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Month: May 2009

Show and Tell

It’s been an exciting and busy week. Today I was in a photo shoot for The Weekend Australian. I feel incredibly honoured that they have chosen to include me in “The Next 100” leadership feature:

As a national newspaper with a commitment to Australian success we know that identifying and nurturing good leaders is an essential aspect of nation building…

Over the next three months we will name 100 of Australia’s young and emerging leaders — those who are set to make a substantial contribution to the nation over coming years.

The Next 100 series, which runs in The Weekend Australian Magazine, each week from April 4-5, identifies people who are setting agendas and inspiring others through their work and ideas.

The Australians on our list come from a range of backgrounds and exhibit different talents. But they share a high level of professional skill and offer innovative approaches to national challenges. They share too those essential qualities of leadership — an ability to come up with fresh directions and solutions, to articulate those changes and to make them happen.

Over 10 weeks we are profiling people representing 10 key areas of national life — Society, Sport, Wealth, Science, Culture, Earth, Learning, Health, Thinking and Innovation…

I will be profiled as a Leader in Learning. It’s humbling to be included in such a talented group of nominees, and inspiring to read about the work they are doing. If you haven’t already, it’s worthwhile to take the time to read about their backgrounds: Nominees – The Next 100.

I have also just launched my own website to profile my seminars for parents and teachers and my upcoming book: www.danniellemiller.com. Love to hear your feedback.

And finally, I was really touched when young Western Australian poet Kate Wilson sent me the link to a YouTube clip of her performing a poem she wrote in Enlighten’s honour. Isn’t she terrific?

Making a stand

The latest NRL scandal has brought some ugly, ignorant and misogynistic views to the surface in the media and among the general public. Many people have sprung to Matthew Johns’ defence since Four Corners’ revelations about an incident in New Zealand in 2002 in which Johns and numerous teammates had sex with Clare, a 19-year-old girl who subsequently went to the police, feeling degraded and violated: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/20090511_footy/interviews.htm.

I am particularly alarmed that a number of women are pointing the finger at the victim, branding her as immoral. On Facebook, for instance, by today’s count there are 20 “Leave Matty Johns alone” pages, including this one created by a young woman: “Leave Matty Johns alone . . . she’s guilty – guilty of being a slut!!!”

In answer to those who blame the victim, in this post I offer alternative viewpoints that may hopefully dispel some of the myths about sexual assault.

Myth No. 1: The girl was “asking for it” by going back to a hotel with footballers.

This blame-the-victim mentality is one of the main reasons many women do not report sexual assault: they feel their morality may later be called into question. In NSW alone, an estimated 35,000 rapes each year go unreported. My colleague Leanne Cunningham, a clinical psychologist, tells me that she sees dozens of young women traumatised by incidents similar to the latest NRL scandal:

It is an absolute myth that women make up stories of abuse as they are liars and somehow just regretful after a sexual encounter they had enjoyed at the time. I can assure you the reporting process is so traumatic and requires such bravery that women would not put themselves through this if they did not feel they had been genuinely assaulted.”

In recent days, many people have implied that the then-19-year-old woman involved was not a true victim of sexual assault, because the police could find no evidence that physical force was used against her. Though the players involved were not charged with rape or any other crime, I believe that the words of Dr Patricia Weiser Easteal, of the Australian Institute of Criminology, in Rape Prevention: Combatting the Myths are relevant:

Studies have shown that in the majority of rapes, the perpetrator does not use force which results in physical injuries (Green 1987; Weekley 1986). The threat of force and death and the intimidation inherent . . . are sufficient. In reality, many forms of covert coercion and force may be used in rape. It is the victim’s fear of the assault and its outcome that render her passive. Almost three-quarters of the victims in a Victorian sexual assault phone-in reported that ‘they felt an overwhelming sense of powerlessness’ (Corbett 1993, p. 136)”  

Another myth that flows on from this is that unless the victim physically resists, her allegation of rape is not credible. ‘The reality is far different,’ Dr Easteal writes. In fact, ‘women have often been advised not to resist in order to minimise the likelihood of severe injury or death.’

