Skip to content

Category: Sexuality Education

My next book

The Next Big Thing encourages writers to share their work. Participants answer questions on their next big project (usually a book, but not always – one of the nominees listed with me was a playwright) each Wednesday, and pass the baton on to five other writers to continue the project the following week.

Last week, I was tagged by Rachel Hills.

This provides me with the perfect excuse to discuss my next book which I have just completed. I had the pleasure of co-writing this with my dear friend Nina Funnell.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

“Love – An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships”. It must be said though that we are still playing around with a number of titles. Like all expectant parents, we are keen to ensure we get the name for our baby just right. 

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Recently Nina and I met for coffee and found ourselves browsing through the self-help / relationship section at a local bookshop. We noted there was a whole genre of books out there aimed at young women, that would have them believe that landing a man means being less of who they really are. And there didn’t seem to be any books at all that were offering the kind of advice we actually wanted when we were teen girls – how to survive crushes, how to tell if someone likes you, how to cope with heartbreak, how to set relationship boundaries, how to know when it’s time to break up with your partner, and even (shock horror) how to actually enjoy being single (because it can be awesome)!

And while there are hundreds of studies conducted on teenagers and sex every year, there are almost no comprehensive studies (or very few) about teen relationships, in part because teen relationships are often viewed as trivial or unworthy of serious academic study. But the reality is, teen relationships are far from trivial. In fact these early experiences help shape us and lay the foundation for future relationships.  

So we decided that if we didn’t think any of what was out there already was particularly helpful, that we should offer something different.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Relationships – non-fiction. 

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

My initial thoughts were that it is not the type of book that would be made into a film; but I then realised that of course one of the classic guides to relationships, “He’s Just Not That Into You”, was made into a very successful movie. So, should Hollywood call, I would  suggest a cast of young, diverse, interesting actors and actresses. With the soundtrack by Paul Dempsey / Something For Kate. 

Hey, if we are dreaming here…

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

This book is an up –front guide to ethical dating and relationships which will empower young women. 

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The book will be published by Harper Collins, February 2014. 

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Nina and I had discussed the book concept for some time, but really only began writing 6 months ago. 

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The chapters I wrote are similar in their tone to my other book for teen girls, The Girl With The Butterfly Tattoo. However, the book itself  deliberately parts ways with other guides to relationships that are already on the market for young people.  

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

All the girls Nina and I work with in schools inspired this book. 

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Think of this book as being a little like a “Lonely Planet” guide to Love written specifically for teen girls. We tell them about our travels, what we liked, what we hated, the places we would definitely go again and those they need to avoid… and we invited many other “travelers” to share their experiences too. It is warm and wise – and the teen girls we have shared it with to date absolutely love it! 

Next Wednesday, you’ll see a response from this writer I hereby tag*:

Sharon Witt  

* Technically, I am supposed to tag 5 writers but as as it is the Christmas season, I could only access one willing to participate at this time. Hey – it’s quality,  not quantity that counts.

 

On “targeting” little girls who wear shorts as “trampy”

Do short shorts = trampy? Does a short skirt = slutty?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines “sexualisation” as  occurring when a person’s value is believed to come only from their sexual appeal; their sexiness is judged according to a narrow ideal of physical attractiveness; or they are sexually objectified (that is, seen simply as an object for others’ sexual use). This may have a serious impact on a child’s cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and on their sexuality.

As a parent and educator, this has concerned me enough to compel me to act.

Back in 2002, I founded a company, Enlighten Education, which now works with over 20,000 girls a year in schools. We encourage girls to be discerning consumers and critical thinkers and to find their own voice and power in a complex world. I’ve taken to the streets to protest against child beauty pageants. I’ve backed boycotts of stores that market Playboy-branded merchandise to kids. Back in 2007, when 60 Minutes did a feature story in response to the Senate’s inquiry into this issue, I was presented as the “poster girl” for parents who were concerned that our culture imposes pressures on girls to be too sexy, too soon. Hell, I have even written two books aimed at supporting parents, and girls, to claim their own power.

So why am I not thrilled at the latest online furor over the mother’s Facebook message to clothing store Target that slammed them for encouraging girls to look “trampy”? After all, over 57,000 people agreed with her. Why too aren’t I elated by the subsequent media storm this has initiated, which has seen two different pairs of denim shorts held up as shocking examples of sexualized clothing we should all be morally outraged by?

A pair of shorts presented by the media as evidence of the sexualisation of girls.

Because short shorts are not evidence of the sexualisation of our children, nor should children ever be labeled as “trampy”. And the really important and valid discussions around the sexualisation of children we need to be having at the moment seem to be being hijacked by those that would have this issue used as an excuse to shame girls and women based on their clothing choices.

This diversion may have serious consequences. History shows us that the natural progression in making moral judgements about an individual based solely on their clothing is to then begin blaming victims for sexual assaults based on what they were wearing at the time. I have already seen a number of comments and posts on Facebook that suggest if little girls are attacked by predators, it would be reasonable for us to then question what they were wearing at the time of the assault. Not only is such thinking deeply offensive, it is misinformed and dangerous. All the research shows that those who would harm girls and women pick targets they perceive as vulnerable; as easy targets. They don’t go around measuring short lengths or skirt hems.

Keep in mind too that sexual assault is a very real issue in our society and when we make statements that are in effect rape-apologist in nature, or that shame women based on clothing choice, the victims of these assaults hear that we think somehow it was their fault. That they asked for it. Their shorts were an invitation to judge them / insult them / harm them.

