Tag Archives: children

If you see a child as “sexualised” there’s something wrong with your vision

4 Mar

On morals campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist’s website you’ll find this breakdown of a survey conducted by Girlfriend magazine on the sexual habits of their young readers. The magazine’s demographic is girls aged between twelve and seventeen.

The survey found that 75% of Girlfriend readers are not sexually active. The reasons given:

  • Waiting to be in love (56%)
  • Not wanting to have sex (37%)
  • Feeling too young (31%)
  • No particular reason (26%)
  • Waiting to be married (17%)
  • Waiting to be the legal age of consent (14%)
  • Waiting for their boyfriend/girlfriend to be ready (8%)
  • Not being interest in ever having sex (1%)

These reasons don’t appear to differ from reasons given by young women over the last few decades. It’s also possible, though unverifiable I imagine, that over the last few decades 25% of young women have engaged in some kind of sexual activity for a variety of reasons, just as they do today.

The Girlfriend survey appears to contest anecdotes such as those in the article “Stealing the innocence of children” published yesterday in the Fairfax Press. Using language such as onslaught, obsession, bombardment, and phrases such as “placing the child in a sexualised space,” “increasingly sexual and sexualised culture,” “hyenas circling” our young, and “people conditioned to see themselves as ‘product,’” the article paints an alarming picture of an apocalyptically sexualised society, controlled by a terrifyingly nebulous “them.”  The closest I can come to identifying “them” are as the manufacturers, producers, distributors  and marketers of a perceived “sexualised” and “pornified” popular culture.

They are further identified in the article as  “the seamier side of humanity” which has persuaded K-Mart, Target and other retailers to provide children’s clothing modelled on the imagined uniform of sex workers.

Children’s primary carers are obliged to buy  this inappropriate clothing and give it to kids to wear, causing them to look “hot” and “sexy.”

It takes a particular kind of perverted vision to see a child as “sexy” or “hot,” no matter what the child is wearing. I do not see children dressed in “sexy” clothing as “hot.”A child dressed like an adult looks to me like a child dressed like an adult. If the child is perceived as “sexualised” or “pornified” it must be the gaze of the adult viewer defining her as such, not the clothing and certainly not the child. It is impossible to “sexualise” and “pornify” a child by dressing her or him in any kind of clothing. Only a sexualising and pornifying gaze can impose that interpretation.

Further, I’d suggest that those currently most responsible for “sexualising” and “pornifying” children’s appearance are the very campaigners who complain most loudly about it. These people are demanding that we all adopt the pedophile gaze, and interpret a child’s appearance as “hot” and “sexy” rather than seeing it for what it is: children imitating adults. There is no innocence lost in the imitation. The innocence is destroyed by the adult’s sexualising gaze.

To others less inclined to make moral judgements based on bits of cloth, children are neither sexualised nor pornified. They are children in bits of cloth, funny, silly, imitating their elders, remarkable or unremarkable, but they are children. If you think they are sexually objectified, the problem is with you.

Is there any space more sexualised than that of an institution such as church or family, in which the child is raped? Is there anymore devastatingly sexualised, objectified and “pornified” child than the child raped in the home, church or other institution outwardly dedicated to her or his welfare? When a child’s body is used to gratify adult desire, that child’s innocence has indeed been destroyed. That child has indeed been sexualised and pornified. And the number of children whose innocence has been thus stolen is incalculable.

Yet is any of this mentioned, even in passing, in an article titled “Stealing the innocence of children?” No. It is not. It is far easier to blame a nebulous “them” for the  crime of clothing and music videos.

This is bandaid stuff. What actually demands our attention is the numbers of adults only too willing to see, to describe, and to use children as sexual objects, even those who perceive themselves as being on the side of the good. Campaigners such as Tankard Reist, Steve Biddulph, Emma Rush and Steve Hambleton unwittingly reproduce the pedophile gaze with their own determinedly sexualised readings of popular culture.  The pedophile claims in his defence that  “she looked like she wanted it,” even if she was only three. The campaigners are in great danger of saying something very similar, albeit for very different reasons.

