Last year we exposed global dancewear company California Kisses for posting sexualised images of underage and even pre-teen girls on their Instagram – images that attracted hundreds of comments of a sexual nature from adult men which CK failed to even moderate.
But it seems the message is not getting through. Yet another dance wear company (which also sells swimwear) is regularly posting sexualised photos of underage girls on its popular social media account. Frilledneck Fashion is an Australian company trading online internationally.
Note how the young girls pictured are dressed, styled and posed. Even when dressed in dancewear, girls are not depicted dancing (see the image above of the girl in red lying supine with an arched back.) Clothing is designed to emphasise certain parts of the body, drawing attention to adult, sexual features children do not yet possess. Girls replicate poses and sultry facial expressions that would be common in sexy adult female models. There are many other examples of even younger girls we have chosen not to show.
It is important to remember also that these images are carefully constructed. Every detail is deliberate, designed this way to sell a product. This is not about girls’ self-expression, this is about adults directing them children in costuming, how to pose and how to look at the camera. This is not how children look playing at the beach.
This comes in the wake of advice from E-Safety Commissioner Alistair MacGibbon, who warned that images on children online were increasingly being co-opted and misused by paedophiles. Does Frilledneck Fashion not care about where images of its young models might end up?
According to the American Psychological Association’s 2007 Task Force into the sexualisation of girls, sexualisation occurs when:
a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person
Sexualisation is not the same as healthy sexuality, or natural, age appropriate curiosity and discovery. Child directed play, dress ups and trying on mum’s lipstick and high heels does not constitute sexualisation. There are several common misconceptions or defences for sexualisation we’ve addressed below.
“Sexualisation is in the eye of the beholder”
Micki Wood, mother of US child beauty pageant star Eden Wood, made this same argument in response to child advocates and health professionals who spoke out against sexualising and exploitative pageants, claiming that if an individual looks at a child and thinks ‘sex’ the problem is with them. At this time Eden was six years old and famous for her Vegas showgirl routine.
This notion that viewers are simply choosing to view children though a sexualised lens is a deliberate misrepresentation of the issue, one that obscures reality in such a way as to let advertisers and marketers off the hook completely, as if deliberately contrived ads somehow happened by accident and viewers are seeing something that isn’t there. This argument is either disingenuous or indicates a lack of understanding into the significant global body of research into the harms of sexualisation. (See our resources page for more.)
“Critiquing sexualisation = shaming girls”
A common refrain is that to acknowledge sexualised clothing is to ‘shame’ girls for their choices. The fact is, the sexualisation of girls has very little to do with girls choices, and much more to do with adults- companies, advertisers and marketers- whose financial interests are at stake, as can be seen here- corporations who make choices to sexualise girls for their own financial gain.
Calling out retailers that manufacture and sell padded push-up bras and g-strings for pre-pubescent girls, clothing and underwear with sexualised and suggestive slogans and merchandise embedded with the logo of global pornography brand Playboy is not shaming girls. It is holding these companies accountable.
“Critiquing sexualisation = victim blaming”
Another accusation from sexualisation deniers is that accurately labelling children’s clothing as sexualised is tantamount to arguing children are inviting sexual attention or even sexual assaults from grown men. Identifying sexualisation and outlining the harms for girls is in no way suggesting girls or victims are responsible for crimes against them. What the research does indicate, however, is that the sexualisation of children may play a role in ‘grooming’ children for abuse.
Dr Emma Rush, co-author of Corporate Paedophila report said, “Premature sexualisation also erases the line between who is and is not sexually mature, and as such, may increase the risk of child sexual abuse by undermining the important social norm that children are sexually unavailable.”
The American Psychologial Association concluded that “Ample evidence testing these theories indicates that sexualisation has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality and attitudes and beliefs.”
We contacted Frilledneck in early June with our concerns. So far they have ignored us.
Genevieve, 33, was sexually abused by men when she was between the ages of 2 and 16 in New South Wales. Bred by her father specifically to be abused, she has suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dissociation, flashbacks, and an eating disorder. Many times she wanted to end her life. Last year she almost succeeded.
Charlotte, 27, has also suffered for years as a result of childhood abuse for more than ten years, beginning when she was 2, at the hands of her father, uncle, family friend and strangers in Queensland. She has endured PTSD, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, anxiety and depression. More than once she has made attempts on her life.
Ally Marie, 44, was sexually abused throughout her childhood by men in her adoptive parent’s church. She has spent years in and out of mental hospitals in New Zealand and Western Australia; she abused drugs and alcohol to numb her pain and also struggled with suicidal thoughts.
