects one in three women around the world, including Australia, and celebrates the behaviour of men who use violence towards women and family members.
No To Violence, incorporating the Men’s Referral Service, and its members, including Victoria’s 39 Men’s Behaviour Change Programs, works directly with men who use violence towards women and seeks to affect real cultural change in the ways that women are objectified, abused and violated on a regular basis. Our aim is to eliminate violence against women and hold men – and others – to account regarding this insidious and despicable behaviour.
On average, around 70 women die at the hands of current or former male partners in Australia. Consider, then, that more than one woman per week is killed this way in our country. Rivers, by virtue of this current advertising campaign, makes light of this issue and trades on it.
This campaign would also be traumatic for women who have experienced violence and others who have been touched by family violence and violence against women. And, of course, this type of campaign is entirely unnecessary.
While our members are being advised to boycott Rivers at this time, I encourage you to remove this campaign immediately and consider the personal negative implications of future campaigns.
The Age has covered our protest against Rivers for appropriating the image of a dead woman in fishnet stockings and stilettos on the front of a catalogue headed “10 deadly deals” as described on the Collective Shout website and here below. I was amused to see River’s spokesman describe our interpretation of the catalogue cover as “weird and draconian”. So if we weren’t meant to interpret the woman as being dead - murdered even - why the heading “10 deadly deals”? Is she merely under the couch searching for her missing purse? The damn remote? Or playing hide-and-seek badly? If she tripped and fell wouldn’t the heading be ’10 clumsy deals’? If we’ve got it so wrong, why doesn’t Rivers tell us what they meant to convey with the image and wording?
Here’s Michelle Griffin’s piece which also mentions some of our other actions against eroticised violence against women in advertising. We can’t be blasé about this trivialisation of violence against women.
Rivers ad campaign ‘a deadly deal for women’
DEAD women are the new black in marketing, says feminist campaign group Collective Shout, which is calling for a boycott of the Rivers Australia clothing chain because the cover image of its latest “Deadly Deals” catalogue features a leggy corpse in fishnets and high heels sprawled under a couch.
“Rivers has been excelling in the objectification of women for some time now,” says the group’s founder, Melinda Tankard Reist, “but this ramps it up a notch — using a dead woman for the purposes of selling clothing.”
Violence against women is a common marketing tactic in videos such as Kanye West’s Monster, says Ms Reist, but she finds the Rivers catalogue particularly disturbing “because it’s so mainstream. They’re a mass-market, run-of-the-mill clothing company eroticising violence against women.”
Rivers’ head office in Ballarat has defended the catalogue cover image as “for more tame art work compared to many examples in the industry”. While the company declined to be interviewed, in an email to The Age it accused the Collective Shout website of “weird and draconian interpretations of our catalogue covers”.
Lessons in feminist activism, from someone who has been on both sides
A thoughtful blog post by Australian feminist blogger Rachel Hills – also quoted in The Age piece above – about her own journey – from publishing an image of a headless woman in a student magazine in her 20s to acknowledging what such images represent and how we have become habituated to depictions of sexualised violence – how they are so ingrained in the culture as to become almost banal. And why we can’t let that remain the status quo.
[These images] might seem innocuous because they’re so ingrained in our collective cultural memory, but by repeating them, we only normalise them further…
I bring this story up because yesterday I was asked to comment on a new campaign by Melinda Tankard Reist and Collective Shout in response the latest catalogue for “wholesome” clothing retailer, Rivers. The catalogue features a woman’s legs, in heels and suspenders, sticking out under a sofa with the accompanying text, “deadly deals”. Tankard Reist says image is “eroticising violence against women”, and says it fits into a broader trend of using erotic/violent imagery to attract attention (think Kanye’s ‘Monster’ video)…
Rivers using glamourised violence against women to flog clothes and shoes
This image is from the latest Rivers catalogue advertising “10 deadly deals”.
The woman, in fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, is situated under a couch with only her stockinged legs in view. Rivers is the latest company to promote the idea that dead women are sexy. Nothing like a female corpse to sell some product, right Rivers?
In an apparent attempt to make cardigans (like this one right) seem risqué and edgy, Rivers engages the concept of dead women as the new black. Rivers products have been questioned for their lack of quality but the company’s ethics must be questioned as well. As Collective Shout documents, this is not the first time members have taken Rivers to the Advertising Standards Board.
As a former employee of Rivers who was once very proud to say that I had worked for such an upstanding and down to earth Aussie company as Rivers, I find myself disappointed and at times disgusted by the turn Rivers has taken with its advertising. The advertising once was witty and carefree. Unique and amusing. Now it is often repulsive and shocking. Please tell me who was behind the thinking that dead women in thigh-high fishnets and stillettos is going to be a good way of selling clothing & footwear. I know there are many family men amongst the decision makers there at Rivers (at least there used to be). Tell me how you would feel if your daughter was seeing a man who thought that the image of a sexed up woman dead under a couch was appealing? Why try to perpetuate this hideous ideal that a victimised woman is sexy. Why not promote the ideal of strong, smart, powerful women, as I’m sure many of the women in your target market (not to mention your employees and families) are.