If you want to protect the innocence of children, don’t impose your sexualising vision on them. If you want to let kids be kids just do it, by recognising that they cannot be sexualised by the clothing they wear, but only by your interpretation of what that clothing signifies.

The campaigners are railing against a particular sexual aesthetic, one that given their reference to sex workers and aspects of popular culture may well be class-based. It’s not so long ago that girls who dressed in a certain way were described as “cheap.” That meant sexually easy, and the girls thus described were not middle class. Today “cheap” garments and attitudes are increasingly infiltrating the middle class, blurring class distinctions and causing what can only be described as a moral panic as those who are well used to controlling an orthodox conservative sexual discourse find themselves challenged as never before.

In another article titled “Save your daughter from the wild-child syndrome,” Steve Biddulph states ” If a girl is going to go wrong, it will be at 14.”  If a girl is going to go wrong? This binary of good and bad girls, right and wrong girls, is at the heart of the sexualisation and pornification panic. “Good and right” girls are increasingly indistinguishable from “bad and wrong girls” in their clothing choices. Hell, these days everyone’s looking like hookers and pole dancers! Clothes, once a primary signifier of middle class status and morality, now make  “good” girls look like they’re “bad.”

The conservative middle class, whether secular or religious, prescribes a morality that condemns the perceived sexually “easy” girl or woman. There remains, even among the non religious, a code of sexual manners that frowns upon any perceived flaunting of female sexuality.

The morals campaigners are of course never going to question their dogma about how girls and women should express our sexuality. In feminism’s second wave, we learned the folly of unquestioningly accepting the authority of the orthodoxy, and the unnecessary suffering involved in attempting to adjust ourselves to its man-made rules. We need a similar revolution in which we vigorously contest the domination of conservative sexual morality on our culture. Indeed, perhaps such a revolution is already underway, and the current moral panic is the outraged and fearful reaction.

Confusion: just because a girl wears a short skirt doesn’t mean she’s asking for it. On the other hand, the short skirt sexualises, pornifies and objectifies you so if you wear it, you look like a girl going wrong, and asking for it.

The bizarre marriage of radical feminism and right wing religious activism, occasioned to contest that other bogeyman, pornography, is an example of how the desire to censor and control is not confined to the religious. Russell Blackford considers this in his piece on Iceland’s recent initiative to ban certain types of pornography. “You can’t assume that secularism in a country’s population will solve all problems of moralism, anti-sex attitudes, and a general wish by governments and electorates to interfere with people’s lives” Blackford observes. While we know Melinda Tankard Reist comes from a Christian fundamentalist background, and Steve Hambleton is a devout Catholic, their conservative sexual politics are shared and promoted by the non religious as well.

When religious beliefs can’t be invoked to substantiate moralities, psychology, psychiatry and regurgitation of received knowledge is often as, if not more, effective. All of these traditionally accept an initial cultural premise: that there are particular ways of behaving and expressing sexuality that are unquestionably right, and veering from them is wrong. The stranglehold this perspective has on society is currently under great pressure, nowhere as evidenced in the rebellion of the young,who’s collective determination to clothe themselves like porn stars, as the horrified adults would have it, is breaking all the rules of sexual propriety and class.

The extreme manifestation of this propriety is manifested in remarks such as those made by Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, who famously declared that the virginity of his three daughters was the greatest gift they could offer anyone and he hopes they’ll wait till they marry to bestow it.

I recall a sex talk given to us fourteen year olds by the Mother Superior, in which she advised us that we should not be like cream buns in the bakery window. Who, she asked rhetorically, wants to buy a cream bun from which someone else has already taken a lick? It’s only in retrospect I can see the bawdiness of that analogy, and I’m sure Mother Dorothea had no inkling. However, her advice does indicate there were enough girls being cream buns, even several decades ago, for us good girls to be warned of the perils that entailed.

