When news of a murdered woman hits the headlines in Australia, people sit up and take notice. Unless that woman happens to be a sex worker. Invisible Women tells the stories of 65 murdered sex workers – all of whom are somebody’s mother, daughter, wife or sister – whose identities have been erased. Why do we see some lives as less valuable than others, and what price do we all pay for this disgraceful lack of care? These amazing stories of incredible women are both deeply moving and shocking in their insight and clarity. And definitely way overdue.
I read Invisible Women on a flight to New Zealand a couple of weeks ago. (One advantage of spending a lot of time in the air is uninterrupted reading time). It was a grueling read. What first hit me was the table of contents – so many names of women whose lives – and their end – are acknowledged and recorded in this book. And an even longer list of names in the Index of Victims: Missing and Murdered Since 1970.
Invisible Women is a forensic work, giving names to the dead, situating them as women who had families, children, personalities, who laughed and struggled. The works lifts them out of and above the dismissing common responses that they were ‘just prostitutes who deserved what came to them’ (One Queensland journalist described dead women in his state as the ‘bottom feeders’ of the sex industry).
The authors unpack vulnerabilities, backgrounds of poverty, family breakdown, addiction, marginalization, sexual abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and mental health issues which contributed to the women ending up in the sex industry. The drivers that “keep street-based sex workers enslaved to a lifestyle they don’t want, but can’t find a way out of.”
This is a road for women who may have fallen through the cracks of our society, Women who, as children, found themselves in the confusing world of foster care; a world where, far too often, paedophiles are circling, ready to groom, persuade and abuse those least equipped to tell, or to fight back. Women who don’t remember the first time they were sexually assaulted. They were too young. And it happened so often, accompanies by words of love – or threats of punishment and pain. Those women know sex means nothing now; it’s a tool, a weapon, a way to get what they need to survive. Other women … made excuses the first time their partner hit them, when he controlled their money, when he isolated them from their friends, from their family. Women who, as children, lost a parent, a sibling, a friend and who stayed too quiet, bottling up their sadness until one day they were introduced to a drug that – for the first time in their young lives – took their pain away…Women with no money, no networks of family or friends, very poor job prospects…Sometimes it is about mental illness and the scarcity of support…It is these women: the homeless, mentally ill, abused, assaulted, drug-dependent members of society who are most at risk of having to become street-based sex workers. They are the women society has discarded, de-funded, disowned. It beggars belief that when they are injured or killed, people proclaim that it is their own fault, that they put themselves at risk.
Wykes and Fox point out that the average age of starting out as a street-based sex worker is 13. They cite studies showing that “80 percent of street-based sex workers have experienced some form of violence in the last six months of working…Sometimes the violence leaves a woman so badly injured she is unable to work for days or weeks. Women are abducted for days at a time and held as sex slaves before being released.” And of course crimes against women in prostitution are rarely reported. They are accessible, easy prey, that they have gone missing may not even be noticed. The authors note the case of ‘Jenny’ and ‘Susan, whose badly decomposing bodies were found in a bedroom in a Sydney apartment in 2008. Nobody seemed to know anything about them or their murders – despite the fact they died a brutal death in an apartment share with 11 others.
I’m with the authors in that we need funding of outreach programs and safe houses “to help deal with the complex, and incredibly difficult task of helping to affect change” in the lives of women in the industry.
(Tickets to our session have told out however you can add it to a ‘wish list’ in case tickets become available through cancellation).
And here’s the Canberra Writers Festival session – MTR on sex trade violence
The focus has to be on the predatory behavior of boys who would decide to build a website that facilities the illegal trade in images and the online exploitation of girls
In the latest incarnation of porn culture, at least 2000 images of schoolgirls from 70 Australian schools have been traded through an online site set up by young Australian males. The men put girls on “wanted” lists for “hunting”. Bounties are placed on the heads of high demand girls whose images – sometimes with home addresses and phone numbers – are shared without consent. Some of the girls targeted have been reported to be as young as 13 and 14.
The explicit swap meet site was exposed by Nina Funnell writing for News.Com this week. . I’ve been responding to media requests since. (I’ve visited a number of the schools involved).
The men treat the images as trophies and conquests. The thrill is in the lack of consent. The language of porn is employed in their hunt for desired images. Some boys offer “hottest little teens”, another asks: “Who has nudes of this bitch?” Some girls have begged for their images to be removed, only to be mocked and humiliated further. It is clear the ring enjoys the ritual humiliation and shaming of the girls. They are violating consent for sexual thrills. As this writer observes: “They get off on your violation…owning a piece of you against your will.
And look how they are trying to cover their tracks. I hope so much that the law enforcement catches up with them soon (it’s not enough to say the site is registered ‘offshore’. Police cooperate across international borders on so many things – why not this?).
