*24% of 14 to 17 year-olds know at least one student who has been the victim of dating violence, yet 81% of parents are either unaware of it, or turn a blind eye. What’s more, 33% of teenagers report knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked or physically hurt by their partner.
*72% of teens say boyfriend/girlfriend relationships usually begin at 14 or younger. That’s younger than things used to be, and of those in a tween relationship (11-14 year olds) 20% report that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.
*Of tweens who have been in a relationship, surveys indicate that 62% said they know friends who have been verbally abused and only half of those surveyed claim to know the warning signs of a bad/hurtful relationship.
* As adolescents become more autonomous from their parents, their romantic relationships increasingly become a key source of emotional support. In fact, one study found that, amongst Tenth graders, only close friends provide more support than romantic partners.
*Young people spend a great deal of time thinking about, talking about, and being in romantic relationships yet adults typically dismiss adolescent dating relationships as superficial. The quality of adolescent romantic relationships can have long lasting effects on self-esteem and shape personal values regarding romance, intimate relationships, and sexuality.
* Within the school environment, students may get sex education – but they rarely get relationship education. The crowded education curriculum, and the pressures placed on educators due to external examinations, make the delivery of comprehensive, effective relationship education very challenging.
I was thrilled then when the excellent team at Harper Collins chose to produce Teacher’s Notes with a particular focus on how Loveability could be used in the classroom for the subject Personal Development, Health and Physical Education to achieve the following learning outcomes:
•Stage 4 Personal Development, Health and Physical Education
•Strand 1: Self and Relationships
•Stage 5 Personal Development, Health and Physical Education
I’ve also been thrilled at the early uptake from our client schools for Enlighten Education’s new one hour “Loveability” in-school workshop. You may download the flyer for this here: Loveability – EE in-school program flyer
Let’s ensure our girls know how to navigate the often complex world of relationships and receive advice that is smart, warm, engaging and never judgemental.
As an educator who works with young women, during this the lead up to Valentine’s Day my Facebook News Feed is a virtual parade of teen girl sadness.
“Forever the Single Pringle.”
“The best thing about Valentine’s when you’re all alone? Knowing the chocolates will be half price come February 15.”
“My Valentine’s = a date with a tub of ice cream and a sad face. ”
In order to make their friends feel better, most of the comments following statuses like these are of the “Don’t worry, you’ll find your true love and live happily ever after” variety.
And whilst of course most of us do meet at least one love in our lifetime, not all of us will be with our partners forever. Many young women may go on to not only live without a partner, but to raise families alone.
In fact, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost fifteen per cent of all Australian families are one-parent families and almost two-thirds of these have dependents living with them. The vast majority of these families, eighty one per cent, are headed up by single mothers.
By the time girls become women, we are generally far less supportive of those who are not partnered up.
The terms we use to describe a single man make it sound as though he is having a ball doing the coolest things and having many a wild romance. He is a player, playboy, ladies’ man, lady-killer, womaniser, pick-up artist, bachelor, stud.
At best, a single woman might be referred to as a bachelorette, which implies that all she is doing is waiting for her husband to come along. Otherwise, she is labelled as the sad, lonely spinster.
And should she have children? Then she can expect to become the scapegoat for so many of society’s ills. Despite the fact that study after study show that a two-parent, financially stable home with stress and conflict is more destructive to children than a one-parent, financially stable home without stress and conflict, single mothers are frequently blamed for everything from the crime rate, to their own poverty.
As a single mother it might be hard not to take such criticisms personally. Yet my life, and my children’s lives, don’t fit the typical assumptions we make about single parent families at all – partly because I am fortunate enough to be financially independent and well educated.
Study after study also show that despite the rhetoric, it is poverty and instability that effects children – not family composition – making the Government’s decision to cut Newstart funding to single parents seem not just heartless, but ill informed.