There are, of course, real causes for concern. Five year old girls ought not to be so obsessed about their weight and appearance that their mental and physical health is threatened. I suggest that’s a separate issue from the “sexualisation and pornification”   claims, but it is a habit of these campaigners to conflate all the issues (as is exemplified in the Fairfax article)  into an “ain’t it awful” catastrophic expectation, won’t somebody think of our children who will save our girls meme.

I can’t watch shows like “Biggest Loser” because of their cruelty,and their commitment to fat-shaming, treacherously disguised as concern. No wonder little girls are scared to death of gaining any weight. They’ve got the message: everyone will hate and shame them if they aren’t reed thin. Many of them have close adult females who angst over their weight, teaching little girls that their lives will be good or bad depending on how much they weigh. I suggest this is far more insidious than any piece of sparkly skimpy cloth K-Mart has on its shelves.

Likewise, the idea of someone dressing a baby in a shirt bearing the slogan “All Daddy wanted was a blow job” is my idea of over-sharing. I’ve never seen such a shirt, though I don’t doubt they exist.

Children have always been born into a “sexualised space.” Planet Earth is a sexualised space, sex is a powerful human drive that everyone encounters, one way or another. Children are sexual beings, and understand from an early age that there is something profoundly mysterious in the adult world that is forbidden to them. Naturally, they want entry into that world, and one of the ways they achieve a semblance of belonging is by imitating adult appearance and behaviour. What kind of a mind construes this imitation as reality, and demands that the rest of us do the same?

What we need to do is really see the children, and not take flight into a moral panic that they cannot understand. There is a child at play inside the “hot” “sexy” clothes. That child shouldn’t have to choose between being a good girl or a bad girl, between going wrong or going right. Adults are responsible for the paucity of role models on offer for children to emulate. If we really care about the children, this is what we’ll address. But that’s going to be a lot harder than blaming K-mart.

innocence

For all the babies

7 Jul

Especially this one: 

Because when the chips are down, what you need is a little bit of love. 

Forever Young

 Bob Dylan

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
May you stay forever young.

And for these big kids too:  

Jane and Jennifer go to Woomera with the dog – part two

15 Mar

The Dog

 

(Part One can be found in Pages)

We went to the Woomera Detention Centre ten years ago.

ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing, Sunday March 13th, reveals that little has changed over a decade, despite another government. Societal attitudes have hardened, as exemplified by the horrific 2GB competition Guess how many asylum seekers are being buried today?

The next day, Jane and Jennifer present themselves at the detention centre gates, as instructed at nine o’clock, and are admitted after the anticipated hassle about the right papers and the proper permissions. Two nice if misguided middle class ladies, in the eyes of the guards.

On the strength of their niceness, and their endearing oddness in carting a large dog to Woomera with them, some errors in their paperwork are overlooked. Fletcher is allowed to lie on a mat in the air-conditioned outer office while Jane and Jennifer go through the formal searches, leave their backpacks in lockers, and are escorted through the final portals into the depths of the prison.

Jennifer thinks that somehow this journey wouldn’t have been possible without the dog. This is rationally inexplicable. She looks back at Fletcher. He’s watching them go, on full alert, ears up, head raised, sniffing the air. Then they pass through security and are gone, out of his sight to the other side.

From where they sit in the Visitor’s Centre, silenced by their miserable surroundings, she can see through the open door another compound fenced in with barbed wire. Inside this compound are several dongas in which the detainees live.

The windows of the Visitor’s Centre are barred with steel; plastic chairs and tables are spread haphazardly round; there is no air-conditioning. Ceiling fans barely stir the air. There’s little if any insulation in the tin roof; they sit in an oven.

The women haven’t spoken to each other since the guards left them. Jennifer’s busy trying to assimilate everything: her notebook has been taken off her and she can’t write anything down. She’s also unnerved, not because she fears anything untoward happening to them, but because the ambience here is tense and edgy; the physical outlook is unrelentingly grim.

