Tuesday Talks: The Sexualisation of Women with Melinda Tankard Reist
Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, media commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is well known for her work on the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls and efforts to address violence against women. A co-founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation, Melinda is named in Who’s Who of Women (Australia) and World Who’s Who of Women.
I met Melinda about 2 and a half years ago when I invited her to speak at an event I produced in Melbourne. I asked Melinda to do a presentation on the topic of The Sexualisation of Women. It was a very powerful message and had a huge impact on those attending the evening. A bit like watching a scary movie, you want to put a pillow over your head but you can’t look away. This in fact is purpose of her presentation. To wake us up out of our apathy. Society, like the proverbial frog in the pan of water, have been desensitised to this topic. It is all around us every day, everywhere we go and yet most of us do not even see.
Melinda, thank-you for joining us on Sunday Everyday. You started your career off as a journalist. How did you to become an advocate for the rights of women and girls? Was there one moment, a conversation, an epiphany or did it creep up on you?
Melinda: Thanks for interviewing me for your great new blog Lisa!
I really need to work on a sound bite answer for this question because I’m asked it a lot!
I can’t point to one single moment, but a combination of moments, experiences, observations. When I reflect on my life’s journey, I see particular incidents from my childhood and teen years which contributed to setting me on the path I’m on. A relative I loved – the sweetest woman you could ever meet – being constantly put down by her husband; a woman who worked on the family’s farm with her husband, turning up regularly with black eyes, another wife of a migrant employee never allowed to leave her home, writing one of my first articles as a young journalist on the opening of a women’s refuge in my home town.
Then travelling the world and seeing the second class status of women in so many countries. Meeting so many women who survived the most terrible things. Documenting their stories. And, of course, many years later, having daughters of my own and seeing first-hand how hard it was to raise happy, healthy, resilient girls in a culture that works against you achieving that.
When you see just how bad things are: the global epidemic of violence, rape and sexual abuse, the daily atrocities, the global trafficking in female bodies, ‘honour’ killings, female genital mutilation, dowry deaths, female foeticide, female infanticide, child marriage, the deliberate deprivation of nutrition, education, opportunities, the overall differential suffering of women and girls – and almost daily, here in the supposedly enlightened West, a growing pile of bodies of women murdered by men – only this week, as I write, a pregnant woman killed by her partner. So common we are not even surprised anymore!
But we must not get used to it! There is a war on women! We can’t continue to ignore that fact.
Lisa: How long now have you been writing and speaking about the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls.
Melinda: I actually first wrote on the subject way back in the mid 80’s for a university newspaper in California where I was living at the time. But as a constant focus, about the last six years. I became seriously interested in the issue when the Australia Institute report Corporate Paedophilia came out. It seemed to me the subject warranted a book (I like to take on issues I think deserve more attention). I wrote and edited Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls published by Spinifex Press in 2009. It seems to have struck a chord, become the biggest selling title for my publisher (now in its 8th print run). This was followed by Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global pornography industry (co-edited with Dr Abigail Bray). These books have resulted in a constant round of speaking engagements all over the country and internationally.
I’m working on a new book now with Dr Caroline Norma, about women who have escaped the sex industry (also to be published by Spinifex Press). As you can see I pick all the fun topics (my first book was on abortion brief, my second on disability and medical eugenics).
Lisa: Apart from being journalist and advocate you have recently become a Grandmother. This must change the dynamics somewhat for you personally. You now have another generation of young girls growing up, do you feel that we as a nation are getting a handle on this situation? Do you sense that things have changed over the last decade?
Melinda: The birth of the world’s most beautiful grand-daughter (I’m unbiased, of course) has caused me to become invested in this work in a whole new way and on a whole new level. My daughters are 23,19, and 13. (I also have a son, 21). Every time I write or speak on the issue now, she is at the forefront. I was already disturbed by what was happening as my daughters were growing up – but if we don’t turn this around quickly, this younger generation will also suffer and possibly suffer more.
Already one in 10 girls are bulimic, 7 year olds are being hospitalised with eating disorders, there’s been a 90% increase in self-harm in teenage girls and one in four wants to have cosmetic surgery.
Our girls are experiencing an epidemic of body hatred. Coerced, unwanted sex is a common experience of so many girls I talk to as I travel around schools. So many consider themselves as mere sexual service stations for men and boys and boys are learning early they have a sense of entitlement to the bodies of women and girls.
Are we getting a grip on the situation? Yes and no. At least there is a debate now. The word ‘sexualisation’ is now in the public domain, the media covers the issue most weeks, we have a global movement against it, more and more young women are rising up in resistance against being reduced to the sum of their sexual parts and reclaiming their bodies from the marketers and profiteers and the sex industry. The harms of pornography are being acknowledged as a public health hazard and an unprecedented assault on the healthy sexual development of our young people.
However, despite the global backlash, there is still a lack of will at the political level to seriously address these issues and call corporates and industries to account.
Our State and Federal Governments and our regulatory bodies have failed us spectacularly.
We have a system called ‘self-regulation’ which means the advertising industry can do whatever it wants and get away with it. The Government refuses to seriously address the porn issue despite most kids seeing porn by age 11, despite stats telling us that children and young people are acting out what they are seeing in porn and that there has been a quadrupling of sexual assaults committed by school aged young people against other young people in only four years. We have had a number of inquiries now into the regulatory system, all the evidence shows the system is broken, yet nothing changes. Our parliament conducted the first inquiry into the sexualisation of children back in 2008. The recommendations (which were already pretty weak) were basically ignored and nothing has been done since. We are being left behind by other countries which are actually doing something to stem the tide.