While we have seen a tonne of victim blaming, the focus has to be on the predatory behavior of boys who would decide to build a website that facilities the illegal trade in images and the online exploitation of girls.
What we are witnessing is yet another example of the destructive and degrading of porn and rape culture which is producing boys/men like this. Without addressing root causes, nothing will change (as some of us have been saying for about a decade).And here’s a change.org petition to sign to get this site taken down.
Site shut down at last
THE website of an international pornography ring targeting female students at more than 70 Australian schools has been taken down thanks to the bravery of an underage girl who appeared on the sick forum.
She was just 15 when an explicit photo of her that appeared on the site was taken, and is still below the age of consent.
Acting Children’s e-Safety Commissioner Andree Wright today praised the girl as “brave”, saying that the office had contacted the site’s registrar over her case, and is aware the website has now been removed.
More than 2000 non-consensual sexual images of schoolgirls and other women were traded by Australian members since the group began operating in December last year.
There was a national outcry over the vile porn-sharing site used by young men as well as teenage boys targeting their peers, which has now been replaced by a regular porn website. Read more
PODCAST: Survivors speak out in new book about the sex industry
MTR, along with Prostitution Narratives contributors Simone and Charlotte, were interviewed by the inimitable Meghan Murphy at Feminist Current about our new book.
As prostitution and the legislation that surrounds it has become an increasingly heated debate, the voices of women who survived the industry have grown louder and stronger.
This year, a new book containing testimonies written by survivors was published by Spinifex Press. Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, bust myths, reveals the trauma experienced by those who are used and abused by johns, and raises hope, as we hear from women who turned the personal into the political, and are fighting back. This week, I spoke with co-editor, Melinda Tankard Reist, and two survivors who shared their stories in the book, Simone Watson and Charlotte, over Skype. Listen to the podcast:
Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade was edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard-Reist and is now available in Canada, the US, and Mexico from IPG Books.
Simone Watson shared her story in our new book Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the sex trade. Here she challenges the dominant narrative on ‘sex work’ in a powerful piece on Feminist Current.
In the spirit of the popular “sex workers are underrepresented” stance, repeated by liberal media and prostitution advocates, ad nauseum, Daily Life has published yet another article repeating the myth. The author, Kate Iselin, aside from being a self-described “sex worker” and published writer, is also “furious.”
This time, the article targets the Melbourne Writers Festival for not having a “sex worker” on the panel, “Invisible Women” — a panel about prostitution featuring Melinda Tankard Reist, Meagan Tyler, and Ruth Wykes.
Pro-sex trade voices are so ubiquitous that even calling prostituted children “sex workers” has become entrenched in the media and public psyche.
“Sex workers” are so far from being ignored that when writers who expose the dark side of the sex trade appear on a panel to talk about their work and research, a “sex worker voice” is published in Daily Life opposing it.
The pro-sex trade are so far from being ignored that Amnesty International is pressuring their membership of some four million people (and just about every so-called leftist I come in contact with) to support the full decriminalization of the sex trade.
Prostitution survivors constantly hear “Prostitution is just ‘sex work’ — a job like any other? Anyone who says different is just a pearl-clutcher,” from both the media and the public.
What Iselin really means is not that “sex workers” are being ignored, but that her particular voice and the voices of those who unequivocally support the full decriminalization of prostitution are not on this particular panel.
But why must every discussion of prostitution include the voices of those who support the trade? Would a panel of socialists arguing against capitalism be expected to include a billionaire to represent pro-corporation voices? Would a panel of environmentalists arguing against fracking need to invite an oil worker on stage to discuss the fact that they personally support the industry?
Scarlet Alliance, a pro-decriminalization lobby group, were, in fact, offered an entire session at the Melbourne Writers Festival but they declined. I guess unless there is an opportunity to attempt to discredit feminist authors, “sex worker voices” aren’t really worth their time. By comparison, as a prostitution survivor featured in the book, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, the festival declined to have me on the “Invisible Women” panel and I wanted to be there.
Arguing this is not the first time a festival has ignored “sex workers,” Iselin points to the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, which didn’t have a self-identified “sex worker” on its panel, “Women for Sale.” In order to remedy this, pro-prostitution journalist Elizabeth Pisani invited a “sex worker” to take her place on stage during the panel. This orchestrated stunt provided the audience with the voice of Scarlet Alliance’s then-“Migrant Project Manager,” Jules Kim. (According to Scarlet Alliance’s website, “The Migration Project” is focused on “migrant sex workers” –also known as trafficked women…) Kim is now the CEO of the organization, replacing Janelle Fawkes who, like Kim, calls herself a “sex worker,” despite the fact there is no evidence that either, in fact, sell sex. (I don’t doubt that some members of the government-funded group, Scarlet Alliance, sell sex, or used to, but the media and the public need to be wise to the fact that many members do not and never have, despite the fact that the organization claims to be “run by sex workers, for sex workers.”) In other words, the push for “sex worker voices” is not about accurately representing marginalized voices — it’s about political maneuvering and creating a scene wherein the audience is made to accept arguments made in favour of decriminalization, unchallenged, because a so-called “sex worker” says so.