Jennifer’s known much in her life, but not institutional violence, state approved violence, publicly sanctioned violence against other human beings. She knows enough about the nature of fear to recognise its presence outside the familial setting. Now she’s now struggling to grasp that the darkness she’d imagined was confined to the family, abroad in the wider world is different, yet the same.

Institutions, in her case the school, were places of safety, places of protection from the private practices of adults who were not to be trusted for a minute. Those adults were the ones you knew best, in your own home, not strangers behind a razor wire fence. She was prepared for the conditions here in the abstract: the reality is something else altogether. There are ways in which Jennifer has lived a charmed and sheltered life.

Woomera child's drawing. by Karen Elliot via flickr

There is no grass for the children to play on, or for the babies to practice their walking. She watches three small children scuffing aimlessly about in the red dust at the steps of their donga; a Muslim girl of about twelve in her headscarf, lifted from her shoulders by the hot wind; a boy of about eight in shorts and bare feet. The sand is hot. Doesn’t it burn him?

Between them they help the smallest child, who is still tottering on his uncertain baby legs. A woman in a black burqa sits on the top step of the donga with her head in her hands. Outside the administration block, they noticed when they arrived, there’s a garden of emerald green grass, young trees, and beds of brilliant flowers. The garden isn’t visible from these dongas. Later they’re told it’s tended by some of the inmates.

As she watches, a man emerges from another donga in the compound. He runs down the steps and across the red dust, screaming in a language that is unintelligible to her, but his despair needs no translation. He flings himself repeatedly at the wire that keeps him contained, like an animal in a zoo maddened by its confinement. He shakes the wire back and forth while the children watch in frightened silence. The eldest girl puts her arms round the younger ones. The man’s screams rouse the woman in the burqa: she raises her head and briefly stares at him, then returns to her own private despair.

‘Oh, Christ,’ says one of the guards standing outside the door of the Visitor’s Centre,

Razor Wire 101. by Amy Leonard via flickr

‘what’s wrong with bloody Mustafa now?’

Jennifer is sitting very still. She’s been holding her breath, and now she’s feeling dizzy and sick. Her body is warning her that this is not a sight she should witness, but she’s here now, there’s nothing she can do.

Mustafa isn’t trying to attack anyone other than himself: it’s the sight of an adult man completely out of control of himself, a woman watching from a distance and returning to her self-absorbed despair; three children silently witnessing this scene. Are these scenes here in the detention centre, these scenes and many more like them and worse, are they making intolerable memories for these children? Will these children, in their middle age, sweat when they recall these events?

It’s getting hotter as the day moves on towards noon. The dongas shimmer like mirages. She’s been afraid ever since they crossed the threshold into the prison, ever since they drove down the bitumen road from the caravan park in the Woomera township towards prison surrounded by gibber desert and saltbush. She’s been afraid of the detention officers, and the blue water cannon positioned at the gate and the high, intimidating security lights that promise to illuminate everything without mercy, no crevice left untouched, no places left to hide.

She’s way out of her comfort zone, and anyway, fear is her Achilles heel.

Everybody’s got their personal weakness: greed, grief, free-floating anxiety, lust, anger, despair. Hers is fear. It can bring her undone in a nanosecond. This is a new kind of fear, she’s only dreamed this kind of fear, in nightmares when she’s been pursued by soldiers, unable to find a hiding place in a napalmed landscape. All their journey so far, through the drought and the death stench and the tormented landscapes, past the sun-bleached bones of animals dead from starvation, picked clean by buzzards and eagles, all this has finally brought them to this place.

The journey has been a fitting preparation.

The women saw the interrogatory lights cutting through the dark sky when they made a furtive reconnoitre the night before. Having arrived too late in the day to visit the centre, they set up camp, tied up the dog in the back of the truck and crawled without headlights as close to the prison parameters as they dared.