What these three women have in common – in addition to histories of sexual abuse – is a deep grief and profound horror that another victim of abuse, a 20-year-old Belgian woman, was killed by lethal injection after medical professionals determined this was a suitable treatment to end her suffering. (Her death took place last year, but the Dutch Euthanasia Commission has only recently released its report.)
The young woman had been sexually abused between the ages of 5 and 15. She suffered PTSD, severe anorexia, chronic depression, hallucinations, suicidal mood swings, self-harming tendencies and obsessive compulsive behaviours. Her psychiatrist declared that there was no prospect of recovery. Doctors believed the woman to be “fully competent with no major depression or mood disorders affecting her thinking” that she wanted death – which makes no sense, given her many diagnoses.
“I’m horrified,” says the mother-of-one Genevieve from Queensland, who I met recently.
“It’s abominable. She was only 20! No 20-year-old with sound mind says ‘I choose euthanasia over living’. Yes, it’s a failure of the medical profession. It’s also a failure of humanity. The decision to kill her says to the rest of us: there is no hope, your life doesn’t matter! You are beyond repair, we have nothing to offer you. It tells us we are leeches who should be eradicated.”
A nursing graduate hoping to work in acute mental health care for young adults, Genevieve has first-hand experience of how difficult it is for survivors to get the specialist trauma care they need. She pays $200 a fortnight to access the specialist medical help she needs through the private health system, which she can’t get through public services. She says survivors are made to feel like burdens:
“Instead of finding alternatives and offering real hope, this decision says ‘let’s just eradicate this person, it will cost less’. Doctors don’t have to deal with what caused this person to become like this in the first place. If society says ‘This is OK’, it becomes acceptable. There is no longer a deterrent to ending your life. Our suffering makes us feel isolated and lonely. It’s taboo to talk about what happened to you. We are made to feel we are too hard. But we need to hear there is hope, keep going, things will get better. We need people who will come alongside and say ‘We can do life together’. We need a community, a network, so we don’t feel like an island.”
Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie feel strongly that the 20-year-old lacked these necessary supports. And like many others on the long journey of recover from abuse, they know that if euthanasia – the medicalised killing of another person – had been legally available, they themselves may not have been with us today to stand as survivors. If their community and the medical profession had offered death as a compassionate resolution to their suffering, they may well have stepped from suicidal ideation into death.
I know Charlotte as a contributor to Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade – so many child abuse survivors end up in the prostitution industry. She was distressed when reading about the end of life of another abuse victim. While the intensity of suffering echoed her own wounds, she says she has been encouraged to live, not die, helped through regular therapy, the support of loving friends, her teaching studies and her dog. As she writes about overcoming a desire to end it all:
“the knowledge that I came so close to dying fills me with sorrow. I am very lucky and grateful to still be here today. There are so many beautiful and wonderful things in life that I would have missed out on, and it is those moments which make recovery that little bit easier … No one should ever be made to feel as though suicide is an option.”
Ally Marie also recalls a childhood destroyed by sexual, physical and emotional abuse. She has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals much of her life. “Had someone given me a needle back then to end it all I would have gratefully accepted,” says Ally Marie, who now has nine children as well as running her own business helping women reach their goals.
“Thank God they didn’t. Thank God I am alive to share my story. Because now I am grateful as I look at my beautiful family I created, as I look around at the lives I can change with my story … What happened to this girl is murderous. Who are you to anticipate what her future holds? I was this young girl but I found my way and pulled through.”
The Belgian woman is not an isolated case. Among psychiatric patients receiving euthanasia in the Netherlands, most are women. A study published this year showed that PTSD and anxiety were prominent in such cases between 2011 and 2014. Four women were cognitively impaired, some had eating disorders, others prolonged grief. More than half were lonely and isolated. In one case, the report says, “The patient indicated that she had had a life without love and therefore had no right to exist.”
Sydney academic Katrina George has analysed criminological data from around the world to show that euthanasia of women is overwhelmingly at the hands of men. Patterns of assisted death in women reflect that of violence against women. The data simply doesn’t support the tidy theory of autonomy, choice and control put forward by euthanasia advocates.
Two of the most heartbreaking cases reveal how the cause of euthanasia becomes more important than the lives of women. A young Indian woman, Aruna Shanbaug, was brutally sexually assaulted 40 years ago and died last year. She became the inspiration for euthanasia laws, rather than for a campaign to fight violence against women, “a cause much more bitter than passive euthanasia.”
