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Category: Sexual harassment and discrimination

In praise of feminist fathers

The following guest post is by my friend and colleague Nina Funnell. It was first published by Mamamia. Nina is a Sydney based journalist, author and speaker. Her writing has been published in academic journals, newspapers, magazines and on online news sites. She has authored multiple book chapters and co-authored Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships (Harper Collins, 2014) with me.

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Nina Funnell

I was ten years old the first time I attempted a ‘death drop’. Hanging upside down by the knees on the school monkey bars, a crowd of kids gathered around to watch. No-one we knew had ever performed a ‘death drop’ before and I was going to be the first brave soul to try. “Be quiet! She needs to concentrate” ordered my best friend, Sophie. “Give her space.”

For a few minutes I hung perfectly still, focused on what I was about to do. The plan was to release my legs, spin through the air and land on my feet. With adrenaline pumping, my courage spiked and suddenly I let go.

A second later I crashed to the ground. I had performed a glorious belly-flop and now lay winded, gasping for air. Of course this was all well before the days of AstroTurf, and kids were made of sturdier stuff. There was no way that a bad start was going to discourage me.

In the coming weeks both Sophie and I would learn the trick to the death drop: to complete the move successfully, one must first swing through the air like a pendulum and only release the knees when one’s body is parallel with the ground.

After that there was no stopping us. Before school, at recess and at lunch we would dominate the bars. Then late one afternoon when my dad picked me up from Afterschool Care, I took him to the monkey bars, eager to show him my new skill. Seeing his daughter beaming with pride, he asked me whether I would like a set of my very own bars at home. I was ecstatic.

That weekend dad and I headed to the hardware store to gather supplies. At home he showed me how to use the measuring tape, drill and saw. He explained why we needed to dig deep holes for the wooden pylons and he let me mark out the spot where I thought the bars should go. This was our special project, just me and dad working together.

In time we moved house and the decision was made to leave the bars behind. But I still look back at that afternoon helping dad build them as one of the great memories of my childhood.

I was reminded of those events not long ago, while out to dinner with a friend who had recently become a father for the first time. As we talked about the birth and the baby, he suddenly lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You know,” he said, “I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty progressive guy. I mean, I’ve always believed in gender equality and thought that I’d treat a son or daughter exactly the same. Dinosaurs for the girls. Glitter for the boys. All that caper. So throughout the pregnancy we never asked about the sex of the baby. What should it matter, right? Treat the baby the same no matter what. But everyone kept predicting we were having a girl and I began to think so too… So when our beautiful baby girl burst forth sporting a nice healthy scrotum I was stunned.”

I laughed.

“But that’s not it. You see, I genuinely believed we were having a girl, and when I found out we had a son everything changed. In a split second my whole view of the pregnancy, my whole mindset shifted from thinking ‘I have to protect this little baby’ to ‘I have to enable this baby, I have to show him the world and teach him how things works.’ Isn’t that terrible? And here’s the kicker, I didn’t even realise that I had this completely different approach to parenting girls until that very moment.”

Now it was my turn to be stunned. It was such an honest, insightful admission and I couldn’t help but wonder what biases of my own I might be blind to.

Of course my friend is not alone. Research shows that right from birth many parents treat their sons and daughters differently, even if they don’t intend to. While boys are statistically more likely to die during infancy, and are generally more fragile as infants than girls, studies show that both mothers and fathers react quicker to a daughter’s cries than to a son’s. Studies also show that adults tend to cuddle girls longer than boys but are more likely to encourage boys to explore, try new things, and take risks.

Right from birth we fret about girls. We worry that when a girl comes crashing down to earth – bellyflop style- she won’t be able to get back up again. So we treat girls as precious objects in ever great need of protection. But there is a danger that when we wrap our girls in cotton wool, all we really teach them is to be afraid of the world around them.

And just like boys, girls want their dads to teach them things, to show them how the world works, to enable them in some way. I think back to my own childhood and my strongest memories of my dad involve him helping me to learn new things: how to ride a bike, how to read, and how to cook his legendary ‘daddy dinner’ (a cheese, tomato and carb extravaganza).

As an engineer dad was also constantly explaining how the world around me worked. Even when I was not particularly interested in a given object, his enthusiasm for the science behind things was contagious. His own curiosity about the world made me curious.

But perhaps his greatest parenting moments occurred when dad found ways to combine his interests and knowledge with my own hobbies and amusements. As a child, I remember that there were few things more validating than having my parents express a genuine interest in my world. But what was truly enriching was when they took the time to teach and involve me in their hobbies too.

And the lessons stuck. I recently purchased my first home, a true ‘renovators delight’, as they say. As dad and I headed off to Bunnings together for the first time in years, he was astonished to hear me parrot back at him some advice he had given me as a small child on the proper care of paint brushes.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have been all that surprised. For better or worse, kids absorb their parent’s words along with the wisdoms they impart.

So I am thankful for all the great dads who teach their children to be curious about the world, not afraid of it. I am thankful for dads who pick their children up, dust them off and tell them to keep trying, no matter how badly they may have bellyflopped. And most of all I am thankful for fathers who involve their sons and daughters, in equal measure, in learning about the world and how to embrace living in it.

“That skirt is sending out the wrong message” and 5 other things we should never say to girls ( Part 1).

I often find myself frustrated by much of the dialogue that surrounds teen girls as it can in fact be very damaging. Sadly, those that use these assumptions and stereotypes are often those who may well have girls’ best interests at heart, but are possibly unaware as to how harmful the messages they are delivering really are.

I asked a number of leading feminists and educators to set the record straight for us and ensure that when we aim to support girls, we don’t  inadvertently matters worse for them. Over the next few weeks I shall share their responses.

