Whenever I pick up the latest issue of teen girl mags, I hope to find articles which might inspire a global vision in girls, expand their horizons and help them see they can make a contribution in the world. So I was very pleased to see the piece: ’Who runs the world? Girls!’ While the header is somewhat exaggerated, the article describes the different lives and rights of girls around the world and gives examples of young women working to change their cultures. The campaigning of Malala Yousafzai, 15, for the rights of girls to an education in Pakistan is included. You may recall she was shot by the Taliban in October last year and is now recovering in the UK. Readers can log on to educationenvoy.org to learn more. Arranged marriage and not allowing women to drive are examples of denial of rights of women in Saudi Arabia. Manal al-Sharif (who I had the pleasure of hearing speak via a Skype presentation at the Great Women Inspire event in Brisbane on International Women’s Day in March) was arrested for driving a car in 2011 and initiated the Women2Drive campaign which readers are encouraged to support on Facebook. Sexual violence in India is highlighted, with readers encouraged to join the OneBillionRising.org movement against it. In the US, Julia Bluhm, 15, collected 84,000 signatures for an online petition asking Seventeen magazine to stop retouching pics. Staff have now signed a Body Peace Treaty pledging never to alter a model’s face or body. My only quibble here is the treatment of North Korea. Amnesty International, writes GF, “alleges that North Korea imposes severe restrictions of association, expression and movement.” The horrendous human rights violations against North Koreans by its own rulers are not mere allegations! An estimated 200,000 are locked away in prison camps (gulags). First-hand accounts demonstrate the reality. “North Korea’s prison camps are a closed-off world of death, torture and forced labour where babies are born slaves, according to two survivors who liken the horrors of the camps to a Holocaust in progress.” GF mentions North Korea’s imposition of officially approved hairstyles which yes, indicates a certain lack of freedom. But perhaps forced labour, being tortured in a concentration camp or watching your family starve as a result of your Government misdirecting money to create the world’s biggest militarised state are also worthy to include. North Korea is also described by GF as ‘a self-reliant’ state. That’s one way of putting it. Totalitarian is another. And I’m not sure how self-reliant is a country where 16 million people require food aid according to the UN. (I would love GF readers to read The Orphan Master’s Son, the 2013 Pulitzer prize winning novel by Adam Johnson. While fictional, it draws from real suffering of the people of North Korea. It’s one of the most profound books I’ve ever read). Read more here
Feminist Conversations is a regular feature here at Feminists for Choice. Today we are talking to Melinda Tankard Reist, co-editor of Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry. Melinda is also the co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.
How did you become interested in researching pornography?
There were a few things that came together around the same time. Women started telling me their stories of being hurt and harmed by a partner’s compulsive porn use. In my talks in schools, teen girls shared with me the pressure they felt to provide a porn-style performance, to act, essentially, as a sexual service station for men and boys. They were expected to provide naked images of themselves, to provide sexual services. As well, the sex industry was dominating and colonising every public space and was rarely brought to account. I began to talk to my publishers about what I was hearing. Spinifex had published an earlier book in 2004 titled Not for Sale: feminists resisting prostitution and pornography edited by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. It was a powerful book. But so much had happened since then, especially with the internet being used to globalise and spread pornography. We felt that a new book on pornography was needed. It also seemed to be a natural progression from my previous book Getting Real: challenging the sexualisation of girls, published by Spinifex in 2009.
There seems to be an overall consensus in the book that pornography is the same (or similar to) prostitution. Can you explain the similarities?
Yes, the writers in the book would mostly argue that pornography is filmed (or graphically depicted) prostitution. Melissa Farley uses the term ‘infinite prostitution’. The pornography industry has many of the features of the prostitution industry–it needs to procure women through trafficking, it relies on pimps to mediate transactions with the women who will be used, and the women it procures generally have histories of sexual abuse, poverty and homelessness. Pornography is advertising for prostitution and normalises the sexual exploitation of women. As well, men often want to act out what they see in porn on ‘live’ women. Pornography is often used as a form of initiation into prostitution. It’s also the case that women in pornography are concurrently being prostituted off-set, or go on to be used in systems of prostitution and stripping. The overlap between the prostitution and pornography businesses is so great that we might see them as operating in parallel, or perhaps as one larger sex industry. However, I think it’s also important to understand the differences between the pornography and prostitution sectors of the sex industry, and Big Porn Inc highlights these differences for pornography in particular. Firstly, the abuses that women undergo in pornography have a permanent or semi-permanent record made of them in the form of film, etc. This record causes many women great hardship and stress, because they feel they can never escape their past, and suffer anxiety at the prospect that anyone they meet throughout their lives has seen the pornography. They are also vulnerable to blackmail over it. The permanency of pornography causes particular suffering for women whose childhood sexual abuse was filmed as child pornography and shared by their abusers. Another aspect of the pornography industry that might distinguish it from the rest of the sex industry is the culture of ‘celebrity’ and ‘glamour’ that has developed around the industry in the last ten years. Jenna Jameson and Sascha Grey have been central to the promotion of the idea that pornography is a way for poor girls to escape their lives and become rich and famous, but of course the reality of the industry for the overwhelming majority of women/girls is that they are used up in around three months because of the extremity of the abuse and degradation of contemporary pornography. However, this culture of celebrity is very attractive to poor girls, and unfortunately draws them to the industry in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen for prostitution businesses. It means that the pornography industry is able to attract particularly young women, and in increasingly large numbers. The industry is normalised among younger generations to an extent that prostitution is not, because of widespread consumption of pornography among this generation, and the celebration of pornography by the popular media and culture. A third difference between the pornography and prostitution industries is the diversity of forms pornography takes–it is possible for women/girls to be sold as pornography through being used by their ‘boyfriends’ in front of home-based webcams, for example. While it is also common that ‘boyfriends’ pimp women through their homes, in the case of pornography this pimping is made difficult to recognise as illegal because of technology and the glamorising of pornography. There are businesses dedicated to the pimping of women through pay-per-view webcams, as well as pornography made of women being used through brothels. This diversity in the mode of business that pornography takes means that the industry is able to expand with very little scrutiny and opposition, let alone government oversight. The industry essentially operates in unchartered, frontier space in the absence of any controls whatsoever. Governments and societies worldwide are overwhelmed by the diversity of the sex industry, and so far haven’t managed to enact any governance frameworks at all that might curb its expansion and domination over culture and the economy.