Iselin is not “furious” about there not being a “sex worker” on the “Invisible Women” panel, she is merely furious that feminists, Tankard Reist and Tyler are, and will be speaking to the harms of prostitution, rather than working to neutralize and normalize it.
Iselin is clever enough to pay some politically correct lip-service to the survivor testimonies in Prostitution Narratives, going so far as to say she thinks our stories should be “believed, trusted and amplified.” But I wonder if Iselin would have a go at the festival because they declined to include me on the panel?
You see it is, in fact, the voices of prostituted and formerly prostituted women who are speaking out against Iselin and Scarlet Alliance’s agenda to expand the sex-trade that are actually “excluded, stigmatized, and marginalized.” Voices like Iselin’s and the Scarlet Alliance are not. In the U.S., for example, a lengthy article published in New York Times Magazine purported to ask the question, “Should prostitution be a crime,” but featured almost solely self-described “sex workers” from the organization, Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), yet another pro-decriminalization lobby group.
Iselin is “furious” that our survivor voices were included in a book and that a feminist publisher and two editors were brave enough to publish our testimonies. And believe me, in this pro-sex trade climate it is incredibly brave — those who don’t support the rights of men to buy women to use as their personal sex toys are repeatedly vilified and discredited by pro-sex trade voices who want to push their agenda at any cost.
Iselin’s piece is manipulative and disingenuous. She says she doesn’t doubt the veracity of our testimonies, but dismisses us, taking aim instead at the women who actually did listen to survivors and amplify our voices, claiming they are just headline grabbers. By reducing Tankard Reist and Tyler’s exhaustive research, intelligence, and courage to “tragedy porn” or some evil “anti-sex worker” agenda, she erases the realities and voices of survivors as well.
The actual stories of prostituted women are not “tragedy porn.” It is truly callous to claim to support a group of people who have suffered torture, abuse, and degradation, then imply we are just a few who happened to have been dealt a rough hand and don’t represent the majority, when, in fact, we do. Research shows that prostituted women suffer from PTSD at the same rates as combat veterans, and most have suffered ongoing sexual, verbal, physical, and psychological abuse.
Iselin may have paid survivor testimonies lip service, but because she goes on to paint us as sad but nonetheless unreliable dimwits who simply fell under the spell of dodgy anti-sex worker advocates, her efforts at displaying empathy fail.
The message Iselin sends is that voices of survivors and advocates who oppose the system of prostitution shouldn’t be “believed, trusted and amplified” after all. In fact, unless we highlight and include pro-industry voices, we are, apparently, unreliable narrators and our work is illegitimate. While certainly everyone has a right to an opinion, it doesn’t mean that all opinions must be heard at all times. The promotion of prostitution gets more than enough air time throughout the world, through media, pop culture, and in leftist and liberal discourse. The idea that Iselin’s perspective is “ignored” is nothing more than a tactical lie. Like so many liberal media outlets, Daily Life fell for this too. Quelle surprise.
Simone Watson is an Indigenous woman living in Western Australia, and the Director of NorMAC (Nordic Model in Australia Coalition). She is a prostitution survivor and a contributor to the book Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist. (Reprinted with permission).
It’s in the Ignorance: Paying for Sex
…The prostitute is dependent, for her trade, on this very performance. Even if the punter actually knows that she is unlikely to be enjoying it, he nonetheless wishes her to perform the enjoyment all the same. Both, one imagines, because he is capable of a superficial postponing of reality in order to get his sexual fix, but also because the idea that she would perform for him out of need, gives him a feeling of self importance that he would not experience in mutual interaction.
The punters who are made the most out of by women who say they love the Game, however, are those who want her to pretend she is enjoying it, and want to pretend that to themselves too. Make no mistake, if they want to buy sex, they will, no question. However it suits some punter’s fragile and dissonant selves to recalibrate the interaction in their mind as intimacy. He will look out for superficial signals that the women he is renting will have the capacity to fancy and desire him, or at the very least, offer an all encompassing nurturing of his needs. Of course, anyone with half a shred of wisdom would understand that it is not possible to know what a prostitute really feels about him whilst he fucks her, as it is her job to keep this from him. To protect him from any uncomfortable truths lurking behind the red curtains…Full piece here
Manufacturing Consent: The Sex Industry Nobbles Australia’s Future Policy Makers
Caroline Norma lectures in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.
The Australian National University is the country’s only institution listed in the top twenty-ranked universities internationally, according to the QS World University Rankings. Its new vice chancellor is a Nobel laureate who publicly promotes the ANU as an “elite” Australian tertiary institution akin to Harvard.