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Image taken from Jezebel –

1. Skirt length = a measure of morality

The policing of the way teen girls wear their school uniform really concerns me. Whilst uniform guidelines are fine and part of life for both genders, framing these in terms of morality is not. So many teen girls tell me they have been told things like: “You’re a good girl, but that skirt length sends off the wrong message” , or “You’re distracting the boys…”. This is the slippery slope that excuses the harassment of girls based on their clothing choice and ultimately may lead them to feel shame about their bodies ( an idea I have explored before here).  Author, columnist and academic  Dr Karen Brooks agrees:

I think what bothers me most about this whole uniform and clothing issue is that somehow, female clothing has become a visual barometer that measures a woman/girl’s morality and ethics and somehow also controls men’s. That’s why claims that if a man or boy is distracted/loses control/rapes/abuses/harrasses etc. then it’s the girl/woman’s fault carry weight in society. We still somehow believe that a woman’s dress indicates her morality and invites or rejects (male) attention. Well, if that’s the case, why is that women and girls who wear hijabs or dress in non-revelaing clothing are still raped/attract unwanted attention/harrassed and are also held accountable for male behaviour when it is transgressive and/or violent?

Teachers surely know it’s not the short skirt that warrants changing, but antediluvian attitudes that let males off the hook.

It’s the Damned Whores and God’s Police model all over again, yet what girl’s are being told is that what they wear is a way of modifying, “policing” male behaviour and their own sexuality as well. There is a false notion circulating that women can control men and keep ourselves “safe” by our clothing choices. What utter nonsense.

Clothing is not the issue. Society is. Yes, we need to take responsibility for our behaviours, regardless of sex. As long as we allow men and boys to shift blame for their choices, for their harassment or worse of women, nothing will be resolved. Clothes do not maketh the woman, but actions maketh the man (and woman)!

Feminist web site jezebel recently published a thought provoking piece, “Is Your Dress Code Sexist? A Guide.” This paragraph particularly resonated with me:

Look: I understand the desire a school might have to encourage students to dress respectfully and semi-professionally; out-of-the-ordinary or extreme clothing is distracting on a purely asexual level. Could you study next to a guy in a clown suit? Or a woman wearing an enormous Pharrell hat that plays music? I couldn’t. The key is to make it clear that both men and women need to adhere to any rules put in place, and that the rules are to ensure student focus is on the instructor rather than on other students.

And the reality is that no matter how careful an organization is to make sure they don’t sound …sexist…, women have more at stake in adhering to dress codes than men do, because women’s fashion dictates that women must wear less in order to be fashionable. Girls get so many sets of conflicting instructions that they’ll be punished by either their peers or their school no matter what they do. Wear revealing clothing, or you’re a dork, says the media to women. Don’t wear revealing clothing, or you’re a slut, say institutions to women. Talk about distracting.

When I asked her for her input, journalist Tracey Spicer said she thinks it is also important for us to honestly reflect on how we dressed as young women too:

What I really hate are the casually sexist comments about how young women are dressed for a night on the town. All this ‘They look like hookers!’ and ‘They’re asking for it’ stuff. For goodness sake, I used to dress in revealing outfits at that age, as I was discovering my sexuality. That doesn’t mean I’m asking to be sexually assaulted.

2. Mean Girls

Social commentator and writer Jane Caro wishes we would question the rhetoric around girls as “mean girls” :

The idea that girls are bitchy and nasty to one another, whereas boys are simple creatures who fix things with a good thump (?).

We expect women to tend relationships, to do the emotional care taking, girls know this but when they are young, they’re just learning about relationships and they do them badly. Instead of congratulating them for taking on this difficult and complex task (understanding how people relate to one another), we jump all over them & stereotype them as mean girls. This drives me nuts! I also hate the moral panic around ‘bullying’, which often ends up with us bullying the supposed bullies. We need to be much clearer about what bullying is and what it isn’t, and that most kids are both victims & perpetrators at various times. As are we all.

It is the first point Jane raises that was explored at the Festival Of Dangerous Ideas session entitled All Women Hate Each Other. I was privileged to speak at this alongside the truly awesome Germaine Greer, Tara Moss and Eva Cox. You may watch this session here: http://play.sydneyoperahouse.com/index.php/media/1654-All-Women-Hate-Each-Other.html

Melissa Carson, the Co-ordinator of Innovative Learning at boys’ school Oakhill College also believes the boys-as-less-complex creatures myth is dismissive of the complex nature of mate-ship and equally as damaging to boys: “I’ve worked closely with young men for over ten years and I can tell you they do stew on their friendship fall-outs. They report feelings of sadness, anger and frustration over their friendships and often don’t know how to resolve things. They are every bit as complicated as young women and in need of just as much support.”

3. One mistake and you’re out!

The “one mistake and you’re doomed” approach to educating young people drives me insane. I often hear this in the context of cyber training; messages like:  “If you ever post something on Facebook that’s not ideal, you’ll never be employed and will be socially shamed. And you will never be able to make that go away.” Implication? You may as well give up now if you’ve done something silly as you can’t ever make that right. Sadly, it is messages like this that lead young people to despair and to want to hide their errors for fear of being judged. Incidentally, I often wonder just who will be employed in the future if this was in fact true as I can’t imagine there will be anyone who hasn’t at least done one thing on-line that wasn’t smart at some stage in their youth. Again, Dr Karen Brooks agreed:

As for the cyber mistake. Oh puhleez! Yes, we need to educate young people that what they post could be potentially damaging and may impact in the future, but when and if they do post something inappropriate, we should also rally to ensure they understand that they can overcome this. In fact, understanding you can move beyond the inappropriate photo or posting can not only build resilience, but instil valuable lessons in how to cope with negative feedback, distressing reactions, how to negotiate an emotional and psychological minefield, but also how important it is to own what you’ve done/posted. Take responsibility and learn from it and move on (nothing to see here!). If it hits you in the face in later years, then take responsibility again, but also contextualise it and demonstrate how much you grew from that moment and what lessons you took away from the (bad and silly) experience to become the person you are now.

