The porn identity

By Mary-Anne Toy
The Sydney Morning Herald
April 19, 2010
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A FEW years ago, Melbourne mother Julie Gale walked into a milk bar with her then 10-year-old son to buy him an icecream. Instead, she was horrified at seeing, in full view of her son, a magazine with the headline ”Tender Teenage Tw&t” above a picture of a girl in pigtails. ”I thought, that can’t possibly be legal.”

Kindergarten teacher Dianne O’Dwyer has four-year-olds proudly showing off their ”little bras” and bringing make-up to school, a three-year-old who imitates pop singer Lady GaGa’s raunchy moves, and a little girl who boasts about being the skinniest in the class.

On television and billboards, and in shop windows, sex is a popular way to sell everything from the obvious – men’s clubs, brothels and treatments for erectile dysfunction – to an idealised, celebrity-based concept of success. The adult classifieds are thriving in local weekly papers, there are pole and lap-dancing classes in the suburbs, and demand for labiaplasty, to make female genitals conform to a perceived porn standard, is increasing. Our language has coarsened. Bloody is mild. Variations of the word f–k seem hardwired into every visiting comedian and forget ”yummy mummies” and cougars, even kids know what MILFs are (Mothers I’d Like to F–k).

What is acceptable in modern popular culture is dynamic, but today those changes seem to be occurring at a rate rivalling that of the start of the 20th century. Discussion of sex and sexuality, once taboo, is now ubiquitous on radio, television and the internet. And while few want a return to the bad old days of repression and puritanism, there is a growing backlash against what has been termed the ”pornification” of society, or our ”hypersexual culture”. More people are recoiling from having it all ”out there” – especially when it’s in front of children.

Part of the problem is that children and teenagers now inhabit a multimedia world and keeping them safe is not just a matter of monitoring where they go physically. The internet has changed the notion of privacy, especially for young people. Once it was defined by the periodic outcries over paparazzi intrusions on celebrities. Today the penetration of the internet and social networking (Facebook, MySpace, Twitter) means people are seriously sharing.

”I’ve got friends on Facebook from primary school who I’ve not seen since I was 12 years old, and they’re posting pictures of their favourite sexual position on Facebook,” Lauren Rosewarne, a Melbourne University public policy lecturer says. ”Younger cousins will post stuff about what they did on the weekend, including sexual things. I don’t really need or want to know, but I am somewhat drawn to finding this fascinating and as an academic it’s fascinating and disturbing.”

For the uninitiated ”sexting” isn’t sending dirty text messages by mobile phone. It’s sharing explicit naked pictures of, almost exclusively, young girls by mobile phone. Sometimes accompanied by sexual texting.

The scenario is an age-old one, updated by the fierce speed and power of the digital age. A boyfriend begs his girlfriend to send him a naked picture of herself, swearing he’ll never show anyone else. She finally agrees. Or perhaps she, in a misplaced sense of what it means to be sexually empowered, thinks it’s a good idea to send such a picture to a boy she likes. Before you know it, the picture has ”gone viral”, spread uncontrollably across digital media.

Pre-internet and mobile phones, it simply wasn’t as easy to spread damaging material around. ”They cannot foresee the dangers, that once it’s on the net it’s there forever,” says cyber safety expert Susan McLean. She says too many young girls believe they have to cultivate a ”sexy presence” to be popular. ”When I was 12 I didn’t know what a ‘sexy presence’ meant … but girls today, they want to be Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.”

McLean says sexting is widespread across the country and all socio-economic groups. ”It’s the least likely, the good kids, the school captain kids, the house leaders … the academically bright girls and everything in between,” McLean says.

Dianne O’Dwyer and Neta Kirby have taught generations of Victorian schoolchildren over the past 30 years. They observe that it is girls, rather than boys, who seem most affected. ”I’ve got four and five-year-olds wearing little bras – that’s what they call them – that’s ridiculous. And some of them think they’re ‘sexy’,” Kirby says.

She doesn’t make these observations with undue alarm. She says children have always been interested in their bodies, but she wonders about the impact of so much increasingly explicit television when studies show that kids are now watching up to four hours a day. She also questions the strong push by companies to market directly to even very young children.

JOE Tucci, chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation, along with Julie Gale, was one of the more than 30 leading child experts who have signed a letter to the attorneys-general asking them to ban the sale of adult ”soft porn” magazines from newsagents, milk bars, convenience stores, supermarkets and petrol stations and review the category of ”lads” magazines.

Tucci, a social worker and psychologist, says the increasing volume of sexualised imagery in popular culture is a factor in one-fifth of the increasing cases of children engaging in problematic sexual behaviour. About 10 or 11 years ago he would see a handful of children engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour towards other children. Most were 10 to 12 years old, had been abused and were replicating a version of what had been done to them.

”But then we started seeing kids who had no known sexual abuse,” Tucci says.

The foundation now receives more than 150 referrals a year to treat increasingly younger children who are sexually abusing other children. ”It used to be inappropriate touching and threats … now the behaviour includes penetration, force and planning, such as waiting for opportunities to be alone with another child and in a room which can be locked.”