Nathan Verhelst was born as Nancy, a Belgian girl unwanted by her mother (“If only you had been a boy”) and sexually abused by her brothers from the age of twelve. Later in life, as a transsexual, Nathan underwent hormone therapy, a mastectomy, and failed surgery to construct a penis. He was euthanised at his own request in 2013. “I did not want to be a monster … I had happy times, but the balance is on the wrong side,” he said in an interview hours before his death. “I was the girl that nobody wanted.” His close friend Marisol later said, “If his family didn’t hurt him so much, he wouldn’t have wanted [euthanasia]. I don’t like the idea that you give your life because other people broke your life.”
If death is sought/offered to escape the pain of sexual abuse, incest, rejection, loneliness, what kind of choice is that?
Reforms to allow euthanasia in Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria are likely to be debated this year, and Senator Leyonhjelm and the Greens want to give the Territories the power to legalise euthanasia. While suicide itself has long been legal throughout Australia – attempted suicide attracts no penalty or consequence – they want medical killing legalised.
Troubled teenagers will not be eligible (though Philip Nitschke continues to promote his suicide bag for them) but patients with “intolerable” psychological conditions might be. Already, Australian teens and young adults are increasingly taking their own lives with the drug recommended by Nitschke’s euthanasia groups.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, the laws were originally very strict and limiting. But over time they have relaxed to include those people without a terminally ill condition: teens; children; babies; abused, lonely, isolated women.
It is no stretch to imagine that a young woman with PTSD, a survivor of sexual abuse, might qualify for euthanasia in Australia in the future especially in an environment of over-stretched and under-funded mental health systems.
Aside from system failures, we need to look more closely at our own attitudes. There is a subtle discrimination in favour of able-bodied people – ableism – so well described by Shakira Hussein. The able-bodied cannot imagine living with a permanent physical or psychological disability.
The response from the online blogs and forums of people recovering from abuse and PTSD challenge these attitudes. Most have condemning the killing of this young woman. Like Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie, they have shared how glad they are not to have been tempted with a death-inducing injection:
“I’m still alive and I can think and feel and love and do all the things I thought I’d never be able to.” (Jenn Selby)
“As someone who suffered severe depression throughout almost two decades (on and off), but who is now free from it through learned insights and changes to core beliefs, and has the tools to prevent myself ever getting to that place of no hope again, I find it very alarming that people are condoning assisted suicide for sufferers of mental illness. I believe it is an illness that is curable, therefore helping someone end their life before they may have found the tools, insight, help they need to help themselves out of the hole, is tragic. While it may have taken me 17 years to get to where I am today, and while I used to believe I would continue to suffer through, and have to manage my depression, for the rest of my life, I am now in a very different place. There were a number of times that I got so low, for so long, that I wanted to end things, but taking the next step to actually do that yourself is a big step. If society’s perception was that it’s normal to end the suffering, and they could assist me in doing so, easily and painlessly, then I probably would have taken that option and wouldn’t be here today. Which would mean I would have missed out on another 50 – 60 years (hopefully) of life, free from that level of debilitating depression. That would be a tragedy.” (Alison – posted privately on Facebook; quoted with permission)
“In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I could recover from a significant PTSD diagnosis. It took years and a chance meeting with a psychiatrist who was able to offer me the therapy I needed but had been unable to access before that time. In my 20s, any option was a good option to break free of the exhausting battle. I remember feeling deflated that I woke up in ICU, a failure even in trying to end my life. In my 40s, I thank God for not having been offered help to end my life and always encouragement that others depended on me to live and live well. Now, I have beautiful children, an incredibly patient and loving husband and LIFE. Once, I never thought I could say that. I have life and am more than my damaged mind. I am terribly sad that this young woman, whose living hell I am not trying to minimise, did not have the opportunity to know that there was more.” (Gabrielle – on the Women’s Bioethics Alliance Facebook page)
“At my worst, I remember feeling an almost ‘logical’ desire to commit suicide … Now I see that thinking as one of the tricks that PTSD plays on you, that you start to think suffering is the only path and death doesn’t seem so bad … For three decades this option would have been a gift to me, not a punishment. I’m immensely grateful that this was not an option because I’m starting to enjoy living.” (“RuthieJujube”)
“PTSD is not a ‘mental illness’ we are born with. You take a perfectly healthy person/child and expose them to unspeakable horror and they develop PTSD. We were each born healthy and we owe it to ourselves to find the way back to our core self – before we were hurt. Call me whatever but I still have hope for each and every one of us. We deserve it. Suicide lets them win … What heals PTSD sufferers is connection, safety, and community.