Yes, we catastrophize to ours and the kids’ detriment. So much for resilience, we’re teaching them to fall apart at the first mistake and to cry “my life is over!”. Ridiculous!

Author, speaker and advocate Nina Funnell concurred:

The most dangerous thing we can ever say to a young person is that there is no way forward, no light at the end of the tunnel, no possibility of recovery. And yet this is exactly the message they hear when we tell them that once you post something online, it is there forever, the damage is permanent and will never lighten. If a young person has made a mistake, catastrophising the situation will only lead to catastrophic outcomes and already we have seen one case in America where a teen took her life following a school seminar which reinforced the notion that she could never get a job or a university degree since she had already made an online mistake. Instead of this doom and gloom approach, we need to help teens develop resilience, the strength to overcome setbacks, and the insight to be able to put their mistakes into context.

More things we need to stop saying to girls NOW next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What messages do you think we deliver to young women that are harmful? 

Girls’ Attitudes to harassment

Back in 2008 I shared the excellent GirlGuiding UK report on Teenage Mental Health: Guiding The Way. 

This week I want to share some of the findings of this organisation’s latest report on what girls say about equality.

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Screen shot 2014-03-26 at 9.36.08 AMFirstly, the report makes it very clear there is still much to be done. Figures like the ones shared here on sexism and sexual harassment are based on a survey conducted with 1,288 girls aged between 11 and 21. The results absolutely reflect the experiences of the many thousands of girls we at Enlighten work with here in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, and are supported by the concerns both parents and educators share with us too.

But it was this research collated on sexual harassment that I think we urgently need to explore further:

The majority of girls and young women experience gender-based harassment, starting when they are at school.

Girls aged 11 to 21 are as likely to be exposed to harassment at school as on the street: 60% have had comments shouted at them about their appearance at school and 62% have been shouted or whistled at on the street (rising to 76% of 16- to 21-year-olds). This behaviour has a clear impact on girls’ sense of safety – 78% aged 11 to 21 find it threatening to be shouted or whistled at if they are on their own. It also affects younger girls, with a third aged 7 to 11 having experienced such harassment at school (31%).

Among girls aged 13 and over, seven out of ten have experienced more intrusive forms of sexual harassment at school or college. Half have experienced sexual jokes or taunts (51%), four in ten have seen images of girls or women that made them feel uncomfortable (39%), a third report seeing rude or obscene graffiti about girls or women (33%), and over a quarter say they have experienced unwanted sexual attention (28%), unwanted touching (28%) or unwanted attention or stalking (26%). Exposure to sexual harassment increases sharply with age – just over half of 13-year-olds report experiencing such behaviour (54%), rising to 80% of 19- to 21-year-olds.

Co-incidently, only this week I received an email from a young girl from a school here in Sydney:

Hello Dannielle.. I’ve met you a few times and I even got a signed book from you and I think you’re absolutely empowering and inspiring woman. I really need your help today though. I’ve started noticing that teen boys at my school have become quite.. invasive towards girls and at times just plain rude. I know that some say it’s just boys being boys but I find it quite appalling, all girls deserve respect. Even some of my friends have been affected by this and it’s come to the point where I have just had enough and I’m not sure what to do. I want to help solve this but I’m not sure how to do it without coming off too forceful and rude…

Girls need to know what is ok, what isn’t, and how to respond. Nina touched on the need to equip girls to know how to set boundaries and respond assertively to harassment in this excellent interview she gave on Sunrise about our latest book, Loveability – An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships. 

Many young women tell me that it is through a collective response that they feel they can make the most impact – hence they are drawn to feminism. Teen girl Lilly Edelstein shared her story of on-line harassment, and her desire to build a strong community of women who could make a stand, with me recently: Reclaim The Night. In our workshop on Real Girl Power we too find girls find a powerful collective voice and learn that together they are a force to be reckoned with. The teen girls at a school I worked at in early 2012 in Sydney were so inspired by Real Girl Power that, at lunchtime, a group of them waltzed up to a particularly sexist boy in their year group. Samantha, the group’s nominated spokeswoman, told him, ‘You always like to say, “Go make me a sandwich,” whenever we say something you don’t agree with in class. Guess what? There will be no sandwiches for you. And you don’t have to like what we say, but you do need to listen. If you try to dismiss us again, we are all going to start clapping loudly every time you speak. It’s going to really shine the spotlight on you, and we’re not sure you’re going to like that.’ There were no more orders for sandwiches, Samantha emailed to tell me. And we realised that collectively, we were strong. You could see the fear in all the boys’ eyes after that … LOL. I loved that this made her laugh – there is indeed a joy in claiming one’s power.

But frankly I am irritated the onus seems to always be on young women (the victims) to deal with this. Schools should be safe places for all students and they must make a collective strong stance against all forms of harassment. I’ve discussed this at my blog before: Facing up to sexual harassment in schools.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, a good school sexual harassment policy includes:

  • A strong statement on the school’s attitude to sexual harassment
  • An outline of the school’s objectives regarding sexual harassment
  • A plain English definition of sexual harassment
  • A definition of what sexual harassment is not
  • A statement that sexual harassment is against the law
  • Possible consequences if the sexual harassment policy is breached
  • Options available for dealing with sexual harassment
  • Where to get help or advice.

The Human Rights Commission stresses that a written policy is not enough. Ask yourself:

  • Are people aware of the policy? Do they have a copy of it?
  • Is it provided to new staff and students?
  • Is it periodically reviewed? It is available in appropriate languages?
  • Are there training and awareness-related strategies associated with the policy?

