Whenever I pick up the latest issue of teen girl mags, I hope to find articles which might inspire a global vision in girls, expand their horizons and help them see they can make a contribution in the world. So I was very pleased to see the piece: ’Who runs the world? Girls!’ While the header is somewhat exaggerated, the article describes the different lives and rights of girls around the world and gives examples of young women working to change their cultures. The campaigning of Malala Yousafzai, 15, for the rights of girls to an education in Pakistan is included. You may recall she was shot by the Taliban in October last year and is now recovering in the UK. Readers can log on to educationenvoy.org to learn more. Arranged marriage and not allowing women to drive are examples of denial of rights of women in Saudi Arabia. Manal al-Sharif (who I had the pleasure of hearing speak via a Skype presentation at the Great Women Inspire event in Brisbane on International Women’s Day in March) was arrested for driving a car in 2011 and initiated the Women2Drive campaign which readers are encouraged to support on Facebook. Sexual violence in India is highlighted, with readers encouraged to join the OneBillionRising.org movement against it. In the US, Julia Bluhm, 15, collected 84,000 signatures for an online petition asking Seventeen magazine to stop retouching pics. Staff have now signed a Body Peace Treaty pledging never to alter a model’s face or body. My only quibble here is the treatment of North Korea. Amnesty International, writes GF, “alleges that North Korea imposes severe restrictions of association, expression and movement.” The horrendous human rights violations against North Koreans by its own rulers are not mere allegations! An estimated 200,000 are locked away in prison camps (gulags). First-hand accounts demonstrate the reality. “North Korea’s prison camps are a closed-off world of death, torture and forced labour where babies are born slaves, according to two survivors who liken the horrors of the camps to a Holocaust in progress.” GF mentions North Korea’s imposition of officially approved hairstyles which yes, indicates a certain lack of freedom. But perhaps forced labour, being tortured in a concentration camp or watching your family starve as a result of your Government misdirecting money to create the world’s biggest militarised state are also worthy to include. North Korea is also described by GF as ‘a self-reliant’ state. That’s one way of putting it. Totalitarian is another. And I’m not sure how self-reliant is a country where 16 million people require food aid according to the UN. (I would love GF readers to read The Orphan Master’s Son, the 2013 Pulitzer prize winning novel by Adam Johnson. While fictional, it draws from real suffering of the people of North Korea. It’s one of the most profound books I’ve ever read). Read more here
When I speak in schools, I’m often asked for advice on how to help a friend with an eating disorder (and not just girls – a male student ask me in a school in regional NSW recently). So I was really pleased to see the piece ‘Help! My BFF is wasting away before my eyes: How to deal when your bestie has an eating disorder’. Lydia Turner, co-director of BodyMatters , says one in five diagnosed with anorexia nervosa will die from the illness, while other types of ED’s like bulimia nervosa are linked to high rates of self-harm and suicidal thoughts. While alarming, it is important for girls to know these harsh facts, especially in light of the raft of on-line pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia) communities which encourage self-starvation as a life-style choice and post skeletal images as ‘inspiration’ for thinness.
While girls are advised to show patience and compassion, not centering conversations on food and appearance, it is imperative the need for professional help is stressed and GF does this. If the friend with disordered eating refuses to seek help, readers are encouraged to disclose to a trusted adult (such as a school counsellor) regardless – it could save her life. “It is extremely distressing to watch a friend deteriorate before your eyes, but it’s not your responsibility to save her and you don’t have to shoulder this burden alone. You need to let the experts take charge…remember that this is a complicated illness and you cannot deal with it yourself,” GF wisely advises.
Related is ‘Why diets are dumb’ about how fad diets compromise nutrition and health. Deprivation is discouraged in favour of learning to eat in a balanced, healthy way. Specifically addressed is carb cutting (some girls won’t even breathe around carbs let alone eat them) and informed of the benefits of carbs for health. Body detoxing is described as “completely unnecessary and bad for you.” Liver and kidneys perform that job. Skipping meals messes with metabolism and can lead to binging afterwards. Meal replacements are also discouraged, as they don’t allow the full range of foods for long term health. Read more here.