What is your overall message about pornography that the book also highlights?
I think a major theme of the book is that the first and most egregious harm of pornography is to the women and girls who are used to make it. While the harm of pornography does extend to women much more widely, when we think about pornography we must think about the women who are harmed in its production first. This is because women/girls used in pornography are perhaps the most vulnerable and exploited population in our society. They are often racially marginalised, as well as victims of childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, and addiction. Their life chances are very poor, and even more so after they have been through the pornography industry. The writing in Big Porn Inc against the pornography industry mostly prioritises the interests of these women/girls in the way it does not make distinctions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ pornography, or ‘better’ and ‘worse’ forms of pornography. For the women and girls used in the industry, these distinctions are often meaningless, because the same women are used in both types of pornography production. Often they start out in ‘soft’ production, but then must be used in more violent and degrading productions to be able to make money and stay in the industry. For these women and girls, the chance to lead a life of quality and dignity depends on our efforts to dismantle the sex industry and create social services and facilities that will allow them to recover from childhood sexual abuse, to escape homelessness, and escape pimps or exploitative ‘boyfriends’. In addition to these women, of course, pornography harms many others, including the children who are sexually abused through perpetrators showing them pornography, as well as wives/girlfriends who are pressured to ‘act’ out scenes in pornography, and girls and boys who grow up seeing pornography as a ‘model’ for sexual relationships and never have a chance at understanding what true physical affection and tenderness looks like. Average age of first exposure to porn is 11. This is distorting and warping young people’s views of their bodies, relationships and sex. I believe it is an unprecedented assault on the healthy sexuality young people.
The trend in pornography seems for “sex” to be increasingly violent and aggressive. Can you explain why that is?
Yes, as Gail Dines and others show, the pornography industry over time has definitely escalated its violence against women and the level of degradation and humiliation it inflicts. Researchers have gathered empirical evidence that the more popular forms of pornography are the ones that are more violent and overtly degrading of women. Torture porn has become increasingly popular, rape sites, live S&M and bondage in which women are brutalised in whatever way the viewer requests. And it’s all becoming more and more mainstream. For example the documentary film Kink is about to screen at the Sundance Film Festival. The Kink website shows images of women in extreme positions of pain and torture. It seems it’s not even about ‘sex’ anymore – it’s about how much brutality and degradation a woman can cope with. And this is where many young men take their cues for relating sexually to women.
What is your response when people state that there are no victims in porn (just consenting adults)?
Linda Boreman’s (Lovelace) account of her time in the pornography industry where she was brutalised and forced into its production shows this claim to be untrue. Traci Lords’s use in pornography as a sixteen-year-old also shows that the industry does not always use adult women. Even women who glamorise their time in the pornography industry sometimes describe aspects of its brutality, such as Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale in which she describes being incapacitated for six hours after a sex scene in which she was injured internally. The notion of ‘consent’ that proponents of the sex industry use to justify their moneymaking activities is an extremely impoverished one. The idea that young women surviving childhood sexual abuse who are homeless and being pimped by a ‘boyfriend’ are making a ‘choice’ to enter the pornography industry is laughable. The ‘consent’ invoked for women used in pornography is nothing more than a legal ploy to allow the filming of prostitution and sexual abuse (and sometimes overt physical torture) without the threat of arrest and prosecution. These activities are allowed to take place in society only because the cover of ‘sex’ makes them somehow different from what they really are, which is rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and exploitation.
When did you first consider yourself a feminist and what influenced that decision?
It is difficult to identify one key moment. There was a dawning recognition about the global maltreatment of women. It was, I suppose, recognising the second-class status of women pretty much everywhere. I have travelled a lot and witnessed the abuse of women in so many parts of the world. You just have to look at the raw statistic on violence, ‘honour’ killings, dowry deaths, female genital mutilation, child brides, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, female foeticide, female infanticide, the systematic elimination of women and girls in so many ways. I recall being in a shelter in Hyderabad, India. On the bottom level were the abandoned baby girls; many plucked from rubbish heaps, with bruises and broken bones. On the second level were the abandoned pregnant girls and women. On the top level were the abandoned widows. Three layers of discrimination against women, all in that one home.
What does feminism mean to you?
It means working to change the second-class status of women. To addressing the real, felt needs of women (I was privileged to help set up a supported accommodation and outreach service for women and girls pregnant and without support in Australia.) To advocating for women and girls everywhere and all the time. It means trying to make the world better for my three daughters and the daughters of other women as well. It means engaging in grass roots activism and empowering other women to speak out, through movements like Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation (www.collectiveshout.org) It also means working in solidarity with the best people I have ever met.
I’m delighted to announce that our very own ‘Naughty Nicole’ has taken out the prize for most popular entry. She wins a camera! Here’s a post from Collective Shout’s website about Nicole’s victory over sexist promotions.