‘Shit,’ Jane whispered.

‘What?’

‘It’s just like bloody South Africa. I can’t believe it. What country am I in?’

‘God’s own,’ Jennifer told her.

They saw headlights approaching.

‘Get going!’

‘Shut up!’

Jane threw the truck into reverse.

In retrospect they’re hard-pressed to explain their panic. Jane was worried that if they were caught hanging round, their visits the next day would be jeopardised and this was a realistic apprehension. Oppression works swiftly. The guards were completely in control. If the women offended them, they’d find some way of refusing them entry. Driving round the perimeters of the detention centre at night could be construed by the guards as suspicious.

This is how the people inside have to think every day. If I do this I won’t be allowed to do that. About the smallest, most insignificant things.

‘We aren’t doing anything wrong,’ Jennifer whispered. ‘We’re on a public road.’

‘We’re hanging round. We’re looking. That’s wrong enough for these people.’

‘Christ,’ Jennifer said disgustedly, ‘we’re still in Australia.’

‘And this is what Australia is these days,’ Jane said and they fell silent, contemplating the state of their country. God’s own be buggered.

‘Why are we whispering?’ Jennifer asked finally.

‘Dunno. We’re out of our depth aren’t we? Two white ladies from out of state. We’re out of our depth, the landscape, the Detention Centre, Woomera, which I think is a very strange town, by the way. Did you notice those parks full of planes and bombs and rockets? And how green the grass is, where do they get the bloody water from? And those empty, smashed-up apartment blocks with the doors hanging off their hinges and banging in the wind and all their windows broken? Like a post nuclear movie.’

Jane drove them back to the park. A high wind had sprung up, rocking their caravan. It was cold. Large spots of rain fell on them as they moved from the truck to the van. The park was almost empty. No one came here anymore the manager told them, owing to that fucking Detention Centre. Everyone’s afraid there’ll be a break out and they’ll get caught up in it.

‘Used to be a busy, thriving park,’ he said. ‘Now fucking look at it.’

They didn’t tell him the reason for their visit. Just passing through, they said, on their way to somewhere else. They had no wish to get into a fight with him about the detainees. They were closing down, husbanding their resources.

There was only one other van parked for the night. The park was asphalt with squares cut out of it in which frail saplings tried to grub a life for themselves out of the red dirt. They could see the lights of the Detention Centre. They made tea and climbed into their beds. Fletcher settled down on the floor in between them.

Human Rights. by Hugo via flickr

 

Though the guards complain to each other about Mustafa’s on-going expressions of despair, nobody goes to help him, or even to tell him to shut up, or whatever they do with people in there in extremis. Which seems to be very little. Mustafa’s frantic screaming subsides into sobs. He wraps his arms round himself and rocks back and forth in that movement typical of human beings, adults and children, who have given up on any hope of comfort other than what they can provide for themselves. Then he leaps up again and grabs at the wire.

Earlier the guards had spoken to the women about their feelings towards the detainees.

‘They’ve got everything,’ two guards, a man and a woman, told them as they deposited their bags in the lockers and waited to be searched.

‘They’ve got TVs, clothes, videos, everything.’

‘We have not got our freedom!’ shouted an inmate, overhearing the guards’ account of things as he swept and mopped the office floors.

‘That’s relative, mate!’ the male guard shouted back. ‘Freedom’s relative. I’m not free either, you know. I’ve got to show up for work here every day, can’t sit around on my arse watching TV like you. Can’t even afford a bloody TV like they’ve got,’ he told the women. ‘Working my butt off and I can’t afford what they’ve got for nothing. Then they trash it! Bloody trash TVs, DVDs, computers! You wouldn’t believe it.’

He shook his head and swore softly under his breath.

Jennifer reflects on this exchange as they sit in the Visitors’ Centre waiting for the asylum seekers they’ve arranged to meet with. The irony of the situation doesn’t escape her. The guards, poorly paid and in one of the worst work places in the country, measure their success in life by the things they can buy with their wages. This is a widespread marker of success in Western culture, the guards are no different from most other people in their material ambitions.