Turn it around, Rivers. Make me proud again.
Alice from River’s responded that the cover was “not intended to cause offence” and wished my colleague Melinda Liszewski a “great day”.
Alice, we could possibly have a “great day” if your company wasn’t trivializing violence against women. A scourge on the planet, violence against women is not funny, amusing or fodder for advertising. What Rivers is doing is a deadly deal for women.
Canberra needs to follow the Swedish model and provide exit programs for prostituted women.
Caroline Norma, a valued contributor to the MTR blog, wrote this piece in response to an article in The Canberra Times March 6 (‘Sex trade eyes the suburbs’) about sex industry pressure for less regulation and more brothels to expand Canberra’s sex trade. The Canberra Times didn’t seem to think it worth publishing. Fortunately ABC Drum Unleashed did - I reprint here with permission. Caroline is a lecturer in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University in Melbourne and a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. She will also have a chapter in the forthcoming Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry (Spinifex Press), which I’m co-editing with Dr Abigail Bray.
Review into prostitution must benefit women not business
The ACT government is currently reviewing its 1992 Prostitution Act, and has called for public submissions. Not surprisingly, the sex industry has been quick to submit its wishlist on prostitution, and Phillip Thomson’s article in The Canberra Times nicely summarises the demands the industry is currently making of the ACT government. These include:
Normalise prostitution as a legitimate business activity by removing zoning restrictions on brothels that are currently relegated to industrialised areas
Open up more opportunities for organised escort prostitution networks by lifting the one-person ‘sole-operator’ restriction for prostitution businesses operating outside of industrial areas
Remove official registration requirements for one-person ‘sole-operator’ prostitution businesses
Through lobby organisations like the EROS Foundation and ACT SWOP in Canberra, the sex industry pursues its demands under the rhetoric of ‘safety for sex workers’. This rhetoric runs along the following lines:
Women risk danger if they must commute to brothels in industrial areas, because these areas are ‘dark’ and unpopulated at night
Women risk danger if they must operate prostitution businesses as one-person ‘sole-operators’ from home, because they can’t employ drivers to act as security guards
Women risk exposure and social discrimination if they must register with government as ‘sex workers’
While the sex industry pursues its business aims under the rhetorical guise of ‘safety for sex workers’, its profits are derived from the sexual degradation and exploitation of society’s most vulnerable people. Research shows overwhelmingly that people in prostitution suffer rates of post-traumatic stress disorder equal to that of war veterans. So, it’s unlikely the industry gives a damn about the personal security, integrity and individual growth of the women it sells as live sex dolls. Notably, the industry is not lobbying the ACT government to set up ‘exit’ programs to assist women to leave prostitution if they wish. The industry’s real agenda is obscured by its ‘safety for sex workers’ rhetoric, but understanding this agenda is important if any changes are going to be considered for the ACT’s Prostitution Act.
The business logic behind the sex industry’s first aim—to remove planning restrictions on brothels—is fairly obvious; the more prostitution is integrated into mainstream Australian society, the greater profits the industry will earn through customers who are no longer inhibited by the social condemnation of their peers. But the reasoning behind aims 2 and 3 might be less clear to the general observer.
To understand these two aims, one has to be aware that a big growth market for the Australian sex industry is escort prostitution. Escort or ‘outcall’ prostitution currently contributes over half of the industry’s earnings. This model of prostitution is profitable because it runs with few overheads, falls under the radar of most government regulation, and operates flexibly over large geographical areas and in response to movements in male populations (e.g., toward mining areas).
If the ban on one-person ‘sole-operators’ operating in conjunction with another party is lifted, Canberra’s sex industry will be able to tap into a large population of poor and vulnerable women (often living with small children) who are currently bought for prostitution through rented suburban flats. The head of the Adult Entertainment Industry in Victoria was quoted recently as saying that as many as 7000 ‘sole operators’ in that state are currently being organised into networks by criminal groups who, he speculates, might be drug dealers. They could be involved in abuse of the migration program, including the trafficking of women. They might be engaging in inducing under-age persons into the sex industry.
Canberra’s sex industry is lobbying to have restrictions on sole-operators lifted so that ‘legal’ prostitution businessmen, too, can start to profit from these women. Large-scale escort prostitution businesses aim to recruit these women into their networks by offering them ‘drivers’ (for the sake of their safety!) and free mobile phones. This will allow escort business operators to expand the number of women they have on their books, cater to a geographically expanded male population, and recoup overheads and licensing costs incurred in running legal and ‘legitimate’ brothel businesses. Lobbying for the lifting of restrictions on ‘sole operators’ is therefore an important task of the industry, and one tied to its future profitability.