Update: ASB says no to Mossimo peep show
Not only did Nicole turn Mossimo’s campaign upside down in a radical act of subversion, now the Advertising Standards Board has upheld complaints against Mossimo’s peepshow ad campaign. Open this link for extracts of complaints against Mossimo’s peep show promo, Mossimo’s response (Collective Shout gets a mention – thanks for that!) and the ASB’s decision.
Vote for ‘Naughty Nicole’ and ‘Classy Casey’ and against sexist crap
There are just so many things I love about our Collective Shout activists.
One of these is the creative way our supporters engage in culture jamming and messing with corporate brands.
Take Nicole from South Australia for example. She got fired up about Mossimo’s creepy and sex-industry inspired approach to flogging underwear, so decided to enter the company’s Peepshow competition.
Here’s her entry.
Mossimo made her change her entry because they didn’t like the word ‘crap’in her original message. So she changed it to ‘rubbish’. On ya Mossimo for upholding such high standards regarding the use of language.
Shortly after, Nicole – the clear winner so far – found some competition when ‘Classy Casey’ sent her message.
Vote for Nicole and Casey and help them win a camera. Nicole says if she wins, she’ll donate the camera to Collective Shout to document our nation-wide protests!
It’s that time of year again. The time of year when companies ramp up their advertising in order to compete for your Christmas dollar. There is nowhere you can go without companies placing their product and logo in your face.
Now is the time to recall which companies used sexploitation to sell and promote their products over this past year. You can make a difference by voting with your dollar against sexploitation this holiday season.
Following the positive response to our inaugural ‘Crossed off’ list of 2010, we have compiled an updated list of corporate offenders, who we have selected for specialising in sexism, objectification and sex industry themes in 2011. These companies do not respect women and they have not responded to complaints nor changed their ways, so they do not deserve your patronage.
Beside each logo you’ll find a link to more information about why we encourage you to boycott this company. And don’t forget to let them know why you won’t be buying from them – we’ve included their contact details as well.
For pimping Playboy porno chic to girls and women. Our Change.org petition – currently over 7000 signatures – was recently hand delivered to Diva stores. Some staff refused to accept it, saying they had been instructed not to. Diva is owned by BB Retail Capital, which also owns Adairs and Bras N Things, where the signature brand of the porn industry gets centre spread in linen and underwear, and where women are told to ‘Be a Bunny.’
Contact Diva: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign the petition here.
Bras n Things
Bras n Things sells and proudly advertises the major brand of the porn industry, Playboy. We’ve written about this here and here. Bras n Things also sexualises girls. For example, the Teacher’s Pet ’dress up’ outfit is advertised with the words ‘This school girl needs to be taught a lesson!’
For sexualised ad campaigns aimed at young girls. Supre advertised using an image of a topless young woman on the back of buses and trams and on their website. A television ad featured a young woman gyrating around her bedroom before falling onto a bed. Supre has a long history of sexploitation with their slogan t-shirts including ‘Santa’s Bitch’, ‘Pussy Power’ and ‘High Beams’ to name a few.
Unilever claimed to care about ‘real’ beauty and the worth of women through its Dove label while using demeaning advertising promoting women as sexual recreation through ‘Lynx.’ Lynx’s most recent offering was banned by the ASB. Unilever once again defended its sexist ads. Unilever owns a variety of different brands, but there is no need to try and remember them all. Just look on the back label of personal care, food and cleaning products for this blue ‘U’ logo. If you see the ‘U’ put the item back and choose another one.
General Pants uses objectification and sex industry themes to sell and promote their products. Large posters of topless women – with only tape covering their breasts – were used to advertise a new fashion line called ‘Sex‘ in shop front windows. Young staff at General Pants were required to wear badges that said ‘I love sex.’ Other promotions have featured topless models and live pole dance shows in their shop front windows. Change rooms at General Pants have featured floor to ceiling ads for prostitution and strip club venues.
City Beach continues to sell pornographic themed t-shirts to a young market. Collective Shout supporter Caitlin Roper challenged City Beach directly through the Equal Opportunities Commission. City Beach were uncooperative and continue to sell items like this.
Other logos for stores, which stock ranges of t-shirts depicting women in porn-themed poses and subjected to eroticised violence are shown below. Sixty high-profile people put their names to an open letter calling for removal of these t-shirts for normalising violence against women and exposing children to sexualised images. Click on each logo for contact details of each store.
Rivers began objectifying women on the front cover of their catalogues. They then used an image of a dead woman on the front cover of their catalogue ’10 Deadly deals’, which attracted complaints and significant media attention. Rivers remains unrepentant.
Contact Rivers by emailing them at email@example.com
In a clear reference to the sex industry Nando’s used a burlesque/stripper model in the ‘Little Hotties’ campaign. Nando’s marketing director Kim Russell described the ad as “sassy not sleazy”. We disagreed. Stop off somewhere else for take away these holidays.
Not the place for your holiday fuel stop, selling extreme porn titles promoting rape, incest and sex with young girls. While BP, Shell/Coles Express and Mobil withdrew these titles after a campaign led by Julie Gale of Kids Free 2B Kids, McDonalds/Fuelzone and Caltex have remained intransigent.
Contact Mcdonalds here (regarding Mcdonalds co-brand with Fuelzone).
Now it’s over to you. Are there any other brands that should be included on this list? Are there alternatives to these brands that others might like to know about? Please share your suggestions below.
