Chocolate slice-shaming: Are we giving kids the wrong messages about food?
By Melinda Tankard Reist
About 15 years ago, a message was sent home from my daughter’s primary school teacher. It wasn’t about chocolate slice. It was about her hair.
My then six-year-old’s head was covered in tight, thick ringlets. While many clucked and cooed about her “gorgeous” hair, they didn’t have to wash it, or try to get a brush through it.
It was an ordeal, one I approached with dread — she’d cry and flail about. And so it wasn’t washed or brushed as often as more patient parents might have done.
(I also had two other children and a baby who needed attention.)
But then came the message from school: I must brush my daughter’s hair. Apparently it was unacceptable to send her to school with hair unkempt.
I felt put down. We might have tried a bit harder. Or we might have gone on as usual until she was old enough to do it herself (which was more likely).
Still, that teacher was lucky I wasn’t on social media in those days.
The story of my daughter’s hair came rushing back to mind this week when my long-time friend posted on Facebook a note her three-year-old’s kindergarten had sent home on the child’s first day.
“Your child has ‘chocolate slice’ from the Red Food category today,” the note, which featured a sad face, said. “Please choose healthier options for Kindy.”
When I reposted her note, along with the message, “I told her to put in two slices tomorrow and tell them to get lost”, I had no idea it would trigger such outrage.
It was shared hundreds of times, and was written up in news media outlets around the world.
Since then, I have been fielding media requests around the clock (will someone get me some bloody chocolate slice, please?!).
When ‘organic, sugarless’ muffins are sent home
The offending hedgehog slice (one mum, who texted in to 2UE, called it “satanic slice”) had been homemade for a birthday celebration and, as per family tradition, leftovers went to school the next day.
I’ve known my friend for a quarter of a century — I know the kind of mum she is. She makes everything from scratch, including bread, and bakes like there’s no tomorrow for her eight children.
Her kids are the kind who read books instead of watch TV. My friend and her husband both have degrees in health science — she is also a writer and researcher.
She felt bad that she had broken the rules.
But the note — and condescending sad face on angry red paper — felt intrusive to me.
It could make children think that mummy and daddy had done something very wrong to receive something like that from their teacher.
Of course, I understand the importance of healthy eating policies. I appreciate that harried teachers are most likely just trying to carry out school policy (while also not being trained dieticians).
But I’m concerned about where this approach to eating takes us.
Since my post went viral, stories from similarly frustrated parents have flooded in.
I’ve been told of cases of children whose food was sent home uneaten — because it was not “approved” — and the child has had nothing to eat all day.
Organic, sugarless zucchini muffins; banana, almond meal and chia muffins; and homemade (nut-free) bliss balls have all been sent home.
Children have been told they were meant to have sandwiches, not muffins — even when their muffin could not have been healthier.
‘I can’t eat cake, Mum, it will make me fat’
Cupcakes — which had less sugar and calories than green-lit muesli bars — have also been sent home uneaten, according to one mum who did the calculations.
Another mother told me of a time when she’d sent her kid to school with a lunch box filled with apples, carrots, raisins and chicken … and a single, tiny chocolate egg, which the teacher promptly confiscated.
“My son was devo,” she said. “Then after school [the teacher] lectured me about healthy lunches. I blew my head off!”
Some parents told of children hiding in the schoolyard to eat homemade cookies, afraid of being discovered. Others said their children were ashamed to eat treats even at home — hiding food and eating it privately away from the family.
Children as young as six are presenting with eating disorders, and anti-obesity messages are partly to blame, the Butterfly Foundation says.
One young girl had reportedly stopped eating chocolate cake in any context. “Mum, I can’t eat chocolate cake because it will make me fat,” she told her mother.
When children see food as “good” or “bad” it can set them up for eating disorders.
Some eating disorder specialists I work with say the bombardment of messages around obesity is causing food anxiety and contributing to disordered eating behaviour in children.
It’s also worth considering the fact that many kids go to school without any food at all.