Feminist Conversations is a regular feature here at Feminists for Choice. Today we are talking to Melinda Tankard Reist, co-editor of Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry. Melinda is also the co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.
How did you become interested in researching pornography?
There were a few things that came together around the same time. Women started telling me their stories of being hurt and harmed by a partner’s compulsive porn use. In my talks in schools, teen girls shared with me the pressure they felt to provide a porn-style performance, to act, essentially, as a sexual service station for men and boys. They were expected to provide naked images of themselves, to provide sexual services. As well, the sex industry was dominating and colonising every public space and was rarely brought to account. I began to talk to my publishers about what I was hearing. Spinifex had published an earlier book in 2004 titled Not for Sale: feminists resisting prostitution and pornography edited by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant. It was a powerful book. But so much had happened since then, especially with the internet being used to globalise and spread pornography. We felt that a new book on pornography was needed. It also seemed to be a natural progression from my previous book Getting Real: challenging the sexualisation of girls, published by Spinifex in 2009.
There seems to be an overall consensus in the book that pornography is the same (or similar to) prostitution. Can you explain the similarities?
Yes, the writers in the book would mostly argue that pornography is filmed (or graphically depicted) prostitution. Melissa Farley uses the term ‘infinite prostitution’. The pornography industry has many of the features of the prostitution industry–it needs to procure women through trafficking, it relies on pimps to mediate transactions with the women who will be used, and the women it procures generally have histories of sexual abuse, poverty and homelessness. Pornography is advertising for prostitution and normalises the sexual exploitation of women. As well, men often want to act out what they see in porn on ‘live’ women. Pornography is often used as a form of initiation into prostitution. It’s also the case that women in pornography are concurrently being prostituted off-set, or go on to be used in systems of prostitution and stripping. The overlap between the prostitution and pornography businesses is so great that we might see them as operating in parallel, or perhaps as one larger sex industry. However, I think it’s also important to understand the differences between the pornography and prostitution sectors of the sex industry, and Big Porn Inc highlights these differences for pornography in particular. Firstly, the abuses that women undergo in pornography have a permanent or semi-permanent record made of them in the form of film, etc. This record causes many women great hardship and stress, because they feel they can never escape their past, and suffer anxiety at the prospect that anyone they meet throughout their lives has seen the pornography. They are also vulnerable to blackmail over it. The permanency of pornography causes particular suffering for women whose childhood sexual abuse was filmed as child pornography and shared by their abusers. Another aspect of the pornography industry that might distinguish it from the rest of the sex industry is the culture of ‘celebrity’ and ‘glamour’ that has developed around the industry in the last ten years. Jenna Jameson and Sascha Grey have been central to the promotion of the idea that pornography is a way for poor girls to escape their lives and become rich and famous, but of course the reality of the industry for the overwhelming majority of women/girls is that they are used up in around three months because of the extremity of the abuse and degradation of contemporary pornography. However, this culture of celebrity is very attractive to poor girls, and unfortunately draws them to the industry in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen for prostitution businesses. It means that the pornography industry is able to attract particularly young women, and in increasingly large numbers. The industry is normalised among younger generations to an extent that prostitution is not, because of widespread consumption of pornography among this generation, and the celebration of pornography by the popular media and culture. A third difference between the pornography and prostitution industries is the diversity of forms pornography takes–it is possible for women/girls to be sold as pornography through being used by their ‘boyfriends’ in front of home-based webcams, for example. While it is also common that ‘boyfriends’ pimp women through their homes, in the case of pornography this pimping is made difficult to recognise as illegal because of technology and the glamorising of pornography. There are businesses dedicated to the pimping of women through pay-per-view webcams, as well as pornography made of women being used through brothels. This diversity in the mode of business that pornography takes means that the industry is able to expand with very little scrutiny and opposition, let alone government oversight. The industry essentially operates in unchartered, frontier space in the absence of any controls whatsoever. Governments and societies worldwide are overwhelmed by the diversity of the sex industry, and so far haven’t managed to enact any governance frameworks at all that might curb its expansion and domination over culture and the economy.