Crossed Off in the media
SEX SELLS AND ASB CAN’T STOP IT CAMPAIGNERS WARN
By Madeleine Ross on 15 November
Grassroots campaigners Collective Shout have lashed out at a fistful of brands for sexploitation in advertising and lamented the lateness of the standards watchdog in dealing with demeaning material .
The advocacy group, which encourages individuals to boycott brands which sexualise females in advertising, yesterday released a list of offending brands which included Lynx, Diva and Nandos.
The collective has called on consumers to boycott the brands this Christmas and accused them of using sexism, objectification and sex industry themes to sell products. Read more
Porn identity puts Diva on top of list of shops to drop
November 16, 2011
TWEEN jewellery store Diva tops the list of brands targeted by a campaign calling on shoppers to boycott brands that use sexual exploitation in their marketing.
Lobby group Collective Shout says that as brands step up their advertising in the lead-up to Christmas, consumers should vote with their wallets by avoiding those brands that use ”sexism, objectification and sex industry themes” Read more
Collective Shout reveals list of ‘sexploitative’ brands to boycott this Christmas
An Australian organisation has called on the public to boycott brands this Christmas that it believes sexualise and objectify women and girls.
According to Collective Shout, the companies on its list have been the worst at objectifying and sexualising women and girls through advertising and marketing in 2011. Read more.
The Advertising Standards Board have upheld complaints against Lynx’s sexist ‘Rules of Rugby’ advertisement.
The advertisement was supposedly created to educate men about the rules of Rugby Union. It is of course just another excuse for Lynx to objectify women. It would appear that objectification is Lynx’s one and only marketing strategy. We’ve written about this before.
The advertisement, which appeared on YouTube and was reported to be launched as a television advertisement to coincide with Rugby World Cup, featured scantily clad women wearing modified Rugby Union uniforms (ie. underpants and midriff tops) running in slow motion. The camera zooms in on women’s body parts at different intervals while the voice over makes reference to ‘shape’ and ‘size.’
The Advertiser – Lynx’s parent company Unilever – defended their advertisement in the way they usually do. It’s funny! It’s tongue in cheek! Our consumers love it! In their response to the ASB, they also complained about Collective Shout:
We have noticed that a Facebook group called “Collective Shout” asked other Facebook users to send complaints about the Video to the Advertising Standards Bureau (see attached screenshot). The Collective Shout Facebook site contains the following statement:
“Have you seen this Lynx television ad? Please make a complaint to the ad standards board via the on line form at www.adstandards.com.au. … ”
Directly underneath this statement a link to the website of the Daily Telegraph was posted together with the following statement:
“Scantily clad models play out the rules of rugby in this controversial new TV ad that’s been launched to coincide with the World Cup.”
Both statements incorrectly refer to the Video as a television ad although in fact it is not shown on TV. We have reviewed the Collective Shout Facebook site and have not noticed that the Video was made available on this website. It is not unlikely that the nine complainants who claim to have seen the Video on TV have been encouraged by this Facebook site to lodge a complaint without having seen the Video on TV.
In its determination the Advertising Standards Board found that the advertisement breached Section 2.1 of the code (advertisements shall not portray or depict material in a way which discriminates against or vilifies a person or section of the community on account of race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, age, sexual preference, religion, disability or political belief. )
The Board considered that the advertisement is clearly shot to emphasise various physical attributes of the women – with lingering shots on the women‟s breasts, groins and bottoms. The Board considered that the advertisement depicts the women as sexual objects. The Board considered that the „fantasy‟ element of the advertisement takes away any suggestion of the women actually being presented as sportswomen and increases the impact of them being presented as sexual objects.
The Board considered that the advertisement depicts women in a manner which amounts to discrimination against women.
Based on the above the Board determined that, in this instance, the advertisement did depict material that discriminated against or vilified any person or section of society.
You can read the full determination including Unilever’s full response here
In an earlier post the same day, Corporate Failings asked ‘Has Diva lost its credibility?’ based on the words of Diva Australia founder Collett Hayman who, having sold the company a few years ago, said in an interview:
“Diva was my creation and a company that I am still very proud of….Nothing would make me sadder than to see it lose its credibility”.
Well, Collett, you should be feeling pretty damn sad about now.
Collective Shout has launched a caption competition for this photograph, taken outside a Sydney Diva store featuring a woman who will remain nameless (‘I’ve never seen her before in my life officer’) who wanted to make clear just what Diva is supporting, lest there be any doubt. There have been 100 entries so far, including ‘Diva: we weren’t porn yesterday’ and ‘Diva: for when your little girl doesn’t look cheap enough’. Entries close Friday and there’s a stack of books on the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls to be won. You can enter through our Facebook page.
Finally a Diva Facebook page you can like
Check out the alternative Diva FB page. It’s a wonder to behold. Please like it and share with you friends.
Tell Diva to stop channeling the pocket money of little girls to Hugh Hefner and cut its ties with the porn industry
In the past few days a number of Collective Shout supporters have reported Playboy posters removed from Diva shop windows, Playboy products either entirely removed or hidden behind counters (just like porn used to be…. “Pssst wanna have a look at some Playmate pendants?”). If you haven’t yet signed our petition, please do so today.
Keep the global brand of the porn industry off our girls – boycott Diva
Playboy has been very clever with its marketing, establishing its brand on doona covers, pencil cases, wallets, keyrings, stationery, make-up, youth clothing ranges and even embedded into children’s movies such as Hop. I’ve written about this before.
Now DIVA is the latest company to pimp the Playboy brand to girls as young as nine, promoting the idea that porno chic is cool.