Also, we urgently need to do more work with boys too. As Nina said in the interview above, writing the Guide for boys may well be our “Plan B.” Nina and I both also now run workshops for young men on issues like gender stereotypes, combatting violence against women, and what defines masculinity. But really, we also need good men to stand up now. I’ve posted some excellent videos featuring men who urge for this to happen in the past and these are worth a visit and a share:

I’m Sorry Anna Nicole 

Sydney Boy’s High School Gender Equality Project 

and perhaps my favourite – Violence Against Women – It’s A Men’s Issue.

 

I’m a Feminist – Loud and Proud

I  recently returned to United World College (UWC) Singapore, at both the Dover and East Campuses, to follow up on the work I did there in April, and to meet some of the young women I had not yet had the opportunity to “Enlighten”. What an amazing, inspiring and humbling few days!

On a personal note, the young women at Dover gave me a rock-star reception and spontaneously cheered me all the way through the school grounds to the car park. If only I had had a video to capture this moment – although I probably wouldn’t have been able to film as I was crying with joy. What had made these girls so engaged?

Much of what I did this trip was around engaging girls to the broader women’s movement. For me, finding Feminism as a teen girl felt very much like finding Home. Finally, a place where I felt known, understood, accepted and challenged! I still find the sisterhood to be the most incredible source of inspiration and validation. What a joy then to be able to introduce the next generation to a movement that is still very much needed – and in desperate need of their perspectives!

One of the ways in which I connect young girls to Feminism through Enlighten’s Real Girl Power workshop is through humour (which is a great way too of instantly debunking any “feminists can’t be fun” stereotypes). We begin by exploring what popular culture will often tell us girl-power should look like and deconstruct how the phrase has been used to sell women everything from cleaning products to super-stomach-sucking-elastic pants (irony much?).

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I then love to get the teachers involved by inviting them up too to do an impromptu dance to the ultimate girl-power group – The Spice Girls; “Yo I tell you what I want, what I really, really want…” I am always thrilled how well teachers embrace this – and yes, the girls absolutely go crazy! And from this platform of humour and critical analysis, we begin exploring (in the words of Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary) what it is that women “really, really want.”

Slide I use showing my involvement (along with with many other women and young girls) at recent "Pull The Pin" rallies against child beauty pageants.
Slide I use showing my involvement (along with with many other women and young girls) at recent “Pull The Pin” rallies against child beauty pageants.

The big issues I chose to help girls deconstruct include the participation and treatment of women in politics, in the workplace, and in the sporting arena. We also then reflect on the issue of violence against women. Girls are invariably shocked and outraged at some of the statistics I share and are soon questioning what they too can do to rectify things. I then offer a “call to action” – I do not want girls feeling a sense of despair, but rather I want them engaged to be change-makers. Girls are encouraged (and shown) how to speak-up through participation in protests and petitions. And I hand out our very popular “Girl Caught” stickers which encourage young women to speak back to marketers that portray women in a negative way.

Enlighten's "Girl Caught" stickers
Enlighten’s “Girl Caught” stickers

And finally, I love to show the girls just how broad, embracing (and cool!) Club Feminist really is by highlighting what their teachers think about the movement. Prior to presenting at UWC I asked the staff to email me their pictures and tell me why they are Feminists. I then collated their responses into a PowerPoint presentation. Below are just a few of the many responses I received:

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I invited girls to also share their “Loud and Proud” photos at Enlighten’s Instagram page. We are starting to get some amazing contributions and would welcome yours too. Use the hash tags below to ensure we find your contribution and can share it:

Follow us! The page is Administrated by 17tear old student Lauren Muscatt. We are so proud of the work she is doing there to offer our followers powerful, positive messages and connect them to the Enlighten cyber-community.
Follow us! The page is Administrated by 17 year old student Lauren Muscatt. We are so proud of the work she is doing there to offer our followers powerful, positive messages and connect them to the Enlighten cyber-community.

What could you do to connect more young people to the Feminist movement? Love to hear your ideas.

P.S. Real Girl Power is one of the many workshops Enlighten offers as part of its half or full day programs. If your girls have already had either a half-day or full-day Enlighten Education program in the past, they are eligible to have this offered as a special stand-alone 1hr follow-up workshop.
Contact us at Enlighten HQ if you are interested in this : 1300 735 997
Or email us: enquiries@enlighteneducation.com 

No More Blurring The Lines – I’m Talking To You Mr Bruno Mars

Back in 2008 I blogged about my concern music no longer loved women:

Song lyrics have always been filled with sexual innuendo and pushed societies boundaries but this in-your-face mainstream misogyny is relatively new. And now- thanks to large plasma screens in shopping centers, bowling alleys and bars and night clubs – it is inescapable. It’s hate and porn, all the time.

Obviously nothing has changed – if anything, the lines seem to have become even more blurred. Robin Thicke sings about wanting to tear a girl’s “arse in two” in his song with the telling title “Blurred Lines,” because he know the “bitch” wants it. Yet it was Miley Cyrus’ twerking (suggestive dancing) to this song at the recent VMA’s ( Video Music Awards) that caused outrage – not the song itself. Blogger Matt Walsh nailed the hypocritical nature of many of the “Shame on You Miley” responses in his post “Dear son, don’t let Robin Thicke be a lesson to you”

A 36 year old married man and father, grinding against an intoxicated 20 year old while singing about how she’s an “animal” and the “hottest bitch in this place.” And what happens the next day? We’re all boycotting the 20 year old. The grown man gets a pass.

And so now welcome yet another grown man to the stage, Bruno Mars, with his latest single, “Gorilla.” The lyrics include:

Ooh I got a body full of liquor
With a cocaine kicker
And I’m feeling like I’m thirty feet tall
So lay it down, lay it down

You got your legs up in the sky
With the devil in your eyes
Let me hear you say you want it all
Say it now, say it now…

Yeah, I got a fistful of your hair
But you don’t look like you’re scared
You just smile and tell me, “Daddy, it’s yours.”
‘Cause you know how I like it,
You’s a dirty little lover

If the neighbors call the cops,
Call the sheriff, call the SWAT ‒ we don’t stop,
We keep rocking while they’re knocking on our door
And you’re screaming, “Give it to me baby,
Give it to me motherf*#cker!”