Lisa: Tell us a bit about Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation. How did this come about, and for those who aren’t familiar with Collective Shout can you chat a bit about the heart and motivation of Collective Shout?
Melinda: Collective Shout was set up six years ago to name and shame advertisers, corporations and marketers who objectify women and sexualise girls to sell products and services. Getting Real had come out and people were saying, OK, we now know what the research says about the negative physical and emotional impact of objectifying and sexualising girls, but what can we do about it? One of the book’s contributors, Tania Andrusiak, wrote to me after its release, describing it as a ‘collective shout against the pornification of culture’. I liked that description so much I thought – I need to start a new movement just to have an excuse to use the name!
Shortly after, a number of other women contacted me with the same idea. It so happened we were all going to be in Canberra at the same time. So we got together and started the movement to equip and empower people to take grassroots action for social change and cultural transformation.
We target corporations who use women’s bodies to make money, as well as addressing the broader pornification of society and issues which flow from this such as prostitution, trafficking and pornography. We are part of global coalitions also working on these issues. We have been amazed at our successes – it is wonderful to see what can be achieved when people stand up and say that’s enough! Just today I heard from well know US author and campaigner Jennifer Shewmaker who wrote:
“Sometimes when I get discouraged about how our advocacy activities are going here in the US, I find hope in the work that you all are doing in Australia!”
Lisa: “A world free of sexploitation” is the catch cry of Collective Shout. This is a really big vision and one that I applaud. What do you see as the main barriers, road blocks to this happening?
Patriarchy! Male Entitlement!
Melinda: You’re right Lisa, it is a big vision.
The main barriers are money, corporate greed, vested interests, the global ideologies which put profits before people (especially women and girls) and of course, the international sex industry – worth $100b US a year.
Money buys power – Governments are too often beholden to those with money. That’s looking at the macro level. At the micro level, there is the barrier of people not wanting to get involved, not wanting to cause a stink, not wanting to be unpopular. There are many way to engage in the cause and to support us. We are a volunteer movement – we are only as strong as our support base.
Lisa: Do you think that gender inequality is linked to the sexualisation of women?
Melinda: Of course! It is central to it.
If women were truly equal, and treated with equality and respect, such treatment would be unthinkable.
They wouldn’t be objectified, sexualised, and treated as fodder for the twin industries of prostitution and pornography. The second class status of women makes all this possible.
Lisa: I love this quote:
How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. ~Anne Frank
For those reading and hearing about this, possibly for the first time, what can we do to make a difference?
Melinda: My advice is to act personally and politically. Don’t buy the stuff, opt out of the cultural dictates, don’t fuel demand for sexualised toys, games and clothing, don’t allow violent music/videos in the home, make complaints in retail outlets, petrol stations, video stores etc, don’t engage in ‘fat talk’ (the research tells us girls take their cues from their mothers), don’t allow boys to treat the girls in your family badly, for example.
But it takes a village to raise a child. So we need to act politically as well, calling on our Governments and regulatory bodies to take action. MPs won’t act unless they believe there is a constituency for change. We need to demonstrate there is a groundswell for change. Becoming part of the work of Collective Shout can help achieve this: there is power in combined voices. So many women write to me and say Collective Shout has helped them be brave. Because they realise they are not on their own, there is a whole movement backing them to take action (and men too of course).
Lisa: Thanks for chatting with us today my dear friend. For those who would like to get more involved in what you are doing, how do they connect with you or support you?
Melinda: Please sign up at http://www.collectiveshout.org. It’s free! If you’d like to volunteer and or become a donor, let us know. We need all the help we can get!
Please also visit my website: www.melindatankardreist.com
“This powerful and humane book is a breakthrough…Big Porn Inc shows us we are poisoning our own spirits.” – Steve Biddulph
“A landmark publication” – Clive Hamilton
The unprecedented mainstreaming of the global pornography industry is transforming the sexual politics of intimate and public life, popularising new forms of hardcore misogyny, and strongly contributing to the sexualisation of children. Yet challenges to the pornography industry continue to be dismissed as uncool, anti-sex and moral panics.
“Getting Real contains a treasure trove of information and should be mandatory reading for all workers with young people in health, education and welfare” – Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, Adolescent Psychologist
Getting Real puts the spotlight on a critical issue of international concern: the sexualisation and objectification of girls and women in the media, popular culture and society more broadly.
Girls and young women are growing up in an increasingly sexualised environment. Girls are portrayed as sexual at younger ages, pressured to conform to a ‘thin, hot, sexy’ norm.
Clothing, music, magazines, toys and games send girls the message that they are merely the sum of their body parts. The effects of prematurely sexualising girls are borne out in their bodies and minds, with a rise in self-destructive behaviours such as eating disorders and self-harm, along with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
Getting Real brings together for the first time, some of the most vocal critics of the widespread pornification of culture. Academics, psychologists, authors and activists, they call corporations, the media and the sex industry to account for creating this toxic environment.
Sometimes when we are younger, we go through some wonderful times, but also some tough times too. Whether that be problems with friends, worrying about how you look or just feeling a bit down in the dumps – this book is written especially for you – to help you in your journey! Author: Sharon Witt
In this book you’ll discover:
•Tips for making new friends
•How you can build strong and healthy friendships
•How to help your friends when they are struggling
•Helpful ways you can deal with bullying
•How to work through conflict with friends
•Key communication tips that work
•Fun activities and ideas to do with your friends
This book is targeted to those aged 7-12 years.
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