DIVA is very popular with young girls. The company is contributing to the normalising and mainstreaming of the Playboy brand. Girls are being targeted with the major brand of the global sex industry, founded by pornographer Huge Hefner who is responsible for the exploitation of female sexuality on a global scale. As a result many girls are walking billboards for a sex industry brand while being told it’s just about a cute rabbit.
Here’s our post on the issue on the Collective Shout site:
Diva, the jewellery and accessories store popular with teenage girls, is now selling Playboy branded jewellery.
Through use of cute love heart logos, invitations to ‘BFF us on Facebook’ and girls magazine promos, Diva are directly marketing to young girls. So why is Diva wanting to dress them up in a Pornography brand?
‘Playboy’ is not just a ‘cute bunny’, but represents the global brand of the pornography industry. We’ve previously written about how Playboy has infiltrated the mainstream market creating brand familiarity with young people. Playboy is now branding bed sheets, make-up and even energy drinks. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has previously said “I don’t care if a baby holds up a Playboy bunny rattle.” What is then forgotten is Playboy’s core business – pornography.
Among the other Playboy items on sale at Diva is a playboy bunny ‘bowtie’ necklace. Presumably for little girls who want to look like ‘Playboy Bunnies?’ What is Diva thinking?
Diva announced their new Playboy range on Facebook and received some negative responses:
Some of the comments include:
‘Ok so I’m not being a prude (my job is in the adult industry) but playboy is PORN…. Nude magazines, porn films… Ect and i know that diva is REALLY popular amongst girls aged like what 9-16? Diva should be about encouraging girls to empower themselves and their individuality. Not letting a girl aged 14 to year a bunny necklace that shows all she wants to do in life is be a dumb blonde who wants to be in porn and get with an old guy. Seriously diva, thought SO much better than this tacky crap….’
‘Totally agree Nadine. I have two little girls and they were my thoughts also.‘
‘Very disappointed. Will look totally off sitting next to the Disney princess section.’
I hope you are encouraged by this clip from the CBC Early Show about the campaign to remove a T-shirt marketed to young girls with the logo ‘”I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.”
It was great to see how quickly this took off, after one woman, Lauren Todd, decided to take action, at first posting on Facebook, then launching a petition through Change.org.
Less than a day later, with 1, 600 signatures collected, JC Penney pulled the shirt from its website and issued an apology.
Here’s my favourite quote from Lauren:
“Consumers are supposed to get together and tell corporations when they are unhappy with what they are doing.”
So simple, so true, and so much at the heart of what we at Collective Shout are about. Often our campaigns begin when just one person decides to take action, then engages and mobilises others for the cause.
We’ve seen wins like the JC Penney victory too, after some of our campaigns have gone viral. I think my favourite was when Harvey Norman pulled an offensive radio ad (combining Santa, lap dancing and children) after a Twitter storm of a mere four hours on a Sunday afternoon.
THIS much Nina Funnell knows about the man who held a box-cutter blade to her throat on an autumn’s evening in May 2007.
She knows he had an olive complexion. She knows he had bushy eyebrows and a five o’clock shadow. She knows – although she cringes at the stereotype it encourages – that he spoke with a thick, Middle Eastern accent. He attacked from behind, she remembers that, and dragged her into a park opposite a girls’ high school in an affluent Sydney suburb. She knows there was not just the threat of violence; this man was quite prepared to deliver it. He threw her to the ground, straddled her and punched her repeatedly in the face as he indecently assaulted her.
She knows the police have his DNA, captured in the shreds of skin she clawed from him as she fought him off in what she describes as “an adrenalin-fuelled fit”. And she knows they have not caught him yet. Maybe they never will. This frustrates and saddens her, but she holds on to those tiny nuggets of certainty about that otherwise nightmare-ish blur of events.
As for what has happened since, this much Nina Funnell doesn’t know. Why, after she wrote about the assault, would anonymous contributors to different websites attack her and threaten her? And why would that story, first told in a Sydney newspaper, prompt one website to run a public discussion, inviting guests to assess how “rape-able” she is? And why did one man read of her trauma and feel compelled to announce to the world: “what a conceited bitch for thinking she is even worthy of being raped. The guy just probably wanted to give her a good bashing in which case job well done.”
She does not know why there are some who, years later, still monitor her words and turn up in online forums to spread rumours that she lied about her experience, and to demand she provide intimate details or release police photos of the injuries she suffered.
She does not know when they might strike again, for they seem to work around the clock, and she cannot know whether they target her – “She’s so fugly, I wouldn’t even bother raping her from behind with a box cutter” – from the next continent or the next cubicle. She does not know what they look like and she does not know why they do it, whether it is for fun or boredom, or to humiliate her and encourage others to do the same – or worse. She doesn’t know how many people are doing this to her; trawling the web, looking for opportunities to strike. And she does not know when they will stop.
Which is precisely why Nina Funnell, who now works as an anti-violence campaigner and writes regularly about social issues and the media, believes passionately that there are some things we all need to know about communication in the modern age.
“The internet has absolutely changed the nature of public debate,” Funnell, 27, says. “The anonymity and the immediacy it gives people who want to indulge in abuse and hate… I don’t know if it actually makes it more or less dangerous [to have a public profile] but when you’re seeing a whole heap of hate speech written about you in separate forums, targeting you via email or in comments, I do know that it has a profound impact on your sense of safety…
“I had tried to come to terms with the fact that there was a psycho out there who had tried to rape and kill me. But then I realised that it wasn’t just one individual, that there was a whole subculture that found this amusing. It was sport for them.”
Snail-mail to cyber-bile
Nutters and obsessives; lonely hearts and angry pensioners. For as long as there have been commentators in public forums, there have been belligerent hecklers and aggrieved critics shouting from the fringes. Back when the mail would be distributed twice a day around our newsroom by a junior pushing a creaking trolley, the opinion writers of our newspaper ran a weekly competition to determine who had received the craziest correspondence.