Truly, where do we think this policing of the length of a pair of shorts might end? Should girls and women be ashamed of their flesh? Do we want to keep them covered up from head to toe?

I absolutely agree that there are many marketers who are selling out on our children by pushing a product that does enforce an artificial, adult version of sexuality upon them. Should the shorts have been brandished with “Flirt”, “Playboy”, “Porn Star” or pouting lips (and make no mistake, I have seen products aimed at children bearing all these slogans) then yes, this would clearly be evidence of sexualisation.

And whilst I support any individual who wishes to speak back to corporates and demand more for children, I know that a path which invites the shaming of girls and women based on clothing choice, and that views garments that seem only to be guilty of perhaps “showing too much leg,” is not a path we should be going down.

* This post was first published by The Hoopla, 15/8/12.

Dr Jekyll and Mrs Hyde

I had a revealing conversation with a single parent of a 12-year-old girl the other day. His daughter had been feeling particularly moody, he said, as she was just about to menstruate. I asked if she had had this premenstrual phase of her cycle explained to her. “Yes, she knows all about her periods” was his response.

Yet I suspected after talking with him further that, as it is for many young girls who are given “the talk”, this conversation was reduced to an explanation of how to care for herself physically during her period. In its most simplistic form, it is often a chat about pads versus tampons, and tends to come with the dire warning that if they are not “careful” they could now fall pregnant.

The fact is, once our girls menstruate, we don’t tend to be very helpful in advising them beyond sanitation, abstinence and, if we are particularly switched on, contraception options. Rarely do we discuss how to deal with the fact that for many girls and women emotions may be heightened during the premenstrual phase and behaviour altered.

And even if we do allude to premenstrual tension (PMT), it tends to be in terms that promote and reinforce the archetypal “crazy lady” myth, which would have us reduce everything a woman expresses during this time to hysterical ramblings. It is particularly apt that women are often referred to as being “hysterical” during this stage in their cycle, as the term derives from the Greek word meaning “womb” (hence the term “hysterectomy”). Historically, society would have us believe some deep flaw within our wombs is literally making us insane!

One day she is all smiles and gladness. A stranger in the house seeing her will sing her praise . . . But the next day she is dangerous to look at or approach: She is in a wild frenzy . . . savage to all alike, friend or foe . . . Semonides, Greek philosopher (c. 556–468 BC)

Premenstrual tension has been recognised as a medical condition since 1953 and has even controversially been used as a defence for murder—hence the headline to this post, which comes from a newspaper report chronicling a 1980s court case in London in which PMT was raised (unsuccessfully, I might add) as a defence for homicide.

Premenstrual tension may include physical symptoms such as leg cramps, bloating and headaches; emotional changes such as increased depression and anxiety and lower self-esteem; and behavioural changes including increased irritability, social isolation and being accident prone.

I have been known to suffer from particularly bad PMT at various points in my life. Leg cramps? Check. Bloating? Absolutely. Increased depression? I have been known to weep at the thought of making yet another school lunch. Irritability? My ex-husband used to always joke that I would threaten to divorce him once every month.

Despite knowing my feelings at this time are certainly heightened, I also believe they are valid. In fact, as I’ve gotten older I’ve learnt to be very attentive to them, as I can often more clearly see, for example, what is wrong in my relationships at this stage. Usually I tend to repress these darker feelings. In a sense, my inner voice stops whispering and starts screaming at me (okay, okay, and often at others) that week!

I am no longer so quick to silence my womb and my female intuition.

Rachel Hansen, a colleague and sexual health educator, offered me her insights:

In my 20s, I used to dismiss PMT as that time of the month when I was particularly irrational, but I now think of this as a time when I actually allow myself to acknowledge and express the full range of my emotions. Talk about liberating! Menstruation has traditionally been associated with craziness and all things negative. I think that we women have to reclaim this time in our lives, to reclaim it as a particularly special, empowered time – heck, perhaps the closest we get to being Superwoman each month!

A friend who is a mum to two girls explained to me how she supports her eldest daughter to not ignore, but rather manage, her mood swings:

She would get so emotional and fiery, to the point where she was confused and didn’t know what was ‘wrong’ with her and why she kept arguing with us. I sat her down and explained that it’s very normal to feel the way she does and that her feelings are legitimate, but that in the midst of those more out-of-control moments around period time, we need a word to remind her, and us, as to why she’s struggling to articulate herself. I told her to choose a word that reminds her of something calm and happy that she could use, so that she can just say the word, and then that will be our signal to just stop and hug her, to show her that we care about her feelings, but that we need to pick up the conversation later. (Most of the time, what worried her so much is forgotten later anyway.) Her word is ‘unicorns’. This works really well for us and for her, and has made a huge difference.

Psychologist Jacqui Manning offered me the following really practical tips for girls (and women) to help them better understand and manage this stage:

  • Talk and/or read. You might think you’re the only one who feels moody or down, but chances are there are some good female friends and/or family members who feel similarly at this time of the month. Remember they are different to you, they might not experience everything you’re talking about, but chances are you’ll have some common ground. Knowing you’re not alone can really help!
  • Download an app to your smartphone that logs your periods so you’ll be able to check dates and know whether your impending period might be having an effect on you. Set a reminder a few days before your period is due so you know that if you’re suddenly feeling really down on yourself or upset for no reason it might just be related to your changing hormones.
  • Try to surround yourself with positive people that make you feel good about yourself and be kind to yourself during your most vulnerable days. Rest more, listen to uplifting music, don’t attempt too many challenges at once, don’t drink (alcohol is a depressant on your system), eat healthily.
  • Take it one day at a time and realise that just as quickly as your moods have taken you into a dark state, they will swing just as quickly up again to return you to what’s normal for you. Say to yourself, “All I need to do is get through today/the next class; that’s all I need to focus on.” And remember that as bad as it feels at that moment, you won’t remember it in a year (or hopefully a week!).