As Alice, who is training to be a primary teacher, wrote to me privately:
“I’ve seen kids come with no food at all on such a regular basis that every lunch time the teacher would collect uneaten food from other kids’ lunch boxes to put into a snack drawer to feed those kids who came to school without.”
She added: “It’s great this school is concerned about what their students are eating, because it does affect their performance in the classroom.
“But I think they have lost perspective here. Is it necessary to shame parents for what they put in the lunchbox?”
My friend ended up digging out the kindergarten’s food policy, which banned only “processed” cakes and biscuits. She hadn’t broken the rules after all.
But it seems an important discussion has begun.
Hopefully it results in positive outcomes for parents, schools and — most importantly — children.
The objectification of women is so unremarkable in advertising and popular culture that it’s sometimes hard to envisage what an alternative might look like. Is it possible to advertise lingerie or swimwear without objectifying women, we are asked? Is objectification in the amount of flesh revealed, or is it more than that? Where is the line between women being merely attractive and objectified?
First, let’s define what objectification is. Dr Caroline Heldman has a great test to identify sexual objectification- what she calls the CHIPS test.
1) Commodity: Does the image show a sexualised person as a commodity, for example, as something that can be bought and sold?
2) Harmed: Does the image show a sexualised person being harmed, for example, being violated or unable to give consent?
3) Interchangeable: Does the image show a sexualised person as interchangeable, for example, a collection of similar bodies?
4) Parts: Does the image show a sexualised person as body parts, for example, a human reduced to breasts or buttocks?
5) Stand-In: Does the image present a sexualised person as a stand-in for an object, for example, a human body used as a chair or a table?
Jennifer Moss also wrote about the deliberate construction of women’s poses in advertising, assigning them into categories:
She’s looking over her shoulder or her facial expression is frightened. She has her hands up in protective or shielding position. She’s pulling away from a man. She’s dead. Any image depicting the woman as victim.
B.) POSITIONED FOR SEX/UNDRESSED
She is set up for sex: lying supine or close to it. Her legs are spread. She’s on a bed. She’s in a state of undress in which she wouldn’t (realistically) be allowed in public. Something is in her mouth.
Head angled. Eyes looking away, down. The classic “hunch” pose of the upper torso. Body is not square to the camera. Chin is down. Body language depicting submission, weakness.
D.) OBJECTIFIED/NON-HUMAN/ONE OF MANY
No face or her face is obscured. A group of women all dressed and made up the same. No individuality. A product.
It doesn’t have to be like this- there is another way.
In researching for this blog post, I spent a fair amount of time looking for advertising that did not sexualise or objectify women. Unfortunately, this was a rather fruitless endeavor! I found two examples. One was ad agency, Badger and Winters. (Scroll up to the very top to see their work for lingerie company Naja, and more examples here.)
Badger and Winters
After advertising executive Madonna Badger tragically lost her three daughters and her parents in a fire on Christmas Day in 2012, she made the decision to no longer objectify women in her advertising.
Badger uses the following four criteria to determine if an ad objectifies women:
Prop: Does the woman have a choice or voice in this situation?
Part: Is she reduced to just a sexually provocative body part?
Plastic: Is the image manipulated to the extent that the look is not humanly achievable?
What if: Would you be comfortable to see your sister, best friend or yourself in this image?
You can see Badger and Winters work for lingerie company Naja. This ad campaign shows how it is entirely possible to sell lingerie without objectifying women or replicating porn-inspired scenarios.
Well Made Clothes
The second example is Well Made Clothes- an online marketplace selling clothing from the ‘world’s best’ fashion labels. All stock featured on the website must meet the criteria for one of their values. Their advertising presents women as whole people rather than faceless, objectified and interchangeable.
Handy hints for advertisers
In many ads, women are not portrayed as whole people. They are reduced to a series of sexualized body parts (or even just one), or their identity is based on their sexuality or sexual availability. Objectification occurs when a person is reduced to object status, or becomes a thing, rather than fully human. While this can happen to women or men, this objectification is much more frequently done to women.