Andrew Bolt, in an opinion piece in the Herald Sun, argued that the issue of Clare’s consent is in fact ultimately immaterial, because: ‘consent does not trump morality’.

The problem is that trusting to consent means – for a start – trusting that people are smart enough and strong enough to work out all by their uncertain selves what’s good for them. In the Johns case, it’s now clear that the 19-year-old woman was neither that smart nor that strong. Five days after the sex, she went to New Zealand police to complain of assault, bitterly regretting what had happened. I don’t doubt that she did feel powerless, or at least intimidated and on show, and if she was indeed smart enough to work out at the time that the sex was wrong, she was not strong enough to insist…Yet even though she consented to the sex – or didn’t object – the woman was still left feeling so “useless”, so “worthless” and so “really small” that her life collapsed.”

And it’s not just that consent may be due to bad judgment. The other reason these men should have based their actions on morality, rather than the woman’s consent alone, is that: “Consent also means it’s every man for himself. That you can do whatever you can force some silly or intimidated woman to agree to, however much it will hurt them.”

Final word on this point goes to the Four Corners reporter Sarah Ferguson: “A woman involved in degrading group sex can still be traumatised whether she consents or not.”

Myth No. 2: It happened so long ago, it shouldn’t matter now.

There is no statute of limitations on the harm we cause or experience. Certainly, time has not healed Clare’s wounds. Women who have lived through similar experiences report that they feel the pain long after the event. The woman at the centre of a sex scandal involving three Broncos players in a nightclub toilet last year told The Courier-Mail:

I’m still functioning and my life is not over by any means, but I will never ever forget this. Whenever I think (about it), I just want to spit, it’s just disgusting, absolute(ly) disgusting . . . (I have) trouble looking in the mirror because (I) feel dirty.”

And if we let this incident and others like it slide because of the amount of time that has passed, we will fail to acknowledge the appalling pattern of sexual assaults across the football codes. Some of these are:

2004 Bulldogs players accused of gang rape
2008 Broncos players accused of rape
2009 Sam Newman’s disgraceful treatment of Caroline Wilson on the footy show
2009 NRL’s Greg Bird’s glassing of his girlfriend’s face during an argument
2009 Reports a soccer player committed a sexual act with a 13-year-old girl
2009 A stripper being used to “stir up” an AFL Amateur Football team


Myth No. 3: There’s no point in speaking out in support of the victim.

Mia Freedman tackled this issue eloquently in her blog post last week. When a journalist asked her to comment on the scandal, her reflex was to go the “no comment” route, because once before, when she had criticised the misogynistic culture of the NRL on the Today Show, she had met with aggressive abuse from football fans.

But then, I thought about it. And I thought about the brave women who came forward on Four Corners to tell their stories. I thought about female sports journalists like Rebecca Wilson and Carolyn Wilson who have repeatedly written passionately and courageously about the issue. And I thought about Tracey Grimshaw who, on ACA the night before her interview with Matty Johns, spoke out stridently condemning him and the culture that could allow such a thing to take place, as well as the off-hand way it was handled by her colleagues at The Footy Show during Matty Johns’ public apology last week.

And I thought to myself, THIS [her fear of speaking out] is why nothing ever changes. THIS is why no NRL player has ever been convicted. THIS is why this disgusting behaviour has been allowed to continue behind closed doors for so many years . . . And I thought about how much I admire all those women for standing up and making their voices heard. And I was ashamed that I was thinking of staying silent.”

I encourage every one of us to also pick our words carefully when discussing this topic. The semantics really do matter. Jill Singer, in her Sun Herald opinion piece Disgraceful League of Their Own, writes:

Group sex. Despite the fallout from the NRL sex scandal, this expression is still invariably being used to describe the behaviour of the disgraced Matthew Johns and accomplices. How could any reasonable person use such a relatively benign term regarding the degradation and trauma caused to a teenage girl by a conga line of hulking, rutting men? The calculatedly mild language being used in discussion about the behaviour of these sportsmen helps explain a culture that allows the sexual assault of women to thrive.”