Professor Katie Roiphe, in her eloquent “Defense of Single Motherhood” emphasises the necessity of a more balanced, compassionate approach when she concludes: “The real menace to… children is not single mothers, or unmarried or gay parents, but an economy that stokes an unconscionable divide between the rich and the not rich.”
One of my priorities in my latest book on relationships aimed at teen girls was, therefore, to teach our young women how to feel okay, with or without a partner. After all, the pressures placed on girls to meet their Prince Charming start very early.
In order to move beyond the myth that we are only whole if one of two, it is helpful, for example, to put the oppression of single women in a historical context.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a particular type of religious zeal took hold in Europe and led to tens of thousands of women being branded as witches. Approximately 100,000 supposed witches were put to death. Those accused of witchcraft were often poor, single women.
In the eighteenth century in England, women had very little choice but to marry. With limited educational opportunities available to them, and no pay equality, most women viewed marriage as the only stable path to financial security. Women also couldn’t own land, and all inheritance was passed down from father to son.
This made women vulnerable, because without a financially stable marriage they would be left destitute. And so the stigma around single women increased (globally, marriage is still considered a serious financial transaction, with dowries and bride-prices transacted as a way of allowing wealthy families to align themselves with other wealthy families).
For many women, the duty to marry well may also have produced great sadness. Once she was stuck in a loveless marriage, a woman often became isolated, her risk of domestic violence increased, her risk of death through child birth increased, and she had no option but to fulfill her conjugal duties. Bucking the trend was a big risk.
During Victorian times, women could be accused of being insane if they made too much of a fuss about their lot. In fact, if a woman expressed something that the male doctors of the day did not agree with, they could deem her words as hysterical ramblings. The term ‘hysterical’ derives from the Greek word meaning ‘womb’ (hence the term ‘hysterectomy’). A deep flaw within our wombs was considered to be able to make us insane. Women could also be sent to mental asylums for having an affair or being considered too sexually excitable. Single women were particularly at risk of being accused of these supposed misdeeds.
Although as single women today we are able to own property and are not at risk of being burnt alive, there is still a lot of work to do before society truly feels comfortable with, and is genuinely supportive of, those of us who are flying solo. Especially if we are mothering.
We still burn women who are seen as pushing boundaries — now we just choose to burn them with our words.
N.B – Enlighten launched its in-school one hour “Loveability”workshops for teen girls this week! The response so far from our clients has been phenomenal. To find more about this, visit our web site – www.enlighteneducation.com
NSW teachers can also join Nina and I at a special book launch for educators being hosted at Harper Collins. FREE copies of our book, and a fabulous teacher resource kit, will be distributed to particpants. There is no cost for this but those interested must RSVP:
Interestingly, the majority of the interviews we did seemed focused on determining at what age parents should allow their children to date. Case in point – this segment on channel 9’s Mornings:
The facts? Whether we like it or not, as I state in the interview above ( and teen Jordie confirms) young people are forming relationships at a younger and younger age and trying to ban these only contributes to secrecy. Further, young people spend an inordinate amount of time thinking and talking about relationships so we must ensure warm, wise, realistic and accessible advice is offered early.
Nina recently explained why setting blanket bans and stigmatising all relationships as being potentially dangerous is unhelpful:
“Instead of treating the sexuality of children as something to be either feared or controlled, we need to encourage open conversations about intimacy and relationships. It is also important not to demonise young people’s sexuality or interest in these topics, as this can create stigma, anxiety and shame.
It is deeply unhelpful (for example) to teach young people that the only reason why a girl might seek out intimacy or connection is due to low self esteem and a lack of self worth. This view totally disregards the desires and natural sexual urges of young women as well as the legitimate and positive experiences they may draw from relationships.”
So – how to handle this question in a positive, realistic way?
Again, I called on Nina for she answered this question for girls in the Q&A section of our book (with a little help from our go-to psychologist Jacqui Manning) I think they nailed it:
Q. My parents think I’m too young to start dating. How young is too young?
A. Knowing the right time to start dating isn’t so much about waiting till you turn a specific age. It’s about ‘taking the time to do it right’, according to psychologist Jacqui Manning. ‘Your early relationships can really set the scene for your love future, so having good experiences now will set you up with positive expectations from your partners forever.’