What is your overall message about pornography that the book also highlights?
I think a major theme of the book is that the first and most egregious harm of pornography is to the women and girls who are used to make it. While the harm of pornography does extend to women much more widely, when we think about pornography we must think about the women who are harmed in its production first. This is because women/girls used in pornography are perhaps the most vulnerable and exploited population in our society. They are often racially marginalised, as well as victims of childhood sexual abuse, homelessness, and addiction. Their life chances are very poor, and even more so after they have been through the pornography industry. The writing in Big Porn Inc against the pornography industry mostly prioritises the interests of these women/girls in the way it does not make distinctions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ pornography, or ‘better’ and ‘worse’ forms of pornography. For the women and girls used in the industry, these distinctions are often meaningless, because the same women are used in both types of pornography production. Often they start out in ‘soft’ production, but then must be used in more violent and degrading productions to be able to make money and stay in the industry. For these women and girls, the chance to lead a life of quality and dignity depends on our efforts to dismantle the sex industry and create social services and facilities that will allow them to recover from childhood sexual abuse, to escape homelessness, and escape pimps or exploitative ‘boyfriends’. In addition to these women, of course, pornography harms many others, including the children who are sexually abused through perpetrators showing them pornography, as well as wives/girlfriends who are pressured to ‘act’ out scenes in pornography, and girls and boys who grow up seeing pornography as a ‘model’ for sexual relationships and never have a chance at understanding what true physical affection and tenderness looks like. Average age of first exposure to porn is 11. This is distorting and warping young people’s views of their bodies, relationships and sex. I believe it is an unprecedented assault on the healthy sexuality young people.
The trend in pornography seems for “sex” to be increasingly violent and aggressive. Can you explain why that is?
Yes, as Gail Dines and others show, the pornography industry over time has definitely escalated its violence against women and the level of degradation and humiliation it inflicts. Researchers have gathered empirical evidence that the more popular forms of pornography are the ones that are more violent and overtly degrading of women. Torture porn has become increasingly popular, rape sites, live S&M and bondage in which women are brutalised in whatever way the viewer requests. And it’s all becoming more and more mainstream. For example the documentary film Kink is about to screen at the Sundance Film Festival. The Kink website shows images of women in extreme positions of pain and torture. It seems it’s not even about ‘sex’ anymore – it’s about how much brutality and degradation a woman can cope with. And this is where many young men take their cues for relating sexually to women.
What is your response when people state that there are no victims in porn (just consenting adults)?
Linda Boreman’s (Lovelace) account of her time in the pornography industry where she was brutalised and forced into its production shows this claim to be untrue. Traci Lords’s use in pornography as a sixteen-year-old also shows that the industry does not always use adult women. Even women who glamorise their time in the pornography industry sometimes describe aspects of its brutality, such as Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale in which she describes being incapacitated for six hours after a sex scene in which she was injured internally. The notion of ‘consent’ that proponents of the sex industry use to justify their moneymaking activities is an extremely impoverished one. The idea that young women surviving childhood sexual abuse who are homeless and being pimped by a ‘boyfriend’ are making a ‘choice’ to enter the pornography industry is laughable. The ‘consent’ invoked for women used in pornography is nothing more than a legal ploy to allow the filming of prostitution and sexual abuse (and sometimes overt physical torture) without the threat of arrest and prosecution. These activities are allowed to take place in society only because the cover of ‘sex’ makes them somehow different from what they really are, which is rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and exploitation.
When did you first consider yourself a feminist and what influenced that decision?