The industry that seeks to profit from prostitution is a business that has devastating consequences for women used within it, as well as Australian society at large. It is an industry that preys on young women who have been made socially vulnerable through childhood sexual abuse, poverty, mental illness, drugs, and homelessness. It is an industry also renowned for prostituting underage girls. Janine Cameron was found dead in a Canberra brothel (‘Death of innocence’, 1 November 2008). She was 17. Women are trafficked from overseas to meet the demands of the domestic sex industry. The lives of so many women and girls are destroyed by this industry. Violence and abuse is just part of the job. And Fiona Patten, representing a voracious industry, only wants to expand it into Canberra’s suburban backyards.
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australian (CATWA) argues the sex industry needs to be properly understood as imposing on Australian society an unacceptably high level of harm. Like the approach taken toward the tobacco industry, we believe state and territory governments should begin to introduce legislative measures that have as their ultimate goal the industry’s demise. CATWA supports the “Swedish Model” of sex industry legislation which sees all forms of prostitution as violence against women. The purchaser of sex is penalised, and women are offered éxit’ programs to help get them out of the industry and find non-harmful ways of supporting themselves and their children.
We find it disturbing that the ACT’s sex industry is using the current Prostitution Act review to call for more brothels in the territory when there is not one exit program in place for prostituted women in Canberra. As the ACT government accepts submissions on its Prostitution Act, it should be aware that a profitable and highly sophisticated sex industry with its own lobby organisations is making demands that are wholly aimed at expanding the industry’s profits. If the government listens to these demands it abrogates its responsibility to its most vulnerable female constituents, and permits the sex industry even greater reign to damage the wellbeing and social status of women in Australia’s capital.
Commercial exploitation of the female body exposed at Endangered Species Conference
Just came across this piece in The New Internationalist and had to share it with you. It’s an outstanding unpacking of the normalisation of rigid norms of female beauty, which have been exported around the world. Written by Giedre Steikunaite, it’s a report on the Endangered Species Summit held recently in London to challenge the toxic culture that teaches women and girls to hate their own bodies. Wish I’d been there.
The Beauty Myth…and madness
‘The human body is now a product,’ said photographer Wendy Hicks. So we buy and sell ourselves, constantly remake our bodies, blindly believing we are ‘improving’ them. This commercial exploitation of the body has become a norm; once normalized in a society, it’s taken for granted…
So why are we doing it? Because we’ve been sold a myth, a beauty myth. And because it makes somebody very, very rich. ‘People without problems are not commercially viable,’ said Rosi Prescott, CEO of YMCA. A happy person is a bad consumer. Thus, a business lesson: create a problem, convince me I have it, and then sell me the solution – voilà! …
The problem is not limited to the Global North. ‘Body hatred is becoming one of the West’s hidden exports,’ Orbach wrote in her book Bodies. It’s a new form of corporal colonization. ‘We’re sending body hatred all around the world’…
‘We are living in Marshall McLuhan’s global village, sharing many of the same images worldwide. They become identity markers, framing our streets, our magazines, our look, providing a sense of continuity in a befuddling and fast-changing environment’…
‘When interviewing young girls I found that they felt there was just no alternative, only the mainstream image,’ said Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. It’s an issue of diversity: you’re in trouble if you can’t see your own reflection out there; it affects you negatively. We have to mainstream the ‘alternative’ (ie the real image).
Last year a number of child development experts expressed concern about a Witchery campaign which presented adultified images of children modelling its fashions. Emma Rush, lecturer in ethics at Charles Sturt University and lead author of two significant reports on the sexualisation of children published by the Australia Institute, wrote about Witchery in a piece titled ‘Children are not miniature adults or fashion accessories’ here late last year:
A child is not a miniature adult. They are not a fashion accessory. They are a developing human being and need the cultural space to be just that. Yet we are now seeing constant marketing of adult appearance culture to children, as in, for example, the latest ads for the Witchery Kids brand. The Witchery Kids campaign is simply one particularly sophisticated example of corporations functioning to close down that cultural space for kids to be kids, with resulting ‘appearance anxiety’ for children during a period in their lives when they need the space to develop into their own person.
The wording of the new Witchery Kids campaign, ‘We believe that fun and imagination are the centre of every child’s universe’, is not reflected in the marketing images. Not one of the children in the images is smiling and it would be stretching it to say that even three of them are engaged in imaginative activities…
Nothing about the campaign images recognises that children are anything other than miniaturised adults. You could replace the children in the images with adults and nothing would appear odd. The images invite you to ‘read’ the children as adults…Read the full article and see pics from that campaign here
But Witchery couldn’t care less. They’ve repeated the exercise a mere five months later, stylising and posing children as fashion-conscious mini-me’s:
As described by the Herald Sun in Witchery’s Style Recruits campaign “unsmiling children aged 5-8 are pictured against a drab streetscape, decked out in combat-style garb, knee-high socks and short skirts, and leopard print.”