And you know what? I don’t want to hand out anymore free passes. I am calling “Enough!”

The first time I heard this was when I was dropping my two children to school in the morning while tuned to a mainstream commercial radio station. I expressed my dismay on Facebook and soon had many agree with me – the majority of the comments of support were from teen girls I am Friends with. Some of these girls went on to message me to say that it is no wonder the boys around them don’t always respect them, and that they feel a culture that celebrates this type of man-handling of women is making it hard to know what respect in a relationship really looks and feels like.

The messages these girls sent me are certainly reinforced by the research.Dr Michael Rich, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics Media Matters campaign has gone so far as to state that exposure to misogynist music that portrays violence against women and sexual coercion as normal may effect other areas of young peoples lives and make it more difficult for them to know what is normal in a relationship. And sadly, the statistics on sexual assault clearly indicate there is absolutely a great deal of confusion around the issue of sexual consent. A recent United Nations report shockingly revealed that one in four men surveyed in Asia-pacific admit to rape. Many respondents did not consider the act as rape, however, for they felt it was acceptable to coerce a woman into sex if she was in fact too drunk or drugged to indicate whether she wanted it. Nearly 73%  said they thought  they had an entitlement to sex, these respondents identified with statements like “I wanted her”, “I wanted to have sex”, or “I wanted to show I could do it”.

Colleague and writing partner Nina Funnell, who has worked extensively in the area of sexual assault prevention, offered the following thoughtful response to this study:

Sexual assault is just all too common and in Australia I don’t think the stats wouldn’t be all that different. I know too many women and girls who have had unwanted and non consensual sexual experiences. It is absolutely vital that we start a new conversation in relation to sexual education: we need to move beyond reproduction, puberty and the biology of making babies and start talking about consent and communication. We need to talk about sexual entitlement and its close (read: direct) relationship to sexual assault. We need to help all young people to recognise and respect other people’s boundaries. We need to focus on healthy relationhips, consent, boundaries, fair negotiation and respect. We need to empower young people to know their own bodies, instead of shaming them around their sexualities . We need a new conversation where we are brave enough to talk about the fact that these issues don’t only effect teenagers. And we need to get real about a culture that normalizes and even eroticizes non consensual acts. Most of all, we need to recognise that this is going to take time and hard work.

It is a shame that much of the nuanced discussion around the need for education was missed when the Daily Telegraph ran a story on my concerns over “Gorilla” earlier this week. It is important to note too (as it’s not clear from this article) that I am not saying the song should necessarily be banned per se, but rather there should be some guidelines for commercial radio that determine what song lyrics can be played at what time of the day – similar to what we now have for TV.

I did get the opportunity to have another say on channel 9’s Mornings show:

Surely we can offer a better soundtrack to our kid’s youth than this?

So Much To Tell You

The last few weeks have been something of whirlwind. I have been presenting to hundreds of teen girls in Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney – and am off to Melbourne and Singapore shortly too.

And oh how wonderful it was to have this on-the-ground work externally recognised by Prevention Australia Magazine. This month I was honoured to be included in their annual “40 Most Inspiring Women Over 40” issue; listed as a “Game Changer” alongside such incredible women as Jessica Rowe, Ita Buttrose, Quentin Bryce and Penny Wong!

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Click on image to enlarge:
#40womenover40

 

It was also wonderful to have the opportunity to return to Channel 9’s “Mornings” program to discuss the ridiculous weight jibes that were directed towards fashion model Jessica Gomes:

And finally, the audio from the session I chaired at the Sydney Opera House’s “All About Women” conference, “Bringing Up Daughters,” was uploaded. You may access it here:

Audio – Bringing Up Daughters – Sydney Opera House, 7th April, 2003.

This conversation is really thought provoking and features insights from my panellists Nigel Marsh, Maya Newell and Barbara Toner. Unfortunately, the audio gets stuck about 25 seconds in, but if you scroll past this point you will be able to listen to the entire hour. It may be worth listening as a staff / parent body and then discussing some of the key questions I posed yourselves? Questions may include:

  • In her book Leaning In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg cites research showing that parents treat sons and daughters differently. They talk to girl babies more than boys, and spend more time comforting and hugging girls than watching them play by themselves. Mothers also overestimate the crawling abilities of their sons and underestimate it in their daughters. And Sandberg says, ‘When a girl tries to lead, she is often labelled bossy. Boys are seldom called bossy because a boy taking the role of a boss does not surprise or offend.’ She argues that the fact we treat girls and boys differently from a young age is one of the reasons there are so few women in leadership positions. Do you think that parents can subconsciously restrict the opportunities of their daughters?
  • Does new technology mean we need to change the way we parent, or are the fundamentals still the same?
  • One of the big social changes of the past decade or so that worries a lot of parents is how easy it has become to access porn. Pornography was always there—but now it’s everywhere, and it’s increasingly hard core. University of NSW research noted that 28 percent of 9–16-year-olds had seen sexual material online, which means that by the time parents settle down to have ‘the talk’ with their kids about sex education, chances are their kids have already formed their own ideas about what sex is, based on a porn ideal. So how should we talk to our daughters about sex and about the big difference between porn sex and real-life sex?
  • Most parents are juggling an extraordinary workload these days as well as running a household. The first thing many of us do each day is grab our phone and start checking emails and texts, and it doesn’t stop till we got to bed that night. A lot of us end up feeling exhausted and overwhelmed—but it’s not just parents. At my company Enlighten Education we run relaxation workshops for girls because they are increasingly stressed by an overscheduled life, an online world that never turns off and the pressure they feel to achieve. How important is it for our children that we set the tone by making healthy choices and finding a work/life balance ourselves?
  • What is the most valuable thing that you learned from your own parents that you wish all daughters could learn?