ANU graduates, even more than graduates of Australia’s other G8 universities, have the world at their feet. Australia’s diplomatic and public services draw on them disproportionately, and Australia’s political and journalistic class is filled with their numbers.
While, even among the ANU cohort, there are students facing poverty and discrimination, it’s safe to say ANU students are likely victims of these hardships at lesser rates than other young people in Australia.
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.
Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade (Spinifex Press) has been launched at packed-out events in Melbourne, Gold Coast and Toowoomba. Next up: Adelaide July 31. My co-editor Caroline Norma and I will address the event along with four sex industry survivors. We hope Adelaide friends can join us for this special event – especially to support the brave women who are speaking out about the realities of life in the industry they’ve now left.
MTR guest blogger for The Australian Childhood Foundation
This blog article was authored by Melinda Tankard Reist. Melinda is best known for her work addressing sexualisation, objectification, harms of pornography, sexual exploitation, trafficking and violence against women. Co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation. Melinda is also an ambassador for World Vision Australia, Compassion Australia and the Raise Foundation. She is named in the Who’s Who of Australian Women and the World Who’s Who of Women. – See more
When 5 year olds create porn themed images – in class
The school principal was perplexed.
I had just delivered a keynote on the impact of sexualisation and pornography exposure on children and young people at a conference of school leaders in NSW.
During the break she approached me, opened her phone and revealed an image created by a group of 5 year old boys, at the Catholic primary school she headed in Sydney. It showed two women, scantily dressed, in provocative poses.
The boys, along with fellow pupils, had been asked to prepare an in-class assignment using the pic collage app to make pictures. This is what the boys stood up and presented to the class.
One was so pleased with the work he inserted his face in between the woman’s bodies at breast height. These little boys didn’t think they’d done anything wrong.
This incident is just yet another outworking of the impact of a pornified world on our children.
Children being hurt. Children hurting others.
Everywhere I go I hear stories. Of children using sexual language. Children touching other children inappropriately. Children playing ‘sex games’ in the school yard. Children requesting sexual favours. Children showing other children porn on their devices. Children distressed by explicit images they came across while googling an innocent term. Children exposed to porn ‘pop ups’ on sites featuring their favourite cartoon characters or while playing online games.
Educators, child welfare groups, childcare workers, mental health bodies medicos and parents are reeling. All are struggling to deal with the proliferation of hyper-sexualised imagery and its impacts on the most vulnerable – children whose sexuality is still under construction, children for whom pornography becomes a template for sexual activity, a ‘how to’ manual for future use.
Porn before first kiss
Pornography exposure – for young men at least – is at saturation point. Research has shown some worrying trends related to earlier onset exposure.
According to some sources, the average first age of exposure to pornography is 11 years, with 100% of 15-year-old males and 80% of 15-year-old females reporting that they have been exposed to violent, degrading online pornography.
Children are seeing violent depictions of sex, torture, rape and incest porn. Boys are having their sexual arousal conditioned by depictions of extreme cruelty, seeing women being assaulted in every orifice by groups of men. And all this before their first sexual experience – even their first kiss.
The late Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs, AO, warned that online pornography was turning children into copycat sexual predators. In her submission to the 2016 Senate inquiry into the harm being done to Australian children through access to pornography on the internet’, she drew links between pornography and child sex abuse, paedophilia and child-on-child sexual abuse.
Professor Briggs cited a distressing litany of attacks on children by classmates, including a four-year-old boy requiring a chaperone to stop him assaulting other children in ‘sex games’ at a South Australian kindergarten, a six-year-old boy who forced oral sex on kindergarten boys in the school cubbyhouse and a group of boys who followed a five-year-old girl into the toilets, held her down and urinated in a ‘golden shower’.
Teaching children that sex is about use and abuse
The Australian Medical Association has also spoken out, with vice-president Stephen Parnis saying the internet was exposing children to sexually explicit content that taught that sex was about “use and abuse.”
“There are increasing levels of aggression and the physical harm resulting from sexual acts is becoming more apparent,” he said.
The Australian Psychological Association has added its voice to rising concern, describing the “impact on young people’s expectations of sex, sexuality and relationships [and] increases in sexual violence amongst children and young people.”
Over the past decade, we have seen a growing trend of younger children engaging in problem sexual and sexually abusive behaviours generally aimed at younger children – in other words, children sexually assaulting children… Pornography is providing too many 10-year-olds with the mechanical knowledge to anally, orally and/or vaginally penetrate younger siblings, cousins and acquaintances.
In a submission to the Victorian the Royal Commission into Family Violence, Etheredge & Lemon stated that:
Intra-family (within family) sexual violence or sibling on sibling sexual violence is the most common assault pattern of children being treated for Problem Sexual Behaviours (PSB).