Kids Free to Be Kids director Julie Gale has complained to the company. Here’s her March 10 email:
Attention Customer Service
To whom it may concern,
As the Director of Kids Free 2B Kids I have been inundated with emails from people concerned about the way you have portrayed children in your catalogues.
I notice that complaints were also posted on the Witchery Kids facebook page prior to the article in the Herald Sun this past Monday. I notice the comments page remains disabled.
A person unknown to me emailed your reply [to them] this afternoon.
It is easy to reject the notion that you ‘intentionally’ conveyed children in an adultified way.
Whilst that may be true, it is extraordinary, given the reaction from child advocates and child developmental professionals to your previous catalogue.
I also think it’s extraordinary that you state the children chose the poses without direction. In my experience photo shoots are highly controlled and managed to the finest detail.
I am fully aware of the role of the NSW Children’s Guardian. Kids Free 2B Kids placed an FOI application in 2008 to better understand the process involving children and advertising at the government department.
It was revealed that Saatchi and Saatchi (for David Jones) gave the photo shoot directive “They are 10-12 years, so slightly more adult and sexy”.
That directive passed through the NSW Children’s Guardian. The directive also stated: “This is a branding exercise for DJ’s where we must communicate aspirational kid’s fashion”.
Last year when Cotton On came under fire for its adult sexualised slogans on children’s wear – there was a lot of initial resistance.
The CEO eventually called a meeting with me and then invited me to Geelong to meet with the National Clothes buyer.
They understood, after a lot of outcry from the community that they had crossed a line – even though they were aiming for ‘edgy and humorous’.
They also withdrew 40,000 items of clothing from their stores Australia wide and put in place protocol that did not previously exist.
Whilst they were initially re-acting – I appreciated their willingness to listen and learn and ultimately take proactive responsibility.
My invitation to the Witchery CEO is to make contact with myself or Dr Michael Carr Gregg to hear the concerns of child development professionals and learn about latest research.
Julie Gale, Director, Kids Free 2B Kids
Witchery claims it doesn’t support the adultification of children. It’s just got a funny way of showing it.
Ralph Lauren goes down the same path
In the same week Witchery employed its children-as-adults marketing tactics, came the latest issue of Vogue Living, featuring a front cover fold out which opens to reveal a young girl also posed, dressed, and styled in an adult woman way, dressed in riding gear and situated in a huge mansion.
I dare anyone to justify this with standard ‘It’s just a little girl playing dress ups’ line. This is no dress-up. The clothes fit perfectly. This is a young girl deliberately made to look older. Her hair, make-up, fashion style, pose and mature intense gaze invite us to read her as not as a girl but a woman. And that is a dangerous thing to do.
If we don’t protest this, what will be next?
Don’t buy Witchery. Don’t buy Ralph Lauren either.
To contact Witchery email: email@example.com
Interview with Jennifer Lahl, director and producer of Eggsploitation and President of USA-based Center for Bioethics and Culture Network
Reproductive technologies are a massive global enterprise. But these technologies would barely exist without the thousands of egg donors who provide their eggs to help others become pregnant, or for research purposes. We know little about the individual women who go through this process and the possible risks to their health.
A new documentary film, Eggsploitation, produced by The Center for Bioethics and Culture, exposes the human egg trade and the lack of informed consent through the personal stories of real women donors whose lives have been irrevocably harmed. The egg harvesting process and absence of proper consent is described in the film as “reckless endangerment of vulnerable women.” Many will be surprised to learn there is no long-term follow up of donors.
Donald Landry, Chair of the Department of Medicine at Columbia University, says of the film: “Eggsploitation renders the medical risks of paid egg donation with care and truth in every detail and makes a thoroughly devastating case against the commodification of women and their eggs.” You can see the trailer here:
I recently interviewed the film’s director Jennifer Lahl.
Tell me a little about the genesis of Eggsploitation – why did you make this film? How did you find the women who shared their stories?
I’ve been writing and speaking in the area of reproductive technologies for almost a decade. The more I discovered about the exploitive side of reproductive technologies – using poor women, women in need to “help” – the more I became concerned about the global reach and largely under or un-regulated booming business. Most of the women found me through the internet where they discovered my writings. In fact, just this week, another egg donor emailed me, wanting to share her story of her “near death” experience so that other women can be spared what she went through. I think these stories are just the tip of the iceberg and we shall see that all is not well with many of these reproductive technologies which have largely been sold uncritically as a good thing.