Of course, it’s also important to distinguish the feelings that really are worth listening to during this period (pardon the pun) from those that are okay to merely let wash over us. A good friend offered me this when I asked for her thoughts on PMT last week:

Danni, it’s all a bit too close to home for me today given that I’ve spent the morning in bed feeling bloated and crying for no clear reason at all. Based on the thought processes I was having, it has something to do with a letter that was sent about me in high school, a sad movie I once saw, and the fact that my boyfriend doesn’t have time to go out to lunch today. The TRIFECTA!

Certainly our womb-words can seem somewhat confused and irrelevant, but they can also be deeply insightful.
I’m choosing to embrace the journey and help my daughters embrace it too.

This image and the one at the top of this post are from our series of FREE Facebook cover photos that we had specially designed for all our Enlighten Amazons. Simply click on the image or click here to have one of these gorgeous images on your Facebook timeline.

Boy-band crushes and body image — the week that was

Last week was a big week in girlworld. Unless you were recently deposited back on earth by aliens, I doubt I need to tell you that One Direction arrived in Sydney for their Australian tour. I was in at Channel 9 to talk on Mornings about whether teen girls screaming and crying over this boy band is healthy and normal (yes!) or something parents need to worry about (no!):

For my daughter, Teyah (13), and stepdaughter, Jaz (17), the best part was that they were allowed into the studio to breathe the actual same air as their beloved One Direction, as the boys made an appearance on Today.

Jaz, 17, and Teyah, 13, in the same studio as their beloved One Direction

The fans squealed. They wept. They trembled all over. But please don’t dismiss their feelings as silly or hysterical. Their feelings are very real and raw. And they have their origins in biology: the frontal lobes of the brains of teenagers are primed for high emotions, fighting, running away and, oh yes, romance.

I actually think it is beautiful to see the fans’ excitement for their squeaky clean and sexually harmless objects of desire. The big appeal of One Direction, according to almost every teen fan you ask, is that they are wholesome, down to earth and hard working. They pose little or no sexual threat. And there is no risk of rejection.

But of course there had to be a media kerfuffle about One Direction’s visit, with dire warnings being issued, and much tsk-tsking about the unbridled libidos of teenage girls these days. (Because the hysteria over the Beatles, Kiss, NKOTB, The Backstreet Boys, and so on and so on, was somehow different, apparently.) It all started when Channel 7 apologised because their Sunrise cameras captured fans in Martin Place holding signs that said “Point your erection in my direction” and “Send your one thing Down Under”. Many voices chimed in to express their outrage about the sexual nature of young fans’ adulation. Some pointed the finger at what many girls were wearing, saying their outfits were too revealing.

The fact is, there was a veritable sea of benign, nonsexual signs being held up by the screaming crowds. And anyone who wants to criticise teen girls based on how they dress should take a look at this Facebook album of One Direction fans and do a reality check. These young women are all shades of gorgeous.

To me, the real issue is why society is okay with young men making highly sexual comments, while girls seemingly should not even think about sex. Case in point: on that Facebook album, many males have left comments about whether the girls are hot or not. How sad that some little girl enjoying her first concert with friends inadvertently enters an online beauty quest. How sad that while girls are reviled for expressing a physical interest in their celebrity crushes, no one tries to stop those males publicly ranking teen girls on their hotness. And we wonder why girls end up playing the compare and despair game.

Why are we so threatened by what Wendy Harmer calls teen girls’ “emerging sexuality with training wheels”? Clementine Ford nailed it when she wrote last week in Daily Life:

The nascent sexual desires of boys are so readily accepted as part of life that we barely blink at the mention of them. . . . But instead of encouraging a similar sexual expression in girls (who experience the exact same explosion of hormones during their teen years), we demonise it . . .

At best, this trains girls to adhere to a system that constructs women as passive bystanders to sex . . . But at worst, it encourages the idea that their burgeoning desires are unnatural and gross . . .

A handful of girls waving titillating signs outside Martin Place isn’t representative of an orgiastic trend sweeping the nation, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. But it is a sign that no matter how much we try and shield girls from sex, they’re going to find ways to explore it and it doesn’t always mean they want to actually do it.

The answer isn’t to keep talking about how uncomfortable it makes everyone . . . it’s about giving [girls] the right tools to explore that sexuality in a healthy way, and trusting them to make the right decisions. They’re not delicate dolls, so stop treating them that way.

Hear, hear, sista!

Another big thing last week in this particular girl’s world was that I was on Life Matters on Radio National, talking to Wendy Harmer about positive ways to raise teen daughters. Of course, we talked about boy-band crushes, but we talked about much more, too. I especially loved having the chance to chat with listeners who called in with their concerns. One was worried about teen girls binge drinking. Another asked for advice on how to bolster the self-esteem of her beautiful teen daughter, who struggles with low body image and is teased at school for being flat chested. And a mother was deeply concerned about her 10-year-old girl who is of average weight yet is determined to stay on a diet because she believes it’s “part of being a girl”. All of their issues were heart breaking, so I was glad to have the chance to offer some practical suggestions for turning these situations around. You can listen to the interview by clicking here.