Women are often depicted as idle, merely posing to be looked at. There are various examples of advertising for women’s active wear that do just this. Advertisers could have a powerful impact by showing women running, lifting and actually engaging in activity, rather than merely posing- see an example from Cotton On Body:
Audiences are diverse, and as such advertising should not be limited to images of young, thin, white, able-bodied women. Diversity in race, age, body type can send a great positive message that all bodies, all people, are valued.
Context is also important in advertising. While it may be appropriate and relevant for a woman to be depicted in a bikini at the beach, or to sell swimwear, this is a very different context from a woman in a bikini to sell tools, or an unrelated product. In the latter scenario the woman becomes a prop, a merely decorative object.
We’re heartened to see agencies like Badger and Winters committing to a higher standard, and we hope other companies follow suit.
Do you know of any other companies doing the same? Let us know in the comments!
Porn images are robbing children of their innocence, says Kerryn Baird, wife of Premier
CLARISSA BYE, Social Affairs Reporter, The Daily Telegraph
CHILDHOOD innocence is being swamped by a tidal wave of pornographic imagery, with NSW’s First Lady Kerryn Baird fearing we have “lost the argument” over sexually explicit material.
Kerryn Baird has a new role as ambassador for Collective Shout, which sticks up for girl’s rights and fights objectification. Picture: Justin Lloyd
The mother of three teenage children, and wife of Premier Mike Baird, said explicit imagery was assailing youngsters everywhere, from shopping centres to music videos and even via their devices.
Mrs Baird has signed on as an ambassador for grassroots girls’ and women’s rights advocacy group Collective Shout to help parents speak up.
Kerry Baird Family with husband Mike, daughter Cate and son Luke. Picture: Sam Ruttyn
Concerned for the future of her children Laura, 19, Cate, 17, and Luke, 13, Mrs Baird said parents faced a constant battle because it appeared the corporate world was “not understanding” and governments and police were “playing catch-up”.
“I feel we’ve become saturated and you don’t even notice, these things creep in and it’s the new normal — but it’s not normal,” Mrs Baird said.
“I want a world in which we describe girls not as sexy and hot, but as worthy, strong, healthy, active, imaginative.”
Just last week a Calvin Klein advertising display at Westfield Chatswood was removed after complaints by Collective Shout on behalf of a mother who was “horrified” to see the raunchy images while with her daughter.
Screen shot from the Collective Shout’s Facebook page, captioned: “Calvin Klein have a history of objectifying and sexualising women and girls.”
Calvin Klein did not comment but Westfield Chatswood said: “We shared these concerns with Calvin Klein and are pleased to report that they have replaced that particular artwork overnight.”
Mrs Baird said while parents might feel the issue was overwhelming, “we can have a voice and make an impact”.
“This is too important an issue to push aside,” she said.
“We can work together.”
Mrs Baird said accidental exposure to pornography — kids typing in “silly” words on search engines and being confronted by “quite explicit” pop-ups — was another worrying trend and one that can have “dreadful” ramifications: “Once innocence is lost you can’t get it back. It can just be a moment. Images impact children so strongly.”
Collective Shout co-founder Melinda Tankard Reist said she was delighted to have Mrs Baird on board.
From left, Charli Williams, 15, with her friend Jordan Van Esveld, 15, and her sister Madison Van Esveld, 13, are focused on fitness rather than body image. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Ms Tankard Reist said children were growing up in a “shadow cast by hypersexualised images and toxic messages, giving them unhealthy ideas about their bodies, relationships and sexuality”.
“Girls think they have to be hot and sexy,” she said.
“They live in a culture that rewards exhibitionism.
“We know this is having a terrible impact on their physical and mental health.
“How long do we go on for before saying, that’s enough?”
Collective Shout is also calling for shops and food outlets such as McDonald’s and KFC to stop playing explicit music videos in the middle of the day. “We’ve just become so numb to it as parents but when you bring your four-year-old to a fast food restaurant … you forget that (the videos) is going to have an impact on them,” Mrs Baird said.
Looking back on her own childhood in the 1970s, Mrs Baird said the stark contrast between her simple jeans and T-shirts and today’s clothing was troubling.