All the things they see the detainees getting ‘for nothing’ and then ‘trashing’ when there’s a riot, are things they’re busting their guts in this god-awful place to earn the means to obtain. The guard doesn’t feel free, because of this, and he’s in no frame of mind to start measuring his degree of freedom against that of the detainees. He’s not about to argue degrees of freedom and personal choice. He feels powerless, except in his right to exercise power over the detainees.

It’s easy enough to say the guards don’t have to be there. And they don’t, nobody’s forcing them. But as violent as they reputedly are, as racist and resentful as they clearly are, to tell them that they don’t have to do this doesn’t seem to be the answer. They think they do.

The noon temperature is forty-two degrees Celsius. There’s a hot wind roaring

Iraqi refugee child. by Catholic Relief Services via flickr

across the plain. Mustafa has stopped crying and sits quietly in the dust, his head resting against the wire. The children walk towards him. The girl’s scarf whips round her head in the wind. She holds the baby’s hand.

They all stare at the visitors. Jane and Jennifer smile. Nobody smiles back. They aren’t allowed to approach the children or talk to them. Jennifer knows she will remember this scene for the rest of her life, the three solemn children, the damaged, broken man, the woman silent on the step, her head buried in her hands.

It’s as if they’ve reproduced, in the middle of their democratic country, conditions that bear an eerie similarity to those that caused the people to flee their homelands in the first place.

‘If they’ll bother to get up,’ the guard is saying to Jane.

‘What?’ Jennifer asks.

‘It’s Ramadan. Your detainees might be late. They pray all night and sleep all day. Weird, eh?’

The guard is wired for every kind of sound. He’s got technical aids every which way. He looks at Jennifer as if he wants her to form an alliance with him against this ‘weirdness’ he has to endure on a daily basis. She thinks she might have pretended to something of the kind before she actually got into the place. Getting in was tricky, touch and go, they knew they had to play things very straight. But once in, the guards could go to buggery. Like the bloody country.

‘So why are they lazy, lying in bed all day if they’ve been praying all night?’ she asks, hostile. ‘It’s an important thing, Ramadan, like Christians have important things. Isn’t it? Anyway, it’s not as if they’ve anything to get up for, you don’t let them do anything.’

The guard looks truculent.

‘I guess this is a pretty awful job,’ Jane intervenes, deciding on diplomacy.

He softens.

‘Mate, it’s the bloody pits. Nobody knows. Nobody hears our side of the story. We’re just the bastards. You know,’ he went on, settling in for a rare opportunity to whinge to a member of the public, ‘I daren’t tell anyone I work here. You imagine that? Having to lie about where you work?’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Because the place’s got such a bad name nobody else’ll employ me after I’ve been working here.’

He leans back in his chair. They can see the tension bristling through his body. His face is congested, his beer gut large, his uniform too tight.  He’s on the edge, as are many other guards they meet on their way through the system.

‘I don’t even tell me mates what I do. I tell ‘em I work in Woomera for the Government and it’s secret, what I do. Never mention the Detention Centre. No way.’

Jane reflects on the difficulties and stresses such daily deceits must bring to a life.

‘That’s bad,’ she tells him. ‘That’s a hard thing to do.’

‘My oath. Then you get these bastards in here smashing everything up they get given. Bloody mad. Don’t make sense.’

His radio squawks. He listens and then speaks into it rapidly.

‘Well there’s three of the ones you asked to visit on their way.’

‘Three? We arranged to meet with twelve.’

‘Th’other nine aren’t allowed visitors. They’ve being playin’ up, lost their privileges.’

‘What? All nine of them?’ Jane protests.

‘Well, except Parvin, she’s too sick.’

‘She was fine a couple of days ago.’

‘Yeah, well now she’s too sick. So do you want to see these blokes or not?’

