Dr Caroline Norma: Hypocrisy And Polemic

Article by Ray Harris /
Novel Activist /
September 02, 2012 /
Click here to view original /

I’ve read some strange arguments in my time but this one was so obviously hypocritical that it was laughable. In an opinion piece titled The disparaging and belittling of mothers: on mother shaming in the sexualisation debate Dr Caroline Norma makes this protest:

How dare the elite media and privileged individuals who think themselves superior to the average mother, deride mothers and imply they’re not eligible for a view on how society should be improved? It smacks of classism. Why are mothers not eligible to speak on behalf of other women? Why can’t they lead the women’s movement (however that’s defined)?

Who exactly are this ‘elite media’ and these ‘privileged individuals’? She names three: commentator Trixie Wellington, writer/blogger/broadcaster Helen Razer and academic/writer Dr Lauren Rosewarne. Where does she name them? On writer/social commentator Melinda Tankard Reists’s blog.

So these privileged members of the elite media are academics and writers. But hang on. Isn’t Dr Caroline Norma also an academic and writer? Hasn’t she been published by Spinifex Press, an elite feminist publisher? Hasn’t she collaborated with other academics like Dr Emma Rush on the the sexualisation of girls? And isn’t Melinda Tankard Reist a prominent commentator who writes newspaper columns and appears on TV and Radio?

Doesn’t this make Dr Caroline Norma a member of this self-same privileged elite?

And why does Norma think that ‘average mothers’, as a group, all agree on the issue of sexualisation? Anyone following the debate knows very well that ‘average mothers’ disagree.

It is pure polemical spin to assert that ‘average mothers’ are on one side of the debate and a misguided ‘privileged elite’ on the other. As far as I can tell there is a second group of this ‘privileged elite’ who have been far more disparaging and belittling of the ‘average mothers’ who dare to disagree with them. I’ve named this group, all vocal on the issue of sexualisation and many of them supported by Melinda Tankard Reist and Spinifex Press: Dr Helen Pringle, Dr Abigail Bray, Dr Emma Rush, and of course, Dr Caroline Norma (other academics either formally or informally connected are Dr Clive Hamilton, Dr Lesley-Ann Ey and Dr Glen Cupit). I don’t know how much more privileged and elitist you can get.

What Norma has done is indulge in rather bog-ordinary exclusionist polemic. In the first step she identifies a fabricated elite (of which she is also, ironically, a member) and in the second she identifies a victim, the ‘average mother’, who is somehow excluded from having a say by this fabricated elite.

This is nonsense.

The reality is that there are broadly two sides (with shades of grey) of this debate with professionals and ‘average mothers’ on BOTH sides (for a good example of the contrary view see Catherine Manning’s -who is an activist and mother – response What happened in that shed had nothing to do with my shorts). In fact some of the more robust comments can be made by ‘average mothers’ attacking other ‘average mothers’.

This is not about classism. That is an absurd claim. This is about a coalition of morally conservative, sex negative women versus a coalition of progressive, sex positive women.

But Norma’s polemic does not end there. Her article contains a number of assertions typical of the moral conservative captured by moral panic. Her article was inspired by the controversy over shorts sold at Target that one conservative ‘average mother’ declared would make her daughter look like a tramp.

As far as I could tell, the issue was over the use of the word ‘tramp’.

As an academic, Norma specialises in issues around sex trafficking and violence against women. As such she should be acutely aware of the debate around the causes of sexual violence, particularly the notion that women, either by the way they dress or act, cause men to attack them.

On one side of the debate, often found amongst moral conservatives, is the belief that women are somehow responsible for the violence directed against them and that the way to control violence is to control how women behave. On the other side of the debate, is the belief that the perpetrator bears the full responsibility and that how women behave is irrelevant – in other words, there is no direct causal link between a particular type of dress or behaviour and sexual violence. The potential for sexual violence is caused by both cultural and individual acceptance of sexual violence against women and girls.

But the argument goes further. There would seem to be a correlation (if not a causal link) between sexual violence and the belief that women’s sexuality needs to be controlled. Those cultures that demand women dress conservatively are more likely to tolerate violence against those women, or to believe that women provoke male violence (and to tolerate child marriage and marital rape). In contrast those societies that are broadly tolerant of a wide variety of clothing styles and sexualities are far less likely to tolerate violence against women.

Unfortunately Norma seems to accept the notion that women and girls are to blame for male sexual violence.

I think there’s an implicit message in Wellington’s article that mothers are looking at their daughters sexually, which she should be called out on. This is an outrageous claim – Australian courts are currently chock full of, not women, but men who have decided to extend their violent pornography consumption to children. The statistics are huge and getting worse by the year.

No, Wellington is not claiming that mothers are looking at their daughters sexually directly, rather that some mothers (not all) are overly concerned with the fear that other people, mainly men, are looking at their daughters sexually – and in this way they are therefore looking at their daughters as they imagine a man might.  Norma then makes the enormous leap from a woman complaining about ‘trampy’ clothes to violent child pornography. In a classic case of scare mongering our courts are ‘chock full’ of men engaged in ‘violent’ pornography and that this problem is ‘huge’ and ‘getting worse’. Here Norma is talking about the recent arrests of men involved in Internet child porn rings. As far as I’m aware, far more sober specialists in criminology might disagree that the courts are chock full, or that the problem is huge and getting worse. They might, as the highly respected specialist in child abuse, Dr David Finklehor states, think that police efforts have been successful and the problem is getting better.