What has been the reaction so far? How has the IVF industry received it?
We just took the California Independent Film Festivals Best Documentary Award for 2011. Internationally we are getting a lot of traction and interest in the film, for example here .
We’ve sold the film into nearly 20 countries to date and have had requests from four countries to translate the film into their language. Our largest critics have been those heavily invested in reproductive technologies/infertility clinics and those who mainly make their livelihood in this business. Also, women who have used egg donors to help them have children have been critical. Funny, the caveat is typically added that we need to do a better job monitoring and protecting egg donors, but they’ve been largely critical of the film, which really exposes the short and long-term health risks placed on egg donors.
In the film you show ads recruiting for egg donors with wording like ‘Make a difference today’ and ‘Answer her prayers’. Some of these ads appear on Facebook. Is playing on a woman’s altruism the main way donors are secured? Or in countries where payment is offered is it primarily financial considerations? Some ads seek donors who are aged 21. Can a woman so young and less likely to already have children of her own make an informed choice about donating?
On the question of informed choice, how can anyone be informed when we’ve never bothered to do the long-term studies to understand the risks? And isn’t informed choice very much tainted when coupled with money, especially when there is financial need. Everyone realizes when you are in need of money you are willing to minimize any risks you may be informed of, or just ignore them.
I find it curious that last year in the U.S. there was a federal law passed which prohibits credit card companies from advertising credit cards in school papers or on campuses across the country. There was great concern that students would get access to credit cards and graduate from school with a lot of debt. While the industry says that these are bright young women who can make an informed choice, one has to wonder why then this credit card law passed almost without notice or complaint from the public. So why aren’t we concerned that young women graduate with their health intact?
What are the main risks of egg donation?
Main risks fall into two categories: short-term and long-term.
Short-term risks of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) which can be mild, moderate or severe cannot be underestimated and pose a real danger to the health of the egg donor. There is a risk of infection and bleeding related to harvesting the eggs. One woman in the film suffered a major brain stroke, another had a torsioned ovary requiring its removal. Another woman had internal bleeding because of a bleeding artery near the ovary, which went undiagnosed for many hours. She ended up in intensive care. Longer-term risks are associated with cancers (reproductive and non-reproductive). Also, depression and anxiety and other psychological factors related to the powerful hormones they take and thoughts about any children produced from their eggs.
The film cites an “alarming absence of data on women who donate” and points out that “decades of data” have been lost because there is no tracking or follow-up. Do you find many people are surprised to know that risks are not studied and that there is no follow-up of donors – or in fact any women who underwent IVF treatment – to check on their health?
Overwhelmingly, when I’ve shown the film, people are first, educated about the process of egg donation – most people have no idea what is involved – and secondly, they are aghast with how little oversight and long-term follow-up or studies have been done on egg donors.
The women’s stories are particularly shocking. Stroke, colon cancer, brain damage breast cancer, ovarian cancer, etc. But defenders of reproductive technologies will say that these are just a few rare and extreme cases? How do you counter this?
I often hear, ‘well this is unfortunate, but these cases are rare’. In response, I say the burden is on the industry to prove that these cases are indeed rare. And how many women need to be harmed before something is done to change this practice? How many dead or harmed women do we need before the industry changes their practices? I know many more women who have reached out to me with their terrible stories. I couldn’t interview them all. We picked the women in Eggsploitation because they all agreed to be filmed for our documentary, they all live in California, where we made the film (we did have budget constraints as filmmaking is a timely and costly enterprise) and we felt their stories were representative of the other women who have shared theirs. Some other women I have interviewed, I would have liked to have included in the film but, because of contracts they have signed, they are required to remain silent. I feel the image artwork for the film is very telling of the ways women have been silenced, ignored, and used and forgotten.
So many women felt dismissed. It wasn’t until they were at critical stage did they get properly examined by a doctor or admitted to hospital. There seemed to be a reckless attitude to their health. (eg it wasn’t until Alexandra was vomiting faeces that she was admitted to hospital). Did the level of dismissal of these women when they presented with problems, take you by surprise?
It saddened me. I worked as a nurse for two decades and to hear how these women were ignored by those in the healthcare professions really upset me. I’ve shown the film on university campuses, and I’ve been shocked to hear some students complain that these women didn’t advocate strong enough for themselves. Of course, if you have seen the film, you will hear how these women did try to advocate for themselves. I think it is hard to keep pushing when a doctor or nurse is telling you, “This is typical” or, “This is normal” or “This is to be expected”. And remember, these women have entered into this agreement largely because of their financial need, and studies have shown, once someone has agreed in their mind to do something, they are often committed to seeing it through to the end.
How are the women doing now? One said she is infertile now as a result of egg donation, which, as well as tragic, seems somewhat ironic.