Myth No. 4: Misogyny is simply a part of male sports, there’s nothing we can do about it.

Dr Easteal acknowledges that there is indeed a culture of misogyny inherent in many Australian male dominated sports:

Misogyny is …derived from the emphasis upon aggression in the enculturation of males which is manifested in the type of sports which are popular. Males are more comfortable with males, they tend to socialise and communicate at a non-intimate level with other men, and they are apt to have a low regard for females. The latter is evidenced by both the type of verbal comments directed at women and the high frequency of physical violence toward female partners that has been well-documented (Mugford 1989).”

The NRL admits too there are massive problems within the code and have invested over a million dollars in an attempt to re-educate players. Many would argue that this is too little too late and that a firmer hand needs to be taken with players who behave in a manner that is clearly unbecoming of the sport. Brisbane chief executive Bruno Cullen publicly acknowledged that it is time to get serious: “I don’t want him (Matthew Johns) to be victimised or ostracised – I don’t want to cost him his job – but from a rugby league perspective, and a result of the stories that have come out, Matthew Johns is the wrong person to be any sort of face of rugby league whether that be on the Footy Show, Channel Nine or the NRL, whoever.”  

There are plenty of things we can all do too to help bring about change.

For starters, NSW Government Primary schools have put the NRL on notice: they will no longer host visits for players until the league takes decisive action to curb the problems that are plaguing the sport. Dr Dan White, The Executive Director of Catholic Education, Sydney Diocese, has taken a particularly firm, and admirable, stand: “People responsible for rugby league have to realise that organisations like ourselves are concerned that if this sort of behaviour goes on in the future we have to review our association with the code or club concerned…Any sport not in keeping with the ethos and values of our school system over the long term runs the risk of being discontinued as the preferred sport in our schools.”

It is vital to emphasise that the onus of preventing assault should not lie with young women. It is never the victim’s fault. That being said, there are some useful personal safety guidelines worth sharing with young women:

• Be assertive. A friend of mine who was once a cheerleader for a first-grade rugby league team described the types of girls the more predatory players were often attracted to:The group of dancers I worked with were all really confident, bright young women . . . They stayed well away from us. It seems to me that the type of girls they go for are always the starry-eyed young, quieter and often naive fans.”
• Learn self defence, so that you are better able to detect danger, fight back and be assertive.
• Know your sexual rights, as an individual and as a partner.
• Understand that rape does not have to involve physical force. If a man insists on having sex with you without your free and willing consent, he is committing a criminal act.

I’d also like to see football’s decent players step up and do more to set the tone within their clubs. What about making a public statement by wearing armbands that proclaim something like “Real men don’t harm women”? A male friend of mine made the following poignant comment: “While I believe the female voice is important in the issue of misogynistic attitudes in these types of sportsmen, the MALE voice is the linchpin. What we need are more blokes willing to have the guts to tell other blokes what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Here, here.

PS You may find the Four Corners backgrounder on the NRL sex scandals helpful. It includes an archive of news reports and resources such as hotlines and support groups relating to rape: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/s2567051.htm

P.S.S Four Corners posted an Update on the story Code of Silence on the 19/5- it is vital reading: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/s2575275.htm

 

Time to Talk

Recently I took my 10-year-old daughter, Teyah, on a trip to a shopping centre. Mother’s Day was coming up, and I needed to buy a gift for my mother and a new outfit for Teyah to wear out for our family lunch.

Rather than enjoying this experience, I found myself increasingly frustrated, and in fact furious, because of some of the ridiculous and simply toxic messages my daughter and I were presented with.

First stop: the girls-wear department at Myer, which caters to children aged 8 to 14. Recently renovated, it now has an instore Weight Watchers shopfront smack bang in the middle. Why, Teyah asked, do they need to promote dieting in the girls’ section?  Girls are still growing, so they are constantly moving up to bigger clothes. With Weight Watchers located right in this part of the store, she wondered, is there a risk that girls will think their ever-changing dress size is a sign they are getting fat? Wouldn’t the adults’ section of the store be a more appropriate place for a dieting program?