…at the same time, the media and many advocates have failed to note the good news: rates of sexual abuse, child homicide, and many other forms of child victimization declined dramatically after the mid-1990’s, and some terribly feared forms of child victimization, such as stereotypical stranger abduction, are remarkably uncommon. (From Child Victmization).

This is not to say that the existence of secretive child porn rings on the Internet is not a serious problem. It is. But it is simply wrong to suggest that there is a link between certain types of children’s clothing and child sexual abuse. As far as I’m aware most child abuse is opportunistic. The child is molested because they are simply there and what they are wearing is irrelevant. Not to mention that it is impossible to know what any given person finds arousing. Paedophiles are often attracted to children who dress and act like children.

Again we return to the argument that sexual abuse against women and children is somehow their fault; that they can dress like a tramp and cause a man to think they are sexually available; that a child can somehow signal that they are sexually available.

What Norma fails to understand is that there are two sources for this dangerous belief. The first is the perpetrator who attempts to use it as a defence – it wasn’t my fault, she provoked me. The second are conservative moralists, including women and mothers, who accept, and by doing so, perpetuate, the idea that women and children provoke sexual abuse. Don’t they understand that by continuing to validate this argument, they support society accepting it as a defence?

This is the essence of the problem: that one particular mother chose to describe an item of clothing as ‘trampy’, thus buying into the belief that by wearing them other people would look at her daughter sexually – either with lust or moral disapproval (and one cannot discount the fear of moral disapproval, of other people judging her daughter to be a tramp – conservatives seem to worry about what other people think a lot).

But of course, it wasn’t just the members of some made-up ‘privileged elite’ pointing this out, it was also other ‘ordinary mothers’ who did not accept that the clothing in question was trampy, or that their daughters should even have to encounter the notion that they could look ‘trampy’.

This is something else that Norma completely ignores; that notions such as ‘trampiness’ are wholly subjective and subject to change over time. It was this mother’s opinion that the clothes in question were trampy. Others disagreed. As I have argued elsewhere, clothing changes from time to time and from place to place. The shorts in question, short shorts, were common in the 70’s. If anything, standards today are far more conservative and rather than there being pressure on girls to wear less, there is pressure for them to wear more. A look back at photographs from the beaches of Europe in the 80’s show girls running around topless or in brief bikinis (taken by photographer Chris Madaio and published in his book Il Giovanile Ritratto), just as adult women were doing. Today in Australia they are more likely to be wearing board shorts and t-shirts; they most certainly won’t be topless. If we are believe the conservatives, then the girls in the photos below were being terribly sexualised. But were they? Or was it simply considered normal and acceptable at the the time and in that place? Aren’t they just girls playing at the beach?

But there is something far more sinister at work in Norma’s argument, and that of her cohort. It lies in the labelling of children and the imposing of adult concepts onto children. In this particular case it is the objectionable label of tramp, which means a promiscuous woman. Should anyone be thinking of a girl as a tramp? If it’s acceptable for a mother to think of her daughter as a tramp, isn’t it acceptable for men to think girls can be tramps?

In her article Norma claims to be interested in children’s rights. This is an area I have been interested in ever since I was introduced to the concept as an adolescent in High School. I know what it means. It involves both a freedom ‘from’ and a freedom ‘to’. Without a doubt it includes a freedom ‘from’ any kind of abuse. But it also involves a freedom to be whomever the child wants to be, free of adult preconceptions and ideological constraints, and most especially free of labels.

The very last people I would consider to have a genuine concern for children’s rights are the moral conservatives, who seem constantly to want children to conform to very specific adult concepts of appropriate behaviour. Indeed, the very idea of age-appropriate is an adult idea of what is appropriate at any given age, which is often contrary to what developmental psychology actually says. For example, the idea that the child is sexually innocent is an adult belief that bears no relation to reality. Defining a girl as a tramp, as a bad, immoral girl compared to a good, moral girl is, in my view, of form of psychological abuse. Isn’t the very act of thinking of a girl as a tramp a perfect example of blaming women and girls?

Shouldn’t we be pushing the message that it is morally wrong to place adult concepts of sexuality onto children?

Shouldn’t we be arguing that, by the simple virtue of them being a child, they are incapable of adult sexuality, and therefore cannot be sexualised? That even when they are dressed up as adults and acting out adult sexuality, they are nonetheless still children ‘pretending’ to be adults? That it is impossible for a girl to look like a tramp, that tramp is only ever a word used to describe an adult?

The absurdity of false causation is quickly revealed when you consider the flipside. Does anyone seriously believe that by dressing a child in a particular way you render them magically invisible to a sexual gaze (what of the naturally pretty child)? Does anyone seriously believe that a predator will look at a child who is dressed ‘age-appropriately’ and be turned-off – oops, I was mistaken, all of a sudden I’m strangely not interested? Does anyone seriously think that predators only select children who have signalled their availability by dressing like tramps?

By accepting that it is even possible for children to be sexualised the moral conservatives are accepting it as an excuse for predatory behaviour. By claiming to see sexualisation everywhere, aren’t these conservative activists actually encouraging men to see it everywhere as well; to see girls as sexual?

By claiming that a particular image, piece of clothing or behaviour has a sexual meaning, aren’t they in fact introducing that very idea to people who might not have otherwise interpreted it that way?

Are they often not the the ones creating and promoting the sexual meaning?