It is difficult to identify one key moment. There was a dawning recognition about the global maltreatment of women. It was, I suppose, recognising the second-class status of women pretty much everywhere. I have travelled a lot and witnessed the abuse of women in so many parts of the world. You just have to look at the raw statistic on violence, ‘honour’ killings, dowry deaths, female genital mutilation, child brides, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, female foeticide, female infanticide, the systematic elimination of women and girls in so many ways. I recall being in a shelter in Hyderabad, India. On the bottom level were the abandoned baby girls; many plucked from rubbish heaps, with bruises and broken bones. On the second level were the abandoned pregnant girls and women. On the top level were the abandoned widows. Three layers of discrimination against women, all in that one home.
What does feminism mean to you?
It means working to change the second-class status of women. To addressing the real, felt needs of women (I was privileged to help set up a supported accommodation and outreach service for women and girls pregnant and without support in Australia.) To advocating for women and girls everywhere and all the time. It means trying to make the world better for my three daughters and the daughters of other women as well. It means engaging in grass roots activism and empowering other women to speak out, through movements like Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation (www.collectiveshout.org) It also means working in solidarity with the best people I have ever met.
From Mindfulness to Masturbation: Girlfriend’s January issue
‘Switched on: Sorting out the small things’ provides readers with 10 things they need to know about 2013, which ranges fascinatingly from the Australian Federal Election and our troops exiting Afghanistan, to One Direction’s World Tour and actors Ryan Gosling and Robert Paterson in Australia.
‘Are you a late bloomer? : That awkward moment when all your friends are talking about boys and you’ve got nothing to say’ looks at why some girls are not into boys yet. Readers are told that girls usually start to think about boys romantically and sexually from the ages of 9-16 but that it’s OK to be a romantic late bloomer – there’s “no shame in that”. Good advice from clinical psychologist Serena Cauchi: Don’t force yourself, because “being an individual and doing things at your own pace is a much healthier option than conforming with others.” Girls are assured it’s fine to be single take note Dolly – see January review and that maturity means she will be better equipped for relationships and setting boundaries later on.” In light of this sensible observation, I’m not sure about the term ‘late bloomers’. Girls might make a rational and considered decision to focus on their education, or engage in causes, rather than pursue dating relationships in their early teens. It doesn’t mean anything is ‘late’, it could be perfectly ‘on time’ when and if it happens. Read more here.
Primed to accept brutality as normal in romantic relationships
It’s not enough that classic works of literature like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights are to be given a 50 Shades of Grey makeover (read how Catherine Earnshaw enjoys bondage sessions with Heathcliff!). Or that there are 50 Shades of Grey mother and daughter cooking classes (whip up ’Playroom Pretzel Ropes’ and ‘Bondage Wrapped Shrimp’ with mum!) Or ‘My mummy pretends Christian Grey is my daddy’ slogans on baby jumpsuits complete with charming handcuff motifs.
The ‘50 Shades’ juggernaut rolls on, consuming everything in its wake. Now the latest market is teens who are being targeted with spin-offs from the phenomenon.
We know 13 and 14-year-olds are already reading this ode to sadism, receiving an early lesson in submission 101.
In the multi-million dollar best seller, Anastasia Steele has to sign a contract agreeing to do whatever her lover Christian Grey wants. She must be available on call.
One of the terms is: ‘The submissive shall submit to any sexual activity without hesitation or argument’. This is presented as true love rather than as a powerful man controlling a naïve young woman having her first sexual experience.
Anastasia feels “demeaned, debased, and abused.” But Grey is wealthy and showers her with gifts. Isn’t that so romantic? Cruelty is OK, as long as there is a happy ending.
Now teens are being sold their own versions, promoted as’ erotic fiction’ helping them ‘explore their sexuality’. But what is it that is being eroticised?