Hearing the stories of those mothers who are worried about their daughters’ body-image angst makes me more determined than ever to help make things right for our girls. If you know any young women who are struggling with body image, please let them know they can read the chapter on body image from my latest book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, free of charge. Simply click here for this free sample chapter.

 

Dismiss boy band teen crush at your peril


Frankly, I think it is very cool that on Monday of this week, when the rest of the nation was discussing political machinations, I managed to get teen romance on the agenda. In fact, The SMH profiled my Opinion piece as part of its “Editor’s Choice” feature
I thought I’d share it with you all here too. This was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 27th.

 

My Twitter feed was aflutter recently with a firm consensus about which way this country should be heading. Forget KRudd. There is, apparently, only One Direction.

Because I work with thousands of teenage girls every year and follow many online, I was privy to some revealing outpourings of devotion for this squeaky clean British-Irish boy band after they announced an Australian tour. “Don’t ask me to stop loving One Direction as that would be like stopping breathing,” said one. “I. AM. CRYING.” wrote another.

Then it got personal. My usually sensible 12-year-old daughter tried to explain to me that I should have stayed home on Friday to repeatedly call a radio station ticket competition for her. I say “tried to explain” because she actually burst into tears and could only whimper, “I just love them.” (Her usually unsympathetic little brother was so shocked, he declared he’d miss school to try to win tickets.)
Teen crushes are nothing new. I fell prey to the allure of the Construction Worker from the Village People, Ace Frehley from Kiss and David Bowie (it seems I unwittingly lusted after sexually ambiguous men in costumes).

And as tempting as it is to dismiss these outpourings of emotion, we do so at our own peril. Just ask Channel Seven, which almost had a riot on its hands when it underestimated the appeal of Justin Bieber and had to cancel his free concert. Grant Denyer said at the time, ”We just couldn’t have foreseen this scale and Sunrise hired the best security you could imagine, we hired the professionals who look after U2, Coldplay, Pink, the big acts, and even they weren’t equipped and just couldn’t handle the Bieber fever.”

The fever actually has its origins in a physical reality. The frontal lobes of teenagers are not yet fully developed. In other words, teenager’s brains are all tuned up for emotions, fighting, running away and romance.

From the Beatles to Bieber and ”1D”, it seems the more squeaky clean-cut and sexually harmless the object of desire, the more heightened the passions – precisely because the risk of the object of the affection actually posing any sexual threat is minimal. For once, teen girls feel sexually in control. They call the shots. And there is no risk of rejection.

One Direction are particularly clever at tapping into this psyche. Their big hit was What Makes You Beautiful. The lyrics include, “You’re insecure, don’t know what for. You’re turning heads when you walk through the door. Don’t need make-up to cover up. Being the way that you are is enough.”

These words sing to a generation of girls exhausted by body image angst fuelled by a plethora of air brushed images of impossible perfection. They sing too to girls tired of being dished up a diet of singers who literally slap women up (I’m talking to you, Chris Brown) and others who revel in calling them ”bitches”.

Rather than belittle, we should empathise with how very real and raw these new emotions are, just like the mother of one of my teen girl friends. “Mums so cute,” the girl said online, ”when 1D came on [TV] she said, Stop screaming & listen to your boys! LOL.”

This mum is far more likely to have her daughter open up about other confusing elements of her tumultuous teen life and include her in her emerging romantic world. The mothers who went along with their daughters to pine after Edward and Jacob, the supernatural lust objects of the Twilight franchise, realised this too.

And let’s not forget crushes have always been a vital way of bonding. Beatlemania, the Kiss Army, One Directioners, Twihards: crushes are about sharing the love. Parents probably won’t be welcome on the frontline by their daughter’s side at the concerts (no one wants their parents to see them in a state of unbridled lust surely?) but can play a vital role as part of the support crew.

As one tweeter said: “Dear parents, I’m obsessed with One Direction & not drugs and alcohol. In other words, you should be thankful for them.”

Instead of mocking teen Twihards, try talking to them

Criticizing the latest film in the Twilight series, Breaking Dawn, is child’s play. As columnist Jordan Baker writes, “I worry for girls who will grow up with Bella Swan from Twilight. Bella is self-absorbed, clingy and willing to give up everything – her education, family and mortal soul – for a man.”

It’s a common concern. And others have raised many more. Are the books and films romanticising stalking and controlling relationships? Why is Bella always in need of rescuing – often by more than one hero at a time? Is this yet another fable designed to teach girls that sex is an inherently corrupting force, where – once again – male sexuality is constructed in terms of the danger and risk it poses, while female sexuality is characterised in terms of deficiency and loss – loss of virginity, innocence and reputation?

Thousands of centimetres of column space have been dedicated to critics bemoaning the insipid and sullen Bella, and this latest film has triggered yet another flurry of exasperated screeds all taking aim at the Twilight franchise and, more specifically, at the fans who are ridiculed as mere “Twihards”.

And therein lies the problem. While the criticisms of the film may be legitimate, the subsequent worrying over teen girls, and criticism of those who enjoy Twilight, is not productive. When we roll our eyes at the cultural goods which appeal to teen girls and when we dismiss texts that manage to speak to them, we miss out on an opportunity to better understand and engage with girls.