“The world needs PTSD survivors. Yes, I contend that it needs us. Think about a world where people could be traumatized and then get help to end their lives as a solution to the deep wounds and costs of that trauma. That’s not good for society as a whole … Many movements to end traumatic things on this planet were started, if not led, by people who had survived trauma and were forever changed by it … But by making it legal for doctors to help we would be sanctioning it as a society and saying ‘this is ok’ and we can’t afford the deep cost of sending that message. It’s not just about adults who have been traumatized, but kids too. They need to grow up in a world where we will fight to protect them, not send the unintentional message that their life is not worth living if they are shaken to the core by trauma. We need to send the message that their life matters, period.” (“Justmehere“)
The suffering of women and children is perpetrated in a culture which too often overlooks the violence against them. The State, rather than dealing with the offences, properly punishing abuses, providing every care for survivors, instead may offer them an individual way out of a problem it has helped tacitly to facilitate. It becomes a personal rather than a collective problem. How is it that so many men can continue to abuse so many little girls in a global avalanche of sexual abuse? How is this not everyone’s problem?
Is death the best we can offer? Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie and the many others like them need to hear: Stay here with us. We will help you, not with a needle, but with everything you need to become well.
Time for a new code of practice to stop sexualisation of girls in an unregulated industry
In 20 years of involvement in Australia’s dance industry, I have seen first hand the impacts on girls and young women, as a result of the imposition of hyper-sexualised messages – from broader culture of course. But also from within the industry I love. Too many girls are expected to engage with adultified choreography, costuming, music and language. From body weight obsession and appearance dissatisfaction, to ‘yo yo’ dieting, anxiety and other poor mental health outcomes, the consequences of growing up in an environment conditioned by the sexualised pressures young dancers absorb, will only become more prevalent if we don’t act soon.
In April 2015, the first of a series of articles I had written surrounding the sexualisation of children in the industry was published here on MTR. Titled ‘The Sexification of Young Dancers Inside Australia’s Booming Dance Studio Scene’, the article gained traction quickly – reaching thousands of readers nationwide and attracting mainstream media attention. It was said to have generated the largest and most widespread discussion so far on the state of children’s dance education. What was originally a final assignment to complete my Journalism degree, it so very nearly was filed to collect dust and remain unread before I sent it on to MTR, in the hope she might be interested.
The article’s publication has now lead to my involvement in a national call for a total overhaul of the industry as it relates to children.
With over 418,000 children enrolled in dance across the country, the industry is quite possibly the largest unregulated child-related industry in Australia. Detrimental consequences of the industry’s self-regulatory state are reflected in the sentencing of prominent Sydney dance teacher Grant Davies who has pled guilty to 47 charges of child pornography and sexual abuse.
Dance educators have a significant responsibility to actively safeguard the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of all children within their care. It is in recognition of this responsibility, and my passion to see our young people thriving in the safest, most positive and supportive environments possible, that I have written a proposed ‘Code of Practice’ for dance educators and service providers. The code is an ethical framework designed to specifically combat sexualisation and harmful messages in children’s dance education, and empower teachers to adopt practices that holistically safeguard the well-being of our young people.
Such a policy does not exist. A governing authority to implement a policy in the 6,000 studios across Australia does not exist, and the Department of Education do not have a dance-specific policy in place for their in-school programs.
Until this day arrives, I and other concerned people have launched an association to bring this proposed policy to the Australian community. KidsPace Code Incorporated was set up in NSW March 2 and has developed the KidsPace Dance Code of Practice, which is included in a submission to the current NSW State Parliament inquiry into Sexualisation of Children and Young People. With the endorsement of well known and respected psychologist Steve Biddulph AM and a committee of passionate people from a range of sectors including education, welfare and child safety, we are excited to play our part in ensuring young dancers are thriving in positive, safe and supportive environments.
Parents, studio directors, teachers, school principals and anyone involved in the provision of children’s dance education can head to the website and register their interest to view the code.
Jemma Nicoll is a UTS Journalism graduate and freelance writer. She directs Inspire Creative Arts, a dance school in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire and is involved in mentoring and self-esteem development programs for girls.
If you are an artist and you abuse a child, never fear: the art world has your back, writes Melinda Tankard Reist.
Artists who commit sexual violations are too often considered above the law and deserving of special treatment.
Their brilliance is given deferential treatment: they exist in another moral universe where the rules governing everyone else don’t apply. Oddly, this deference does not apply to parking tickets.
Whether the art objects are photographs, films, pieces of pottery or woven tapestries, their makers are often bestowed with godlike qualities. Queensland art gallery owner Andrew Baker describes Torres Strait Islander printmaker and sculptor Dennis Nona, for example, as having ‘invented the visual language of his people’. Simon Wright, author of Dennis Nona: Time After Time, marvels about Nona’s ‘reckoning of the universal lay fertile”.
When Nona, 42, was jailed for multiple child rapes in 2014 – he challenged the conviction, but lost his appeal in July – members of the art world rushed to prop up their idol. Art history professor Sasha Grishin, for example, wrote that he was “not in any way disputing the seriousness of the crimes” for which Nona was convicted, but insisted that he was “the most important artist to emerge from the Torres Strait in the past 50 years”.
Cairns Regional Gallery director Andrea May Churcher stated that art, over time, has a life beyond its creators, and that Nona’s objects should still be seen as “an important part of our cultural heritage and works”.
With so many accolades, the sexual torture of children is rendered almost subordinate.
Art historian and valuer Frances Cummings said he was “very supportive” of Nona: “He is a genius of an artist and the things he committed were when he was a very young man.”
Nona’s former arts manager, Michael Kershaw, told the ACT Supreme Court that Nona was a ‘role model’. With so many accolades, the sexual torture of children is rendered almost subordinate. Perhaps we need to be reminded of what Nona did.
In 1995, Nona moved in with a mother and two teenage daughters while attending a Canberra art school. He raped one of the girls over the course of a year until she became pregnant at the age of 13 and was reported to child protection services. (The pregnancy was terminated at 23 weeks. In the words of the judge, the girl “underwent a late stage termination, which was not a straightforward procedure”).
Court records indicate that harm to the girl has been long lasting in the terrible damage it has done to her. She has suffered suicidal thoughts.
In 2004 and again in 2006, Nona was arrested on a domestic violence offence as well as an assault against a woman who refused to have sex with him. A domestic violence order was served on him in 2006.
Nona has not just been propped up by bigwigs of the Australian art world. A 2012 court judgment records that “senior officers of the AFP… for reasons of convenience or, most likely, expense” did not charge Nona with child rape offences in 1998, despite their having “evidence that the applicant had the opportunity to commit the offences”, and “extremely strong DNA evidence” of his responsibility for the pregnancy.
In the judgment, the presiding judge acknowledged that many people would find this decision by the AFP “inappropriate, if not shocking”. Shocking or not, the Australian art world was the beneficiary of the AFP decision, because Nona’s exhibitions continued in Australia and overseas.
The Australian painter Donald Friend was a self-confessed paedophile.
Even when police finally charged Nona, he pleaded not guilty, made an application for a permanent stay of proceedings under the Human Rights Act, and failed to show remorse.
Other artists have played the art card throughout a life of the sexual abuse of others, without any such call to justice. For example, the Australian painter Donald Friend was a self-confessed paedophile. A documentary produced by Kerry Negara reported Friend’s boast, in his own diaries, of frequent sex with boys as young as nine and 10 while living in Bali.
A prominent curator, Barry Pearce, responded that paedophilia was not black and white – that Friend’s paedophilia was “on the light side of penumbra” and Friend was merely interested in notions of youth and the ideal of the beauty of the body.
In contrast, the Balinese boys – now grown – said that they felt exploited and harmed by the experience of being “appreciated” for their beauty by Friend. But Pearce said to call Friend a paedophile would be “shocking”.
At the same time, the Australian art world is backed by public institutions that promulgate their sexual values.
The “roll-over” feature of the National Gallery of Victoria website allows viewers to zoom in on the naked body of an underage girl, without any cautions or caveats about the digitalised collection, the identities of the children pictured, or any indication of the controversy around the photographs displayed.
The roll-over pictures are part of the 1985 “TCM” series that Bill Henson gave to the gallery in 2007, before it auctioned off some works in the series in 2008 (another earlier auctioned image was of an underage girl lying on her back naked, with legs spread).
The Australian art world staunchly defends Henson’s activities in producing and disseminating these pictures. Tolarno Galleries refused to reveal the age of the youngest naked girl in its exhibition.
Filmmaker Roman Polanski raped and sodomised a 13-year-old – whom he had lured to a photoshoot – after giving her alcohol and a quaalude, while she begged to be released. He faced charges and fled to Europe because a judge suggested he might put Polanski in prison.
