Interview With Director of Women's Forum
PERTH, Australia, 21 MARCH 2007 (ZENIT)
A recent report from the
American Psychological Association on the harmful effects of the
sexualization of girls shows that society needs a new strategy for young
women, according to a leading women's advocate in Australia.
Melinda Tankard Reist, t he founding director of Women's Forum
Australia, commented on the report to ZENIT, noting that instead of
turning girls into sexual objects, society should teach them to "be
resilient and to defend their dignity and self-respect."
Tankard Reist is also the author of "Giving Sorrow Words: Women's
Stories of Grief After Abortion," and "Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist
Q: A recent report published by the American Psychological Association
pointed out the damage caused by the sexualizing of preteen and
adolescent girls. How serious is this problem today in your opinion?
Tankard Reist: The problem of the premature sexualizing of girls is one
of the most serious issues confronting us as a society at the present
time. Girls are being turned into sexual objects earlier and earlier.
The messages they receive through popular culture is that to be
attractive, to be accepted, you have to dress and behave in a sexual
manner. There are now lingerie clothing lines for preteen girls, and
bras for girls under 10, T-shirts with sexual slogans, and even a pole
dancing kit complete with a DVD that features "sexy dance tracks" for
Popular lines of dolls for girls feature sexy clothing and sexy
personas. Gossip magazines aimed at a preteen readership also encourage
girls to behave in a sexual manner, with pages devoted to grooming and
even with older men.
In advertising catalogues, children are dressed up, made-up and posed in
the same way that adults are. This suggests that children are interested
in, and perhaps open to, approaches for sex.
Young girls are not emotionally equipped to process the sexual messages
being targeted at them. It is difficult for them, when abandoned to
their autonomy, to resist outside pressure. We are seeing the effects of
this premature sexualizing on the bodies of our young women in
self-destructive behaviors such as excessive dieting and eating
disorders, drug taking and binge drinking, self harm, anxiety,
depression, lower academic performance and ill health.
Prescriptions for drugs to treat depression in young girls increase
every year. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are at
and manifesting in children as young as 8. I am pleased the APA has
taken the issue seriously
though I hope it's not too late.
Q: Decades ago one of the aims of feminism was to end the exploitation
of women, yet contemporary culture has reduced women more than ever to
her sex appeal. Has feminism failed women in this area?
Tankard Reist: I must admit I found it very hard to celebrate
International Women's Day this year. I have three daughters and I see
how vulnerable they are to messages about sexuality and body image and
how hard it is for them to resist this. It is difficult to raise them in
a culture so destructive of their self-esteem and which so abbreviates
Many gains have been made by the women's movement, that needs to be
acknowledged. But at some stage, efforts to end the exploitation of
women were overtaken by the movement for sexual liberalism.
Suddenly, women's freedom was reduced to women's freedom to be sexual
playthings for male arousal and pleasure. "Liberation" has come to mean
a woman's ability to pole dance, expose herself, have multiple partners
and avail herself of cosmetic surgery to enhance her "assets."
Sexual liberalism has not advanced women's freedom, but eroded and
undermined it. We are living in a sexually brutalized culture. We are
seeing more harassment, stalking and rape, more alcohol-fueled sexual
abuse and use of date rape drugs. In general, more predatory behaviour.
While radical feminism has questioned the rhetoric of "choice" and
exposed the costs to women of the so-called sexual revolution, liberal
mainstream "choice" feminism needs to take some responsibility for a
confused and destructive notion of freedom that underlines much of the
assaults we see today on women's genuine dignity.
Ariel Levy's book "Female Chauvinist Pigs" describes how a culture of
sexual display and raunchy behaviors
i.e. strippers, porn stars, pole dancers, etc.
is actually a monoculture which does nothing to empower women. It
becomes clear that it is not freedom of expression, but a strong
cultural expectation for women to appear and behave a particular way.