Online pornography is regularly accessed by children treated for PSB each year in Victoria
75% of 7 to 11-year-old boys and 67% of 7 to 11-year-old girls in treatment for PSB reported early sexualisation through online pornography.
Sex offences by school-aged children have quadrupled in Australia in only four years. Authorities cited attribute increased exposure to online pornography for the rise. 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.
A growing body of evidence
There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that children who view pornographic material are at risk of harm to their psychological development and mental health at a critical time in their development.
In 2012 the UK Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Online Child Protection found that exposure to pornography has a negative impact on children’s attitudes to sex, relationships and body image.
In the foreword to the 2012 report Basically … Porn is Everywhere, Deputy Children’s Commissioner for England Sue Berelowitz highlighted violence done to girls by porn-influenced boys:
The first year of our Inquiry … revealed shocking rates of sexual violation of children and young people… The Inquiry team heard children recount appalling stories about being raped by both older males and peers, often in extremely violent and sadistic circumstances, and in abusive situations that frequently continued for years… The use of and children’s access to pornography emerged as a key theme… It was mentioned by boys in witness statements after being apprehended for the rape of a child, one of whom said it was ‘like being in a porn movie’; we had frequent accounts of both girls’ and boys’ expectations of sex being drawn from pornography they had seen; and professionals told us troubling stories of the extent to which teenagers and younger children routinely access pornography, including extreme and violent images. We also found compelling evidence that too many boys believe that they have an absolute entitlement to sex at any time, in any place, in any way and with whomever they wish. Equally worryingly, we heard that too often girls feel they have no alternative but to submit to boys’ demands, regardless of their own wishes.
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.”
On the issue of sexualisation generally, the biggest study ever, of all the research published in peer-reviewed, English-language journals between 1995 and 2015 found:
consistent evidence that both laboratory exposure and regular, everyday exposure to this content are directly associated with a range of consequences, including higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women. Moreover, experimental exposure to this content leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity.
Sexual harassment and bullying, a daily experience for girls
This exposure shapes and conditions the sexual attitudes and behaviours of boys which plays out in the lives of girls. Young women I encounter tell of sexual harassment, bullying, pressures to send sexual images and porn-inspired sex acts. I documented their experiences in the article Growing up in Pornland: Girls Have Had It with Porn Conditioned Boys (which seemed to strike a chord, becoming the most read article ever published by ABC Religion and Ethics).
We are engaging on an unprecedented assault on the healthy sexual development of children. 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.
If we are serious about addressing epidemic levels of violence against women, we have to address the drivers of that violence. Pornography can no longer be ignored as one of those drivers, by eroticising and normalising violence as ‘sexy’.
Education can help
We can do better than this. As professionals in the field who work with children, you have the passion and influence to offer a counter-attack of education and mentoring. Programs should strive at least for the following. We need to help young people critically analyse porn’s messages and help them understand what they are seeing does not reflect reality. We also need to help empower them to navigate their highly sexualised world, resist unwanted sexual activity and seek relationships based on respect, and authentic human connection.
The pornographic experiment on the healthy sexual development of our children must end now.
Francine Sporenda, an independent journalist based in France, recently interviewed me about Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survivor in the Sex Trade, for her website Revolution Feministe. The interview is in French and appears here. (a little taster above). If you are like me, you didn’t give high school French the attention it deserved and as a result can’t read it. So here’s the English version.
Interview of MELINDA TANKARD REIST
By Francine Sporenda
Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. Co-founder of “Collective Shout: For a world free of sexploitation”, Melinda’s books include: Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (2009) and Big Porn Inc.: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry (2011, co-edited with Abigail Bray).
F: Why did you decide to publish these testimonials of survivors of prostitution?
M: We felt the time had come – indeed that it was overdue – to hear the voices of women who had once been in the sex industry and were not glowing in their praise of it. We wanted to provide a space where survivors could bear witness by sharing the reality of commercial sexual exploitation and render visible the harm done to them.
In any discussion of the prostitution industry it is mostly those with vested interests in ‘business as usual’, that we hear from. This billion-dollar industry seeks to persuade everyone that prostitution is a service like any other that allows women to earn vast sums of money, and to travel and enjoy life’s luxuries. Women in sex businesses are presented as ‘escorts, hostesses, strippers, dancers, sex workers’. Prostitution is euphemistically described as ‘compensated dating’ and ‘assisted intercourse’ with women who are ‘erotic entrepreneurs’. There is almost no mention of the damage, violation, suffering, and torment of prostitution on the body and the mind, nor of the deaths, suicides and murders that are common. The reality of the harms of prostitution has to be denied because to know it would interfere with the business of sexual exploitation. So we wanted to re-dress this imbalance and provide a platform for other voices to be heard.
F: Considering the negative impact that being able to purchase women as commodities has on the way men view women, do you think one can be a feminist and be pro-prostitution?