Envelopes flecked with grease spots or some other unidentifiable liquid – could it be spittle? – often disgorged one’s own article, indignantly clipped with ragged scissors or torn wholesale in one enraged swipe, bearing contemptuous comments scrawled in capitals.
Of course, there were more sinister threats, particularly during the fevered days of gun control and Hansonism. The police were called when I received a particularly nasty letter detailing very specific plans for harm and some knowledge of where my family lived. Security guards were assigned to accompany me to my car each night for a few weeks, and I was told to take care when I arrived home. “Still, we have evidence,” a young constable said as he tweezered the letter into a ziplock bag, “and in the majority of cases once they’ve sent a letter that’s the last they ever think about it.”
It was precious little comfort at the time. But after studying some of the cyber-bile sent to Nina Funnell, and after spending hours tracking the crazed logic and outright intimidation of her opponents down the shadowy rabbit holes of various internet forums, abuse that takes a day or two arrive, and then with a postcode neatly stamped upon it, seems almost quaint. Strange days, these, when it can appear almost polite to limit your slander to an audience of one – unless it is taken to the boss or the police – and your death threats to a flimsy page that can be sealed away in a plastic bag.
Cyber-bile takes many forms: from people posting pornography or sexually explicit comments on Facebook memorials to murdered children, to the person who set up a Facebook site which promised the return of abducted Queensland schoolboy Daniel Morcombe if the page attracted one million members. To most right-thinking people this sort of stuff is unbelievably cruel, surely the outpourings of a small number of sick minds. Hoaxers regularly hack into Facebook pages, defacing pictures or spreading rumours that can cause untold pain, panic and embarrassment. And then there’s the constant background chatter that eats away at people – mostly women – in the public domain. It seems everyone has an opinion now, and they want to be heard. But when did they become so mean and, in some cases, downright terrifying?
Sydney newsreader Jacinta Tynan calls them the faceless brave. “When people want to give me a compliment, they tend to email me directly,” says the journalist and author. “Those who want to say really horrible things will go online and do it anonymously. They’re suddenly very brave when they don’t have to attach their names or their faces to their comments.”
“Brave” is a generous description of some of those who regularly post vitriolic opinions on the Sky News website, assessing Tynan’s appearance and performance as a presenter:
News reader Jacinta tynon’s [sic] latest botox shots have reduced her face to a skull and make here [sic] sound like daffy duck lmao how stupid is the woman to think botox makes her look professional. Anything but sweetie, you look and sound terrible.
What on earth has Jacinta Tynan done to her lips? She looks like she’s been bitten by a swarm of wasps. The botox job is ok, but those lips!!!
“Public figures are easy targets,” Tynan says, adding she has never had Botox or collagen injections, but suffered a surge in abuse from viewers as her body changed with her pregnancies. “I think they forget you’re human… I do try to respond to all of them, and when I was pregnant I felt particularly protective, like I needed to point out that hey, there’s a baby in here! But most of the time my efforts are wasted because they’ve used a fake email address…
“What you have to keep remembering, as my mother always says, is ‘what they say says more about them than you’. If someone wants to take the time to get on a website and bitch about how you look, that’s their problem.”
All television presenters have to learn to live with brutal feedback about their looks, Tynan, 41, says. But the internet has made it much ¬easier for critics – and, occasionally, unhinged admirers – to torment celebrities and other public figures who catch their attention. In Tynan’s case, this includes a woman who assumed her Facebook identity, creating a page in her name complete with an array of work and family “snapshots” copied from existing publicity pictures already posted on the Web. Fake Jacinta managed to “friend” many of Tynan’s real friends, who were unaware of the ruse, and apparently even began a relationship online, before dying suddenly. The “tragedy” was announced on Facebook by her “sister”, who thoughtfully posted a picture of her coffin. As unnerving as it sounds, Tynan says she was unruffled by the incident, “although it does show just how easy it is to create a false identity on Facebook.”
Much closer to home – and therefore much more personally devastating – was the avalanche of hostility unleashed after she wrote a newspaper column revelling in the joys of caring for her first son, Jasper, in the months after he was born. “I honestly thought I was writing a positive story about motherhood that would uplift people on a Sunday,” she says of the column, which attracted a record amount of feedback when blogger Mia Freedman reposted it on her popular website Mamamia and prompted vehement talkback sessions on radio around the country. “It was the first time I had been exposed to the level of anger and vitriol that is allowed to breed online through blogs and websites. All the really nasty stuff was personal and so vitriolic. There were people wishing illness on my child and infertility on me.”
The internet’s ability to amplify rumours and thus cement them into facts is what most shocked and, for a while, threatened to overwhelm Tynan. “I tried to keep my head above it, but when it was still going after a few months, it got a bit tough,” she recalls. “It became a bit like a witch hunt. There were people getting whipped up into a frenzy and I realise many of them hadn’t even read what I’d written. But they’d dedicate their own blog to [discussing] it and then people would read that…”
What continues to disturb her is how those malicious “facts” linger long after the debate has died. Google “Jacinta Tynan” and “nanny”, for example, and the search engine takes 0.20 seconds to deliver links to several sites where readers are informed authoritatively that Tynan is unqualified to talk about motherhood because she has a full-time nanny. Tynan, now the mother of two, has never employed a nanny, but that may not be enough to sate anonymous critics.
