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Girl Talk

We all want our daughters to become strong, resilient and compassionate women. But how do you help them get there? In a world that seems to force girls to grow up before their time, parents can have their job cut out for them. here, three of Australia’s leading parenting experts explain the essential elemnts a girl needs from her parents to give her the right start.

October’s Good Health magazine asked me to share my Top Tips for raising healthy, happy teen girls. I was thrilled to have this opportunity and to be featured alongside Steve Biddulph and Melinda Hutchings.

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Don’t panic

We are living in times which can be very challenging for girls. In many ways, this generation is attempting to deal with incredibly adult issues with only child-like strategies to fall back on and rather than supporting them in this process we tend to judge them. I think that’s very difficult and alienating for young girls. You can look at statistics around girls and body image, alcohol and online behaviour and panic but many teens are making good choices and are, in fact, speaking out and attempting to reshape their culture through petitions and blogs. Our job is not to patronise them or say alarmist things like ‘one mistake can ruin your life,’ but to help them make better choices.

Be their role model

Girls can’t be what they can’t see. Many women are forever on diets, are unsure of their bodies, are lamenting the ageing process, are binge-drinking or engaging in toxic talk around their friendships and girls see this. They say to me, ‘Mum tells me I’m beautiful all the time, but I know she doesn’t believe she is.’ It’s tempting to blame the media and marketers for all the dysfunction, but we are the ones they spend the most time with and we can be a powerful voice of difference.

Open up about online porn

It’s not a matter of  will she access porn online, it’s a matter of when, as often she may stumble across it quite accidentally. It can be awkward, but you need to talk to your your daughter about what she’s seeing online otherwise how will she make sense of it? And then what she’ll feel is shame. We don’t want our daughters feeling shame about their sexuality, their bodies or the sexual act. We also don’t want them thinking that the images they see in porn are the only way in which sex is conducted.

Don’t be complacent about alcohol

Saying no to alcohol will not drive your daughter to sneak out and get trashed. In fact, research shows that when parents allow their children to drink at home it normalises drinking and lowers their inhibitions to drink more. If she does break your rule and drink and least you’ll both know you didn’t condone it. Don’t make it easy for her.

Connect with her

All my conversations with girls leads me to believe that despite all the rhetoric about them being mean girls and divas and entitled, they are still beautiful, fun, affectionate, amazing young women who long to spend time with us and long to be loved and noticed. Create a positive time and a space for your daughter. Although it’s normal for her to reject you at times, you must let her know that you’re open for love (and cuddles). By doing so, she’ll get the message that she’s loved unconditionally.

 

 

The Rise of Baldness . . . in Teenage Girls

Vaginal aesthetics are in the news again this week. I’ve discussed on this blog before the increasing pressure on girls and women to have genitals that conform to a false ideal — by making them hairless, surgically trimming the labia to match photoshopped images from porn, and oh, let’s not forget vajazzling!

Now the Australian government, in an attempt to tighten the health-care budget, is reviewing the eligibility for the Medicare safety net of vulvoplasty and labiaplasty surgeries performed outside hospitals. The surgery is eligible for the safety net when it’s done not for cosmetic reasons but for treating “painful or embarrassing” conditions, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. This leads me to wonder if society’s definition of “embarrassing” has changed in the past decade, given that, as the Herald notes, “the number of these procedures done outside hospital attracting payments under the Medicare safety net has nearly doubled in recent years to 191 in 2010, at a cost of $427,551.” It’s hard to believe that serious conditions affecting women’s genitals have doubled. Instead, it seems that for increasing numbers of people, having labia at all seems to have become a cause for embarrassment.

So too with another completely natural part of being female: pubic hair. I was fascinated to read a recent account by Enlighten Education’s sexuality education expert, Rachel Hansen, on the pressure in the schools she visits for girls to conform to a porn ideal of hairless genitals. Rachel wrote in her blog post “The Rise of Baldness”:

Vulvas. There are billions of them out there, and they are a pretty diverse collection. I am no geneticist, but I would say there was as much diversity in vulvas as there is in fingerprints. And as long as women have had vulvas, in most cultures they have been covered in pubic hair. Until recently…

A few weeks ago I was visiting a Catholic all-girls’ high school. I had never been there before and I was meeting with the school counsellor and the Deputy Principal for the first time. They had come straight from the staff room, where it sounded like a very lively discussion had been taking place. After we greeted each other, the Deputy Principal said that before we started the meeting they would love my opinion on the topic the staff had been musing over during morning tea. Of course I said yes – very curious by this point!

“We are all trying to work out WHY none of our senior girls have pubic hair.”

(Apparently the topic had come up in a health class discussion.)

And we are not talking about delayed puberty here. We’re talking about teen girls, and why it is the norm to have a vulva stripped of hair.

These days, many girls tell me about the immense pressure to look a particular way now extends to their vulva. It’s not enough to have perfect legs, a flat stomach and blemish-free skin – their vulva must also be bald.

Why indeed is a generation of teen girls finding themselves under immense pressure to wax or shave all their pubic hair? Because it certainly wasn’t like this 15 years ago when I was at high school. We’d shave our bikini line when necessary – just enough to ensure no stray hairs were visible when swimming. But if anyone had suggested getting rid of it all, I am sure we would have been appalled. In fact, I remember girls in my first year of high school proudly displaying their pubic hair growth – for us it was a sign of maturity, of leaving girlhood behind. Now it seems that as soon as pubic hair appears, girls are feeling the pressure to get rid of it so their vulvas resemble a prepubescent child.

I want to talk a little about pornography. . . .