Gale set up Kids Free 2B Kids three years ago to campaign against excessive and inappropriate displays of sexual imagery. She says children are being manipulated by the media and marketing, all pushing variations of this message: ”Look sexy, buy lots, then you’ll be popular and happy.”

She and like-minded child experts from around the country were buoyed by the Senate inquiry into the sexualisation of children in 2008 that agreed with them that inappropriate sexualisation of children was a ”significant cultural challenge”.

The inquiry put the onus on broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers to take into account widespread community concerns. Of its 13 recommendations, the government has notably acted on two: funding a children’s channel on the ABC and amending the children’s television standards.

But Gale is disappointed that more has not been achieved. There has been little action on other recommendations, including a longitudinal study into the effects of sexualisation on children, a review of music video classification, improved complaints and vetting systems and a review of the progress within 18 months (which was due at the end of last year).

A spokeswoman for Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, says the government shares the community’s concern about the issue and has been developing a $125.8 million cyber-safety plan with internet filter.

In the UK, a study into the early sexualisation of children commissioned by the Home Office and released last month has warned that the ”pornification” of society has put girls and boys under unprecedented pressure to conform to gender stereotypes from a younger and younger age.

The study, by psychologist Linda Papadopoulos, said girls were pressured to appear sexually available – to be ”hot” – and boys were forced to appear macho and to treat women as sex objects. The study’s recommendations include banning the sale of lads’ magazines to under-15s and banishing the most explicit music videos to later time slots.

Catherine Manning, who was banned from a local shop after she repeatedly complained that its porn magazines were in easy view of her children and has since organised a petition with more than 8000 signatures also calling for greater restrictions, says critics label people such as her and Gale as wowsers, ”religious nutters” or conservatives. ”I’m all for kids expressing their sexuality, but not to see that one-dimensional porn magazine depiction of women,” Manning says.

Anastasia Powell, a sociologist at LaTrobe University, says the ”age of raunch” and terms such as ”S.L.U.T”- sexually liberated urban teens – suggest there is a powerful new assertiveness among young women, but her research found the opposite. Powell interviewed 117 teens and young adults for her doctorate, Generation Y: rewriting the rules on sex, love and consent, and is finishing a book on the issue.

”All the young women I spoke to are enormously influenced by this sexualisation of culture,” Powell says. ”In the last few decades, access to work, politics etc … has led us to assume that young women are liberated, freed, empowered and able to meet their own sexual desires and negotiate sexual encounters confidently and in their own interests.

”But certainly the young women I have spoken to … aren’t at all confident in negotiating sex. They still feel as though they have to meet the boyfriend’s needs first before their own.”

Author Maggie Hamilton argues that sexualisation of women in the popular media, combined with fragmenting of families because of relationships breaking down, longer working hours and new technologies such as the internet and digital television multiplying the power of media, is putting unprecedented pressures on children. Hamilton says interviewing scores of boys for her forthcoming book, What’s Happening to Our Boys, she was shocked at how desensitised they had become to sex and violence.

There is, however, unease in some circles about what is tentatively being called a new puritanism – and not just from the expected quarters. Media and industry experts say they reflect, not drive, community attitudes.

Gawen Rudder, of the Communication Council, which represents advertising and marketing companies, says Australia has some of the most conservative advertising restrictions in the Western world and that further regulation could cause a ”nanny state” backlash.

”Don’t confuse advertising with the media. You’ve got (the third series of) Underbelly … that will have sexual images that would not in any way be depicted in advertising or promotion. The ads in that program will be far more conservative than what is in the program,” Rudder says.

MEDIA in Australia are substantially self-regulatory, with the Australian Communications and Media Authority as the referee. An ACMA spokesman said last year that there were only two breaches found of the television code of practice (involving Big Brother and Underbelly) and it simply isn’t inundated with complaints.

Magazine publishers have defended their products, and online polls at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald were overwhelmingly against banning soft-porn magazines from newsagents, milk bars and other general stores.

Veteran feminist Eva Cox says the sexualisation of kids campaign is misplaced.

”We’ve commercialised and commodified childhood in a way that I think is probably the obscenity,” Cox says. ”It’s sad that we are selling kids the idea that they should become more adult at an early age, not just sexually, but … by turning them into consumers.”

Cox suspects that the anti-sexualisation of children lobby is tapping into existential anxieties about increasing corporatisation. ”It’s a backlash against the overmarketisation of the world … The population is basically sick of having economics rammed down their throats rather than feelings, ethics or relationships, all those things that are really important.

”Once they start marketing to kids, it arouses all those anti-market, anti-economic anxieties.”

She is concerned about a return to the bad old days when sexuality wasn’t discussed, and believes the federal government’s internet filter will simply stifle debate and dissent. She cites the furore over artist Bill Henson’s photographs of pre-pubescent children and the outcry that forced an artist to put trunks on a statue of a previously naked boy shown in the Sydney Sculpture by the Seaexhibition.

”We’re creating a level of hysteria about sexuality and that’s what worries me, and the Bill Henson thing was a very prime example of that.’