And it is not just our young daughters who are being told they need to shape up. I am usually a fan of Peter Alexander, the designer of leisure and sleep wear, yet on this shopping trip I was so deeply offended by his store’s window display I couldn’t bring myself to even enter. Their Mother’s Day slogan? “Spoil your Mum (after all . . . you spoilt her figure!)”

And finally, to ALDO, a shoe shop. I don’t know the name of the song they had blaring; its lyrics were so vile it must be banned from radio, so I hadn’t heard it before. The lyrics included the word f*ck and the singer was telling a b*tch to get on all fours and take it like a whore, get on the pole and spin . . .

You get the idea.

Teyah and I retreated into a cafe, and our shared experiences became a catalyst for a really interesting conversation about gender, the media and marketing messages. This impromptu “retail therapy” session got me thinking about powerful questions we can all ask our daughters, to get the discussion going. The following may provide inspiration:

Which brands do you think portray women in a positive light?

Describe an advertisement you thought objectified women. How did it make you feel?

What are the things others do that make you feel precious and special?

What are the things you do for yourself that make you feel precious and special?

What are you most proud of in your life so far?

What are five things that you love about yourself?

Describe a time when you compared yourself to someone whose looks you admired. How did that comparison make you feel?

Who is a woman you admire for reasons other than her looks? What do you like about her?

Describe a time when you felt truly beautiful.

How do you think society defines the words “beautiful” and “ugly”? How do you define them?

I would love to hear what other topics you think are in urgent need of being addressed with our girls and the conversation starters that you have found helpful.

Step in the right direction or PR exercise?

I was recently invited onto Channel 7’s The Morning Show to discuss an “Extreme Makeover” story in Girlfriend magazine’s June 2009 issue. Using before and after shots of a teen girl, they show readers just how much work goes into producing the perfect images on magazine covers: the hours of hair and makeup, clever lighting and photography, and fashion styling – not to mention all the digital manipulation necessary to make beautiful girls impossibly flawless, with no blemishes or cellulite, and with perfectly white teeth and eyes. According to the magazine’s editor, Sarah Cornish, Girlfriend’s aim was to dispel the myth that readers too should – or could – look like the beauty icons they see in the media. Click on the screen image below to watch the interview I did alongside Sarah Cornish, or use the following URL: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/the-morning-show/video/-/watch/13306869/


I applaud the magazine’s sentiment, and the June 2009 issue of Girlfriend magazine does include some good articles. There is a “Love Your Body” section and a sealed “Good Advice” section that presents the advice of psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, author of books on parenting teen girls, and Dr Sally Cockburn, aka radio’s Dr Feelgood, an expert on women’s health. But this valuable and positive information is offset by a range of advertisements and advertorials that offer conflicting, toxic messages. How about this full-page advertisement on the inside back cover?


The model looks like she has stepped straight from a shoot for the men’s magazine Ralph: stilettos, skimpy bikini, large breasts. She is faceless. It is all about her body. The ad is for hair-removal products “specially for active and youthful skin”.

After we finished filming the segment at the Channel 7 studios, I raised my concerns with editor Sarah Cornish, and she agreed that the ad was not consistent with the values the magazine claims to espouse. She also assured me this particular ad would not get run again.

Sarah, and indeed all magazine editors, are in highly influential positions and have the power to communicate helpful messages to teen girls about body image. The need to do so has never been more urgent. Girlfriend magazine itself acknowledges in another article, “Drastic Plastic,” that 26% of their readers admit they have contemplated cosmetic surgery as a solution to their angst about their bodies.

I appreciate that editors may not be able to completely revolutionise their magazines overnight, and I suspect that in our tough economic climate they may even become less selective about the advertising they accept – but if they are serious about their commitment to young women, they simply must be more vigilant. During our brief meeting, Sarah struck me as genuine and open to an ongoing dialogue about how she can improve the messages she presents to girls. Watch this space.

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