Ask your parents why they think you’re too young. Ask for their advice, and ask whether they’re comfortable to share their own experiences with you. Although some girls find it uncomfortable to talk about relationships with their parents, you can get some good tips by having an honest chat with them.
Relationships can be difficult to manage when you’re still busy learning about yourself, so don’t rush into it just because it’s what other people are doing, says Jacqui. ‘The important thing to remember is to not get swept up in another person’s idea of how the relationship should be, but to establish your own values and boundaries around what’s important to you — before you enter into a relationship. That way, you’ll have a better idea of when something doesn’t feel right.’
Before dating, think about the following questions: what kind of person do I like and what sort of qualities am I looking for in a person? What are my dating boundaries and deal breakers? What would a good relationship look and feel like to me? If, after you have put some effort into thinking about what you want, you feel self-assured enough to set boundaries in your relationships, then you may well be ready to get out there.
Nina and I have also developed a series of shareable images we have been using on Facebook and on Instagram to encourage girls into thinking more about their Relationship Deal Breakers and their Relationship Must-Haves. Feel free to download these and use them too!
‘Selfie’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2013 for a reason. Celebrities take them, politicians take them – but the biggest fans of the self-portrait are teenage girls. Today, girls not only have messages from the media influencing their definition of beauty, they also have Facebook Friends and Instagram followers to deal with.
We are all constantly being told what we should look like – and the ideal being pushed is pretty, thin, perfect and hot.
Ten years after the launch of Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign*, the company has released a video about selfies. The idea that everyone is beautiful in their own way is a powerful one, but the video sends mixed signals by having mothers and daughters learning to embrace their looks through receiving compliments on their photographs. Take a look at see what you think:
The association girls place on the link between their attractiveness and their ability to have a successful relationship is something I dubbed the “The Loveability Myth” in my next book on teens and relationships. Loveability – An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships was co-written with Nina Funnell. Nina discussed why she saw the Dove campaign as problematic with me: “The paradox is that by continuing to focus on the girls’ exterior appearances, you end up reinforcing the message that what a girl looks like is still the most important thing about her. This myth has become so pervasive that many girls now believe that in order to attract love or experience a healthy relationship, they must first satisfy a ‘hotness’ pre-requisite.”
This message is particularly damaging when it comes to teen romance for many girls think if they do not work towards obtaining a particular look, they will not be loved. But girls who don’t fit conventional notions of beauty and girls who do are equally likely to have successful relationships. We mustn’t let our girls fall into the trap of trying to measure their loveability via the mirror or a set of scales.
To help debunk this myth, in our book I examined research on what teen boys viewed as desirable in a partner and found that boys were interested in far more than just looks. Girls have found these insights incredibly helpful and reassuring.
We all need to remember that women are not just bodies, they are somebodies.
“Loveability: An Empowered Girl’s Guide To Dating and Relationships” is being published by Harper Collins and will be on shelf February 1st. You may read the first chapter for free, and buy a copy, at the following link: www.loveability.com.au
Nina and I will also be presenting some of our ideas at a book launch especially for educators being hosted at Harper Collins, Sydney on February 26th. Teacher’s resources will also be distributed at this event. To attend, contact Jacqui Barton, HC Education Manager, directly: Jacqui.Barton@harpercollins.com.au
Enlighten Education will also be launching a special 1 hour stand-alone “Loveability” workshop for girls in 2014 which will be based on my work on this book. To book contact Enlighten’s Head office – 1300 735 997.
* This is not the first time Nina and I have been critical of a “Dove” campaign. You may read our Sydney Morning Herald post here: Sexism dovetails with hypocrisy.
Nina Funnell and I wrote the following post on Big Brother which was first published at both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on November 5th.