As teen educators, we see this all the time. Parents like to repeatedly carry on about the “trash” that their teen girls are into (mind you, these same parents probably grew up on a diet of genies in bottles and Stepford-like domestic witches who both aimed only to please their masters). These same parents then act surprised as to why their daughters might be reluctant to share other parts of their lives. We can hardly expect our children to open up about the things that matter most to them when we dedicate so much energy to insulting the cultural goods they identify with.

As insightful as the critiques of Twilight might be, the problem is that they don’t in any way help to explain why teenagers like it or how it manages to speak to them. Instead of arguing the reasons as to why teenagers shouldn’t watch Twilight, let’s turn the problem over and try and understand why they do.

According to 15-year-old Elena Burger, the appeal of Twilight is that it marries up the fantasy of eternal youth with the fantasy of having access to adult privilieges, minus adult responsibilities:

“Bella gets to stay a ‘child’ forever. She doesn’t need to worry about the adult things that we teenagers know we’ll have to worry about: she doesn’t need a university degree, a car, or a mortgage. Plus, she still gets all the advantages of adulthood: sex, freedom, and a honeymoon. This is the ultimate fantasy for teenagers, and probably what a lot of adults hunger for as well.”

Other girls comment that they like the fact that Bella is decidedly not interested in dieting, cosmetics, fashion or other superficial trappings. Others seem to revel in their power to read resistently and deconstruct the text. One twelve-year-old girl we know leaned over to her mother while watching the latest film and commented, “Um hello? Domestic violence, much!”

The real power of the series is that, like it or not, the film seems to tap into a number of themes that resonate with the lives of young women. It is unsurprising, then, that they would wish to discuss and reflect on those themes.

Twilight presents us with an opportunity to springboard into discussions about some very sensitive issues. Ask a bunch of teen girls what a healthy relationship looks like and they will probably roll their eyes. But say to them, “Edward and Bella: a tale of domestic abuse. Discuss,” and you’ll unleash a passionate and thoughtful discussion as to what a healthy relationship is and how gender and power operate.

The latest film invites discussion on matters including premarital sex, abortion, consent, rejection, crushes, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, male competition, body image and secrets.

Teen films create “teachable moments” where we can connect with young people and engage them in discussions using the cultural goods already familiar to them. It’s far easier to debate the motives and actions of a removed, fictional character than it is to discuss the behavior and motives of your child or one of their peers. Young people enjoy expressing their opinions about the former, but will often become defensive or guarded about the latter.

You don’t have to love what your child likes. But if, instead of dismissing it, you view it as an opportunity to engage with your child, you just might learn something.

 

This post was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina is a social commentator and freelance opinion writer. She works as an anti–sexual assault and domestic violence campaigner and is also currently completing her first book on “sexting”, teen girls and moral panics. The post was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald. 

 

Sexting: the big picture.

On Thursday last week I attended the Sydney launch of Big Porn Inc, Exposing the Harms of the Global Porn Industry. This important collection of essays by leading experts and activists is edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray. The talks given, particularly by Ms Bray, were deeply moving and the personal toll that contributing to this book has taken on the writers was visibly apparent; what brave women they are to delve into the darkness so that we may see the light. Inspired by the contributors’ resolve, I committed to reading this book over the weekend and whilst I cannot say I enjoyed it, for it is (in parts) absolutely harrowing, I did find it deeply thought provoking. Works like this, which dare to challenge the rhetoric of porn as liberation or nothing more than a bit of fun, have the potential to help us reclaim and reshape our sexuality – which has unarguably been hijaked by an industry that increasingly views woman as nothing more objects to be used and abused for sexual gratification. 

Nina and I at the launch of Big Porn Inc

This week I wish to share with you an edited version of the chapter contributed by Nina Funnell. 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 for this work.

Sexting and Peer-to-Peer Porn

Historically debates about children and pornography have tended to play out in two directions. Either children are discussed as being the victims used in illegal child pornography, or alternatively they are constructed as the damaged consumers of adult pornography which they inadvertently or deliberately access.

Both the “exploited victim” and “damaged consumer” approaches have produced a wealth of research that has contributed to public debates about pornography.

However, while these approaches have offered certain frameworks for understanding and discussing the harm caused to children, they have not been able to account for a recently emerging trend whereby young people are not merely accessing and consuming pornography, but indeed are now the active producers of pornography – specifically child pornography.

In recent years academics have been tending to the ways in which young people are incorporating technology into their dating, courtship and sexual socialisation practices. While many young people report that technology has enhanced their social lives, others have expressed concerns over the ways in which technology (such as digital photography, mobile phone cameras and webcams) has contributed to a paradigm where privacy is compromised.

The ease with which photos are now produced, the speed at which they travel, combined with the permanence of those photos once online has meant that young people’s private lives are now being shared and recorded in ways never seen or imagined before.

The advent of the smart-phone which allows users to access the World Wide Web directly from their personal phones also means that young people are now able to upload and retrieve digital information from anywhere and at anytime, with few time-delay barriers that might otherwise give an opportunity for reflective thought.

Of particular concern is the ways in which young people are now uploading sexualised personal content which is then immediately available for by peers and others. According to one study completed by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in America, as many as one in five teenagers has electronically sent a nude or semi-nude image or video of themselves. This statistic, which has been widely reproduced in media articles, has alarmed parents and children’s rights groups everywhere.