The question remains: what drives this level of anger? Dr Stephen Harrington, who lectures in media and communication at QUT’s Creative Industries Faculty, says much of the aggression comes from people’s disappointment that the online world still appears to favour professionals and experts, rather than levelling the playing field of public opinion as anticipated.
“That gap between the promise [of the internet] and the reality has generated anger and resentment among some people, and they really let that anger fly when they are given even the most tiny chance to have their voice heard,” Harrington says. “The comments section of a news article is a good example. I think some people use those forums to attack everyone who disagrees with them because they have been told that their opinion is equally valid to everyone else’s, and they feel they have the right to say whatever they want to, no matter how tangential it is to the actual item under discussion.”
But if the internet has been likened to the Wild West, a new frontier where law and order is regularly tested in the rush to stake a claim in the new world, then Harrington urges users to embrace the opportunities rather than freeze for fear of outlaws. “Whenever there is a debate about new communication technology, we tend to blame any downsides or negative uses on the technology itself, rather than the people using it,” he observes. “When someone dies in a car accident, we generally don’t blame the vehicle itself, or car companies. Fatal accidents only serve as a reminder that people should be careful on the roads. I think we should approach new media technologies in the same rational way.”
Driven to despair
But what if a responsible commuter on the information superhighway is forced off the road by other reckless or aggressive drivers whose licence plates are obscured? Paul Tilley, 40, may have been one such fatality. On a bitterly cold night in February 2008, the father-of-two stepped out onto the roof of a swank hotel in downtown Chicago and jumped to his death. That a successful advertising executive for DDB Chicago would take his own life at the apparent peak of his career might pass as strange to industry outsiders. But within days of the news breaking – even before Chicago police had ruled the death a suicide – an online flame war had erupted about whether vicious industry gossip spread by anonymous bloggers had driven Tilley to this final act of despair. Regardless of the reasons it is testament to the power of the internet that much of the mud-slinging can still be tracked online by a stranger in Australia, three years later.
“Anyone who thinks this sort of stuff doesn’t need to be taken seriously, that it doesn’t have a serious impact, doesn’t understand the nature of depression,” says Sean Cummins, 49, a successful Australian ad exec, whose experiences at the hands of vindictive industry bloggers mirror Tilley’s in chilling ways.
Now the head of Cummins Ross in Melbourne, his former agency Cummins Nitro was responsible for the internationally recognised “Best Job In The World” campaign for Tourism Queensland. “That was when the vitriol started pouring in, all anonymous, on industry blogs,” Cummins says. “Everything from ‘he’s a bastard to work for’ to suggestions that I hadn’t done the work I’d claimed credit for, to jibes about my personal life and even my profile photo…
“It’s a form of social terrorism. My kids were being taught at school not to cyber-bully and yet here were these professionals out trying to really hurt people by doing exactly that.
“It was such a personal and outrageous character assassination and the collateral damage was enormous. There was a knock-on effect: when you’re not confident, your creative work suffers because you second-guess yourself. Then I dulled the pain by drinking. I was erratic and my mood swings were inexplicable to my wife and family. Then my wife went on the website and she was shattered.
“Unfortunately, I got to the point where I contemplated topping myself and the ways I might do it. What stopped me was knowing I would leave a lot of people I loved very lost.”
Instead, Cummins has decided to fight back. This week, he will take aim at the “cowards” in his industry – many of whom he claims work for major agencies – in a presentation titled Cummins vs. Anonymous at the Mumbrella360 marketing and media conference in Sydney.
“There is this civil libertarians’ view of the internet that says it promotes a wonderful, open exchange of ideas,” he says. “But it’s not open and it’s not an exchange when someone is deriding someone else’s work or reputation and you can’t respond because you don’t know where it’s come from or who you’re responding to.”
Cummins will argue that all comments on industry blogs should be attributed by name – and that websites should be held accountable if they allow anonymous posters to defame or attack other people. He says ultimately, he is prepared to sue if he has to – and, given he reckons he could mount a case for lost business, when prospective clients are scared off by what they read on the internet, the damages could be enormous. “This is about shutting people down and I’m not going to be shut down,” he declares. “And if I have to stand up before my peers and become the poster boy for good manners, then so be it.”
Ping! One morning, as I am researching this story, an email lobs into my inbox shortly after I’ve logged on to my work computer. I open it to read: Shut the f*ck up you f*cking ugly OLD wowser c*nt. You need a good stiff c*ck shoved down your throat if you ask me. What’s the matter? Were you the ugly fat flat chested girl at school? Why don’t you shut you f*cking c*nt mouth? Live your own f*cking life, raise your own f*cking kids, nobody elected you the arbiter of morality… you’re a do-gooder, a meddling c*nt, who needs to shut the f*ck up. I’m going to a brothel tonight, and I’ll be selecting the whore who most looks your age. Remember c*nt, you’re a wowser c*nt, who needs to shut the f*ck up.
The email has been forwarded to me from Julie Gale, founder of children’s advocacy group Kids Free 2B Kids, who received it after she appeared on The 7pm Project to speak about the sexualisation of children, and particularly reports that increasing numbers of young teenagers were seeking Brazilian waxes.
Ping! Another email arrives. This one is from Melinda Tankard Reist, a Canberra-based author who campaigns on social issues and policy affecting women, most recently the expanding porn industry and “pornification” of pop culture. Bolz says: Melinda quite clearly doesn’t have hot bangable ass…, like Pippa. Jealous much?