Of the women in the film who are still alive (we also highlight stories of an egg donor who died of colon cancer and an infertile woman who died of OHSS), they either cannot have children or are struggling with their own fertility now. One of the women also went on to develop cancer in both breasts. I often wonder how their infertility will affect them psychologically, knowing that they may not be able to have children because of something they did to help another have a child. A very sad and bitter irony.
While this is a (U.S) $6.5 billion a year industry, and while there are 17,405 IFV cycles in the US a year using donated eggs, the film says that in the U.S 70 percent of IVF cycles fail. Yet I think most people wouldn’t know that. How is the industry able to cover that up?
Well this is a big global business and advertising the huge failure rates of IVF technologies sure isn’t a winning business strategy. And they are dealing often times with couples who are desperate to have a child, and who will do all sorts of things to hopefully have a child. I have spoken with many infertile women who have readily admitted that they would do anything to have a child. Even spend lots of money on a largely failed enterprise. So the industry exploits this desire and plays down failure rates.
The pressure on women to donate isn’t only because of the need for eggs to make babies is it? What else is driving the demand for eggs? If they are used in stem cell research, for example, are women informed about where their eggs will end up?
In the U.S, egg donation is unregulated. Eggs don’t leave a women’s body and get a barcode on them, so we can’t know where they end up. When one mother in our film asked her daughter’s egg broker about children created with her daughter’s eggs, she was told by the broker that there was no way to know where her daughter’s eggs went or if children were created using her daughter’s eggs. So, some women may be informed where there eggs end up, but I suspect, that is often not the case.
It is sometimes pointed out that we allow people to work in risky jobs and to be paid for doing so eg film stunts, bridge construction. What do you say to the argument that competent adult women should be able to decide for themselves whether take on the risks and donate their eggs?
I rarely see the risks admitted. Visit any egg donor website or read any egg donor ads, you won’t find risks mentioned. Women are told they are doing is just helping out, and they are being compensated for their time and trouble. The industry doesn’t want to admit the risks to the procedure and very much want to advance the notion that this is a safe, routine and minimally invasive procedure, therefore compensation is never sold as something to offset risks. I quite frankly would welcome them admitting the risks and dangers and stating they are compensating women because they are asking women to roll the dice with their health! But if that is the case, the payment structure would be very different because bridge workers and stunt experts carry millions of dollars in liability insurance to protect them because the nature of their work is inherently risky. I highly doubt the infertility industry will carry such policies for the protection of women egg donors. They want to have their cake and eat it too.
Do you agree that the possible exploitation of women suppliers could be avoided by the usual processes of medical research, such as full risk disclosure, consent forms, ethical guidelines, mandatory record keeping and proper long term monitoring of suppliers?
This is a tough question for me to answer as it requires we stop the practice now and go back and do retrospective studies on large sample sizes of women who have already done egg donation. That is what is required to give any meaningful informed consent. We can’t possibly give proper informed consent now, even if laws were enforced mandating it, because the studies have yet to be done. And we will have to do studies, tracking women over a long period of time to understand cancer risks, and psychological risks. But immediately, we have to take the money out of this issue. Exploitation goes hand-in-hand when women need money and are willing to do risky things with their health. And I cannot emphasize enough that the egg donor is not a patient, she’s not a sick person who assumes medical risks because she has a medical need. And she’s not assuming a risk because another person’s life hangs in the balance (e.g. organ donation). How egg donors are treated in the U.S and many other countries would never pass any internal review board for any sort of clinical trial. It’s really quite tragic.
What efforts are being made to regulate the practice around the world? What are the main obstacles to tighter regulation or to some kind of moratorium or end to the practice?
It seems to me the global battle typically is framed around the compensation issue. For example in France and Canada you can’t sell your eggs, but in the U.S. you can, and often for a hefty sum of money. Of course these types of ad hoc laws encourage trafficking in eggs (women) from one country to another. Here in the U.S the main obstacle is the fertility industry which has no vested interest in regulation, and they are a wealthy, strong, and powerful lobbying block here. Secondarily, those who want to use these technologies have rejected efforts put forth by myself and others as it is seen as a takeaway of reproductive rights and choice.
In Australia in 2002 law was made to allow experimentation on ‘leftover’ embryos. Then in 2005/ 2006 the law was further extended to allow creation of cloned embryos from donated eggs. Now the push is to extend it even further to allow payment for eggs. What do you think of this?
I find it particularly alarming that we would build any scientific enterprise on the reproductive bodies of young healthy women. The risks assumed by these women is the same, whether their eggs end up in an IVF clinic or a research laboratory. I live in California, where the battle for SCNT research is a fierce debate, (ironically sold to us as “cures cures cures” with no sign of cures in sight). Dr. Gerald Schatten, the infamous U.S. partner of South Korea’s disgraced Dr. Hwang, says that he is terrified of financial reimbursements to young women egg donors and that OHSS is a life threatening risk. He cautioned my state, saying, “If California moves superfast in stimulating thousands of women, when the first woman dies (he didn’t say IF, he said WHEN) for the sake of cells in a plastic dish, this is going to be a nightmare, and I am seriously worried.” This is from a cloning researcher.