Leaky Ladies and Their Worrisome Wombs

This week’s post is an extract from Nina Funnell’s chapter in the recent feminist anthology, Destroying The Joint – Why Women have To Change The World (edited by Jane Caro). I was prompted to share this post after viewing an advertisement for menstrual products that I think is just fabulous – do take a look:

The announcement came on a Monday morning during full-school assembly. As the students sat quietly in the school gym, the deputy principal took to the stage and with her usual unimpressed air, she declared that the tampon and pad vending machines located in the girl’s bathrooms had been deemed ‘inappropriate’.

‘These machines’, she announced, ‘give an unladylike impression to our school’s guests, particularly male visitors who on, occasion, have cause to occupy the female facilities. They will be removed immediately.’

I bristled uncomfortably. What exactly did she mean by ‘unladylike’? How could there possibly be anything unladylike about products which – by definition – only ladies had cause to use? …

At recess I took the issue up with my friends. We talked about the stigma surrounding menstruation and the ridiculous tampon and pad ads on television: Why do they always use that stupid blue dye? What do they think we are, Smurfs or something? And why do the women always dance around like getting their period is the Best Thing Ever? It’s sooo patronising. Why can’t they ever just portray the subject realistically?

We talked about the decision to remove the tampon machines and the significance of it being a woman who had passed down the order – what does she use when she’s got her period? Doesn’t she remember what it is like to be caught without a pad or a tampon? Besides, if you can’t acknowledge female menstruation in a woman’s bathroom, then where on earth can you acknowledge it? – and together we agreed that something had to be done. Someone had to take action.

The following day I met with the other members of our Student Representative Council. I raised the issue and there was universal agreement that the tampon and pad machines should stay. Later that week I met with our principal, a kind and liberal man who immediately recognised the ridiculousness of the situation; he overturned the decision and we got to keep our machines. It was a small victory but it gave me a taste of something bigger. Girls could rewrite the rules….

Lifting the Curse

The year I got my first period was the same year that the movie How to Make an American Quilt came out. I remember this, because before seeing the film I had felt anxious and deeply ashamed about the changes that were occurring in my body. In the opening scene of the film, Winona Ryder’s character introduces the woman she idolises: ‘[Marianna] had lived in Paris which made her very mysterious to me when I was a kid. She taught me French, made café au laits and the year I got my period, she gave me a glass of red wine.’

This may not sound particularly remarkable. But as a thirteen-year-old girl, it had a profound impact on me because it was the first time I had seen menstruation portrayed as something which could positively bond women together. My body was changing in a way that I couldn’t control, but this was the first time that I felt that maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing. In fact, this scene struck me with such force that when the movie came out on video, I immediately hired it just to watch that one scene over.

For women and girls around the world, it’s vitally important that we develop narratives about menstruation which counter the dominant cultural and religious discourses. And there is good news here. After all, the only thing more powerful than a taboo is breaking one.

Thankfully, feminists, women’s health professionals, artists, individual women and even some advertising executives are already doing this work. And since I don’t like to acknowledge a problem without also acknowledging those who are trying to fix it, let’s take a look at a few examples.

In 2010, the tampon and pad company Kotex produced a bitingly satirical video that parodied the conventional pad advertisements on TV. The clip formed part of a wider campaign called ‘Break the Cycle’, which aimed to challenge the stigma around menstruation. The clip begins with a woman on a couch saying, ‘How do I feel about my period? Ah, we are like this.’ She then crosses her fingers indicating tight friendship. She continues: ‘I love it. It makes me feel really pure. Sometimes I just want to run on the beach. I like to twirl, maybe in slow motion. And usually by the third day, I just want to dance. The ads on TV are really helpful, because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like, ‘Oh! That’s what is supposed to happen!’ The video quickly went viral, and dozens of articles were subsequently written about the unhelpful ways in which menstruation is discussed and depicted in the public arena…

Even vampire themed texts, which have historically been read as allegories about monstrous menstruation, are beginning to play around with the stigma. In the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, for example, Buffy’s superpower strength is intrinsically linked to her menstrual cycle and every time a vampire is near she experiences light period cramps. This operates as an inbuilt alarm system to alert her to the danger around her. While this ‘ability’ was dropped for the series of the show by the same name, its inclusion in the movie represents an interesting break with conventional portrayals of menstruation in vampire-themed texts.

Moving away from art and popular culture, community workers and not-for-profit organisations in the developing world are doing some amazing work to address the social exclusion of menstruating women. For example, in Rwanda, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) has partnered with existing local women’s networks to offer microloans to women who then use the money to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality and eco-friendly sanitary pads. Not only does this provide the community with access to low-cost sanitary goods, but the model also offers women financial independence and increased economic security. Already this model has proved effective in increasing the school attendance of girls who may otherwise have stayed at home during their period.

But perhaps the most important work is the work that is being done by ordinary women in every day settings. In households, workplaces, schoolyards and online, girls and women are breaking a powerful taboo by talking about their experiences. Sisters, mothers, daughters and friends are blogging and speaking out about the menstrual stigma. They are developing new ways of thinking and talking about women’s bodies and, in the process, are fighting back against outmoded patriarchal attitudes. These women and girls are changing the future for all of us. They are our destroyers.

Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards
Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards

Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.

Comments about tennis star Marion Bertoli and a Roxy surfing ad featuring Stephanie Gilmore judge female athletes by their looks

This week I am pleased to share an excellent guest post by the wonderful Dr Karen Brooks; this was originally published by the Courier MailDr Karen Brooks is an author and associate professor at the UQ Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies.