Polanski’s defenders described him as a persecuted victim: he was such a wonderful person and how tawdry was it that he should be subjected to the law, and what a nightmare for the poor genius. He continues to be a celebrated director.
Gore Vidal was quoted in The Atlantic as saying: “I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?”
No amount of whitewashing by the art establishment should be allowed to disguise the reality of the suffering of real victims.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the recent sentencing of Daniel Morcombe’s killer along with the imprisonment last week of former television star Robert Hughes after being found guilty of nine sex offense against three underage girls, have all heightened public attention on the scourge of child sexual assault.
There is deep distress in the community that defenceless children are used in such evil ways. But the broader culture that encourages the abuse of the children goes unaddressed. The same loathing that is directed toward child sexual abuse has not been extended to the mainstream promotion of paedophilic fantasies for profit.
Predators are emboldened and more networked through thriving internet child porn rings. But there are other drivers of the trade in children’s bodies. Products in local newsagencies, milk bars and retail outlets and online, normalise and eroticise child sexual assault.
Bookworld, Barnes & Noble and Amazon have been exposed for selling hundreds of rape and incest titles in categories emphasising terms like “taboo,” “forced,” and “reluctant.” Titles included Daddy takes my Virginity, Daddy forces himself on little teen, Daddy’s Sex Slave and I tempted Daddy.
On the same site as Bookworld’s Father and Daughter Erotica section, was Repair Your Life: A Program for Recovery from Incest and Childhood Abuse. There are currently 30 titles listed under ‘‘Daddy Fantasy’’.
Amazon was forced to withdraw The Paedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Childlover’s Code of Conduct, written by a paedophile. But other pro-paedophile titles continue to be promoted.
Novels with incest themes typically eroticise sex between an older male relative, a father or sometimes uncle, and a young, virginal daughter or niece. We know that the prevalence of abuse by men known to victims, such as family members, is particularly high. So why allow publications that normalise it? Read more
As published in the Sydney Morning Herald 14 April 2014
(90 min feature followed by panel discussion with Melinda Tankard Reist, Calvin Taylor and others)
Where: Crossway Centre Main Auditorium
2 Vision Drive,
Burwood East, 3151
Cost: Gold coin donation at the door (all proceeds go to Collective Shout)
Like drawing back a curtain to let bright light stream in, Miss Representation (87 min; TV-14 DL) uncovers a glaring reality we live with every day but fail to see. Written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. The film challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself.
In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that our young women and men overwhelmingly receive is that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader. While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have disordered eating behaviors.
Stories from teenage girls and provocative interviews with politicians, journalists, entertainers, activists and academics, like Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and Gloria Steinem build momentum as Miss Representation accumulates startling facts and statistics that will leave the audience shaken and armed with a new perspective.
A world without rapists would be a world in which women moved freely without fear of men. That some men rape provides a sufficient threat to keep all women in a constant state of intimidation, forever conscious of the knowledge that the biological tool must be held in awe, for it may turn to weapon with sudden swiftness born of harmful intent … Rather than society’s aberrants or ‘spoilers of purity’, men who commit rape have served in effect as front-line masculine shock troops, terrorist guerrillas in the longest battle the world has ever known.
—Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975, p. 15)
Living in a rape culture means adjusting to being hyper-vigilant about male violence to the point where risk management becomes second nature. It means living with the continuum of male sexual violence on a daily basis, from creepy and threatening looks and comments in the street, home and workplace, to online rape threats, attempted assault and actual assault. It means inhabiting a paradoxical space where the rape and murder of women is prohibited but everywhere eroticised and the object of laughter.
To take just one example of rape culture, the globally popular American fantasy series Game of Thronesfeatures a blond child bride being continually raped by her warlord husband. “But it’s all ok because a prostitute slave teaches the thirteen-year-old princess super sexy sex skills, and she proceeds to blow the warlord’s mind so throughly [sic] that they fall in love,” notes feminist Laurie Penny (2012)
Many men, when asked a simple question about why male domination exists, reply that it is because men are stronger than women. This answer seems innocuously simple-minded, but the explanatory statement that ‘men have power over women because they are physically stronger than women’ also means ‘men can rape and kill women if they want to’. There is no point replying that it is illegal to rape and kill women. The law does not come into it at all. It is as though the legal prohibitions against male sexual violence are little more than the sales pitch of a corporation eager to hide its criminal intent behind images of satisfied customers.
