There’s been a little storm in the blogosphere over an article written by Catherine Manning on Mamamia. My concern is not the details of the controversy, but a very revealing response from Julie Gale of Kids Free 2B Kids and some members of Collective Shout, to which both Julie and Melinda Tankard Reist are closely connected.
It is damning evidence that Julie Gale and Collective Shout actually do not know what sexualisation is; that they interpret ‘pornification’ and sexualisation to be the same things.
In a response to Catherine, Julie Gale argues that there is substantive support for her position.
I have worked for half a decade raising awareness about this issue and so am very curious to know who are the ‘many you have worked alongside’ that have said: ‘girls dressing like women was asking for trouble’ – or – ‘if you want to project your child from predators, cover them up’. In my 6 years of raising awareness about sexualisation I have not heard any of my ‘anti-sexualisation’ colleagues say either – but it would be concerning if someone did. I agree it would be important to correct those ‘many people’. It wasn’t me – so was it Dr Michael Carr Gregg – or Dr Joe Tucci – or Dr Emma Rush – or Dr Clive Hamilton – or Maggie Hamilton – or Melinda Tankard Reist – or Professor Louise Newman – or Former Chief Justice of the Family Court Alastair Nicholson – or Danielle Miller – or Steve Biddulph – or head of the AMA Dr Steve Hambleton or Professor Elisabeth Handsley? Or perhaps it was someone from the Victorian Principals Association – or maybe you read these statements in a report from the American Psychological Association, or The UK Home office report, or The Scottish and Irish Parliament and French Government reports – or perhaps from The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. (see Here).
On this blog I have examined the writings of several of these people: Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Dr Emma Rush (and here), Dr Clive Hamilton, Dr Joe Tucci Melinda Tankard Reist and Julie Gale. I have accused them of being moral conservatives and of misunderstanding the issue of sexualisation.
However, what I found particularly amusing was that Julie believes that the APA report, the Scottish Parliament report and The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists support her interpretation of sexualisation.
It is worthwhile quoting the APA report’s definition of sexualisation in full, because the APA report is the foundational report.
1. A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.
2. A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy.
3. A person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.
4. Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
The APA report makes an absolutely critical caveat, which I will return to later:
Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.
As I have said elsewhere on this blog, the APA definition is problematic because it allows people to conflate sexualisation with a particular form of overt sexual behaviour. The APA report assumes the reader understands the history of debates amongst feminists regarding ‘objectification’, in which even very conservative behaviour is seen as a form of objectification.
The Scottish Parliament report notes this problem in its critical examination of the APA report:
Following from this, the definition provides no way of distinguishing between material that is ‘sexual’ (that is, concerned with sexual matters) and material that is ‘sexualised’. To put this another way, it is not clear what a non-sexualised image of a human body (or even parts of a human body) would be like, or how we might distinguish between a sexualised and a non-sexualised image. Anything that depicts or refers to a person’s physical attractiveness appears to be seen as automatically sexualising. It is hard to see, on this basis, how anything that people might do (or buy) in order to enhance their physical attractiveness would not be seen as sexualising.
A perfect example of this problem is the musical My Fair Lady (based on the myth of Pygmalion). In the musical, professor Henry Higgins decides to turn a poor Cockney flower girl into a member of high society. In the process she is totally objectified; made an instrument of his desires. Toward the end of the film she leaves him declaring that he does not see who she really is.
There can be no denying that there is considerable sexual tension in the film, even though it is never explicit. But this is the point. One does not have to act or dress explicitly to be ‘sexy’. The actress Audrey Hepburn always had considerable sexual appeal without needing to reveal any flesh or step outside the virgin/ingénue stereotype she was well known for.
If we return to the APA report definition, then on all four counts the character of Eliza Doolittle has been thoroughly sexualised/objectified. The difference is that she has been transformed from a ‘bad’ girl (the working class flower girl is considered sexually dangerous) to a ‘good’ girl; one acceptable to society. Make no mistake, the good girl is all about sex – the right kind of sex: virginal, innocent, ready to become the perfect wife and mother.
Unfortunately, it is readily apparent that Collective Shout, Julie Gale, Melinda Tankard Reist and their fellow travellers buy into the good girl/bad girl dichotomy. A survey of their campaigns reveals they interpret sexualisation to mean ‘overt’ sexual imagery, and especially imagery that depicts women and girls as bad girls. They seem to ignore the glaring fact that the pressure to conform to the good girl image can be every bit as stressful as pressure to conform to a ‘raunchy’ ideal of sexuality. All of the negative effects that APA report points to: eating disorders, body image problems, self-esteem issues can be found amongst girls trying to meet the exacting standards of the good girl (who is not sexy, but who instead, is pretty).
This is where I now return to the important caveat in the APA report, that self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization.
‘Self-motivated’ means that it arises from the authentic curiosity of the individual and is not externally imposed by parents, society, peers or commercial interests (the fashion and beauty industries). ‘Exploration’ means not only exploring one’s own sexual responses but one’s own sexual identity.
And this is where Collective Shout et al, actually directly ignore the APA report and become guilty of sexualisation themselves.
This is because they impose a moral judgment on the appropriate expression of sexuality, which is all about condemning ‘bad’ forms of sexuality – EVEN IF IT IS AUTHENTICALLY SELF-MOTIVATED.
They make no apology for condemning raunch culture, for attacking what they regard as inappropriate sexual expression. And when women and girls argue that they are interested in these forms of sexual expression from a position of genuine self-motivation, because they like it, Collective Shout et al, disregard their voices completely. Their voices don’t matter because they are bad girls.
What Collective Shout et al do not see is that they are contributing to the social pressure on girls to conform to the good girl archetype. They are complaining rather loudly that they don’t like ‘bad’ girls.
This is the very essence of slut-shaming.
The APA report definition of sexualisation is essentially about internalising externally imposed notions of appropriate sexual expression. By campaigning against things they don’t like, Collective Shout, Julie Gale, Melinda Tankard Reist, etc, become just another external voice telling girls how to behave, just another source of pressure.
Collective Shout et al, are indulging in a purely moral campaign. If they were genuinely concerned about sexualisation they would be doing two things:
1. Criticising sexualisation in ALL its forms, including the many versions of the good girl stereotype.
2. Supporting girls to make their own ‘self-motivated’ decisions, even if they may not be to their liking.
The Scottish Parliament reports warns that:
Much of the research rests on moral assumptions – for example about ‘healthy’ sexuality, about ‘decency’ or about material that is ‘inappropriate’ for children – that are not adequately explained or justified.
It is time Collective Shout et al, were asked to ‘adequately explain and justify’ their moral assumptions.