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Ogling and forensically examining the bodies of athletic women is being turned into a sport.

Two champions have recently emerged in this growing field.

First is BBC commentator John Inverdale, who made disparaging remarks about Wimbledon women’s champion Marion Bartoli, claiming she “was never going to be a looker”.

Second is surf brand Roxy, which released a contentious promotional ad for the 2013 Women’s World Surfing Championships.

Featuring an elite female surfer’s body – now known to be five-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore – her face and ability in the water are totally erased as the camera lingers, often in extreme close-up, on a bed, her knickers, toned back, legs, decolletage and long blonde hair. After slowly waxing her board, only then does she enter the water, camera following her pert derriere.

Indignation followed Inverdale’s “casual sexism” and the provocative Roxy ad.

In many ways, Inverdale’s remark, his “if I caused any offence” apology and the raunchy advertisement expose the contradictory nature of women’s sport, as well as being symptoms of a society where the shape, appeal and value of female bodies are constantly scrutinised and debate about them made legitimate.

What’s being reinforced in women’s sport is the idea that success and possibly public acceptance are contingent on the female star being the next super (sport’s) model as well.

In many ways, women are damned if they do participate in a culture that insists sex sells sport and damned as “not being lookers” and forever chasing sponsorship and recognition if they don’t.

Ever since champion Australian golfer Jan Stephenson raised eyebrows and temperatures in the 1980s by embracing a sex-sells approach as a personal marketing strategy, posing naked in a bathtub filled with golf balls, there’s been a tension between appearance and ability, as if they’re either mutually exclusive or the breakfast, lunch and dinner of champions.

In professional sport, the more a person wins, the more media coverage they receive and the more money they make. Women have the added burden of having to look good while they do this.

If they don’t rate (appearance-wise) on the field, then they need to get attention off the field.

From magazine spreads to nude calendars, the female athletic body must be a sexy one as well. If it’s not deemed worthy, then it’s criticised and shamed.

Inverdale attempted this with Bartoli. The same occurred at the London Olympics when Leisel Jones’ body size and shape dominated front pages.

It wasn’t just Jones who was mocked either. The Brazilian women’s soccer team and British women’s beach volleyballers came under negative scrutiny – and not only for their skimpy outfits.

Too rarely is critical discussion surrounding sportswomen about their technique, training or ability.

Professional sportswomen cannot afford to think too deeply about this unhealthy and irrelevant focus, nor comment publicly about how they really feel when their bodies are held up for judgment, as it could affect the way their “brand” and sport, are perceived.

Condemning this kind of reductive focus could also damage their ability to draw crowds, earn sponsorship and viably remain in their chosen field. It’s much easier to be complicit in the marketing of their bodies as sexy, beautiful and capable – and reap the rewards.

The result of this complicity – the female athlete’s and ours, the sport-watching or ogling public – is evident in the Roxy campaign.

This ad for a world championship doesn’t even need to name or reveal the sporting identity who features to work. Why? Because her abilities are redundant next to her beauty and sex appeal.

This is why those such as Inverdale also get away with comments about sportswomen because, even when you win Wimbledon, if you’re not conventionally beautiful, your achievement not only doesn’t count, it isn’t respected either.

What makes a female athlete of interest for audiences, the media and sponsors – talent or sexiness? Obviously, the combination is nothing short of gold, but since when is it all sport promoters seek and audiences care about?

Are we really so shallow?

If we want to invest in women’s sport and the athletes, looks shouldn’t be part of the contract, conversation or game.

 

You may also be interested in the following Butterfly Effect posts, also by guest writers, as these deal with similar themes:

Babes, Bitches, and Blooming Awful Journalism! 

Women In Sport Hit The Grass Ceiling

 

Videos that move

This week I want to share three of the videos I’ve watched recently that have deeply moved me.

The first is a TED Talk by Jackson Katz, Ph.D. The YouTube clip describes Katz as:

…an anti-sexist activist and expert on violence, media and masculinities. An author, filmmaker, educator and social theorist, Katz has worked in gender violence prevention work with diverse groups of men and boys in sports culture and the military, and has pioneered work in critical media literacy. Katz is the creator and co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, which advocates the ‘bystander approach’ to sexual and domestic violence prevention. You’ve also seen him in the award winning documentary ‘MissRepresentation.’

I felt compelled to share this with all my male friends and was so pleased that they too found Katz’ talk so very powerful; I trust you will also want to share it and use it as a stimulus for some vital conversations.

In a similar vein, Patrick Stewart (the actor best known for his roles in various sci-fi’s) beautifully articulates why violence against women is a choice a man should never make:

And finally, a video that touched me in a very personal way. This was made by teen girl Tanya Shanmugharaj, a student at United World College in South East Asia. I had the pleasure of meeting Tanya and her incredible classmates and educators on a recent trip to Singapore; I presented to all the Grade 6,7 and 8 girls and keynoted at the College’s Middle School Conference. How could one not feel enormously humbled and thrilled to witness these girls’ passion and gratitude for the lessons I was privileged to share with them about empowerment? Wow.

Myth busting – creating a new dialogue with young men

When I first co-founded Enlighten Education with my partner Francesca Kaoutal back in 2003, the vision was to create workshops for both girls and boys that would inform, inspire and empower. Our initial work with boys was launched via an innovative and explorative program called “Tribal Zone.”

Extract from original flyer, 2004.

Although Fran and I were happy with the outcomes from this pilot program, at the time we both felt that our energies needed to be channelled into the urgent business of working with young women and also felt apprehensive about leading boys into an exploration of manhood. Surely this was mens’ business?