Big Brother is set to evict his final housemate tonight. Despite earlier laments that the return of BB hailed the decline of civilization as we know it, the most controversial element of this series seems to have been Sonia Kruger’s flamboyant outfits. Oh how threatened some seem to be by a woman over twenty who dares to combine silver and sequins. And oh how fearful we are of this particular television genre. But why?
One of the common concerns about reality TV is that it encourages a perverse level of voyeurism and a sadistic interest in watching others suffer. There is, of course, a long history to both this type of spectatorship and the accompanying cultural concerns. But watching reality contestants duel for immunity pales in comparison to the sadistic spectatorship of past eras, where people would gather in the town square to cheer on public executions. Not to mention what went on in the coliseums when gladiators were placed at the mercy of “the audience vote”. Historically, evictions tended to be far more permanent, and there were no consolation prizes.
Another criticism frequently leveled at shows like Big Brother is that it is not ‘reality’ at all, because the environment is artificial and the contestants suffer from the observer effect (where the act of observing a phenomenon influences the phenomenon being observed). However the genre routinely draws attention to its own constructedness: the contrived situations and the experience of being constantly observed are key talking point within the show, and housemates openly acknowledge and draw attention to the artificialness of situation by waving at the cameras. The audience too are absolutely in on this.
Other critics are scornful of the types of people who appear on these shows, especially those who seek and acquire public status as a result of their reality TV journey. Part of the aversion to ‘instant celebrity’ is that it doesn’t seem to be connected to hard work or talent.
Of course there have always been those who have achieved fame and wealth without it being linked to innate ability or merit, including royals and the children born of powerful family dynasties. And yet our protestant work ethic makes us suspicious (envious?) of anyone who succeeds without the requisite hard yards, and even more so if they make any money out of this.
But we should remember that for every Ryan (Fitzy) Fitzgerald and Chrissie Swan who manage to leverage their 5 minutes of fame into something sustainable, there are plenty who don’t. Like it or not, there is a real skill in maximizing these opportunities.
And while some truly disturbing incidents have occurred throughout the numerous seasons of Big Brother, including bullying, backstabbing and sexual harassment, the show itself has not authored these behaviors, so much as exposed them. Big Brother holds a mirror up to ourselves and in doing so it generates vital conversations around issues which we may be otherwise loathed to discuss. Often we, the audience, are left self-assessing and recalibrating our own moral compasses.
When Professor Catharine Lumby interviewed teenage girls as part of a research project exploring their media consumption habits, she was “amazed by how eloquently the girls talked about the ethical lessons embedded in [the] show Big Brother. [These included] how do you remain true to yourself and get on in a group? What’s the line between healthy self-interest and selfishness? Under what circumstances is it OK to lie? Should appearances matter?”
“These were some of the questions that defined their interest in the show. What looks like an extended conversation between a bunch of indolent and horny 20-somethings hanging around a house to some of us, is a catalogue of the dilemmas of everyday life to others” writes Lumby.
It’s a fascinating insight which reminds us that young people are perfectly capable of having sophisticated conversations around cultural goods which appear to be anything but sophisticated.
And perhaps that is what is really at stake here: a struggle over taste and the right to determine what counts as legitimate cultural goods. Could it be then, that Big Brother’s ultimate sin is who it appeals to: those who cheer on Reggie’s antics. Those who slap along with Sara-Marie as she bum dances. Those who laugh along at the “dancing doona.” Those who love to cheer on a contestant named “Boog.”
BB is the Bogan’s choice. And it never pretends otherwise.
Whether you watched this season or not, let’s at least be honest about where our objections really come from.
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?
This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague and friend Nina Funnell which first appeared in The Age. In this Nina attempts to make sense of alarming new findings which suggest teens (girls in particular) are engaging in digital self-harm.
In recent weeks, media outlets around the world have reported on the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire, England, who committed suicide, after receiving cruel and harassing messages – including to “drink bleach” and “die” – on the social media site Ask.fm.