The majority of victims do not report, and the majority of rapists walk free (Miller et al., 2011; Fayard and Rocheron, 2011; Belknap, 2010). As the title of a 2013 articleby Nigel Morris in The Independent puts it: ‘100,000 assaults. 1,000 rapists sentenced. Shockingly low conviction rates revealed. Latest statistics also show difficulties in persuading victims to report attacks’. Although media attention on particular rapes occasionally stirs up public debate, these rapes are the exception to the norm simply because victims have broken their silence and the criminal justice system has been involved. One cannot but wonder how many people know of, or are friends with, men who have sexually assaulted women and children, and yet do nothing about it.
It has only been since the 1960s and 1970s that most western women have been able to work outside the home without needing permission from their husbands/owners. It is only in the last few decades that marital rape has been recognised in some nations as a human rights violation. In Australiamarital rape was outlawed as late as 1991 (Temkin, 2002). As late as 1993 the United Nations published the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In many countries young girls are still forced to marry their rapists.
Raping women and children continues to be a lethal form of oppression in advanced neo-liberal democracies. Victims of male sexual violence continue to be branded as ‘damaged goods’ and re-abused in the criminal justice system to such an extent that the majority of victims simply give up and opt out of the legal process (Fisher et al., 2000; Fisher et al., 2003). Lawyers are often reluctant to take on rape cases because they know they are difficult to win. Child victims of male sexual violence are subjected to ritualistic humiliation in courts (Taylor, 2004). Child pornography victims are subjected to malicious attacks by bourgeois academics in high-ranking American legal journals (Lollar, 2012).
Young women, who sustain the majority of sexual assaults, not only endure court-licensed abuse, but they are now also bullied online for daring to speak out. Raped girls are urged to kill themselves by pack verbal abuse that is all too often uttered as mocking jokes (Salek, 2013). Victim-blaming has become lethal.
In a novel by feminist academic Yvette Rocheron, Double Crossings (2009), a mother decides to commit suicide after she is brutally raped by a cousin, knowing that, if she lives, the crime will destroy her family and her life. “For her loved ones, a sublime act of love … She would go down knowingly … [T]he vitriolic defacement of women, the misguided abortions, the rapes. She was a thousand years old” (p. 271). There is no humour in this novel as the mother leaps to her death, merely a solemn awareness of the barbarism of a crime against women that leaves the murderous poison of social death in her body.
I have lost count of how many women—friends, students, colleagues, relatives, and acquaintances—have told me they have been raped. All of the rapists have gotten away with it while the women are burdened with years of unspeakable shame and self-hatred, or shunned by their families for daring to speak out about male relatives who raped them. The stories involve horrendous child sexual abuse, rape at knifepoint, abductions in vans, group rapes, women being drugged and raped, rapes by colleagues, partners and ex-partners. A woman who was raped by her grandfather told me recently that it took her 30 years to understand that her body belonged to her. Another woman, a feminist activist and journalist, after going public about being raped at knifepoint, was subjected to online abuse along the lines that she should be ‘raped with a box cutter’. When I read the comment about the box cutter it took a few moments to sink in that the man who had posted the comment was saying that he wanted to butcher her vagina with a knife. Not surprisingly, many women keep quiet about being sexually assaulted. And all of this occurs in a world in which women who speak out about male sexual violence, or any form of male domination, are routinely subjected to online rape threats (Lewis, 2011). Again, the majority of threats never result in prosecution and women are often told to ‘get over it’, ‘toughen up’ or ‘lighten up’ or have sex with a man. ‘She just needs a good fuck’, is how the all too familiar saying goes … Oddly, having sex with men is meant to dispel fear of being raped, as though women who have an accurate assessment of the dangers of rape culture are hysterics who just need sex. The idea that women enjoy being raped still persists (Suarez and Gadalla, 2010); and if women are assumed to enjoy being raped then their protests about being harmed by rape can easily be reduced to a farce.
More about Abigail’s book and how to order can be found here.
Last month I posted a piece by a woman named Carrie, who was sold by her father into prostitution at the age of 9. She wrote about our amazing reunion 14 years after I was involved in attempts to secure asylum for her and her unborn child. I said then: “Her story is remarkable. Her suffering indescribable. Her resilience and love for life unmatchable.” Since our reunion Carrie has started to join me in my talks to students. Her story of survival and rising above great suffering, has blown the girls away (more on that later). Today she posted a piece on her blog, which took special courage. I wanted you to see how brave she is and hopefully be inspired to rise above personal difficulties and no longer be burdened by things of the past. You can also read her extraordinary poem ‘Sold’ here.