Fast forward 8 years and my own son, Kye, is now 11.  As my career began in the classroom, and I spent 8 years working as both an English teacher and a students at risk co-ordinator, I have witnessed first-hand just how challenging adolescence is for many young men. The pressures placed on boys to conform to unrealistic stereotypes and to fit narrow definitions of masculinity now, more than ever, seem particularly urgent for me to help address. Whilst my son begins to prepare for High School next year, I too again feel the need to offer education that will help make the transition from boyhood to manhood more joyful and equip him, and all boys, with skills to make sense of a world that is not always kind to either gender.

Increasingly too schools have been asking me to work with their young men and share many of the messages I give to girls with their boys. Sydney’s Cranbrook School  recently asked me to work with their middle school boys on developing conflict resolution skills, and on how they could best develop positive friendships.
I thoroughly enjoyed this experience and left feeling that I had indeed helped to make a difference.

So I recently approached colleague Nina Funnell to collaborate with me on designing a new workshop aimed at raising boys up. Nina is a writer, social commentator and an anti-violence advocate- she and I recently finished a book for girls on respectful relationships which will be published by Harper Collins in 2014.

The result? A two hour workshop that busts myths about boys. Some of the myths we bust include: “Teen boys are bad news”, “Real men don’t cry”, “All gamers are socially inept geeks,” “Boys punch on and then move on” and “All strong men have six-packs.”  We do not assume to tell boys how to be men, but rather use our expertise in engaging young people to educate them to make their own decisions, and we equip them with the skills they need to make better choices. And we draw on the wisdom of men in leadership roles:

 

Slide from “Busting Myths About Boys & Men” – we have been touched by the willingness of prominent men to provide us with their insights to include.
Apart from presenting boys with insights from prominent male celebrities, the boys’ own male teachers are encouraged to share their stories too.

I recently delivered this workshop to over a thousand boys from years 6 through to year 11 over the course of a week at the Australian International School In Singapore. I have to say I was beyond thrilled with the results! 95% of boys rated the session as either Very Good or Excellent, and 99% said they would recommend it. But aside from asking them what they thought of the day, we also wanted to ascertain what they wished all adults would better understand about their world. The boys’ comments were incredibly poignant and meaningful and expressed a strong desire for them to be better understood:

    • I wish adults would understand that we have feelings, we’re not perfect, we need help sometimes and we don’t have a perfect body. Ned, yr 9
    • I wish adults would understand that it’s a lot harder than most parents would suspect (being a boy) because of various things such as media. Kieran, Yr 9
    • I liked the performance thing, it gave us a chance to try.  I learnt that we are not the troublemakers.  We are hard on our life, so please be soft on us. Anon.Yr 9
    • Today I learnt that assertiveness works, aggressiveness doesn’t work, talking face to face is always better and that chicks want nice guys.  Adults need to understand that being a teen boy we have a lot of pressure. Anton, Yr 9
    • Adults need to understand that playing video games isn’t bad, and can also be helpful.  I learnt today that boys have feelings, aggression isn’t always the answer and to be assertive. Dylan, yr 9
    • I wish adults would understand that I’m a good child and do the right thing. Andy, Yr 9
    • I learnt today to be assertive, express yourself, don’t have to be buff, games aren’t socially inept and talk in person about troubles. I wish adults would understand that we aren’t all trouble, sometimes we hide our struggles, we can be good at communicating and the pressure about our bodies. Joel, Yr 9
    • I wish adults would understand that boys also feel pressure.  Girls might seem all weak (which is sexist) but even boys have emotions. We aren’t all those buff powerhouses like everyone thinks. Dalai, yr 7
    • I liked learning how we are influenced because it was interesting. I learnt to give time, be calm, men cry, be assertive and boys aren’t always bad. Zac, Yr 7
    • I wish adults would understand that teen boys aren’t all bad and that we can be smart, organized, clean, healthy and independent. Wayne, Yr 7
    • I liked the information you gave us about reality and the truth about growing up.  I wish adults would understand the stress of school, making friends and our troubles and needs.  Anon, Yr y8
    • Today taught me about social media, myths about boys, dealing with friends, how to keep calm and stereotypes about boys.  I wish adults would understand that we can be good and to let us get out more. Kahn, Yr 7
    • My favourite part today was listening to a well-structured and hilarious presentation with issues that are extremely relevant. I learnt that there are many stereotypes surrounding boys, ways to solve problems and conflict, there are similarities between boys and girls, boys aren’t as strong as depicted by the media and that the level of intelligence of boys and girls is the same. I want adults to understand that we get stressed with assignments and other homework tasks at times. Kevin, Yr 10
    • All of it was great and it gave us useful advice. I learnt that some adults acknowledge that their reasoning my be incorrect or exaggerated. I want adults to remember that they had their own equivalent stereotypes when they were growing up. Hahn, Yr 10
    • My favourite parts were the interactive ones. I learnt that we aren’t all heartless Neanderthals, violence against women goes unnoticed and not all guys just want sex. I would like adults to know that we aren’t as dumb as we are depicted. Ben, Yr 11
    • I expected it to be a long boring speech but I liked everything, it was exciting and I wasn’t bored. I learnt that not all guys are bad, how to make up with friends, there are a lot of myths about guys and the target market for boys and girls is very different.  I would like adults to know that I am not like the bad boys on tv and I hope they don’t compare me to them. Jonathan, yr 11

Perhaps the thing that moved me the most though was not so much the boys’ words, but rather their actions. Many lined up to give me a hug good-bye. Or to shake my hand. Or simply to give me a “High-5”. I found myself quite overwhelmed by the enthusiastic way in which they embraced these messages, I even had boys running up to me in the playground throughout the course of the week to thank me yet again.

Working with young women will always be a priority. Yet I cannot help but feel excited about the impact this work may have on young men too – and of course on the women in their lives who will be positively impacted by the changes we are helping to create.

To enquire about having me work with the boys at your school email: dannimiller@me.com. Please note, this work is run independently and is not part of Enlighten Education’s programs. 

 

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