‘This book helps parents understand how we can win back girlhood – happy, wild and free. It’s the core of individuality and self-belief – and is the new feminism that we want for our daughters’
Globally renown psychologist and author Steve Biddulph has been a remarkable support for our movement Collective Shout since the earliest days. He not only cared about the cause, he cared about us, as the individual activists at the forefront of this new grassroots campaigning movement against sexualsation, objectification and pornification. I recall one of our first gatherings as a core team in Sydney, Steve leading us in a session not on how we could change the world, but how to look after ourselves while attempting it. Since that time, eight years ago, Steve has continued to check in, with wise advice and wisdom about self-sustainability for the long haul.
I was honoured when Steve asked me to write a chapter on ‘Girls and the online world’ for his 2013 book Raising Girls, a follow-up to his million-copy best seller Raising Boys. Now Steve has again featured my work in his latest title 10 Things Girls Need Most: And How They Will Help Her Throughout Her Life (Finch Publishing). This new title, available through Booktopia, is already on the best seller lists.
The book is interactive. “These interactive tasks immediately get you thinking about your own life, your family and, of course, your daughter… It provides the very best information that we have about girls growing up today – and, alongside, are interactive tasks and self-exploration practices will help you to put that into practice”, Steve says.
Steve describes the aims of the book:
“Firstly, to help you understand how daughters grow and thrive, and to be confident in raising your own. To lay down the foundations of good mental health early in your daughter’s life, and to keep her strong all the way through. And secondly, to enlist you in the new wave of feminism, fighting against a world that is so toxic to our kids.
We have the potential to change the world our daughters face. Girls are being exploited. We need to challenge the companies worldwide that profit from making girls insecure and compliant through manipulative marketing.
This book helps parents understand how we can win back girlhood – happy, wild and free. It’s the core of individuality and self-belief – and is the new feminism that we want for our daughters.”
Here’s an extract from the chapter describing my work with young people:
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
Melinda Tankard Reist is standing before an audience of two hundred girls aged from twelve to eighteen. Neat in their school uniforms, they are seated in curved rows on the floor. Uncharacteristically for this age group, they are utterly silent. Melinda is the founder of Collective Shout, a national network of young women campaigners against the sexual exploitation of women and girls. She will criss-cross to schools across the country giving this talk about ‘sex, porn and love’ dozens of times a year to girls of every ethnicity and demographic. When Melinda finishes speaking, the girls erupt in applause and besiege her with tearful thanks for her message. They will tell stories of their own experience – of being touched or assaulted by boys or men on public transport, of being leered at or spoken to obscenely in the schoolyard. Or, in their relationships with boyfriends, of feeling pressured into doing things they didn’t want to do, and of sexual encounters entered into happily and trustingly, where nice boys that they thought they could trust became aggressive, spoke demeaningly or physically hurt them.
When Melinda talks to boys about these issues, they often express shame and regret, recognizing they have acted in these ways, but not seeing how harmful and disrespectful their behaviour has been. They literally thought this was how you were supposed to treat girls.
The world our kids grow up in today sexually is not a happy place. Sex has been so misused, in advertising, the media and in music videos – and most powerfully of all in the torrent of online pornography – that it has badly distorted what young people think about how it works, and how it can be part of a caring, gradually unfolding relationship.
A recent study by the Burnet Institute in Sydney, Australia, found that 90 per cent of boys and 60 per cent of girls had encountered pornography between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. Thirteen was the average age of first exposure for boys. Forty-four per cent of older teenage boys watch porn weekly, and 37 per cent daily. This indicates a fair bit of exposure. Pornography is a vast and highly profitable industry. Our consumer society is industrializing sexuality, and the kids are its first trial run….
…for the boys who see these depictions, the women in pornography are paid to act as if they like and enjoy this treatment – slapping, strangling, hair-pulling, and being called abusive and demeaning names. For a fourteen-year-old boy the mislearning about what sex is like is bewildering, if not dangerous.