Q: The unhindered portrayal of sexual images and messages in the media
is often defended in the name of freedom of speech. It is also argued
that a lack of sexual restraint is "liberating" for women. What is your
opinion on these points?
Tankard Reist: The barrage of sexual images in popular culture cannot be
justified on "free speech" grounds when it is causing so much damage to
vulnerable children who need protection.
Online networks of pedophiles also use "free speech" arguments when
trading in images of children being raped. In Australia, a prominent
social researcher, Hugh Mackay, said recently that there was too much
censorship and that no one was harmed by the mere downloading of child
He completely ignored the fact that every download fuels a demand for
and often more degrading images. This attitude also ignores the harm
done to the child whose image is used again and again for sexual
gratification around the world.
The APA study and other research, for example by the Australia Institute
and by my organization, Women's Forum Australia, provides solid evidence
for the harm being caused by plastering society's wallpaper with sexual
What we are witnessing is not liberation but oppression. It is not
liberating for young women to be told everyday that their only power is
in their sexual currency. It is not liberating to convey to women that
their freedom lies in participating in their own exploitation. To
portray the sexual as the only value of a woman is not liberation, but
Q: What are some of the effects have you seen on adolescents and women
regarding the consequences of a culture that increasingly puts no limits
on sexual expression and behavior?
Tankard Reist: Young women are facing huge pressure to conform to a
The "norm" is that young women have an insatiable appetite for sex. This
is a cultural assumption that women should be having sex
at least daily
and something is wrong if they're not. There is profound pressure from
the media for young women to be sexually attractive and active. Without
this they are thought of as abnormal and unfulfilled.
Young women are compromised by a sexual free-for-all in which they come
to expect only cold soulless encounters
where they are always expected to give out sexual favors with little in
The newly released "Sex lives of Australian Teenagers" demonstrates
this. It makes bleak reading, revealing how little real love there is in
I was going to say "intimate," but there's little real intimacy either
exchanges between young people.
Q: What can be done to promote a healthier view of women in the sense of
a greater respect for their dignity and their role in society?
Tankard Reist: We need a new strategy for women and girl advocacy.
We need to empower young women especially to be resilient and to defend
their dignity and self-respect.
The decision not to submit to hypersexualized messages and to live above
the dictates of the culture, needs to be seen for what it is
a radical and defiant alternative lifestyle.
Young women deserve better than to be treated as merely the sum of their
sexual parts. They need to be given encouragement to develop their
minds, their intellects, their deeper inner lives, rather than wasting
hours in trying to get their bodies to conform to an idealized
We need more social protection of girls, and even more so because of the
excesses of popular culture and the sexual danger this puts them in. As
Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of "The Body Project," points out:
"Although girls now mature sexually earlier than ever before,
society provides fewer social protections for them, a
situation that leaves them unsupported in their development and
extremely vulnerable to the excesses of popular culture and to pressure
from peer groups."
We also need to be investing a lot more in raising decent men. There are
many men who share the concerns I have raised here. But there are other
and it is primarily men
who create the demand for the sort of material that strips women of
dignity and respect. It is mostly men who commit sexual crimes, who
traffic millions of women and girls a year into the twin industries of
pornography and prostitution. It is mostly men who buy pornography and
I don't have any easy answers here
but I'd like to know why we aren't doing more to bring out the best
not the worst
in boys and young men? Boys are also demeaned and brutalized by a
culture that conditions them to this type of behaviour.
In a Melbourne suburb, a group of 12 boys sexually humiliated an
intellectually disabled girl then sold the DVD of the abuse to students
at high schools in the area for 5 Australian dollars each. The DVD was
also shown online for some time before it was removed. But many people
defended their behavior, saying it was just a bunch of boys "having a
bit of fun." As long as this attitude prevails, then there is little
hope for our girls.
We need a new global movement prepared to stand up against corporations,
advertisers, the sex industry, the makers of violent video games and
demeaning music clip and Internet sites. We need the same momentum as
we've seen drive recent movements against global warming and world
poverty propel a new movement for fighting our toxic cultural