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When ‘the sexualisation of girls’ becomes a dangerous term…

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So I’m sitting happily in a Melbourne cafe eating brunch and having a leisurely read of the newspapers. All of them. Kid-free. A total indulgence. As I ate my poached eggs with sides of spinach, smoked salmon and avocado, I noticed a promo on the front page of one section for an opinion piece by Angela Shanahan.

I don’t usually read Angela Shanahan’s editorials because I find them rather shouty and predictably right wing. Extremely conservative, often at the expense of common sense.

But the headline was “Raunch Culture Drowns Us All In A Sea Of Sleaze” and it was illustrated by some magazine covers. The two I could make out were Cosmo and, perplexingly, the Australian Women’s Weekly.

How could I resist that? So I turned to the page and began to read. It was confusing stuff. I really had no idea what Angela was trying to say, starting off as she did with some long-winded analogy about a Ben Elton novel I wasn’t familiar with.

I persevered out of sheer determination to discover how The Women’s Weekly was related to ‘raunch culture’ (I’m still none the wiser on that one) and was rewarded (or punished) by stumbling over my name. And not in a good way.

Apparently, I am somehow responsible for encouraging raunch culture and promoting the sexualisation of girls. Me and the Women’s Weekly.

Ms Shanahan writes….

….When you listen to some of the sneers and jeers that emanate from the present priestly, and priestessly, class every time the subject of sex is mentioned by someone with an ordinarily conservative view of life –and that includes sexual modesty and a reverence for procreative sex within marriage — you would think overt sterile sexuality is now compulsory, a bit like sport used to be when I was at school.

We really are living in looking-glass land. The people advocating continence, faithfulness and virtue are jeered, while the promoters of sexual promiscuity, fecklessness and vice pass po-faced feminist judgment.

Using the moral yardstick of the women’s magazine, today’s little Alice reads Dolly and gets tips on fellatio, while her mum is addicted to Twilight and is trying to look 16. It is amazing any girl comes out with her sanity, let alone her virginity, intact.

How did this happen? One explanation is the huge power of media aimed at women.

If you value sex, marriage and sexual modesty, the last magazine you probably read was Australian Knitting Patterns, 1970, or thereabouts. These days even The Australian Women’s Weekly, once bastion of common sense and taste, has been forced down-market.

If you read the magazines for women that are supposed to set trends you will certainly have a different view of Australian sexual norms.

Rather than men such as Tony Abbott being moralisers or the arbiters of moral norms in Australia, it is actually the powerful female editors of women’s magazines, especially Cosmopolitan and its junior version Dolly, which are the moral arbiters today.

When Abbott made his comments in Women’s Weekly about his daughters and sexuality, who did the news media turn to? The likes of blogger and tweeter Mia Freedman are routinely asked for their opinion on sexual matters and we have also come to expect comments from female academics such as Catharine Lumby, author of The Porn Report.

Their comments are usually steeped in the pernicious gobbledygook of sexual politics, while at the same time advocating a degree of sexual licence that is very damaging for all young people.

No wonder there has been a series of popular online protests against the overt sexualisation of girls such as Kids Free to be Kids, Young Media Australia and Australian Women’s Forum. The people doing the protesting are mostly ordinary mums.

They are fed up with more than the imagery of the media. They are frightened by the huge potential to harm their children. This used to be called corruption. Publicly protesting this stuff is a direct slap in the face to modern raunch culture.

However, at the same time, the women’s media sneers at the “new moralists”, who are preventing expression of sexuality by “young women” (as they insist on calling prepubescents to 30-somethings). But, with appropriate gravitas, the editors tell us they are very worried about the body image problems of girls .

There is even a government group set up to deal with this, the final imprimatur for any useless agenda.  Solution? A few size 10 models instead of size 6s.

This phony angst about body image in a sea of sleaze almost prompts me to take seriously a naked Hawko, hoping to be a “role model” with her less than perfect left elbow.

Perhaps Dolly wants to encourage Australian girls to lose their body image inhibitions, so that they can lose their virginity if they wish when they morph from girls to young women, most of whom are morphing rapidly, to size 20.

Sexuality is the domain claimed by feminists. But sexual politics is really about the women who have influence, such as Freedman, who claims with a straight face after working on sexually exploitative women’s magazines in Australia that “diversity, empowerment and reality” were her editorial mantras during her time as editor-in-chief of Cosmo in Australia. She should have thrown in world peace. We might have believed her.

Alrighty, Angela, where to start?

You seem to be pissed about rather a lot of things and they seem to be rather muddled up. I won’t bore everyone by refuting your wild claims one at a time because that would take far too long.

Instead, I’ll summarise.

I have no idea why you seem to think women’s magazines or indeed women like Catherine Lumby and myself are the enemy. Plainly we are not and if you had taken the time to inform yourself of our work and our views you would know this.

Yes, the media often come to us for comment about women’s issues surrounding pop culture and media. Perhaps this is because we have decades of experience in these areas as well as being parents ourselves. We’re also able to see the nuances and shades of complexity in certain issues in a way that you cannot due to your extreme and broad brushstrokes approach.