“You’ve got sexy little bras for four-year-olds. Why? Or words they wouldn’t even know what they mean,” she said.
“That’s not acceptable.”
Regentville mum Janet Lloyd well knows the pressures on daughters Jordan, 15 and Madison, 13.
They do cheerleading and dance but the focus is on fitness and strength, not appearance, using “age- appropriate dance (moves) and music”.
“That’s why I choose those classes, they’re very family-orientated,” Mrs Lloyd said.
“Children have to be children.’’
For best friend Charli Williams, 15, whose mother Clair is a fitness instructor, it’s also all about health rather than body image.
The Courier-Mail is to be commended for its series on the hypersexualisation of our young people — especially the impacts on children by allowing them to be exposed to porn even before their first kiss.
What has been documented here in the Generation Sext campaign is what I’m hearing everywhere I go.
Educators, child welfare groups, childcare workers, mental health bodies, medicos and parents are reeling.
All are struggling to deal with the proliferation of hypersexualised imagery and its impacts on the most vulnerable — children who think what they see in porn is what real sex looks like.
They tell me about children using sexual language, children touching other children inappropriately, children playing “sex games” in the schoolyard, children requesting sexual favours, children showing other children porn on their devices, children distressed by explicit images they came across while searching an innocent term, children exposed to porn “pop ups” on sites featuring their favourite cartoon characters or while playing online games.
The website PornHub is in the top five favourite sites of boys aged 11-16 according to ChildWise UK. The biggest selling genres of porn are those eroticising violence.
Boys are viewing violent depictions of sex, torture, rape and incest. They are having their sexual arousal conditioned by depictions of extreme cruelty, seeing women being assaulted for sexual pleasure — all while their sexuality is under construction.
In Australia there has been a significant increase in reports of child on child sexual assault — identified as “copycat sexual predators”.
AMA vice-president Stephen Parnis says the internet is exposing children to sexually explicit content teaching them that sex is about “use and abuse”.
“There are increasing levels of aggression and the physical harm resulting from sexual acts is becoming more apparent,” he says.
The Australian Psychological Association has seen the problem first hand.
“Over the past decade, we have seen a growing trend of younger children engaging in problem sexual and sexually abusive behaviours generally aimed at younger children — in other words, children sexually assaulting children,” their Senate inquiry submission said.
“Pornography is providing too many 10-year-olds with the mechanical knowledge to anally, orally and/or vaginally penetrate younger siblings, cousins and acquaintances.”
Girls especially are bearing the brunt of porn-inspired boys who have imbibed a sense of entitlement to the bodies of women and girls.
We continue to hear the cry “Boys aren’t treating girls with respect!”. But there’s no mystery as to the reason.
Girls tell me about boys demanding sexual favours, demanding sex acts they don’t like, pressured to provide naked images (including girls as young as 11 and 12), being ranked compared to the bodies of porn stars.
One young woman told the South East Centre Against Sexual Assault: “When you have sex with a guy they want it to be like a porno. They want anal and oral right away. Oral is, like, the new kissing.”
There is a growing body of global literature testifying to how boys who take their sexual cues from porn develop sexist attitudes and aggressive behaviours — which has a trickle-down effect on women and girls.
For too many boys, the debasement they see on screen becomes real life debasement of girls.
In 2012, the UK Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection found that exposure to porn has a negative impact on children’s attitudes to sex, relationships and body image.
A 2012 review of research on the Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents found that adolescent consumption of internet pornography was linked to attitudinal changes, including acceptance of male dominance and female submission, with women viewed as “sexual playthings eager to fulfil male sexual desires”.
The authors found that “adolescents who are intentionally exposed to violent sexually explicit material were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive than those who were not exposed”.
In Australia, one in four young men think it is OK to pressure women to have sex.
Pornography normalises and eroticises violence against women as sexy. We have more than enough warnings by frontline service agencies about a public health emergency involving near-saturation rates of pornography consumption among men and boys.
This assault on the healthy sexual development of children has to stop if we want our children to engage in healthy sexual exploration and respect-based relationships, to know what real intimacy feels like.