M: No. Being a feminist means to advance the status of women and to address their differential position in the world. Prostitution is not pro-woman or consistent with the humanity and dignity of women. It is an industry built upon the backs of real women and girls. The fact that there are millions of women and girls being used in this industry globally is hardly a sign of feminist success or advancement. It demonstrates we have failed women. The 20 survivors, in very personal accounts in Prostitution Narratives, describe the lack of choices which led them into the industry, vulnerabilities including past and present sexual abuse, poverty, and economic disadvantage, marginalization. They were preyed upon by the industry which used predatory recruitment tactics. ‘Choice’ was so often compliance with the only option available.
As Annabelle wrote in our book:
To say that a woman enters the sex industry by ‘choice’ is a lie. To make a choice you need to have the facts about what you are choosing. I believe all prostituted women are held captive, not just physically as in the case of trafficked women, but by the lies of the sex industry. The industry knows once you’re lured in it’s hard to get out. I don’t believe any woman would choose to emotionally, physically and spiritually cause herself the amount of trauma that the industry left me with.
Jade was prostituted in New Zealand. She describes how she wanted to get out but was given no help.
After five years I wanted out of the sex industry. Twice I tried to go to school…I wanted to be a youth worker. But I couldn’t study due to drugs and sex work. None of the sex work advocacy agencies ever offered a contingency to get me out of the sex industry. They supplied lawyers, health checks, lube, condoms and dams but nothing to help me get out.
As another survivor has written:
Without exiting programmes, without long-term counselling, without a safe place to live, without a real job or route to a job, without knowing prostituted women can keep their children – we are just abandoning those inside the sex trade.
Anyone reading the accounts of brutal violence suffered by our contributors should hesitate to ever associate true feminism with the sex industry again. It is also hardly pro-woman when the sex industry has all the power and money and there is barely any public funding (certainly not here in Australia) to help women who actually want to get out of the industry. A woman who once worked for the peak sex industry body here in Australia was forced to tell the large numbers of women who called seeking assistance to get out of the industry that this was not what the organization was there for – they could help women stay in, not get out.
The goal of a ‘society without prostitution’ (as expressed by the French National Assembly) – a dismantling of the ‘system of prostitution’ – is the only authentic feminist position.
F: Tanja Rahm thinks that “if it had been a crime to buy women for sexual pleasure, then I would have known that what these men were doing was wrong”. Why is it so important for young girls that laws criminalizing prostitution are passed?
M: Tanja expresses it so well. We need to listen carefully. A society which has laws in place such as the Nordic Model (criminalizing the buyers of sex, not the prostituted person) sends a strong signal that this is not legitimate work, that men who think they should be able to buy women and girls will not be given societies stamp of approval. One of the big strengths of the Nordic Model is that it doesn’t just say ‘this is wrong’. It has provisions for financial and other support and reparations to help women make a new life out of the industry. This conveys a message to women and girls –it is wrong for you to be used like this: you are worth more and we will provide what you need for a new life.
The hand of women in the sex industry is strengthened when buyers are at risk of criminal penalty. When prostituted women are free of any legal sanction, but their pimps and customers are not, this puts them in a better position in terms of police assistance, and coming forward to receive public service help if they wish. While prostitution is viewed as work, these kinds of public services aren’t established, because there is seen as no need for them.
The recently passed French law also requires programs to educate young people and raise public awareness that prostitution is linked to the commodification of the body as “a form of violence against women.” This works in concert with the other measures to send an even more powerful message – to the victims of prostitution, to those at risk of entering the industry, to the buyers and society as a whole, that prostitution is an intolerable human rights violation.
F: Jacqueline Lynne says that when she worked at a drop in center for prostituted women in Canada, most of the women in the room were of native ancestry. In Europe, most prostituted women come now from Nigeria and other African countries, from China, etc. Is there a fundamental link between racism and prostitution and how does racism plays out in pornography?
Here in Australia my co-editor Caroline Norma has written powerfully about the ‘asianisation’ of the sex industry and the expansion of ‘Asian-only’ brothels. Our newspapers are full of ads eroticizing Asian women as young, petite, fresh, compliant, willing to provide anything a man wants. They know their place (unlike white western women, being the inference). The eroticization of Asian women combined with the recycling of stereotypes about their desire to ‘please’ and their nymph–like qualities, illustrate how the industry exploits race for profit. Of course racist stereotypes abound in the marketing of women from other ethnicities. The racializing of bodies is particularly apparent in pornography, where we see a contempt for people of colour. Black women are insatiable ‘ghetto hos’, who gets what’s coming to them for being ‘mouthy’. They are popular in Gonzo genres where they are made to endure body punishing sex acts. Latino women are ‘sluts’, etc. At a time when racist epithets are more generally frowned on, they are alive and well in the sex industry.
