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Turning Girls to Sexual Objects?

3/22/2007 - 6:00 AM PST

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Interview With Director of Women's Forum

PERTH, Australia, MARCH 22, 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, the founding director of Women's Forum Australia, commented on the report to us, 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 Medical Eugenics."

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 6-year-olds.

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 relationships -- 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 epidemic proportions -- 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 their childhood.

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 ...

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