The problem is so big and so vast it requires a whole of community approach. Parents, schools, educators, the medical profession, welfare groups, governments and regulatory bodies have to take action.
Fortunately there are signs that young people want something better. This is a message I received from a young woman who heard me speak.
“Hi Melinda. I was really touched by what you had to say and you opened my eyes to what sort of world we live in and at 16 I’m disgusted and amazed at what girls my age have to go through.
“You said something about being asked for nudes and that and personally I didn’t know what you meant by that as I haven’t been asked to do that … until today.
“To tell you the truth I wouldn’t have known what to do about it if you didn’t speak about it and I’m very grateful to you. The boy asked me for a photo or video and I said no — that’s when he called me “lame”. But I immediately told him I am more than just my body and you shouldn’t treat me like a piece of meat and instantly blocked him.
“Thank you for telling me that and I hope I have done the right thing and myself and other girls are taking action and we want to make a difference.
“I want to help girls feel like they are worth something. So thanks again you are an inspiration to us all and I hope to join your cause — Tiffany, 16.”
Our new ambassador in her first media interview in the role
The hypersexual world and its impact on young girls and boys
In the two weeks since you heard Donald Trump’s confessions – unintended – of groping women, the strongest response has come from US First Lady Michelle Obama. You may have heard her say that Trumps’ words shook her to the core.
Well, this culture has also shaken, and motivated, Kerryn Baird, who’s the wife of New South Wales premier Mike Baird. This week, Kerryn Baird became the new ambassador for Collective Shout, an advocacy group for women and girls.
Listen to the interview below:
Collective Shout, the grassroots campaign movement against the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls, announces Kerryn Baird as its new Ambassador.
The announcement was made at a fundraising event for the movement held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney last night for International Day of the Girl Child. Addressing the event was Ms Baird’s first function as Ambassador.
Attending the event with her was her husband and NSW Premier Mike Baird.
In her speech, Ms Baird said she decided to accept the invitation to become an Ambassador because she believed children were at risk of losing their childhood.
“I want more for our girls. And boys,” she said.
“Like many of you in the room, I have daughters. I have hopes for them. I want them to fulfil their potential. To be able to contribute.
“I want a world where words to describe girls not as sexy, and hot, but as worthy, strong, healthy, active, imaginative”.
Co-founder Melinda Tankard Reist, who also spoke at the function, said she was delighted to welcome Ms Baird as Ambassador.
“Kerryn heard me speak at a private girls’ school in Sydney recently. She asked what she could do to help the cause. I asked if she would consider becoming an Ambassador. She said yes!” Ms Tankard Reist said.
“We look forward to achieving more in future with her support.”
Great show of support for Collective Shout at MCA
MTR shares the work of Collective Shout
Our new ambassador Kerryn Baird addresses the crowd
CS volunteer Suzanne Spence, Chair Sarah McMahon, Kerryn and Mike Baird and National Operations Manager Coralie Alison
‘The glamorising and approval of teen girl audiences of the captioned desire to depart from life is surely one of the most dangerous digital conversations unfolding today’
These postings provide a snapshot of the Instagram dialogue trending amongst Australian adolescent girls. It is a virtual battleground of life and death on the popular image-sharing platform, as girls bombard one another’s feeds with image representations explicitly captioned with suicidal yearnings.
Suicide-themed captions crafted by girls are attracting hundreds of teen and tween girls. However there are almost no responses encouraging the distressed and possibly at-risk girl to call ‘000’, a kids’ help hotline or even asking ‘RUOK?’
Instead, adoring fans applaud with ‘likes’, approving comments and a shower of emoticon hearts before following suit and posting their own suicide-inspired image and caption.
As director of a company, Inspire Creative Arts, working to strengthen positive social media engagement among young people, I am given an insight into the online life of young girls. From cyberbullying to drunken evenings, sex, gossip, body shaming, the ‘thinspiration’ and ‘fitspo’ re-posts, and semi-naked images: I thought I’d scrolled through it all. That was until I stumbled across Instagram’s suicide genre.