Written by Dr Meagan Tyler, Professor Sheila Jeffreys, Natasha Rave, Caroline Norma, Kaye Quek, Andrea Main and Kathy Chambers, the abstract reads:
This report shows the burgeoning strip club industry in Victoria, Australia, harms women and communities. Strip clubs harm the physical and mental health of women who strip, as well as the opportunities of all women who want equal sexual relationships with men. Strip clubs create no-go areas for women, and are responsible for increasing violence in the community. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) argues that strip clubs need to be understood as part of the industry of prostitution and regulated in the same way as brothels. This means that they would be licensed, subject to planning restrictions, unable to obtain liquor licenses, and owners would need criminal record checks. To ensure that strip club are not seen merely as entertainment venues, like other night clubs, they should be regulated as commercial sex venues
Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University. She’s also a friend of mine and a contributor to a new book I’m co-editing, Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global porn industry, to be published by Spinifex Press in September. I asked her about the new report.
What were the main findings of the report Caroline?
CATWA found that the sex industry in Australia is increasingly investing in strip clubs as a way to make profits by circumventing the restrictions on the serving of alcohol that are placed on brothels. In other words, sex industry businessmen offer women for ‘sexual services’ through strip venues or ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ that are licensed as nightclubs or hotels. This allows them to attract men to their venues under the guise of ‘entertainment’, or for corporate functions, which include sexual services while evading brothel licensing fees, planning restrictions, and alcohol bans. As a result, stripping has grown as a sector of the Australian sex industry from 12% in 2008 to 17% in 2009.
Most people don’t see a connection between the strip club industry and prostitution. Why do you think that is? Has the industry been particularly clever at having strip clubs be seen as merely entertainment rather than being linked with or providing the full range of prostitution ‘services’?
CATWA surveyed the websites of 12 strip clubs in inner city and suburban Melbourne, and found that the clubs were surprisingly upfront about the sexual services they provide. For example, one club offers shows where men can pay to see women penetrate themselves with bananas and other items:
Your stripper uses not 1 but 2 or more toys!!! Combine the 2 vibes a string of pearls (hidden safely away) or maybe a banana or some other weird & wonderful item that can be safely inserted or removed…
Most of the clubs had ‘private rooms’ where men or groups of men are able to pay for naked strippers to dance on their laps to the point of orgasm. For example, one club has the following advertisement on its website:
See a dancer that tickles your fancy? For as little as $20, why not have her all to yourself in a private dance room – or share her with 3 of your friends!
This service is advertised despite the fact that the Victorian Prostitution Control Act defines lap dance activity as a sexual service, which means the venue would have to be licensed as a brothel. The Act includes masturbation as a sexual service and it defines this to include, ‘whether or not the genital part of his or her body is clothed or the masturbation results in orgasm’.
An example of the brothel-like status of strip clubs in Victoria comes from a 2008 application to Glen Eira City Council (in suburban south-east Melbourne) for a two-storey stripping venue that proposed to accommodate ‘170 patrons to watch nude dancers on a main stage and on six raised pole-dancing platforms on the ground floor’. The application included plans for a bar and spa downstairs and five private rooms upstairs, three of which were to have en-suite bathrooms.
How does the strip club industry contribute to violence against women? What are the specific harms it causes?
The former Victorian Consumer Affairs Minister Tony Robinson said in 2008 that strip clubs provide ‘perhaps not the full suite of sexually explicit services, but a fair component of them’, so CATWA sees strip clubs as equal to brothels in promoting the violence of prostitution. Prostitution has been empirically shown to inflict a serious level of psychological and physical harm on women who are used for sex, and these harms also apply to women in strip clubs, particularly because strips clubs serve alcohol to groups of men who then buy strippers for private lap dances. In 2006, for example, the Weekend Australian reported the rape of a woman whilst she performed a private lap dance for a man at a King Street strip club (The Australian, 2006). The man ‘lunged’ at the woman, ‘digitally raping her and refusing to let go even as she struggled and screamed’ (The Australian, 2006). In 2003, the managers of a now defunct King Street strip club were charged with rape and assault, and were accused of using fear and intimidation as a management tool against 24 strippers. These dangers of the strip industry have been acknowledged by the Victorian State Government’s Prostitution Control Act Advisory Committee, which in 1997 found that ‘incidents of physical and sexual violence, sexual harassment and stalking were common’ in strip clubs.
How does stripping act as a gateway into prostitution?