Blended with the concern that young people may be jeopardising their reputations and employment prospects is the fear that such photos could fall into the hands of paedophiles as once those photos are online it is virtually impossible to control how they circulate or where they end up.

But beyond personal safety fears, there are additional concerns regarding the legal risks that children and teenagers face.

In 2009 three teenage girls in Greensburg Pennsylvania took nude and semi-nude photos of themselves on their mobile phones before sending those photos on to three boys. When the images were discovered on the boys’ phones, the girls (for photographing their own bodies) were threatened with charges relating to the production and distribution of child pornography, and the three boys were threatened with charges relating to the possession of child pornography.

In the media commentary that followed, a debate erupted over the definition of child pornography and the application of the law in cases involving teens who willingly photograph their own bodies.

On the one hand, some claimed that prosecution was an appropriate response that would serve to deter other teenagers from engaging in a behaviour now known as “sexting” (that is, the production and distribution of sexualised personal photos via mobile phone or online).

But there are other questions that should be raised Why, for example, are laws which were initially intended to protect children now being used to criminalise teenage sexuality? Is it appropriate to group sexually curious teenagers in with convicted paedophiles? How can a girl be both the victim and the perpetrator of the same crime? What possible good can come from labelling these teens as sex offenders and putting them on a sex offender register for the rest of their lives? Shouldn’t we preserve that register for criminals who pose a real threat to society?

Eventually the Pennsylvania case was dismissed after the American Civil Liberties Union launched a countersuit against the District Attorney for threatening to lay the charges against the teenage girls. But the significance of the case is clear: the laws have been utterly outpaced by the speed at which the technology had evolved and are now woefully ill-equipped to respond to the current paradigm.

The case also illuminated one other thing: that at the time when these laws were first developed no-one had comprehended the possibility of kids themselves being the ones producing the pornography.

There is a long history of children expressing curiosity over bodies and sex and there is nothing inherently wrong or unnatural about this. However when images are taken without consent or distributed to third parties without consent, the results can be devastating.

In May 2008 a young woman named Jesse Logan appeared on a Cincinnati television station to tell her story. She had sent nude photos of herself to her boyfriend who sent them on to other classmates when the relationship ended.

Logan was harassed and repeatedly labelled a “slut” and a “whore.” She became depressed, withdrawn and avoided school. Two months after agreeing to talk about her experience on television her body was found hanging in her bedroom. She was only 18.

In 2010, another eighteen-year-old student, Tyler Clementi committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bride. Clementi who was not openly gay had recently had a sexual encounter with a man in his dorm room.

His roommate Dharun Ravi and another student had secretly filmed and streamed the footage of the encounter. Clementi’s Facebook status at the time of his death read “jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” His body was found a short time after.

In 2011, another 18 year old female cadet in the Australian Defence Force Academy engaged in consensual sex with a fellow cadet. Unbeknown to her he was secretly filming and live streaming the footage to six other males in an adjacent room.

On learning what had happened the cadet, “Kate” stated that her “whole world came crashing down” and she was physically ill. Despite this, after speaking out she was subjected to more harassment and bullying from fellow cadets.

When all of these stories broke, the public responded with a mix of shock, horror and disgust at the ways the victims had been treated. Adults in particular have scoffed over the actions of the young people involved in these events.

But when we look further afield, the practice of individuals filming or distributing sexually explicit footage of other people without their knowledge or consent has a longer history and one that, in certain spheres, has gone largely uncontested.

Twelve years before the ADFA scandal a teen comedy American Pie (1999) was released. In it the protagonist sets up a webcam to film a female exchange student getting changed. The footage is live streamed to boys in a nearby home.

At no point is there any comment in the movie on the ethics of this behaviour or the likely emotional impact for the girl. In fact in American Pie 2 she returns as a love interest for the protagonist. In other films such as Porkies, Sleepers and The Virgin Suicides, groups of boys perving on women without their consent as a form of male bonding is depicted as normalized behaviour. Of course this isn’t limited to film.

In 2009 a sports reporter named Erin Andrews was filmed nude while alone in her hotel room. The video quickly became one of the most searched Google items. Video-blogging on Feministing, American writer Jessica Valenti, made the following comment:

You know you can see plenty of hot naked ladies on the Internet. It’s not that hard to fine. But folks want to watch this and people are interested in this precisely because Erin Andrews doesn’t know she is being filmed. I think that reveals something incredibly f–ked up about the way American culture views women. That what we consider hot and sexy is looking at naked pictures of women without their consent.

Looking further afield again we can see many other examples where internet users have swarmed to download sex tapes of women which were produced or released without their consent: Paris Hilton, Kendra Wilkinson, Pamela Anderson and Katie Price have all had sex tapes distributed without consent. Many adults have downloaded and watched these films.

It is erroneous to suggest that celebrities or people who work in the public eye do not deserve privacy. Such an argument falls into the trap of suggesting there are two types of women in this world: those you are allowed to abuse and assault, and those who you cannot.

Likewise, it is also problematic to expect teenagers to live up to a higher standard than we set for the rest of society. We need to be consistent in our approach to non-consensual filming and distribution of sexual content.

While digital technology and social media have no doubt enhanced many aspects of our lives, they have also extended the ways in which women and girls can be violated, humiliated and abused.

To deal with this will require more than mere education for young people about the risks associated with technology. It will require us to teach them techno and sexual ethics and it will require us, as adults, to also abide by the standards we set for them.

To do this, we need to acknowledge and redress the misogyny, sexism and deep degradation that underscores so much of our current culture.

Taking the Blues out of Puberty, Part 3: For Schools

In the last of our three-part series on supporting girls through puberty, Enlighten Education’s sexuality education expert Rachel Hansen this week looks at what schools can do to help. But first, I have some exciting news about a new sexuality education initiative from Enlighten Education.

good talks title2Schools frequently request sexuality education programs from us, and we have listened to you! We are delighted to announce that from 2012 our talented presenters will also be offering the Good Talks sexuality education programs developed by our New Zealand program manager, Rachel Hansen.

Good Talks provides holistic sexuality education programs for girls and boys that focus on empowering them to cherish their individuality and build positive relationships based on respect, equality and healthy choices. Programs are tailored to each individual school’s needs, with an emphasis on ensuring that the material is age appropriate. Topics covered can include puberty, anatomy, conception, pregnancy, contraception and an examination of the way sexuality is represented in the media and popular culture. For more information or to book a half-day Good Talks seminar at your school, email us at enquiries@enlighteneducation.com.

And now, over to Rachel . . .

 

Last week I offered some tips to support parents in talking to their girls about puberty and getting their first period, because now more than ever, parents need to have the knowledge and confidence to be able to discuss sexuality with their children. The work of parents also needs to be backed up by quality holistic sexuality education within all our schools.

If, like many parents, you assume that your child is already getting basic sexuality education at school, think again. Despite the fact that more than half of Australian teenagers are sexually active by the time they are 16, there is no mandatory, comprehensive Australia-wide sex-education policy. In New Zealand, sexuality education is a key area of learning in the National Curriculum, which means that it must be taught at primary- and secondary-school levels. Yet a 2007 enquiry by the New Zealand Education Review Office concluded: “The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” In both countries, there are some schools that offer fantastic programs, but there is no guarantee that your child will be one of the lucky ones.

Many parents say to me, “Oh, but my child has no interest/no idea/no awareness about anything to do with sexuality.” This may be true, but their classmates do, and their classmates are talking. If a child isn’t getting information from her family or her school, she will turn to her friends or the internet. I don’t have to persuade you that googling “vagina” is probably not going to throw up much useful advice for a 10-year-old. So I urge schools across Australia and New Zealand to do everything they can to meet the physical and emotional needs of students as they reach puberty.

Make it age appropriate.
As I discussed in an earlier post, puberty is starting earlier for girls, and it is important that they understand what is happening to them before they get their first period. This means that schools need to rethink the age at which they teach students about puberty. In New Zealand for at least the past 40 years, students have been taught about puberty usually in years 7 and 8. As it is not uncommon for girls to start menstruating at age 9 or 10 now, I encourage schools to teach it in years 5 and 6.

Don’t exclude the boys!
Ensure that the boys in your school are equally well informed about female puberty as the girls, and vice versa. The boys need to be in on the period talks, and the girls need to understand erections and breaking voices. If girls and boys understand what the other is experiencing and why the changes happen, bullying is likely to be greatly reduced.

When we had the puberty talk at school, the boys and the girls were separated. I never knew what the boys learnt, but afterwards they were fascinated with our ‘pad packs’ that we’d been given, and they stole them and teased us, demanding to know what we had been told. We were all really embarrassed and didn’t know what to say to the boys. I thought that it would be really naughty if we told them – because obviously our teacher didn’t want them knowing. Because they weren’t taught about it, it made it seem like periods were taboo and secret from boys. — Kelly

School was tough. The boys used to grope us to see if we were wearing a pad, then announce to the entire corridor that we had our periods. Or they’d go into your locker looking for pads to steal and stick all over the corridor. — Sophie

Stock your library with books and pamphlets on puberty.
Age-appropriate books and take-away pamphlets are fantastic for students to access in their own time and when they need answers. Primary schools can be reluctant to put sexuality and puberty books in the library for fear that parents of younger students will complain. One solution that I have seen in some schools is to have a special part of the library dedicated to the older students. These students like it because it’s their special place, and it’s somewhere they can go for answers if they don’t feel comfortable asking their teachers or parents.

Make sure girls know where to go for help and advice.
Girls need to know who to go to for support at school if they have concerns or questions about puberty or sexuality. Make sure that girls also know where a supply of pads are kept in case they are caught out. Many schools have these at the administration office, which is always staffed during the day. It is worth having a brief discussion with staff at the start of the year about what to do when a girl gets her period and needs support, as some staff will be unaware of the stress that periods cause some girls.

I got my period for the first time in my first week of high school. I was mortified because I didn’t have a pad. My friend went and asked the lady at the front desk and she gave me one – thank goodness! I am not sure what I would have done otherwise. — Laura

There was always the fear of getting caught at the far end of school from my locker, needing to change pads and having, in the time a teacher thought was acceptable for a loo stop, to run from one end of the school to another to get supplies. — Sophie

Also be sure that girls can dispose of used pads and tampons appropriately. As the average age at which girls get their first period decreases, primary schools now need to make sure there are sanitary bins in the girls’ toilets.

Rachel Hansen headshotRachel Hansen is the progam manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand and is an experienced educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Rachel is the founder of Good Talks, an organisation that offers sexuality education to schools and parents.

Taking the Blues out of Puberty, Part 2: For Parents

We had a great response to last week’s guest post about how girls are reaching puberty younger than ever before – and this week, Enlighten’s own sexuality education expert Rachel Hansen gives her helpful tips for parents on how to prepare girls for their first period.