Here is what Melinda (and educators like her) report from talking to adolescent girls:
1. They are being increasingly and persistently pressured into sexual acts that they don’t want or enjoy. This pressure often becomes the central focus of the relationship with boys who they thought liked them or wanted to be with them.
2. When once teenagers enjoyed hours of kissing, or had a relationship consisting of talking, laughing, spending time together and snogging, this now doesn’t happen at all. It’s too much a delay in getting to the goal.
3. Sex isn’t really sexy any more. There is no sensuality, no body pleasure, no tenderness. You are meat to be used. The sex girls have with boys is fourth rate.
4. As a result, by sixteen or seventeen, girls are often totally disillusioned about sex, put off it by the dismal lack of skill, awareness or connection offered by the boys in their lives. It becomes a routine, dreary chore to put up with if you want to be in the company of a male. (How progressive and modern!)
5. Sexual relationships that start at fourteen or fifteen rarely last beyond a few weeks, often less. They create a lowered bar, a kind of resignation, and drift into multiple, equally empty relationships.
This doesn’t just affect the girls who are sexually active. The effect on the social world that all our daughters move in – at school, university or going out in public on the street – is that it is constantly sexualized in an invasive and uncomfortable way. A girl finds she is being ranked and compared on sexual criteria on social media or even to her face. Some boys feel that they are entitled to touch or grope girls, harass them or worse. Some men gaze invasively at girls without any sense of respect or protectiveness.
Girls lose a sense of agency or that their needs matter. Melinda hears girls talk about their first sexual experience, being anxious only about how it was for the boy. ’He seemed to like it.’ ‘I hope I looked OK.’ There is nothing about their own enjoyment.
By mid-secondary school, requests for naked ‘selfies’ come thick and fast. Boys expect this from a girl they are friends with. Girls ask: ‘How can I refuse without hurting his feelings?’ But those photos may be traded among boys, used as revenge, or to blackmail them into having sex, then shared anyway. Girls in many countries have taken their own lives because of the humiliation or betrayal they experience, the sense of having their selves taken away.
Another sad side effect, is that non-sexual, actual friendships – once a great part of being young, and a stepping stone to greater confidence – have almost disappeared as everyone thinks they are supposed to be sexual.
SO WHAT TO DO?
In the face of this avalanche of hurt, the answer that educators and activists are giving girls is on multiple fronts, but has a central core. It’s the thing that sends girls at Melinda’s talks into empowered assertion of their own feelings. You Don’t Have To. Your own sexual wishes, enjoyment, values, and choices, are what you have a right to stand up for. You aren’t in this world to satisfy boys.
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.
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.”
Company slammed for aiding sexual fantasies for young girls
On Tuesday night, young Melbourne supporter (and kayaking buddy) Verity Thompson sent me a link through Facebook messenger, to the website of Chemist Warehouse, which featured a disembodied ‘virgin pussy’ – a replica vagina of a young girl with ‘realistic hymen’ just waiting for a man to ‘pop’. Many people send me links to horrible things most days and while I (and Collective Shout) don’t have the resources to action everything, this product demanded a response. I shared with my activist colleagues and, within hours of us taking to social media about it, the product was removed from Chemist Warehouse’s site. While this once again demonstrates the power of collective action, we have to ask: why did Chemist Warehouse think this product was OK for them to flog in the first place? Where are its corporate ethics? And where is the Pharmacy Guild in all of this?
Here’s how News.com, Daily Mail and Smart Company reported on our win.
Chemist Warehouse pulls Virgin Pussy Palm Pal ‘realistic hymen’ sex toy from its website after backlash
Campaign group Collective Shout slammed the retailer for stocking the product.
“Since when have chemists become defacto sex shops? Chemists are supposed to be selling products with medicinal and health benefits, not promoting pedofilic fantasies and eroticising young girls for profit,” Melinda Tankard Reist, co-founder of Collective Shout, told news.com.au.
Ms Tankard Reist said she had seen similar sex toys before, including a “Lolita Teenage Vibrating Vagina” and “realistic” sex dolls made to look like nine-year-olds, but never at a chemist.
“We see a lot of horrible things in our line of work as you can imagine, but this is incredible. For a company that might want to be seen as having corporate social responsibility, this seems like a radical departure,” she said.
“Don’t they care about the wellbeing of girls in the community? Why would they want to contribute to these fantasies of young girls existing to be ‘popped’ or ‘deflowered’?”
Chemist Warehouse removes virgin sex toys following social media backlash and activist campaign
Caitlin Roper from Collective Shout told SmartCompanythis morning the product sexualises girls and was clearly inappropriate for a chemist to be selling.
“We come across some pretty awful things in the course of some of our other campaigns, but I think with this one I was really genuinely surprised to see this item sold by a chemist under the guise of sexual health,” Roper says.
“I thought, what does aiding men in their sexual fantasies for children have to do with their health or wellbeing? We have campaigns to shed light on this epidemic on child sex abuse in schools and churches, but as a culture we continue to sexualise girls and present them as sexually appealing and even available.”
‘We are enrolling them into a billion-dollar global industry that objectifies, oppresses and conditions women to believe they are created for sex’
The studio is dim. Neon lights flash around the room in a club-esque fashion. A swarm of what appears to be 6-year-old girls climb, twist and twirl around the floor-to-ceiling iconic poles that will be used for much more than monkey’s business once it’s past their bedtime. Dance attire for sale at this Bendigo, Victoria, pole dance studio include booty shorts with ‘Flirty’ plastered across the bottom.
“We didn’t want to get it mixed up with the concept of adult pole dancing,” says Saari Frochot-Ryan, owner and manager of Z Fit Studios, which hosts the ‘Monkey Kids’ pole program for children aged 3-11.
“The classes are completely child appropriate,” says Frochot-Ryan.
Z Fit Studios also offer ‘Teen Pole’ lessons, as well as a range of ‘naughty’, ‘sexy’ and ‘provocative’ adult classes. On the company’s website, this ad appears below the ‘Monkey Kids’ information:
According to The Project, in an episode last month, pole dancing is the booming new exercise fad for Australian children. Promoted as innocent child’s play, instructors promise a fun fitness experience with significant health benefits.
Welcome to the 21st Century: where we create a child-friendly replica of the most prevalent symbol of the adult entertainment industry and label it ‘fun’.
This is pornified culture disguised as a shiny after-school sport. It may be pole dancing training wheels now with upbeat music, neon colours, kindergarten giggles and games; but in a few years a riskier game begins.
Pole dancing has a long-standing association with the sex industry. It was hailed an icon in the burlesque scene throughout the 1950s, and by the 1960s was established worldwide in gentlemen’s clubs, strip joints and red light districts. Pole companies argue that its origins trace further back to the traditional Indian sport ‘Mallakhamb’: a strength training method executed on a vertical wooden pole.
What they fail to mention however, is that the sport was developed for male wrestlers and women were banned from participation. The sport was deemed culturally inappropriate for women due to the pole’s symbolism: a phallus, or spiritual representation of the male genitalia.
The pole permeates time and culture with the sinister notion that women are decorative objects to be twirled, twisted and tangled around; a global denotation of the way we reduce women to mere titillating instruments. The pole teases out the approval, gratification and sexual advances of a male audience who pay for this ‘entertainment’ around the globe; the exchange of cash for voyeuristic pleasure.
This history is now prettily packaged as a fun fitness opportunity for your child to achieve optimum strength, flexibility and coordination. Let’s take a look at what will be available for your daughter in a few short years.
At Pole Princess in Victoria, there are six class options available for teenage girls. They must have the written consent of parents to attend, and fathers are not permitted inside the studio. Aside from the ‘Sexy Legs’ and ‘Princess Workout’ classes, there is the ‘Booti-Funk’ option that, as stated on their site engages “sexy exotic movement.” Or your daughter could enrol in the ‘Burlesque’ lesson, which uses traditional burlesque choreography combined with “the sexy dancers of today, like the Pussy Cat Dolls.”
At Poleates in Blacktown NSW, girls as young as 15 are invited to participate as ‘pole virgins’ in the ‘Virgin’ class for beginner dancers.
Desert Pole Fitstate in their ‘Pole Fit for Kids’ advertisement that “in order to become a professional pole dancer, it is never too early to start.” Directly below this, a video plays of a dancer on her knees, seductively removing her skirt to reveal an underwear and stiletto combination, before launching onto the pole.
And over in Sydney’s north, teenage girls aged 13-16 can attend classes at Pol-arise. According to their website, girls will find themselves “developing washboard abs, tight toosh and a long, lean, sexy physique”, whilst simultaneously resolving “self-confidence and body confidence issues.” This is the image the company uses for self-promotion:
In contrast to the claims made by Pol-arise, the pressure to achieve a ‘sexy physique’ holds no resolution for body image issues. Sexualisation is a proven, direct causal link to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders and the rapid decline in girls’ psychological health.
Kids pole programs are an embodiment of the way culture distorts girlhood to fit an adultified mould. As Linda Papadopoulos writes in her review commissioned by the UK Home Office, The Sexualisation of Young People, we are “legitimising the notion that children can be related to as sexual objects” through engaging children with hyper-sexualised behaviours.
“We are raising a generation of girls aspiring to careers requiring a ‘sexy’ image”
We are raising a generation of girls aspiring to careers requiring a ‘sexy’ image. A UK online survey asked 1,000 teenage girls their dream profession. Out of the available choices including teaching and medicine, 63% selected ‘glamour modelling’ and a quarter of girls placed ‘lap dancing’ as a preferred choice.
The aspirational connotations associated with sex trade and pornographic practices, according to Papadopoulos, are reflective of our pornified culture.
This deeply ingrained cultural mindset has led us to believe that girls’ engagement in pole dancing is a harmless practice. I disagree.
Search ‘pole dance kids’, and the fifth result is of a primary school-aged child imitating mainstream pole movement to a sultry soundtrack in her home: complete with hair flicks, back arches, knee spreads and a delighted online troll who says: ‘She’d look even better wrapped around my pole.’
Search ‘pole dance teens’ and the inappropriate content warnings issued by YouTube are indicative of what kids pole programs are setting little girls up for: grinding, twerking, thrusting, leg spreads, body rolls, sliding and crawling along the floor in padded bras, g-strings, lingerie and ‘naughty school girl’ costumes. And this is all before turning 18, where girls may then transition into adult lessons around the country ranging from beginner, to advanced ‘strip and lap’ classes.
Encouraging our girls to partake in a key income-generator of the sex industry is a mistake.
We are enrolling them into a billion-dollar global industry that objectifies, oppresses and conditions women to believe they are created for sex. We are enrolling them into an economic and cultural landscape that proliferates the commodification of the bodies of women and girls; a culture that screams body before brains.
Let girls run, kick a ball, surf, dance, hike, indoor rock climb, balance the beam at their local gymnastics club. There are many fitness avenues that are not founded on the premise of gratifying male sexual demand.
Jemma Nicoll is a UTS Journalism graduate and freelance writer. She is the founding director of Inspire Creative Arts in Sydney, and facilitates self-esteem development programs for girls.
I’m quoted in this article by Kasey Edwards in Daily Life today:
…This is symptomatic of a broader attitude where sex is regarded as solely about male pleasure and male desires. The man decides and the woman provides.
Women having sex for their own pleasure is rarely portrayed in popular culture, porn or even sex education. For many young women, acknowledging that they even have sexual desires, let alone seeing them as a priority, is a foreign concept.
Author and co-founder of Collective ShoutMelinda Tankard Reist, who regularly speaks to girls in schools, says that girls can talk about how their male partners enjoyed their sexual experience but they are completely estranged from their own bodies and sense of pleasure or enjoyment.
‘I recall one female student saying, “I think my body looked okay, he seemed to enjoy it”,’ Tankard Reist says. ‘She didn’t seem to know how to articulate how she herself felt. The important thing was that he “got off” and that she thought she looked okay.’
This is about the neatest, most succinct expression of self-objectification I’ve ever heard. This young woman has internalised a kind of double objectification: that she is an object to be looked at and, not unlike a toy, an object for someone else’ pleasure. She is so external to the whole episode that her experience is refracted through her partner.
Rather than exploring their own sexuality, many young women see themselves as little more than service providers. And sexual service is the admittance price for male company. Read article
The Pornification of Girlhood: my book Getting Real extracted on Everyday Sunday blog
We haven’t come a long way baby
In 2009, former Hi-5 children’s entertainer Kellie Crawford posed for a lingerie photo shoot for men’s magazine Ralph. The Ralph cover for April features Kellie in tiny knickers and black bra, and shouts ‘It’s Hi5 Hottie Kellie!’ with the subtitle ‘Busting out some bedtime stories.’ It includes another smaller picture of Kellie in her Hi5 costume.
In the accompanying interview, Kellie explained that as a children’s star, she ‘just forgot I was a woman.’ She did the photo shoot to ‘find the woman in me.’ I responded in media interviews by asking why it was that the Wiggles were not expected to prove their manhood by stripping down to their jocks and having their photos taken for a magazine shoot, yet women were expected to take off most of their clothes to prove their womanhood? Opponents of my position, both men and women, filled my inbox with intellectually challenging arguments.
That I was sad, old and dog-ugly
That I had saggy breasts and a droopy arse
That I needed liposuction
That I was a bitter ugly woman
That my face would break a 60-inch plasma television
And, my personal favourite, that I was ‘as ugly as a hat full of arses’ (obviously not a hat full of Kellie’s arses, because hers was magnificent, according to her fans) (email correspondence, April 2009).
However, one little girl in Victoria who seemed not to care about whether I was bitter or needed cosmetic surgery, wrote (email April 20, 2009, used with permission):
My name is Delaney and I am 10 years old. On Today Tonight I saw a story about Kellie from Hi-5. Of course, you know that she has done a photo shoot for a men’s magazine. I think it is very silly how she feels she has to do it. It sets a horrible example for younger kids like me. When I was little I used to love watching Hi-5 and it makes me feel disappointed [sic] that she has done something like that.
Delaney, and girls like her, receive messages from every level of the media and popular culture that the baring of the female body is what makes you a ‘real woman.’ Very few young girls have Delaney’s courage to distance themselves from this message.
Ideal womanhood is now all about sexual allure; the ability to attract the male gaze has become what is important in life. As Pamela Paul writes in Pornified, ‘being publicly sexual has become the only acceptable way for girls to demonstrate maturity’ (2005,p. xxiv). Putting yourself on show for the sexual gratification of others is what counts. Look at what happened after Susan Boyle’s stunning performance of ‘I have a dream’ on Britain’s Got Talent which had attracted 100 million YouTube hits at time of writing (June 2009). One of her first offers was from a porn film company keen to ‘relieve her of her virginity’—on film of course.
The sexualisation industry has a voracious appetite for appropriating and corrupting people and things deemed ‘innocent,’ and remaking them in their own image. There are thousand of porn sites featuring children’s cartoon characters. And a growing number of sites depicting the ‘defloration’ of young girls.
Lisa Hunt Wotten, the woman behind Everyday Sunday, also interviewed me recently here:
When you see just how bad things are: the global epidemic of violence, rape and sexual abuse, the daily atrocities, the global trafficking in female bodies, ‘honour’ killings, female genital mutilation, dowry deaths, female foeticide, female infanticide, child marriage, the deliberate deprivation of nutrition, education, opportunities, the overall differential suffering of women and girls – and almost daily, here in the supposedly enlightened West, a growing pile of bodies of women murdered by men – only this week, as I write, a pregnant woman killed by her partner. So common we are not even surprised anymore!
But we must not get used to it! There is a war on women! We can’t continue to ignore that fact.
It’s like this when I speak about pornography at schools, conferences, and other events. I’m often hesitant to speak of what I know is really happening. People are often so shocked, so disconcerted by the content of my talks, I start to self-censor. Sometimes I gauge the audience as I speak and hasten past slides which I know will be too much for them.
I am picking up information which is so severe, so hard to hear, that I rarely pass it on. So far, I’ve mostly restricted it to medical audiences. However, this article, by London Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson in The Canberra Times, has caused me to reconsider the holding back: everyone has to know this.
What I’m being told, by medical professionals, is that young girls (many under-age) are increasingly suffering anal tearing as a result of porn-inspired anal sex acts, including group acts. Some end up with rectums so damaged they are rendered incontinent and need colostomy bags. Other girls are contracting the HPV virus through oral sex. Some end up requiring surgery for throat cancer as a result.
Girls have a right to know this is how they could end up. But where do they go for this information? It’s hardly mainstream. And online porn presents these acts as standard. Girls who don’t want to submit to anal sex start to think there is something wrong with them. One of their biggest fears is being labelled a prude, or ‘hung up’. This is what Pearson wrote:
I was having dinner with a group of women when the conversation moved on to how we could raise happy, well-balanced sons and daughters who are capable of forming meaningful relationships when internet pornography has changed the landscape of adolescence beyond recognition…
A GP, let’s call her Sue, said: “I’m afraid things are much worse than people suspect.” In recent years, Sue had treated growing numbers of teenage girls with internal injuries caused by frequent anal sex; not, as Sue found out, because they wanted to, or because they enjoyed it, but because a boy expected them to. “I’ll spare you the gruesome details,” said Sue, “but these girls are very young and slight and their bodies are simply not designed for that.”
Her patients were deeply ashamed at presenting with such injuries. They had lied to their mums about it and felt they couldn’t confide in anyone else, which only added to their distress. When Sue questioned them further, they said they were humiliated by the experience but they had simply not felt they could say no. Anal sex was standard among teenagers now, even though the girls knew it hurt.
… The girls presenting with incontinence were often under the age of consent and from loving, stable homes. Just the sort of kids who, two generations ago, would have been enjoying riding and ballet lessons, and still looking forward to their first kiss, not being coerced into violent sex by some kid who picked up his ideas about physical intimacy from a dogging video on his mobile.
… more than four in 10 girls between 13 and 17 in England say they have been coerced into sex acts, according to one of the largest European polls on teenage experiences. Research by the universities of Bristol and Central Lancashire concluded that a fifth of girls had suffered violence or intimidation from teenage boyfriends, a high proportion of whom regularly viewed pornography, with one in five harbouring “extremely negative attitudes towards women”.
The end result is what Sue sees as a GP. Young girls – children, really – who abase themselves to pass for normal in a grim, pornified culture. According to another study of British teenagers, most youngsters’ first experience of anal sex occurred within a relationship, but it was “rarely under circumstances of mutual exploration of sexual pleasure”. Instead, it was boys who pushed the girls to try it, with boys reporting that they felt “expected” to take that role. Moreover, both genders expected males to find pleasure in the act whereas females were mostly expected to “endure the negative aspects such as pain or a damaged reputation”. Read full article here.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
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Paul Teys – Principal – Hunter Valley Grammar
“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
“Melinda Tankard Reist is at the forefront of helping…educate the public on the link between pornography and violence…” – Di Macleod, Director, Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence
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