And here is where there IS an important distinction to be made about the sexualisation of girls.

Even when there are certain basic issues we agree on, I am always very reluctant to march along side right wing social conservatives such as yourself who campaign under the seemingly agreeable banner: “Anti-Sexualisation Of Girls”.

On the surface, it seems impossible to argue against. If you’re not Anti-Sexualisation-Of-Girls then by default you must be pro-it, right? Wrong.

That term is a very broad and subjective one. It’s also highly emotive. In its name, Angela, you veer wildly in your editorial from Dolly to the Autralian Women’s Weekly, from oral sex to body image, mocking the latter while making false accusations about the former.

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And while I am – like so many parents and non-parents – alarmed about certain aspects of our culture that I think sends terrible messages (music videos, Bratz dolls, skanky kids clothes, the proliferation of plastic surgery etc), I think it’s naive, unrealistic and irresponsible to cast the panic net too wide over all aspects of popular culture aimed at girls and young women.

In fact, I even think having a discussion about girls and young women at the same time is misleading, unhelpful and inflammatory. Despite your strange and unfounded accusation, I know nobody who refers to pre-pubescent girls as “young women”. They’re not. They’re kids. That’s clear all of us.

And when ‘The Sexualisation of Girls’ becomes a stick with which you beat down attempts to responsibly educate girls and young women about their bodies and about sex and contraception? That’s frighening.

But the main thrust of your editorial was women’s magazines and so let’s stick with that.

I am not often in the position of defending women’s magazines anymore. In fact for the past few years I have been an outspoken critic of them. I have written and spoken frequently about my frustration, disappointment and even anger at the way they continue to handle many issues, particularly that of body image.

However, the magazines about which you specifically speak – Dolly and Cosmo – are ones I am very familiar with and there is one area where I will defend them. Sex.

The first mistake is to lump them together at all. Their approach to the subject of sex is totally different and always has been.

Dolly is aimed at girls under 16 and Cosmo is aimed at girls over 18 women. The only thing they have in common is that the readers of Cosmo were, in many cases, once Dolly readers. AT A DIFFERENT LIFE STAGE.

Now, I don’t even know if those magazines are relevant to girls and young women anymore. I don’t really believe they set trends or are ‘moral arbiters’ as you claim. That time is over along with soaring circulation. The internet and social networking has seen to that. Women’s magazines are struggling to stay relevant.

But I will fight hard to defend the role magazines like Dolly play in the lives of teenage Australian girls in educating them about sex. And to lump that in with ‘the sexualisation of children’ is misleading at best, irresponsible at worst.

Research shows that adolescents most commonly turn to magazines, friends and the Internet for information about sex, ahead of parents, teachers or health professionals. The new entry here is the Internet and it never fails to astonish me when otherwise intelligent adults don’t factor this into their calls for the restriction of information to teenagers.

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“Age-appropriate” is a subjective term because kids develop at vastly different rates. And it shouldn’t be up to adults to decide when a teenager requires information about sex or drugs.

It’s really simple: the age at which a girl seeks this information is the age at which it’s relevant. To them.

Remember this: seeking information about something does not mean they are about to do it. At that age, knowledge is valuable currency, particularly for girls.

Ignore the fact that times have changed at your peril and the peril of your children because a teenager’s curiosity is not easily suppressed. The amount of uncensored content available to your child in less than 30 seconds and with two clicks of a mouse is horrifying. But in a vacuum, that’s where they will go.

Now let’s quickly dispel some myths.

The letters to Dolly Doctor are not made up (I can only assume the same is true for Girlfriend). For 30 years, hundreds of letters have poured in each week from distressed and anxious teenagers and those published reflect the most common concerns.

The answers are not written by a bunch of Gen Y sex peddlers sitting around swigging alcopops, but by Australia’s leading experts in adolescent health  Dr Michael Carr-Gregg in Girlfriend and Dr Melissa Kang in Dolly. Both highly respected doctors are parents of teenagers and have been writing for these magazines for well over a decade.

In a written submission to a Senate Enquiry into this matter, Dr Melissa Kang stated “Sexual content in the Dolly Doctor section combines evidence-based, factual information with broader discussion about healthy sexual development, self-awareness, respect, relationships, communication and practical guidance about where and how to get help and support, including talking to parents as appropriate.”

And far from offering ‘fellatio tips’ as you and others have claimed, “the magazine takes a conservative approach to condoning sexual activity in adolescents, in that readers are cautioned about engaging in sexual activity without being ready, emotionally or physically.”

As a parent, I know I’d prefer to sit down and read a pamphlet or a magazine my child has brought home so I can understand the issues and choices they’re facing, rather than live in blind ignorance and rely on Dr Google to satisfy their natural curiosity when I’m oblivious in the other room.

Finally, and before I run out of steam, for you to connect the sincere bid to improve the body image of girls and young women with a twisted desire for girls to start having sex earlier? To link body image with sexual exploitation?

That accusation is both repugnant and offensive.

And yeah, world peace would be great, thanks.

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