COVER STORY / MERCHANTS OF SLEAZE: Sexualised marketing targets young girls
by Catherine Sheehan
News Weekly, July 19, 2008
Australians are waking up to the dangerous and harmful effects of sexualised marketing on children writes Catherine Sheehan.
The Senate committee on environment, communications and the arts has failed our children miserably by not responding to urgent community concerns regarding the sexualisation of children.
In its report on the sexualisation of children, tabled on June 26, 2008, the committee failed to deal with the numerous criticisms levelled at the Advertising Standards Board (ASB). The committee's report was slammed as "weak" and "pathetic" by Dr Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University.
Dr Hamilton, as executive director of The Australia Institute, initiated the 2006 report, Corporate Paedophilia, bringing to the community's attention the dangerous and harmful effects of sexualised marketing on children. Subsequent community concern and ire prompted the Senate inquiry. Among other things, the ASB was criticised for dismissing a majority of complaints received, lacking a strong code of ethics and not reflecting community standards.
In a media release on June 26, Dr Hamilton stated: "There remains a huge gulf between the level of community concern about the sexualisation of children and the Senate committee's report. As a result, the process of sexualisation will continue, with children being caught up in it at younger and younger ages. Another inquiry will be necessary in five years time to deal with the consequences of the failure of this one."
If our society does not start to take the sexualisation of children, and in particular of girls, seriously, then we are heading for a very bleak future indeed.
Director of Women's Forum Australia, Melinda Tankard Reist, in a recent article, "The Pornification of Girlhood", (Quadrant, July-August 2008), presents a detailed and explicit description of the effects that sexualisation is having on girls and women.
It makes for harrowing reading. She has good reason to be so explicit and upfront. The Playboy view of womanhood, invented by men like Hugh Hefner, has become mainstream, causing girls and young women untold pain and suffering.
Tankard Reist writes of girls who are full of self-loathing because they do not look like the women they see in advertising, in the media, and in pornography. They strive from a very early age to look like the airbrushed and enhanced images of women that they see everywhere. They desperately want to be popular and to please their boyfriends. Tankard Reist gives some statistics:
• Between 40 per cent and 82 per cent of young women were dissatisfied with their weight and/or shape (Australian Longitudinal Study on Women's Health).
• Close to 20 per cent of adolescent girls use fasting for two or more days to lose weight. Another 13 per cent use vomiting. (National Youth Cultures of Eating Study 2006).
• One in 100 adolescent girls suffers anorexia.
• An estimated one in five is bulimic.
• One in four teenage girls wants to have plastic surgery, according to reports in August last year.
Tankard Reist writes: "The pressure to conform to an idealised body type in a sex-saturated culture that values girls who are thin, sexy and 'bad' is taking a massive toll. Despite the many opportunities available to them, girls today are struggling."
While both girls and boys are suffering as a result of sexualised images and messages, it is girls who suffer the harshest consequences. Tankard Reist refers to author Joan Jacobs Brumberg who wrote: "More than any other group in the population, girls and their bodies have borne the brunt of 20th-century social change, and we ignore that fact at our peril."
A report from the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2007 on the sexualisation of girls conducted by six psychologists and one member of the public, found: "Ample evidence indicates that sexualisation has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality and beliefs." ("Just Sick of Sexploitation," Melbourne Herald Sun, December 6, 2007).
As Tankard Reist points out, the APA's report linked "the objectifying and sexualising of girls and young women with three of the most common mental health problems suffered by them: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression."
This sexualisation of girls and young women, according to Tankard Reist, is the result of pornography becoming mainstream. Giant billboards now use soft porn to advertise their products. Young women put Playboy bunny stickers on their cars, and Playboy cosmetics can now be purchased at Priceline.
For little girls there are "Playboy doona covers and Playboy pencil cases". Tankard Reist comments: "Girls are wearing the brand of the global sex industry, directed by an 80-year-old man in pyjamas, and they think it's about cute rabbits."