This generation of youth are being exposed to explicit pornography in a way that generations before just were not. According to Big Porn Inc. “Pornography has become a global sex education handbook for many boys, with an estimated 70 per cent of boys in Australia having seen pornography by the age of 12 and 100 per cent by the age of 15.” In one recent Canadian study of boys aged 13-14, more than a third viewed porn movies and DVDs “too many times to count”.

The impact of this early viewing of explicit porn on girls’ vulvas?

If boys are getting their primary sex education from pornography, their expectation is that vulvas come in one model – hair-free. And if this is what the boys expect, many girls will comply.

I would add that it is not only boys who see these porn images. For most girls, the only opportunity to compare their genitals to those of others is through pornographic images. And those images simply do not reflect reality, for they are altered — with waxing, Photoshopping and I’m sure in some cases by plastic surgery. As I wrote in my book The Butterfly Effect, teenage girls “see the look modelled by the women on porn sites and believe exposing their genitals in this way will make them hotter”. And while boys may be the ones primarily watching the porn, the pressure may be coming just as much from girls, as Rachel points out:

One teen girl commented that it wasn’t pressure from boys to wax – it was the pressure from her girlfriends. Teens are desperate to fit in – I know that should I have been a teen in this era, there would be no way I would have wanted to be the only girl in the changing rooms with pubic hair. Hair-free vulvas are now entirely the norm. . . .

The thing that really concerns me is that no part of a girl’s body now seems immune to the beauty pressure. The pressure starts so young and this is a ‘trend’ that is driven by a misogynistic porn culture seeping in to our everyday lives. It makes me sad to think of girls being so ashamed of their vulvas in their natural state.

I haven’t got a simple solution. Other than to talk talk talk with our children. They need to know that the pornography that they are likely to see (inadvertently or not) is not real. That is not what women look like; that is not how people experience loving relationships. Give girls the message that they are beautiful as they are, and teach both boys and girls the beauty in diversity.

Rachel 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.

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.

Raunch=Empowerment? Think again…

Guest post by Enlighten Education’s Victorian Program Director Sonia Lyne:

 

Why is it that popular culture has now connected the sexual excitement of men with the “empowerment” of women? Why is attaining sexual power through stripping, fishnets and mimicking porn stars seen as the only way to be desired and desirable? Why is sexual power an attribute that we value so highly?

Many women today are preoccupied with their bodies and looks and have forgotten about the power of their minds. We live in a world today that is saturated with products, services and advertisements selling us the idea that we need to always look “perfect” and appear sexually available. 

We are inundated with images of women that are not reflective of how women really are. We continually see a cookie-cutter stripper/porn star version of “sexy”. Real female sexuality can be far more contradictory, complex and interesting. Real female sexuality is not solely focused on being “eye candy” for men.

80 Year old Hugh and Paris. Is enticing “Granddad” really liberation? For whom?

Many young women feel defeated and engage in self loathing because they cannot live up to this “Hugh Heffner-esque” ideal. Ariel Levy’s insightful book Female Chauvinist Pigs, Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, looks at the new breed of so-called “empowered women” who are really only being sold a type of male centered pseudo empowerment and buying into their own sexualisation and objectification:

Only thirty years (my lifetime) ago, our mothers were “burning their bras” and picketing Playboy, and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation. How had the culture shifted so drastically in such a short period of time?

What was almost more surprising than the change itself were the responses I got when I started interviewing the men and — often — women who edit magazines like Maxim and make programs like The Man Show and Girls Gone Wild. This new raunch culture didn’t mark the death of feminism, they told me; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We’d earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. Instead, it was time for us to join the frat party of pop culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along. If Male Chauvinist Pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would outdo them and be Female Chauvinist Pigs: women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves.”

Just one look at the “Girls Gone Wild” brand reminds us that this raunch obsession has indeed become mainstream. In our hyper-sexualized culture, to gain attention even very young women will adopt stripper-like dance moves and bare all. How telling are the song lyrics to the hit song ‘I Kissed a Girl”:

“This was never the way I planned
Not my intention
I got so brave, drink in hand
Lost my discretion…

I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chapstick
I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it…”
( I Kissed a Girl, by Kate Perry).

It seems for this girl the act of kissing another girl had more to do with the drink in hand and the coquettish desire to provoke her boyfriend than any real pressing sexual urge of her own. Teen girls tell me it is now almost passé to engage in a girl-on-girl kissing session in front of the boys at parties. One girl I spoke to explained it thus: “Getting smashed and then getting it on with a girl friend used to be a guarantee of getting attention at parties, but now the boys expect more. They’ve seen it all before. Now it’s like, ‘yeah, yeah, whatever’.”

A recent essay titled “The Pornification of Girlhood” by Melinda Tankard Reist, published in Quadrant Journal (JULY 2008 – VOLUME LII NUMBER 7-8) delves into this concept and highlights the disturbing home truths about the effect this is having on even our young women and girls. Tankard Reist writes:

…the movement for women’s equality was overtaken by the movement for sexual license-the sexual revolution. To be free has come to mean the freedom to wrap your legs around a pole, flash your breasts in public, girls-gone-wild style, or perform acts of the oral variety on school- boys at weekend parties in lieu of the (as traditionally understood) goodnight kiss.  In an age of “Girl Power”, many girls are feeling powerless. They are facing unprecedented social pressure, their emotional and psychological well-being at risk in ways never before imagined…

To quote[Joan Jacobs] Brumberg: ‘We have backed off from traditional supervision or guidance of adolescent girls; yet we sustain a popular culture that is permeated by sexual imagery, so much so that many young women regard their bodies and sexual allure as [their] primary currency.’ ” 

Sexual allure as our primary currency? It is disturbing that it has come to this.

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