Tankard Reist, 48, recently wrote an article, posted on the News Limited website The Punch, decrying the appearance of the Pippa Middleton Arse Appreciation Society page on Facebook as little more than online sexual harassment of the sister of Prince William’s bride, Catherine Middleton. In her article, she quoted comments from the freely accessible Facebook page – “She would need a wheel chair and straw when I’d be finished with it xxbig Matty chambers xxx” – as evidence of the sort of violent and misogynist commentary that flourishes as “fun” on the internet, only to attract the same sort of abuse herself.
Ping! Another one from Tankard Reist, this time a tweet she copied in March targeting News Limited columnist Miranda Devine. @Mighty-Chewbacca: Today screwed Miranda Devine, then penned blog on her soiled panties on bus home.
Ping! And then one from Nina Funnell, recalling the time she wrote about cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil, only to have the online discussion quickly devolve into a slanging match in which she was told she was probably “riddled with STDs” and “just needed a good d*ck up you”.
Ping! Ping! Ping! The messages arrive by email, by text message and via Facebook, after hours and at home, a veritable 24/7 outpouring of sub-intellectual sludge that begins to feel overwhelming in its toxicity, even though I have specifically asked for it. How must it feel when you can’t turn off the tap?
“As a comedy writer and performer, my default mechanism is to see the humour,” says Gale, 48, who somehow juggles a career as a Melbourne-based comedian with her deadly serious Kids Free 2B Kids campaigns to tighten advertising codes for children and restrict their exposure to pornography. “The vitriol is always unexpected, and for a few beats I do have to process the information. But then I take a deep breath and send it straight to my “comedy” file. I know there’s some fabulous material sitting there, and trust me, I intend to use it!”
But she also concedes: “Every now and then, I wonder whether I should be watching my back, but I just shake those thoughts off and get on with it. I’ve never discussed this issue publicly before, because I’m out there encouraging people to speak out – which is paramount to creating change. So I don’t want to put anyone off.”
And therein lies the Catch-22 for women in the cyber-firing line. On the one hand, they believe it is essential to expose the level of abuse and misogyny that has flourished on the largely unregulated new media. On the other, they fear the only effect that would have is to discourage women from participating in public debates.
Says Tankard Reist, who occasionally re-Tweets or posts particularly vile comments: “I want to expose these people so my followers [on Twitter or her website] can see the battle we have, the ingrained hatred and contempt these people have for women… But I already know of young women who say they won’t write their own pieces or contribute to comments pages anymore because of the feedback they get.”
Although she condemns the sort of abuse thrown at men like Cummins and controversial male commentators like News Limited journalist Andrew Bolt, Tankard Reist says it is hard to imagine any man being subjected to the levels of personal intimidation – particularly, threats of sexual violence – that are part of life in the new media age for outspoken women.
Of course, there are still a few things the old and new media have in common, including the truisms that sex sells and so does controversy. So if you build a site where there is heated, colourful debate, the hits will come. And in an era where the media and newsmakers are still grappling with how to build stable, profitable audiences online, few moderators or hosts are willing to shut that down.
“Sure, it drives more traffic to a site,” Tankard Reist says of the sort of no-holds-barred slanging matches that often replace serious debate online. “But editors and moderators need to be more vigilant about not allowing their forums to become platforms for haters and trolls.”
Funnell agrees: “There’s a ‘lighten up squad’ out there where everyone says ‘if it’s too hot, get out of the kitchen’. But perhaps the kitchen shouldn’t be so hot in the first place. This is not just about women. It’s about any sort of hate speech that is systematically directed against any particular group, designed to intimidate them or shut them down. It’s about freedom of speech versus speech that defames, threatens or intimidates.”
Tankard Reist, who has an ear for popular culture, chimes in: “When you ask for moderation or regulation, the people who oppose it claim it’s because they believe in free speech. But they want to shut my speech down. It reminds me of the chorus of that song Ode to Women [by Your Best Friend’s Ex]. They all demand their right to freedom of speech, and yet guys like that are using it to sing: ‘Bitch, shut your mouth’.”
“Intelligent, passionate, brilliant, fearless… I could not recommend her more highly”
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
“You continue to reset my shock meter…”
“Melinda Tankard Reist’s presentation to Middle and Upper School students at Pymble Ladies’ College was absolutely brilliant!”
Justine Hodgson – English Faculty, Pymble Ladies’ College
“Melinda Tankard Reist has had a transformational affect on our school.”
Ms Stephanie McConnell, Principal – Turramurra High School
In this DVD, Melinda takes us on a visual tour of popular culture. “Melinda’s presentation leaves audiences reeling. She delivers her message with a clarity and commonsense without peer.” – Steve Biddulph, author, Raising Boys, Raising Girls
Purchase Big Porn Inc, Getting Real, Faking It and the Ruby Who? book and DVD in one bundle for $100 and save 20% off the individual price.
Purchase Big Porn Inc, Getting Real and Faking It in one bundle for $70 and save 20% off the individual price.
Purchase Getting Real, Faking It and Ruby Who? DVD in one bundle for $60 and save 12% off the individual price.
Purchase the Ruby Who? DVD and book together for only $35 saving 10% off the individual price.
“This powerful and humane book is a breakthrough…Big Porn Inc shows us we are poisoning our own spirits.” – Steve Biddulph
“A landmark publication” – Clive Hamilton
“Getting Real contains a treasure trove of information and should be mandatory reading for all workers with young people in health, education and welfare” – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Adolescent Psychologist
Do you read women’s lifestyle magazines? Have you thought about how magazines might affect you when you read them? Faking It reflects the body of academic research on magazines, mass media, and the sexual objectification of women.
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Defiant Birth challenges widespread medical, and often social aversion to less than perfect pregnancies or genetically different babies. It also features women with disabilities who were discouraged from becoming pregnant at all.