Pole-dancing is now considered an acceptable and beneficial form of exercise for women and children. Teenage girls now get Brazilian waxes, and there has been a 20 per cent increase in teenage girls enquiring about plastic surgery procedures.
Cosmetic surgery has also become mainstream. Tankard Reist refers to Zoo Weekly magazine which held a competition in which one of its lucky readers could win $10,000 worth of breast implants for his girlfriend. The editor described it as a "romantic gift". T-shirts are available for girls with slogans such as "Porn Star," "Hotter Down Under" and "Miss Wasted".
Pornography, once considered by feminists to be the ultimate form of exploitation and degradation of women, is now sold to girls as the ultimate form of empowerment.
Both men and women have been persuaded that pornography is harmless fun, that it's just something that most men do and that sexual liberation is a necessary component of women's liberation. However, the girls and young women who suffer the consequences of such a view feel anything but liberated and empowered. They now feel that they have no choice but to cater to the whims of males.
Easy sexual prey
Tankard Reist describes teenage girls who are incredibly vulnerable and easy sexual prey due to this early sexualisation. She says: "A significant proportion of young women regret their first sexual experience, which is often marked by drunkenness and force." She includes an excerpt from the book Sex Lives of Australian Teenagers:
"One girl described how she was ashamed to still be a virgin at the age of 19, so she had intercourse with a random guy she met at a club and got 'a pounding'. Afterwards, she bled a lot and became depressed to the point of feeling suicidal.... Another girl had intercourse with a boy on their first date and he dumped her the next day. She said, 'I felt like s***, it still sticks with me, I regret it a lot.' "
Instead of advising girls to demand respect from males, many women's magazines marketed to teen girls, such as Dolly and Girlfriend, give instructions to their readers on how to give good hand, oral and anal sex, should their boyfriends request it. There is rarely a suggestion that a girl should simply refuse any sex act she is uncomfortable with.
Nowadays it's all about pleasing the guy. Our pornified culture has taught girls to expect only meaningless sex in their relationships with boys, not love, romance, tenderness or real intimacy.
Self-harm, including cutting, is now a serious issue amongst women and teenage girls. The report Faking It, produced by Women's Forum Australia in August 2007 stated: "Self-harm is common, under-reported and on the rise. Most of those who harm are female."
According to the report, research indicates that self-harm is likely to be linked to several factors including self-objectification and negative body image. It is argued that, in a culture in which violence against women is sanctioned in many ways (such as prostitution), it is not surprising that self-harm among women is common.
Tankard Reist argues that sex and violence are being merged, so that violence against women becomes sexy. Raunchy music clips on television of a Saturday morning, when young children may be watching, are also soft porn.
Many of these clips particularly those pertaining to rap music, portray women as scantily-clad sex objects with insatiable sexual appetites. Many of the clips depict violence against women in such a way that it appears sexy and glamorous. Meanwhile, there are T-shirts made in Australia for men with slogans such as "Show us your flaps" and "It's not rape, it's surprise sex".
Physical and sexual violence against females in Australian society is alive and well. A report in a Melbourne daily two months ago stated: "Ninety-seven per cent of domestic violence is perpetrated by males. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show one in three women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and nearly one in five have experienced sexual violence." ("When domestic bliss turns to hate", Herald Sun, May 3, 2008).
The sexualisation of girls and women affects everyone, not just those who actively consume pornographic material. The general effect of increasing disrespect for females is felt in all spheres of life - in the home, in the workplace, in the school ground and on the streets.
In her Quadrant article, Tankard Reist quotes Bob Herbert who wrote in 2006 in The New York Times: "The disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women is so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock."
It has lost its ability to shock. Many people don't even notice it anymore and therefore cannot comprehend how women today could be oppressed. It is assumed that because they can now pursue any career path they choose, that women today have it all, and that they are powerful, liberated and happy.
Yet the evidence is all to the contrary. Teenage girls are cutting themselves, starving themselves and performing sexual acts they find repulsive and degrading, just to please their boyfriends. This is a form of slavery, not power, liberation or happiness.
- Catherine Sheehan is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.