Instagram has become the diary of choice as a girl publicly pens her relationship breakdowns, friendship backstabs, family angst, bikini ‘body goals’, and the whimsical longings for physical touch and affection. All this, accompanying filtered images of an ocean, flowers, a sunset, a social gathering, her bedroom, laying on her bed, kneeling on her bed, an upper-body selfie with clothes intact or clothes removed, zoomed in on her lips, shoulders, side cleavage, abdominal definition, upper thighs.
But this public broadcast of death-pondering takes young people’s social media usage to a whole new level. The glamorising and approval of teen girl audiences of the desire to depart from life is surely one of the most dangerous digital conversations unfolding today.
Where did girls learn the idea that offering to cut one another is a demonstration of friendship and loyalty?
A distressed girl’s image can attract the attention of thousands, yet her virtual cry for help is not met with real assistance. It is a sinister paradox that begs us to ask: is the past stigma associated with youth suicide under reconstruction?
Of course we welcome real and honest conversation about the subject, made possible thanks to the work of mental health services leading the way including RUOK campaign, Kids Helpline , Headspace and ReachOut.
However this particular Insta-fad; this troubling collective of emoticon guns, knives and bombs, of applauding girls for the most insightful suicidal thought, and the aspirational connotations of being a suicidal teen, mirrors a detrimental trend.
It is a trend that normalises suicidal ideations as fashionable, deceiving girls as they embark on their rollercoaster quest for belonging, that presenting oneself as suicidal is hot, desirable, and an image deserving of approval.
In a 2014 report by the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, ‘Help-seeking Behaviour and Adolescent Self-harm’, it was found that only about 50 per cent of youth aged 11-19 sought help when engaging in suicide ideation or thought. Of this figure, it was the ‘informal support systems’, friends and family, who were most commonly accessed for assistance.
But what happens when an online platform becomes a dominant informal system of self-disclosure and, due to the contagion effect of admiration and copycat behaviour, this system keeps those in need trapped in a cycle of posting harm-themed messages and receiving approval for doing so?
Furthermore – what happens when the dialogue throughout this support system, Instagram, transforms a young person’s belief of suicide ideation from being an issue that requires help, to being a normal and trendy thought-pattern?
In the latest report by the Australian Government’s Department of Health, it was reported that 1 in 4 girls aged between 16 and 17 have deliberately injured themselves, with 1 in 5 meeting the diagnostic criteria for a depressive disorder.
It is encouraging to those of us working with young people to see a broader societal discussion of this tragedy at last taking place out in the open. Of course the factors leading to suicidal thoughts and the act itself are complex and multi-layered. And of course I’m not laying all the blame on a social media platform. However if we are going to understand the social/psycho influences and drivers, we need to start including these Instagram postings in the discussion. And perhaps it is time for the platforms themselves to question their own social responsibility in hosting and even enabling the spread of suicidal thinking and contagion among those most vulnerable.
“[I want] better education regarding sex for both boys and girls [and] information about pornography, and the way it influences harmful sexual practices.”
These are the words of Lucy, aged 15, one of 600 young Australian women and girls who took part in a just-released survey commissioned by Plan Australia and Our Watch. The survey, conducted by Ipsos, gathered responses from the girls and young women aged 15-19 in all states and territories.
In the survey report, entitled Don’t send me that pic, participants reported that online sexual abuse and harassment were endemic. More than 80% said it was unacceptable for boyfriends to request naked images.
Sexual bullying and harassment are part of daily life for many girls. Young people are speaking out more and more about how these practices have links with pornography – and so they should, because they have most to lose.
Pornography is moulding and conditioning the sexual behaviours and attitudes of boys, and girls are being left without the resources to deal with these porn-saturated boys.
My own engagement with young women over the last few years in schools around Australia, confirms that we are conducting a pornographic experiment on young people – an assault on their healthy sexual development.
If there are still any questions about whether porn has an impact on young people’s sexual attitudes and behaviours, perhaps it’s time to listen to young people themselves. Girls and young women describe boys pressuring them to provide acts inspired by the porn they consume routinely. Girls tell of being expected to put up with things they don’t enjoy.
Some see sex only in terms of performance, where what counts most is the boy enjoying it. I asked a 15-year-old about her first sexual experience. She replied: “I think my body looked OK. He seemed to enjoy it”. Many girls seem cut off from their own sense of pleasure or intimacy. That he enjoyed it is the main thing. Girls and young women are under a lot of pressure to give boys and men what they want, to adopt pornified roles and behaviours, with their bodies being merely sex aids. Growing up in a pornified landscape, girls learn that they are service stations for male gratification and pleasure.
Asked “How do you know a guy likes you?,” a Year 8 replied: “He still wants to talk to you after you suck him off.” A male high school student said to a girl: “If you suck my dick I’ll give you a kiss.” Girls are expected to provide sex acts for tokens of affection. A 15-year-old told me she didn’t enjoy sex at all, but that getting it out of the way quickly was the only way her boyfriend would settle down and watch a movie with her.
I’m increasingly seeing Year 7 girls who seek help on what to do about requests for naked images. Being asked “send me a picture of your tits” is an almost daily occurrence for many. “How do I say ‘no’ without hurting his feelings”? girls ask.
As the Plan Australia/Our Watch report found, girls are tired of being pressured for images they don’t want to send, but they seem resigned to how normal the practice has become. Boys use the images as a form of currency, to swap and share and to use to humiliate girls publicly.
Year 7 girls ask me questions about bondage and S&M. Many of them had seen 50 Shades of Grey (which was released on Valentine’s Day). They ask, if he wants to hit me, tie me up and stalk me, does that mean he loves me? Girls are putting up with demeaning and disrespectful behaviours, and thereby internalizing pornography’s messages about their submissive role.
I meet girls who describe being groped in the school yard, girls routinely sexually harassed at school or on the school bus on the way home. They tell me boys act like they are entitled to girls’ bodies. Defenders of porn often say that it provides sex education. And it does: it teaches even very young boys that women and girls are always up for it. “No” in fact means yes, or persuade me.
Girls describe being ranked at school on their bodies, and are sometimes compared to the bodies of porn stars. They know they can’t compete, but that doesn’t stop them thinking they have to. Requests for labiaplasty have tripled in a little over a decade among young women aged 15-24. Girls who don’t undergo porn-inspired “Brazilian” waxing are often considered ugly or ungroomed (by boys as well as by other girls).
Some girls suffer physical injury from porn-inspired sexual acts, including anal sex. The director of a domestic violence centre on the Gold Coast wrote to me a couple of years ago about the increase in porn-related injuries to girls aged 14 and up, from acts including torture:
“In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are ‘up for it’ 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ‘no means yes and yes means anal’, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent.”
The Australian Psychological Society estimates that adolescent boys are responsible for around 20% of rapes of adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children. Just last week , Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs argued that online pornography is turning children into copycat sexual predators – acting out on other children what they are seeing in porn.
A 2012 review of research on “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Adolescents” found that adolescent consumption of Internet pornography was linked to attitudinal changes, including acceptance of male dominance and female submission as the primary sexual paradigm, with women viewed as “sexual playthings eager to fulfil male sexual desires.” The authors found that “adolescents who are intentionally exposed to violent sexually explicit material were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive than those who were not exposed.”
I have asked girls what messages they might like me to pass on to boys. So far, these messages include: “Stop telling us we are wet,” “Stop commenting on our bodies,” “Stop demanding pictures,” “Rape jokes are never funny” and “Sex before the age of consent is illegal.”
The proliferation and globalisation of hypersexualised imagery and pornographic themes makes healthy sexual exploration almost impossible. Sexual conquest and domination are untempered by the bounds of respect, intimacy and authentic human connection. Young people are not learning about intimacy, friendship and love, but about cruelty and humiliation. As a recent study found:
“online mainstream pornography overwhelmingly centered on acts of violence and degradation toward women, the sexual behaviors exemplified in pornography skew away from intimacy and tenderness and typify patriarchal constructions of masculinity and femininity.”