Strip club owners and operators are behind a push to blur the boundaries between stripping and prostitution. There is evidence that strip club operators ‘pressure strippers to engage in practices they would rather avoid, such as lap dancing or prostitution’ (Jeffreys, 2008). The strip industry is engaged in glamourising the degradation of women. The clubs market themselves as mere entertainment, rather than prostitution providers. They promote themselves to potential women workers as glamorous venues, rather than as quasi brothels, and so induct new generations of young women into Australia’s sex industry. The websites of the strip clubs cultivate an image of a homely, caring environment in which women will be well looked after. Recruitment information on strip club websites emphasises the fact that women do not need to have any experience in strip. One website states, for example, that ‘no experience is required, we are more than happy to train you – all you have to do is be yourself’. Women need not have anything more than a ‘love of partying, love of entertaining and a love of earning money’ to qualify for a job as a stripper. One club directly appeals to ‘ordinary women’ by holding a regular Amateur Night (Hustler). The emphasis on not needing to have experience in stripping and the provision of on-the-job training enables strip clubs to act as a gateway to the sex industry. One Club (Kittens) advertises that it recruits women through the strip tease classes that it runs – ‘Learn the art of ‘tease’. All welcome. No nudity. Employment opportunities. Erotic exercise. Lots of fun’.
Do many women work in both stripping and prostitution?
The stripping sector in Australia is dominated by ‘out-call’ or ‘mobile’ stripping services, which include strippers being sent to events like bucks and birthday parties. Strip clubs in Queensland also allow the practice of ‘non-contact ‘Dating’ Services’ as well as outcall striptease services from the clubs. Customers may take a dancer on a ‘date’ outside the club. There are guidelines that say sexual contact should not take place in the conduct of these services, but in reality women are extremely vulnerable to solicitation for prostitution in both of these situations. The fact that men may buy women for lapdances in private rooms within strip clubs also makes women vulnerable to solicitation for prostitution, either inside or outside of the clubs.
How does the Victoria strip club industry compare to the industry in other countries?
The UK government in 2009 introduced stricter planning and licensing restrictions for stripping venues, so they went from being licensed as ‘pubs’ or ‘cafes’ to licensing as ‘sex establishments’. Iceland banned strip clubs in 2010. The Scottish government has taken active steps to suppress the proliferation of strip clubs in that jurisdiction this year as well. Victoria has had large-scale ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ even longer than the UK, but has taken no action to suppress their proliferation and industrialisation. Some venues in Melbourne now hold 1000 patrons, and they have been recently established in suburbs like Northcote.
Is there a regulatory model you would like to see adopted in Victoria (and other parts of the country?)
For the time being, CATWA calls on the new Liberal-National Victorian government to licensed strip clubs as brothels, because sexual services are being provided in the clubs. This would mean the clubs could no longer serve alcohol. In other words, we request that the government simply apply its prostitution regulations evenly across all sectors of the sex industry. In the longer term, CATWA campaigns for the eradication of the sex industry in Australia, which would mean that men could no longer buy women for prostitution at any venue, including strip clubs. We call for the ‘Swedish model’ of anti-prostitution legislation to be introduced by the Australian federal government so that prostitution buyers, pimps, and traffickers are criminalised as sex offenders, and women in the sex industry are given housing, job, education, and training assistance to leave prostitution.
The Nightclub Owners Forum has billed your push to strengthen laws against them as a “moral and religious” crusade. How do you respond to that?
Strip clubs were banned in Iceland in 2010 primarily as a result of feminist campaigning that raised awareness of their links to prostitution and other forms of violence against women. CATWA is similarly concerned about strip clubs from a feminist anti-violence perspective. However, the campaign against strip clubs that CATWA is leading aims to mobilise all concerned women—from all sectors of the Victorian community—to demand that the government take action against strip clubs, and the sex industry in general. Women who oppose men’s sexual rights in any form are frequently dismissed as ‘moralistic’, but there is an increasingly large population of women in Australian society that is concerned about the extent to which men’s participation in prostitution, pornography, and stripping is harming women’s equality and destroying the chance for girls to lead dignified and safe lives in Australia in the future.
What has been the wider response to the report?
News of the report was carried in a number of major Australian newspapers. CATWA members were interviewed on radio, and a number of women’s organisations have contacted us for copies of the report. CATWA hopes that the report will spark a sustained conversation about strip clubs in Australia, like that which has taken place in the UK. Groups like ‘Object’ and the Fawcett Society have worked hard in the UK to pressure the government over strip clubs, and CATWA hopes our report will lead groups in Australia to take up similar campaigns. CATWA’s position on strip clubs already enjoys the support of the Victoria Police who currently oppose the renewal of strip club alcohol licenses in VCAT, and a number of local councils who try to stop strip clubs opening up in Melbourne’s suburbs.
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