F: “Any man that walks into a brothel has no respect for women” claims Jacqueline Gwynne in the book. Would you agree with this statement, and why?
Again, it is important to listen to those ‘on the ground’ who saw first-hand the behavior of men. I agree with it because I believe what the contributors have written and acknowledge their lived experience.
F: Caitlin Roper states that we are seeing now an increase in male sexual entitlement due to neo-liberalism and the global sex industry. Is it also your opinion?
M: Of course. Neo-liberalism has benefited the proliferation and globalization of prostitution and pornography because Governments generally support what is profitable – and from which it derives benefits from taxes and other charges – and have thus taken a ‘hands-off’ approach to the sex industry, allowing a free-market approach to reign.
Boys are being trained to think that women exist for their use and pleasure. They are learning early, from pop culture, media, advertising, music, violent hypersexualized video games and the sex industry, that they have a right to do what they want. The sex industry has moved into mainstream popular culture so boys imbibe its messages from the day they are born. Hardcore porn eroticizing violence against women is a click away, with boys as young as 9 and 10 absorbing a message that violence is sexy. In a piece that has become the most read ever published on the ABC Religion and Ethics website, I documented the sexual attitudes and behaviours girls are having to put up with. The sex industry – and its multiple manifestations in mainstream culture – endangers all women and girls everywhere.
‘A form of political gaslighting that pathologizes dissenters’: Sex trade survivor Rae Story
Rae Story worked in prostitution for a decade, primarily in the UK but also in other countries such as Australia and New Zealand. She exited prostitution last year and has subsequently written critically on the contemporary, libertarian push for full decriminalization and the concomitant project of sex industry sanitization and legitimization. Find more of her work at In Permanent Opposition. Rae tweets @raycstory.
When you read this extract from the interview I am sure you will want to read the whole thing.
FS: You’ve discussed the way in which the pro-prostitution lobby has strategically presented itself as progressive and the underdog, while defending regressive values and working to silence survivors. Can you tell us more about this behaviour and these strategies?
RS: Well as I described earlier, there is a tone to this debate that reframes those who engage in prostitution as having an “identity,” like an ethnicity or sexuality, so fighting for decriminalization becomes a human cause — an issue of civil rights — rather than being about the rights of commerce. It’s effective because those who disagree with them can then be labeled “bigots” or “SWERFS” (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists). Quite what self-identified “sex workers” imagine they are being excluded from, I don’t know… In fact, prostitution is a material reality that relates to circumstance and to gender and economic inequality not personal politics. The desire for full decriminalization is about the right of businesses to expand without state intervention or consideration for the collective.
The term “sex worker” is a political term, not a mere descriptor. It is used to legitimize the sex industry as a morally-neutral business and is akin to referring to those exploited by the sweatshop industry as “textile workers.” Added to which, it collapses the differences between different kinds of “sex trading.” So, those who run brothels can call themselves “sex workers” and put themselves on the same turf as those who actually have to deal with smelly old men’s dicks for a living. Even pornographers and glamour photographers can lay claim to the title.
The superficial usage of the language of civil rights and the use of the “sex worker” concept is a form of political engineering. Pro-decriminalization activists with even a vague relationship to the industry can be called a “sex worker” and ensure their opinion be considered of higher value on that basis. Someone else who has relationship with the sex industry who disagrees with them must be undermined in some fashion in order to discredit their opposition. This is where I think it gets sinister. Whenever I have been confronted by a pro-industry advocate, the veracity of my testimony has been rather nebulously questioned or I have been called an outright liar. Another tactic is to deploy the “I’m sorry you had a bad experience” method to imply that any negative feelings I have are isolated anomalies. The most insidious was the accusation that any mental health problems I suffer from are a result of personal failings or weakness and are not endemic to the industry.
This is a form of political gaslighting that pathologizes dissenters. The most grievous example of this was the method used to pathologize slaves who attempted to escape — their slavery was considered inherent to their personhood and trying to escape this personhood was considered an illness.
The people who employ these tactics are not progressives in theory, nor are they, generally, in practice.
Maccas wants to be seen as a family-friendly restaurant and claims to care about the communities in which its global restaurant chains do business. But is that true when these are among some of the images playing on a music video loop in stores throughout Australia? Why do our kids have to see these images? Why do any of us? Help us help Maccas to pay attention and stop serving up objectification with its burgers.
According to their website Maccas claims their values are:
We place the customer experience at the core of all we do
We are committed to our people
We believe in the McDonald’s System
We operate our business ethically
We give back to our communities
We grow our business profitably
We strive continually to improve
We’re #NotBuyingIt – We call on Maccas to exercise corporate social responsibility and immediately remove all soft porn from Australian in-store screens. Implement national guidelines on what content can be shown on in-store screens.