It is intimacy and tenderness that so many girls and young women say they are looking for. A young woman told me that on dating sites she lists under “fetish” wanting to stare longingly into someone’s eyes and to take sex slow. She said if she didn’t put these desires in the “fetish” category, they wouldn’t warrant a second glance.
But how will young women find these sensual, slow-burn experiences in men indoctrinated by pornography? Psychologist Philip Zimbardo says of young men: “They don’t know the language of face to face contact … Constant arousal, change, novelty excitement makes them out of sync with slow developing relationships – relationships which build slowly.”
It is wrong to leave sexual formation in the hands of the global sex industry. We need to do more to help young people stand up against warped notions of sexuality conveyed in pornography.
Fortunately, the ill-effects of the pornographic experiment on relationships and sexuality are being named out loud. A groundbreaking Australia-first symposium on the issue was held at UNSW last month, to a standing room crowd, and a current Senate inquiry is gathering evidence of the distorting harmful impacts of porn on our young people.
Most importantly, it’s young people themselves demanding change. Josie, 18, is quoted in the Plan Australia/Our Watch report:
“We need some sort of crack down on the violent pornography that is currently accessible to boys and men. This violent pornography should be illegal to make or view in Australia as we clearly have a problem with violence and boys are watching a lot of pornography which can be very violent … This is influencing men’s attitude towards women and what they think is acceptable. Violent pornography is infiltrating Australian relationships.”
We hope this inquiry won’t go the way of all the others before it – doing nothing to rein in the vested interests of marketers, advertisers and the media and allowing business as usual, despite the growing body of global evidence of the harms to young people due to the proliferation of hypersexual images and messages inundating them daily.
Children and young people are growing up in a high-tech culture steeped in relentlessly sexualised, sexualising and sexist messaging from media, advertising and popular culture which conditions them from a young age to view themselves and others in terms of their appearance and sexual currency. While women and girls are primarily the subjects of hyper-sexualised media representation, these messages also play a crucial part in socialising men and boys to see the sexual objectification of women and girls as normal.
Many adults are overwhelmed by the task of protecting and equipping children as they navigate the contemporary media and social landscape. The current legislative and regulatory environment is piecemeal, confusing for the community to navigate, and tends to serve the commercial advantage of corporate and marketing interests to the detriment of the community – children and young people in particular. Despite a number of state and federal inquiries demonstrating the need for systemic reform, media classification and self-regulatory schemes have failed to halt or even slow the proliferation of imagery and messaging through electronic, print and social media and marketing that demeans women, reduces them to sexual objects, fosters a culture which condones sexual violence, and pressures young girls to act in prematurely sexual ways.
Collective Shout is critical of the self-regulatory system currently favoured in media and advertising, which allows free rein to marketers while placing the burden of action on those most at risk of exploitation and harm. In particular, we are concerned about the lack of effective incentive or enforcement to deter those who are making a profit from the sexualisation of children and young people. Media and advertising interests have had ample opportunity to hear and act on community concerns but have instead have chosen to protect their vested interests. It is time for government to step in and act on behalf of children and young people
Recognition of the harms of sexualisation as a public health crisis requiring swift and decisive action on behalf of children and young people.
The restructuring of the current regulatory environment to bring the regulation of all media and marketing together under one encompassing independent federal regulator, including a division with the primary responsibility of protecting the interests of children and young people, addressing both the direct and indirect sexualisation of children in all media modes from a child-rights basis.
Equipping parents and carers with the appropriate media literacy tool and institutional supports, to raise children who have the ability to be critical consumers and creators of media.
The evaluation and implementation of appropriate school-based education programs to educate children and young people about the harms of sexualisation, and funding to help schools secure these resources.
For a child-rights based approach to addressing the harms of media hypersexualisation, including respect for the voices and points of view of children and young people.
That the prevalence of sexualised images of women in our society be recognised as a significant underlying contributor to violence against women and girls.
The commissioning of comprehensive research to establish the extent of the exposure of children and young people in NSW to sexualising media content. However, this research should not preclude swift government action on the basis of the evidence that already exists.
*Full submission will be made available when it appears in submission listings on the NSW Parliament website.
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