One of the most new popular titles for young people is Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire. Here’s an extract about the reaction of main character Travis after Abby sleeps with him and leaves without saying goodbye:
“Travis is a fucking wreck! He won’t talk to us, he’s trashed the apartment, threw the stereo across the room… He took a swing at Shep [roommate] when he found out we helped you leave. Abby! It’s scaring me! … he’s gone fucking nuts! I heard him call your name, and then he stomped all over the apartment looking for you. …he tried to call you. Over, and over and over…His face was… I’ve never seen him like that. He ripped his sheets off the bed, and threw them away, threw his pillows away, shattered his mirror with his fist, kicked his door… broke it from the hinges! It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”
Ah, young love. Travis, unhinged, goes around destroying things when he can’t get his way. He tries to blackmail Abby and limit her freedom. Obsession and jealousy are misread as love.
One young reader wrote on the Goodreadings site “I felt like Abby was in danger throughout the entire novel…anyone as needy as Travis is dangerous, in my opinion, especially when alcohol is in the mix”. Smart girl.
We are seeing a trend toward the acceptance of brutality as normal in romantic relationships. I heard a 15-year-old boy say he slaps girls and pulls their hair during sex because he read they liked it. Some girls expect to receive bruises from sex. Why say it with flowers when you can show it with beatings?
The view that ‘erotic’ fiction is an alternative to kids visiting porn sites has not been demonstrated. Even if they read one or two books, the bombardment of sexual imagery and porn online will barely be dented. Average age of first exposure to online porn is 11.
Age social affairs writer Michelle Griffin has argued that kids should be reading porn-themed books, recommending ‘House of Holes’ for the school library and family bookshelf. This is the book described by The Guardian as a “porn fest.”
There is a difference between literature which help teenage girls interpret their natural curiosity in sex and their bodies and literature which seeks to shape or exploit it.
Melbourne mother Helen Parkes wrote to me: “There are 12 & 13 year olds in my daughter’s class reading 50 shades and other ‘steamys’… I don’t think these are positive in any way even as a tool to ‘begin dialogue’. I want my daughter and her friends to spend a few years participating in school plays and sports instead of grooming themselves for men before they even know who they are and what they enjoy”.
Girls and young women describe cold, soul-less sexual experiences in which they are expected to be service stations for boys, pressured to ‘put out’, with no concern for their emotional wellbeing.
Will these so-called erotic novels help develop respect-based relationships? Real connection and intimacy? I doubt it. Yet that’s what girls say they want. In this months’ Girlfriend, the magazine’s sex survey shows 76% of readers are not sexually active – 56% say it’s because they are waiting for real love.
Reading material that portrays sex as a part of caring, complex, human relationships is a way of promoting healthy physical and psychological development. We should be equipping and empowering young people to make positive choices about their sexual lives rather than training them in domination and submission.
Perhaps it’s time for some explicit content on love and authentic human connection?
For women my generation who see a massive magazine heading “The Big O” and think it’s about Roy Orbison, you probably won’t want to read further. The “Big O” in this case refers to orgasm – in fact “your giggle-free guide to orgasms.”
Although if your daughter is a 13-year-old reader of Girlfriend (GF has profiled readers this age in its pages), you may want to see she is being told on the subject. Many mums would consider a girl who may have just entered puberty, too young for the material on offer even if it is in the ‘sealed section’.
In the same issue in which they are given recipes on muffin baking, they’re also being told how to reach climax. “If we were all having regular orgasms, we would be a lot happier,” explains sex therapist Jacqueline Hellyer. “Orgasms release hormones that make us feel happy, relaxed, confident and sexy. Plus, they’re good for your skin, hair and teeth.”
GF stresses a number of times that a girl shouldn’t “rush into sexual activity”, and to have respect for herself. Readers are also reminded of age of consent laws. But I wonder if this advice can complete with ‘happy, relaxed, confident and sexy’ and ‘good for skin, hair teeth’? Who wouldn’t want to rush into that? On the other hand, the article treats orgasm as almost a given (“Clitoral orgasms are the easiest to achieve, and the most intense”). Whereas many women, for a range of reasons, (one being hopeless lovers raised on a diet of porn) do not easily achieve this. Hellyer says: “Good sex is really, really good, but bad sex is really, really bad.” Well isn’t that a nice surprise, given Girlfriend (and Dolly) advertised mobile phone wall paper for girls that read: “Sex, when it’s good it’s really good, when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.” Julie Gale of Kids Free 2b Kids and I condemned this at the time and eventually the teen mags stopped advertising this lie. But it should never have appeared in the pages of magazines allegedly wanting to empower girls in the first place.