This week our petition calling on McDonald’s to ditch the soft porn gained media attention, forcing them to respond. After being contacted by a journalist a McDonald’s spokesperson said each fast food restaurant selected its own entertainment content and apologised to families who were exposed to the video.
The article stated:
“A McDonald’s spokesperson said it would take measures to avoid a repeat of the incidents. “We are proud of our reputation as a family-friendly restaurant and aim to create a welcoming, safe and respectful environment,” the spokesperson said. “Each restaurant commonly selects television programs for viewing that are readily available on commercial television. In this case we apologise to anyone that was offended.”
But do we buy it? What exactly are the measures that McDonald’s will take to avoid a repeat of the incidents? Since starting the petition we have been contacted by parents from all around Australia claiming that their local McDonald’s also screens sexualised content. Many of these parents have complained to McDonald’s before.
Rotating ads at Albany Creek Mcdonald’s Qld, June 2015 included advertisements for breast implant surgery
Here are just a handful of comments from our petition:
“I’ve experienced this at McDonald’s on Springvale Rd and Maroondah Hwy Melbourne where a woman’s breasts were exposed on a music video large t.v screen for all to see and I made an official complaint via McDonald’s but never had a reply. It’s inappropriate for a public place! Wake up to yourselves, your staff are young, your clients are often children and could be porn addicts for all you know you are feeding them more than food!” – Ian Watkinson
“Several years ago, my sister-in-law complained about highly sexualised content on a Maccas TV whilst at a kids’ birthday party.” -Tim Rushbrook
“I’ve seen this in store & complained & nothing was done!” – Colleen Miller
“Dad of 6. Seen full frontal nudity on TV screens in Maccas before. Couldn’t believe it! Was not alone with other parents in Maccas with a general sentiment of what are they thinking… Kind of like, A Happy meal and would you like boobs with that. Spoke to person at counter and they just said the channel was set and they couldn’t do anything. Got the vibe I was making a fuss about nothing. Complained twice at different Maccas. Not impressed.” – Mike Wilson
For a company the size of McDonald’s it would be quite easy to implement a national policy around what content can and cannot be played within their franchises. McDonald’s needs to come clean about what their plan is to keep their establishments porn free across the country.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
“Intelligent, passionate, brilliant, fearless… I could not recommend her more highly”
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
“You continue to reset my shock meter…”
“As a teacher and parent I recommend all parents, in fact all people, to attend a talk by Melinda- it will open your eyes and awaken your subconscious.”
Heather Douglas – Parent – Pembroke School
“Melinda’s presentations to our parents, staff and full day workshops to students was inspirational, transforming the attitudes and thinking of all involved”
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
“As you read, be prepared to feel both grief and rage.” Robert Jensen
“These accounts are among the most unsettling you will ever read.” Steve Biddulph
“This powerful and humane book is a breakthrough…Big Porn Inc shows us we are poisoning our own spirits.” – Steve Biddulph
“A landmark publication” – Clive Hamilton
Purchase Big Porn Inc, Getting Real, Faking It, Men of Honour, Sexts Texts & Selfies, Raising Girls, Raising Boys, MTR DVD, Ruby Who? DVD & book, Girl Wise guide to friends, Girl Wise guide to being you, Girl Wise guide to life and Girl Wise guide to taking care of your body, and the new Wise Guys for the combined discounted price of $250.
‘The foremost authority in Australia cyber safety lays it on the line and challenges parents to find their digital spine.’ – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
Whether it is problems with friends, worrying about how you look or just feeling a bit down in the dumps – these books are written especially for you – to help you in your journey. Purchase all four together and save $18.50 on postage! Author: Sharon Witt
In this DVD, Melinda takes us on a visual tour of popular culture. “Melinda’s presentation leaves audiences reeling. She delivers her message with a clarity and commonsense without peer.” – Steve Biddulph, author, Raising Boys, Raising Girls
In this easy-to-read updated book, Steve Biddulph shares powerful stories and give practical advice about every aspect of boyhood.
“Overflowing with incisive understandings…a comprehensive and in-depth guide.” – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychologist
Men of Honour -written by Glen Gerreyn- encourages and inspires young men to take up the challenge to be honourable. Whether at school, in sport, at work or in relationships, we must develp our character to achieve success and experience the thrills life has on offer.
Purchase the Ruby Who? DVD and book together for only $35 saving 10% off the individual price.
“Getting Real contains a treasure trove of information and should be mandatory reading for all workers with young people in health, education and welfare” – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Adolescent Psychologist
Do you read women’s lifestyle magazines? Have you thought about how magazines might affect you when you read them? Faking It reflects the body of academic research on magazines, mass media, and the sexual objectification of women.
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Defiant Birth challenges widespread medical, and often social aversion to less than perfect pregnancies or genetically different babies. It also features women with disabilities who were discouraged from becoming pregnant at all.