Critics of the site have urged parents to keep their children off it, saying that the anonymous question/ answer format leads to harassment, stalking and bullying.
Now the case has taken another tragic turn. In an inquiry into the matter, Ask.fm has uncovered that 98 per cent of the abusive messages sent to Hannah came from the same IP address as her own computer. Only four of the abusive comments came from other IP addresses.
While there are still a lot of unknowns in this case, it has now been reported that the abuse sent to Hannah appears to have come from Hannah herself. Following this latest development, many people online have expressed their utter bewilderment: what could drive a teenager to attack herself and then put it on display? Why would anyone self-sabotage in this way? And are other teenagers doing this?
Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre found that up to ten per cent of first year university students had “falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school”.
And this is not the first time that online ‘self-harassment’ or ‘self-cyberbullying’ has been identified and written about. In 2010, danah boyd, a leading social media researcher wrote about an emerging trend she had discovered on Formspring, where teens were ‘anonymously’ posting vicious questions to themselves, before publicly answering them.
Similarly, in 2008 I conducted research into the pro-anorexia community – a community set up by individuals with eating disorders. I discovered that it was not uncommon for members on these forums to write letters of worship to their disease referred to as ‘Ana’ or ‘Mia’ (anorexia or bulimia). The same member would then write a reply to themselves as though they were the personified disease. These second letters ‘from’ Ana or Mia would inevitably be full of abuse, insults and vicious put downs.
So what motivates this phenomenon and why have we heard so little about it?
According to boyd, online self-harassment like that observed on Formspring or Ask.fm, may represent a cry for help, a grab for attention, an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and resilience, or a way of phishing for compliments from friends who jump in to defend against the abuse. Boyd also describes the behavior as a form of ‘digital self-harming’, stressing that teens who are in pain do not always lash out at others: very often they lash out at themselves. And occasionally they invite an audience to watch on.
For the ‘digital self-harmer’ the presence of an audience appears to serve other purposes too. Anonymously calling oneself a “loser” online allows them to test out other people’s attitudes: do other people see me this way too? Is my perception of myself shared universally?
Secondly, by inflicting harm on themselves before an audience, it makes their pain visible and therefore more ‘real’. Finally, by giving others the impression that they are ‘under attack’, the afflicted individual is able communicate to others exactly what they are feeling: overwhelmed and under siege. And they can achieve this without ever having to risk saying the words: “I’m in pain, I need your help”.
What this means is that while the abusive comments might be manufactured the feelings they speak to are very much real.
Looking back at my own high school years, it is clear that aspects of this behavior are nothing new. Teens have always had a propensity to document their negative self-talk and self-loathing in one form or another, often in journals, angst ridden poetry and other forms of art. Sometimes teens keep these things deeply private out of secrecy and shame. At other times, they deliberately share and show these things to friends, as if to say “see my pain. See me.”
For all of us, pain is not simply something we feel, it is something we ‘perform’, often with the purpose of eliciting certain responses from others. For teenagers especially, these performances can become avenues through which they bond, ask for empathy or sympathy, and experience a sense of connectedness – something which most teenagers crave desperately. While this strategy might serve a need, it is also deeply dysfunctional.
Today this impulse is moving online. In recent months I have had two conversations with different mothers after they discovered that their children’s friends were self-harming, then posting photographs of their injuries online for their peers to comment on. Perhaps most disturbing of all was that one of the children shrugged it off as “nothing new”.
Experts are right to worry that by normalising or even glamorising self-harming behaviors, such overt displays might produce a contagion effect. This is why it’s considered dangerous to even mention the issue in schools.
Despite this, it’s important that researchers continue to look at why young people are externalising their self-hatred in this way and what can be done to help them. Moreover we must remember that sometimes the cruelest things a teen will ever hear are the comments they say to themselves.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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:
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: email@example.com. Please note, this work is run independently and is not part of Enlighten Education’s programs.
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.
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*: