Australian academics and activists collaborate in a new book to challenge the sexualisation of girls.
The cell phone is a very handy tool for a Gen X girl like myself. Having lived through the texting revolution I can speak first hand of how my social life has been transformed and how this new mode of communication has been the vehicle for positive cultural change.
Yet, as many young men and women are discovering, the cell phone can also be used to belittle and objectify other people. When one combines the capacity to send photos via phone with a sex saturated culture this fusion creates what has been coined “sexting”, the phenomenon of sending sexually explicit photos, primarily via text. Often these images are sent on to a number of persons beyond the initial recipient, sometimes with tragic consequences. Jessica Logan, an 18-year-old from Ohio who took her own life after pictures she sent of herself to her boyfriend ended up in the hands of fellow students.
Sexting is creating all sorts of legal and social problems. For example, what should be the legal ramification be for children victimising children – surely a charge of child pornography would be inappropriate? This is a question that many US states now have to tackle in the fight against the dissemination of child porn.
In my mind, there is a more pressing question that needs to be addressed. What would make teenage girls cheapen and endanger themselves like this? Not just technology, although the cell phone and social networking sites facilitate the trend enormously. No, we have to ask where they learned the whole idea that exposing herself makes a girl attractive and popular. The answer is that they learned it from adults, from the people who have made pornography mainstream.
My own city of Auckland, for example, allows a local entreporneur to stage an erotica expo every year and to market it by running a parade of half-naked prostitutes on motorbikes down the main street. This year the parade saw masses of drooling males turn out to view the “entertainer” Chelsea Charms, who, thanks to a dangerous augmentation procedure now banned in the United Sates, boasts the largest breasts in the world. We learned all this, of course, on prime time television news bulletins and in the country’s leading newspaper.
No one in their right mind would deny that Chelsea Charms has turned herself into an object for male gratification. There is something inherently wrong with a culture that applauds such behaviour, valuing women not as persons but only for their physical attributes. You may contest that the not so charming example above is an extreme one; surely mainstream culture could not be responsible for endorsing the sexual objectification of women, particularly in light of the accomplishments of feminism?
Well, yes it could. And the worst of it is that this process now reaches down into adolescence and even childhood, provoking much journalistic and expert commentary in recent years. In Australia these voices have come together in a new volume, Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and released in Australia last month by Spinifex Press.
As the contributors to this book demonstrate, women are instructed from an early age that their value stems from their sexual allure and availability. No longer are young girls aspiring to a place in parliament or to shatter the glass ceiling in their local law firm. Nowadays, they are taught that real girl power is acquired in the bedroom. From their peers, the media and other social authorities they are learning to prostitute themselves (metaphorically and literally) in the hope that in return they will receive love, intimacy, social acceptance and attain the happiness that is supposedly acquired with the perfect body (and outfit to match).
As Noni Hazlehurst affirms, “We have to wake up and smell the crap. It’s everywhere. And the weight of evidence that we are causing irreparable damage to our children is becoming overwhelming. Our children are bombarded with images and concepts that that they are not able to assimilate, understand or contextualise, even if they have parents or carers who might try and explain.”
Getting Real clearly lays out that the psychological, physical and emotional effects of this trend on young Australian women. And they are numerous. Emma Rush utilises the term “self-objectification” coined by the American Psychological Association (APA), which, as Rush explains, is the process occurring when a person emphasises their physical body as seen by others and de-emphasises their own subjective perceptions of themself, such as feeling, knowing and internal awareness. Rather than perceive herself (or himself) as the subject, a person views their body as an object to be judged and evaluated.
Such a mindset appears to effect the physical and cognitive development of children. In one study an APA taskforce found that if asked to throw a softball, those girls that viewed their bodies as objects would not throw the ball as hard as they were more concerned about their appearance. In the same study a different group of girls were asked to try on either a swimsuit or a sweater and while they were waiting they were asked to perform a math test. Those in a swimsuit performed significantly worse. In males, however, there was no difference in performance. The taskforce concluded that the girls were too busy thinking about their body. Sexualised cultural ideals led to disrupted mental capacity.
Among the detrimental effects for young women is increased body dissatisfaction, development of eating disorders at a young age, disruption to healthy psychological development and increased risk of sexual abuse. Gena, a psychiatrist and mother, comments: “Eight years ago when I did my training as a psychologist, the sexualisation of girls wasn’t such an issue. Now girls, even young girls, desperately want to be sexy and beautiful. I’m seeing a lot of young clients struggling with their body image and self-esteem.” Bliss magazine surveyed girls aged 10 to 19 and found that more than a quarter of them had contemplated plastic surgery. Self-harm or “cutting” is becoming a more frequent activity among young girls. If you are not acquainted with the practice, it involves using razors, knives and other types of dangerous apparatus to cut oneself as a means of relieve the pain inside.
Getting Real is impeccably researched and has the air of a new wave of feminism, unwilling to be seduced by the hollow claim that sexual promiscuity will liberate the masses. One author refutes the notion that those who engage in sexually promiscuous behaviour are more free that those who refuse to. Clive Hamilton cites the research of Jean Twenge (2004) who shows that young people in the west have become more inclined to believe external forces control their lives. Her evidence, argues Hamilton, contradicts the notion that those who choose not to engage in casual sex are being oppressed by social constructs and conventions. Hamilton asks: “Who is more free – the young woman for whom sex is too valuable to be given over to the culture of the one-night stand, or her friends who become sexually active at sixteen because it is expected of them?” Bad is the new conformity, he argues.
Betty McLellan poses a similar question, however this time in terms of the achievements of feminism. She warns that it is dangerous to equate feminism with the sexual revolution as they are two completely different social movements. Promoters of the sexualisation of women and girls tell us that it is a matter of personal, individual choice. Yet McLellan makes the point that feminism must reject this assertion: “‘the personal is political,’ we say, ‘the way women and girls are treated in their personal lives is actually a political issue’. We suggest that the increasing focus on sex and sexiness is not so much a matter of personal preference but pressures coming from people and institutions in society with power to shape the way others think and feel.”
Rosewarne’s research surrounding representations of women confirms exactly how detrimental this confusion between the sexual revolution and feminism has been. The central finding of her research was that women tended to be portrayed as young, thin, white and idle. While feminists from the 1960s and 1970s began sharing with men discussions about issues of national and international importance, we have now reverted back to portraying women as mere bodily objections – without personality, profession or purpose.
Overall, Getting Real is a manageable read and a welcome contribution to the field. It summarises the latest research and offers several nuanced approaches to understanding and combating a culture that appears to be increasingly open to objectifying women. As I read through the book, however, I couldn’t help but think, “Where do men fit into the picture?”
Surely taking the approach that women are the oppressed, and men are the oppressors is far too simplistic. I concede that this theme falls outside of the well-defined scope of this book. Nevertheless I think it is a largely neglected subject and an inevitable blind spot of the feminist approach towards the social ramifications of our sex-saturated culture. More research in this area could help us more fully understand the nature and effects of the quagmire we now find ourselves in.
Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, by Melinda Tankard Reist (Editor); Spinifex Press, September 2009
Pauline Cooper is a graduate of the University of Auckland with an interest in radical histories. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.