 

When I mention the ‘P’ word to a group of tweens, it usually incites squeals of embarrassment and excitement. Girls crave information about what will happen to their body over the next few years but are often not quite sure how, who or where to ask.

It can be a difficult time for parents. They may feel excitement at their girl reaching the next stage in life. But there is sometimes also a sense of sadness that their little girl is growing up or anxiety about how their girl will cope, particularly if she is young. Many parents are embarrassed or reluctant to discuss puberty with their children and often feel that they don’t know enough to teach them – if you feel this way, you are not alone!

The most important thing you can do with the girls in your life is talk, talk, talk! Rather than having a single “puberty talk”, it needs to be an ongoing conversation. Seize upon teachable moments to discuss puberty and related issues with your daughter. The more we talk, the easier it gets, and girls start to see periods as a normal part of the female experience. I’ve found it distressing helping girls who have come to me in absolute shock because their period had started and they didn’t know what to do, because no one had ever talked to them about it.

I got my period when I was 11 and I had no idea what was happening. My mother just said it was horrible and dirty and refused to discuss it. My Dad explained in horribly embarrassed terms. It was really traumatic. – Emma

My mum and I were sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and there was a poster on the wall with a picture of a toilet and the words ‘If you see blood in here, talk to your doctor.’ Obviously my mother saw it and thought it would be a good time to give me the period talk – without actually using the words period, menstruation, monthly, tampons or pads. She simply said, ‘If you see blood in your undies, let me know.’ For years I thought she was talking about bowel cancer. – Kim Powell

If you are a reluctant puberty talker, there are some great resources that can help you become more comfortable, including these books, Menstruation.com.au and Puberty Girl author Shushann Movsessian’s website. Also look for parent workshops in your area.

In many cultures, a girl’s first period is a rite of passage that is revered and celebrated. In our culture, particularly among girls who menstruate early, periods are often associated with embarrassment and confusion. We need to reclaim this. Give your daughter the message that her body is beautiful and incredible. For some mothers, this may involve healing of their own, as many women carry with them the shame and confusion they experienced with menstruation as a child. Some families like to celebrate – go out for ice-cream or have a celebration with family. Other girls prefer to keep it private. The most important thing to consider is your daughter’s wishes, as this woman illustrates:

I got my first period during a family dinner and Mum announced it to the whole family. My grandfather hugged me – this did not help!!! I cried. Mum made Dad go out and buy a cake – my nana called it a period cake. It was a hideous experience!

Make sure girls know what tampons and pads are, what they look like and what they are for. There are many opportune teachable moments for this to happen.

When I was about 10 there was a tampon ad on TV. My mum launched in to an account of the ‘menstrual cycle’ and told me that one day I too would need to use tampons. She gave a good biological description, but I was a bit confused because I couldn’t work out what the beach and white swimsuits had to do with periods! – Chloe

Keep in mind that you may not be there when your daughter’s period starts, and it will be much easier for her if she can deal with it herself. Have supplies ready. If possible, get your daughter her own brand or colour, so she knows they are hers and doesn’t feel she has to sneak things that belong to others in the house. Some parents like to give their girl a ‘pad pack’ that goes discreetly in her school bag in case her period starts at school.

I had my first period about 6 months after my mother had died. I was so thankful that she had left me with a box of pads and a puberty book, so that when I got my period I was able to cope by myself. I wasn’t at the stage I wanted to share with my dad – a little too embarrassing – so I managed to cope fine. I think it is important for girls to have a book they can refer to as needed, and a pack of pads and tampons. – Lucinda

There are times when your daughter (or son) will have questions that you are unable to answer, or when she would prefer to find out for herself. Books are fantastic for such occasions.

Mum brought us home a puberty book to read – we feigned disinterest. I noticed my older brother had been reading it, so I waited for my chance to get it alone (when no one could see me), but before I finished it, Mum returned it to the library because she thought we weren’t interested. ‘But I need to know too!’ I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t. – Laura

My parents sat and read ‘What’s Happening To Me?’ with me. I remember being absolutely disgusted at some of the things, and embarrassed reading it with my parents. It was much better when they left me to read it in peace! – Kim

Indeed, Peter Mayle’s What’s Happening To Me? is as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1981. Puberty Girl, an engaging book aimed at preteens, clearly explains the different aspects of puberty. I recommend Cycle Savvy for teen girls (and adult women!) to help them understand the intricacies and wonders of menstruation. My Little Red Book, by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, is an anthology of short stories from women of all ages from around the world about their first period. It is my favourite book to help girls understand how normal periods are – and how vastly different everyone’s experience of them is. And this is the main message that you need to pass on to your daughter: that pubertal change is not dirty or weird, but simply a normal part of growing up that happens to everyone.

Checklist for Parents
• Rather than planning a “puberty talk”, make it an ongoing conversation.
• Prepare yourself by attending seminars, reading books or searching online.
• Ensure your daughter knows ahead of time what menstruation is and how to deal with it.
• Find books to help you and your daughter through her puberty journey.
• Mothers, share your stories – remind your daughter that you survived puberty once too!

Next week I will be looking at what schools can do to support girls through puberty. If you have stories to share on that topic, I’d love to hear them: rachel@rachelhansen.co.nz.

Rachel Hansen headshotRachel Hansen is the progam manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand and is an experienced educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Rachel is the founder of Good Talks, an organisation that offers sexuality education to schools and parents.

Subscribe

Follow this blog

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

Skip to toolbar