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Tag: sexual assault

Celebrating the Awesomeness of Teenage Girls

This is a very exciting week for me, with my book written especially for teen girls, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, now on sale! At the launch party I was honoured and touched to be surrounded by inspiring men and women, including the writers Nina Funnell and Emily Maguire, who gave passionate, articulate and thought-provoking speeches. I wish that all of you Enlightened Amazons could have been there to hear what these incredible women had to say. For now, I’m sharing Emily’s speech here, as today’s guest post.

Emily Maguire is the author of three novels and two non-fiction books. Her articles and essays have been published widely including in The Monthly, The Australian and The Age and in 2007 she received an Edna Ryan Award (Media Category) for her writing on women’s issues. Emily was named as a 2010 Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year and is the recipient of the 2011 NSW Writers’ Fellowship. Her latest book is “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice.”

Nina Funnell, Emily Maguire and Dannielle Miller celebrate the launch of "The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo"

About five years ago, I found myself increasingly annoyed by the overwhelmingly negative, often completely, stupidly wrong media coverage of young people, particularly young women. As I’m sure many of you have noticed, almost everything written or screened on TV about teenage girls presents them as either sex-mad airheads or sweet, delicate flowers. Either out-of-control tarts ruining society or innocent angels being ruined by society.

As a writer, I felt I was in a good position to address some of this crap. I wrote about my own experience as a teenager and about the lives of teenage girls and young women I knew. I undertook research in order to understand and write about the teenage girls and women I didn’t know, and along with some analysis of the representation of young women in pop culture and the mass media, this became my first non-fiction book, Princesses & Pornstars.

I – and my publisher – decided that a revised edition, especially for teens, was worth doing. So I did a second round of researching and writing, and the result was Your Skirt’s Too Short.

Thanks to these two books, I’ve spent the past four years speaking to and about young women across Australia. And among the many things I have learnt, two related facts stand out: 1) the majority of teenage girls are thoughtful, hard-working, creative, perceptive and resilient; and 2) many adults have absolutely no idea that this is true.

Consider these headlines from mainstream newspapers in the past year:

‘Lies, scams and deceit – just your average teenage girl’ (The Age, April 2011)

‘Our Teens Undress to Impress’ (Daily Telegraph, June 2011)

‘Do you know what your daughter’s doing tonight?’  (the (sydney) magazine, June 2011)

No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood. The version of their lives presented as news is a salacious cartoon; the characters meant to represent them are sexually loose magnets for trouble, not necessarily because they’re bad, but because they’re morally retarded and culturally illiterate.

The sad thing is that, often, parents buy into it, thinking that they’re learning essential information that will help them raise their daughters safely, when all it will really help them do is either infect their daughters with their own fear and panic or utterly alienate them.

To illustrate, here’s a short excerpt from an email I received from a 16-year-old Adelaide girl:

Seriously, I am so sick of my mum acting all suspicious every time I check my phone, just because she read another stupid story about teenagers sending crotch shots to each other. I’m too embarrassed to wear a bikini to the beach and she thinks I’m going to send people pictures of myself naked?

I was reminded of something a 17-year-old email buddy wrote:

It’s like ‘teen girl’ is this newly discovered species. Nothing we do has ever been done by humans. Nothing we feel has ever been felt. We are ‘teen girls’ doing things for our mysterious ‘teen girl’ reasons.

She’s right: so much of the media coverage takes this weird anthropological distance. The reporter stands back and pokes at the edges of this bizarre tribe, notes one aspect of their interactions, writes down the two most adult-shocking sentences and then declares some terrifying truth about the entire species.

We need a reality check: despite the often hostile world we adults have created for them, the majority of girls are not dopey, fragile creatures lurching from life-threatening crisis to life-ruining mistake. They work part-time, play sport, have supportive friendships and thrilling romances. They’re passionate about books, music and sport. They have exciting plans for when they finish school, and most have a good chance of fulfilling them.

Of course, the general awesomeness of teenage girls shouldn’t be taken as evidence that all is rosy in their world. There is, for example, the barrage of media messages about their apparent physical unacceptability. According to the 2010 Mission Australia Youth survey, body image is the number one personal concern of young people in Australia. Sexual assault also remains a major problem, with 38% of female secondary students reporting an experience of unwanted sex.

And of course dangerous abuse of alcohol and other drugs happens, though nowhere near as universally as media reports would lead you to believe. Nevertheless, it’s an issue and one that disproportionately affects those girls who are already vulnerable and at-risk for various other reasons.

So what to do? How do we protect girls without turning them into frightened rabbits or making them feel attacked and ashamed? How do we empower young people to tackle the tough parts of life without over-directing or under-preparing them?

The short answer is: Dannielle Miller.

With her first book, The Butterfly Effect, Danni helped parents understand what was going on in teen-girl world in general and – more importantly – how to reach out to their daughters and find out what was going on with them in particular. That is key: anyone can collate research reports and make observations about what girls are buying and wearing and doing. Very few bother to actually speak to the girls themselves, to ask them why they do what they do, how they feel about it, what they wish was different. Even fewer manage to establish the kind of trust and respect that allow girls to open up about their lives and their inner selves.

Danni writes so accurately, so insightfully about girls because she speaks to them, and they sense that she is on their side and so they speak to her. It sounds simple, but it isn’t – and, as I’m sure anyone who has read The Butterfly Effect alongside other parenting manuals or guides to teen girls will attest, it makes all the difference.

And now, with this, her second book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, Danni brings her hard-earned insight directly to the girls themselves. The book’s approach to the big issues – body image, drugs and alcohol, sex and love, friendship, school and work – is personal but grounded in evidence. The practical advice is sensible but never prescriptive, and certainly never delivered from the high horse of moral authority. And the affirmations that close each chapter are to-the-point and have the potential to be genuinely empowering. Danni’s voice throughout is that of a trusted, trusting, wise-but-never-superior older sister. You know she won’t put up with your crap, but you also know she’s got your back. She expects a lot from you, but only because she thinks so very, very much of you.

In a world where girls hear countless conflicting messages about how they should live and who they should be, Danni Miller is a guiding light. Educator, activist, writer, mother, friend, mentor, feminist – every aspect of Danni’s life and being is directed towards helping girls navigate their teen years not only safely but with actual joy. Rather than encourage girls to attempt to avoid pain through making themselves meek and ultra-cautious, Danni encourages them to confront the hard stuff and stomp all over it. She doesn’t just want girls to be okay – she wants them to be magnificent and to know it.

Thank you, Danni, for this marvellous book. May its wisdom enter every teenage heart.

Danni with her family at the launch.

You may also wish to listen to a radio interview I did with Adelaide’s Amanda Blair on my new book at this link: http://www.fiveaa.com.au/audio_the-girl-with-the-butterfly-tattoo_104563 It was a very lively discussion and is well worth a listen.

Making a stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, here.

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

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

 

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