Still on the sex theme, GF shares reader’s views on recent advice that teens should read ‘sexy books’ (fantasy, not reality, won’t make us go out and have sex, if you don’t like them don’t read them, doesn’t matter what teenagers read, as long as they are reading, etc.). Only one of the four actually tells us she’s read some of the books in question. I’ve expressed another view in a piece titled ‘Should teens read more porn?’
A measly two ‘Self-respect reality checks’ this issue – it’s like even GF doesn’t think they are all that convincing anymore. (See my comments on these checks previously here). The one on the cover quotes actress Kristen Stewart “I think it’s ridiculous that you need to look a certain way to be conventionally pretty.” Right on, Kristen – we totes agree!” (which is totes funny when on p.58 GF tell us how annoying the word ‘Totes’ is, and says it should be replaced with ‘downright’). Yes, great quote, but was Kristen photo-shopped for the cover either by GF or pre-altered when they received it? Because if it wasn’t, that sure is one flawless face. The ‘Self respect reality’ check is supposed to tell us these things. If it doesn’t, it’s a waste of space.
Speaking of flawless, open to the first page and get Kate Moss and her new lipstick. Photoshop must have been working overtime. The next two pages are the same. Oh and look there’s Kesha advertising Casio and she’s been doctored too. I’ll stop here though there are other ads like it. As I’ve said before, why is advertising’s unreality exempt from the much touted ‘reality’ check?
The second ‘reality check’ tells us ‘Readers, not models were used in this shoot’. Nice to see a young black woman here.
Features include ‘How to break a habit’, ‘Why parents say the things they do’, ‘Is it OK to not have a best friend?’ , ‘Understanding your metabolism’, ‘How to beat a bad day’, ‘5 Reasons to Date the Shy Guy’, then on the next page how to dump him (well any guy who you decide you’re ‘just not into’). ‘Fast & Frenzied Feed: The new eating disorder’ concerns “What happens when a healthy appetite becomes a little too unhealthy for the body and the mind” Sarah Ayoub writes about binge-eating disorder affecting about 20 percent of Australian girls 18-22. This is a binging condition without the purging associated with bulimia (though laxatives are mentioned – isn’t that a form of purging?). Sufferers loathe themselves and have poor self-image. No surprises there.
This issue’s real life stories include a 20-year-old whose feet were amputated as a result of blood clots, a 17-year-old who started her own charity, an 18-year-old bullied for three years and a 19-year-old with lymphoedema, resulting in permanently swollen limbs. I like this section because it cuts through the fashion and beauty pages, grounded as it is in the real lived experience of real girls.
Here’s a piece which should be read by all mothers: ‘Does my mum look big in this?’ which cites research that mums can pass on their own negative messages about body image to their daughters. “If a mum has an unhappy relationship with her own body, her daughter can pick up on this dissatisfaction and internalise it,” says clinical psychologist Louise Adams. “Many of my clients with eating disorders report having mothers who were always dieting and criticising their own bodies. Daughters take this negative self-talk on board and start to talk about their own bodies in the same negative terms.” I remember a girl telling me about her mother who had purchased her a size 10 end of year formal dress, telling her “You will get into this by the end of the year”. The girl was a size 14.
The advice is helpful so I’m reprinting it for mothers whose daughters don’t read Girlfriend (or for Roy Orbison fans who got a shock):
1. When you hear your mum criticise her body, tell her how it’s making you feel about your own body. Try saying “Mum, when you talk about your weight in front of me and put yourself down, it makes me worry about my own weight and it makes me feel bad about myself.”
2. Ask your mum to please stop devaluing and criticising her body, and to stop unhealthy practices like dieting, food restriction or over-exercising.
3. Make a deal with her and promise each other that neither of you will talk badly about your bodies anymore – no exceptions.
4. Remind each other to think about your self-worth in broader terms than just appearance. Think about what you both like about yourselves as people (I’m kind, you’re funny) and focus on developing those aspects.
If this reader’s comment doesn’t get mums to change the negative self-talk, then I’m not sure what will: “My mum always asks me if she looks fat. This depresses me because I know I’m not skinny, and I feel that she is putting pressure on me because of my weight. When mum says she is fat, I feel fat. She affects the way I feel about myself.”- Christina, 14.
Girlfriend magazine seems to have forgotten what its ‘Self Respect REALITY CHECK’ was intended for. A recap – it was designed to be an upfront disclosure about the use of digital enhancement, airbrushing or other alterations to an image. But it seems to have become a farce.
On the cover below an image of Lily Collins “The fairest of them all” (apparently), the teen reader is informed “Lily’s brows are so awesome that a Twitter account has been made in honour of them. Impressive, much?!” A second dumb use of the ‘Reality check’ appears on p. 89 – because of rain they had to change locations three times (!). But we have no idea whether models images were altered. Why bother having the symbol at all if it is meaningless?
For a magazine which claims to want to help girls accept themselves and avoid comparison, to vote emerging young actress “Miss Collins’ as “the prettiest of them all” seems oddly out of place. Read more>
‘Encouraging teens to wait until they feel ready for sex is not to promote oppression. It is to promote empowerment’
By Dr Emma Rush
Clueless, to say the least. Michelle Griffin’s claim (‘Why teens should read raunchy novels and straight-up smut’) that “teens should read more porn”, not to mention her implied claim that more Year 10 students should be having sex, are the flashpoints of a piece which lacks anything vaguely resembling a clearly structured argument. The lumping together of a ‘reality bites’ book specifically pitched at adolescents, such as Judy Blume’s Forever, with the porn-fest of Nicholson Baker’s “surreally explicit new title”, House of Holes, should alert us to that.
The apparent spur for Griffin’s piece is a recent La Trobe University study finding that despite much talk about the importance of sex education in schools that locates discussion of the biological facts about sex within a broader understanding of healthy relationships, not all Year 9 and 10 students have access to this.
Only one in four hear that “experimenting with sexualities and pleasure is OK”, something particularly important given the potential impacts of homophobia. (At the same time, the research does suggest that at least some teachers are rising to the challenge, and we should all congratulate them for that.)
The socio-emotionally disconnected version of sex provided by parts of the education system gives rise to the question: how do teens link this school-based information with their actual lives? The ubiquity of porn may well fill the gap. And researchers like Alan McKee, whom Griffin cites approvingly, seem to believe that the pornography industry is well prepared to fill that gap, a pornography industry that promotes cruelty, brutality and inequality.
Griffin is to her credit concerned about the resulting “shackles of banal commercialised sexuality”. She advocates reading more books over watching YouPorn. That’s great, but she avoids a much more challenging question: precisely which books?
Teens, like the rest of us, are whole people, with rich socio-emotional lives. Some books do justice to the location of sex within a broader socio-emotional context, some do not. But Griffin, apparently relying on a ‘consent makes any kind of sex ok’ philosophy, makes no such distinction (there’s no problem with ‘brutal’ porn, apparently), and in doing so, she sells us all short.
The value of consent rests on the possibility of free and rational choice. The idea that either perfect freedom or perfect rationality applies in messy sexual contexts is a fantasy. All the more so for the adolescent context, where the psychological literature clearly shows that teens are more impulsive and more prone to extreme highs and lows than more mature adults.
Add to that peer pressure and alcohol and you’ve got a heady mix. That’s not to say that some psychologically mature teens don’t have healthy sexual relationships – the literature clearly shows that they do – but consent is hardly all that is required for this. Consent is necessary but not sufficient for a healthy sexual relationship. And actions need to be more than just acquiescence, more than just ‘going along with’, to count as consent.