LITTLE GIRL LOST – IF I KNEW THEN WHAT I KNOW NOW
Last week I shared my story for the first time so candidly with a group of grade 10 girls. A few days prior to the school visit I had written my most vulnerable blog entry but hadn’t the courage to publish it. I figured, if I was brave enough to share it with the girls and their response was favorable, I would ‘dare greatly’ and put it out there. In my wildest dreams, their reaction to me could never be as astounding as it was. They have been so affirming in their acceptance of me that I found in them the courage I was lacking. So as promised to the girls and to myself, here is my most vulnerable piece to date.
I often wonder if men and boys ever consider the damage their unwanted hand on the unwilling bodies and souls of girls does to us. Would they still abuse, degrade and objectify even if they knew the end result 100% of the time at the very least leads to shame? And at the worse leads to irreparable damage to the girl’s self worth. How she views her body. How it impacts her sexuality and spirituality. Impairs her ability to trust and be intimate and many times threatens her desire to even live?
Shame is a topic I have become somewhat of an expert on during the course of my life. I remember the first time I felt it, how it consumed me, how it made me view myself as unloveable and how it kept me disconnected and silent for years…
…As a child, I walked around in a state of such dissociation, I often wondered what it felt like to be alive. I would watch other kids play while I sat on the sidelines pulling out my eyelashes and have no ability to connect with their joy. Other times, I would somehow manage to play but it was never really me doing it. Even when I laughed, a sound and expression so foreign to me in my early years, I remained so far away that I became the silent observer to the shell of myself that showed up every day in the world to represent the facade.
As a teenager, I got even better at sending the “representative” girl out into the world. My humor became the lie that would hide the truth of my pain. I knew what I was hiding no person would understand, and so for years I stayed silent. Out of fear of the threats I received and most probably because I believed at a deep level I was as bad as I was told. And so I would try to be as good as my damaged soul allowed. But anger consumed me, shame blinded me to my own potential and I hated myself for existing. I hated my mother for hating me, I hated my sister for all the times I protected her and I hated my father for destroying my soul daily before the divorce and then every other weekend there after. But mostly I hated life for not ever giving me a chance to become the person I could have been had it been different for me. Read full post on Carrie’s blog ‘Paving the road to freedom’.
We recently spoke out about online clothing retailer “Cafepress” advertising vulgar, sexualised clothing for babies and children on its website. Onesies that were made available online included “I Love sluts”…”blow job instructor” and “No gag reflex.” We shared an image of just some of these products on Facebook. Thousands shared the image online and voiced their shock and disgust to friends. Many wrote to Cafepress pledging never to shop with them again.
It was encouraging to see Cafe Press’s stated intention to remove the products. However weeks after the protest, it appears that Cafepress hasn’t taken this issue seriously at all. “Sexual humor baby clothing” is still a category of clothing on the site with thousands of items listed.
An article about Cafepress published in WA Today featured comments from Justine O’Malley from child abuse prevention organisation Protective Behaviours WA:
“They’re really inappropriate sexualised messages,” she said.
“Of course the infant themselves can’t read it, but other children might be able to and adults can read them; so we’re putting children in a sexualised space.
“Sex and children; those two things just don’t go together.”
You can hear more from Justine O’Malley in an interview on 6PR882 radio. Listen here.
You might like to ask Cafepress why sexualised, hardcore and violating children’s clothes are still available on its website. Contact them through the website here and on Facebook here.
I haven’t seen the latest photographs by artist Bill Henson to go on show at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne.
But I have seen these.
So I know what Henson is capable of and how he likes to depicts and shoot young girls.
The girl (image to the right) who featured naked on the invite to the Roslyn Oxley gallery was 13. While that photo was widely circulated, an even more graphic one of another girl (image to the left) was not. She is ‘Untitled 1985/86’, quietly auctioned by Menzies Art Brands, Lot 214, for $3800, only weeks after the original Henson controversy.
And when Tolarno Galleries refuses to reveal the age of the youngest naked girl in the new exhibition, you have to suspect there is a problem. Why the secrecy? Was she at an age where she could consent? As respected teen psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg put it when I asked his view, would she “have sufficient cognitive or emotional maturity to fully comprehend the potential ramifications of what she is doing?”
Where will her photo end up? Where did the photos of the other two girls above end up?
Why does calling it “art” make sexualised depictions of young girls OK?
It is right to question Henson’s sexual depictions of vulnerable naked young girls – and other overtly sexualised imagery of children – a point I made on Channel 7’s Morning Show last Thursday. Media academic and researcher Nina Funnell also reveals here that Henson’s images have been found in the collections of paedophilies.
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