Let’s face it, even if sex is entered into in a spirit of ‘all you need is consent and no strings attached’, that doesn’t make us flourish. Physical intimacy can all too easily lead to emotional connection and then significant distress when this is not mutual. Who has not seen this happen, even with mature adults? Who does not know how the headspin of even potential sexual attraction can throw everything else out of perspective, even in a mature adult? Who seriously thinks it’s a good idea to encourage in teens the idea that, provided you’ve got ‘consent’, anything goes?
The very idea that you can just ‘consent’ to physical intimacy with someone you don’t have a caring relationship with, in the goal of mutual pleasure seeking, is bizarre. The kind of psychological separation from your body (not to mention the other human being in the equation) you would have to achieve to do that sounds more like the kind of pathology that results from sexual abuse, than any kind of healthy sexual development.
The psychological task of adolescence is to develop a holistic sense of who you are, and to become over time an independent and autonomous adult. Sexuality is an important part of that, but it’s far from the only part.
Reading material that portrays sex as a part of caring, complex, human relationships is one important way of promoting such holistic development. Another way is to construct a loving sexual life with someone who genuinely cares about you – when you are mature enough to form such a relationship. Encouraging teens to wait until they feel ‘ready’ for sex, and to wait for someone with whom they feel safe, is not to promote oppression. It is to promote empowerment. House of Holes seems unlikely to teach anyone that sort of respect for self or others.
Dr Emma Rush is a lecturer in philosophy and ethics at Charles Sturt University. She was a contributor to Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (ed. Melinda Tankard Reist, Spinifex Press, 2009).
That was the argument put by Age social affairs writer Michelle Griffin in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald this week.
“Steamy airport novels, raunchy teen lit and straight-up smut”, argued Griffin, would help take young people away from “commercialised banal porn”. In her praise of trashy novels and raunchy reads, Griffin recommended ‘House of Holes’ for the school library and family bookshelf.
This is the book described by The Guardian as a ‘wank book’ and ‘porn fest: “Baker’s frogmarches us into an arcade of blaring porn fantasies in which the tropes of triple-X sex movies are celebrated in all their cheerfully gushing banality…” (note to Griffin, porn without pictures can be banal too).
How Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ and ‘Puberty Blues’ could even appear in the same article commending House of Holes is difficult to fathom.
Especially concerning is Griffin’s comment: “The trouble with much of the porn readily available is not that it’s explicit, or even that it’s brutal, but that it is reductive and samey.”
So because so much of it is similar, that is worse than it being brutal, violent and misogynist? The commercialised women-hating and sadistic brutality that so much of today’s on-line pornographic offerings is less worse than it just being “samey”?
I agree of course with the observations of sex therapists cited by Griffin that “porn is limiting young men’s visions of a good time to mere delivery-man thrusting”. This is well-documented in Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global sex industry (Spinifex Press, 2011), a book I co-edited with Dr Abigail Bray. I agree that young people have a right to know about pleasure and that sex education programs where only biological facts or a disease model of sex are taught, are inadequate.
But it appears to me naïve to think leaving porno-themed books lying around the house “badly hidden” is any kind of “arming” against online pornography, when 70 percent of boys aged 12 have seen porn and 100 percent by age 15. Even if they read one or two books, the bombardment of sexual imagery and porn online will barely be dented. And it seems foolish to treat porn books and porn online as somehow separate and disconnected.
What is urgently needed is explicit content on radical concepts like love, intimacy and authentic human connection. Girls and young women describe cold, soul-less sexual experiences in which they are expected to be service stations for boys, pressured to ‘put out’, with no concern for her emotional wellbeing.
Sex has become more about f***ing and less about loving. Our response should be to equip and empower young people to make positive choices about their sexual lives. Not throw more porn flavoured stuff at them.
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