‘Yes, yes of course we do.’

He speaks into his radio.

The three young men follow the guards into the Visitors’ Centre. They introduce themselves, awkwardly. The women have corresponded with the young men, so they know something of each other’s lives, but in the face-to-face encounter they are all shy, hesitant.

Nasrim, Ali and Mohammed sit across the table from Jane and Jennifer and they look at one another in silence. The young men all have olive-skin, with bloodshot mahogany eyes under full brows, and black hair cut short as if there is only one style permitted inside the prison. Ali, who looks to be the youngest, has a round face with soft features. His expression is open though baffled, permanently so, Jane thinks. His eyes are huge, like dark, full moons and they glisten. He is plump, the soft plumpness of a young man who hasn’t yet grown into his adult body.

Nasrim has an athletic build, lean and supple. His cheekbones are well-defined, his eyes shift rapidly, checking out the women, his surroundings, his friends, noting where the guards have settled. He drums his fingertips on the table, waiting for someone to speak.

The third man, Mohammed, wears an untidy beard, beginning to show premature flecks of grey and when he smiles his lips are rosy and his teeth white, framed by the dark hair. He is heavy and muscular. He drops heavily into an orange plastic chair and drops his hands on his thighs.

‘Welcome,’ he says to the women. ‘Welcome to our palace in the desert!’

Nasrim has a packet of biscuits in his hand and Ali and Mohammed carry water, orange cordial and paper cups.

‘There is a good guard, a kind man,’ Nasrim says, ‘he gives us these things for us to give to our visitors. He understands that at home, in our country, it is very wrong to greet the visitor with an empty hand and so he lets us have these things for you.’

Mohammed breaks open the biscuits. Jane and Jennifer take one. It crumbles in Jennifer’s dry mouth and she thinks she’s going to choke. Conversation is difficult.

‘You all speak good English,’ she offers, ‘ did you learn that here?’

‘We have been in detention for ten months in Port Hedland, nineteen months in the Woomera,’ Mohammed tells us. ‘We are Hazara from Afghanistan but the Immigration, they say we are from Pakistan and are not refugees. This is not the truth.’

‘How old are you?’ Jane asks.

‘I am twenty-four, he is twenty-two and he is nineteen,’ Nasrim points to Mohammed and Ali as he speaks. ‘We learn the English here but we learned some in our country. We have left our country because the Taliban they kill Hazara, they have fatwah on Hazara. My father, my mother they are killed in our village, the Taliban destroy our village, I see my family, my sisters they are killed.’

Nasrim’s eyes fill with tears and he looks away, out of the door and into the compound where the three children still stand at the fence, staring. He yells at them in their shared language. The children stay where they are and stare at him.

‘I told them: “Go to your mother!”’ he translates. ‘These little children, they see a crazy man, made crazy here, they watch him cut himself with razor all over, blood splash out on children.’

‘The little ones saw this? They were splashed with his blood?’

‘Yes, yes, they see everything. Children here see everything, very bad thing I think.’

‘Is that their mother, sitting on the steps?’ Jane asks him.

‘Yes, that is their mother. She is sick, very sick, they give her no medicine, she does not look after them because she is sick.’

‘Where is their father?’

‘He is gone. He is given temporary visa, he is gone.’

‘His wife and children left behind here?’ Jane asks, incredulous.

‘Missus,’ says Mohammed, ‘this is happening very often here. Many families. Maybe thirty, fifty, in this place. The father, brothers, on temporary visas, the women children kept in the Woomera.’

‘The women gets sick,’ Nasrim tells them,’ without the husbands, the men the womens get sick and nobody cares for the children. This is bad place,’ he continues and looks at the ground. ‘Very bad place, much bad things happen.’

‘You mean the Immigration gives the men the visas and keeps the rest of the family in detention?’ Jane now remembers now that someone has told her this happens.

‘Yes, that is so.’

‘Why do they think you’re from Pakistan?’

‘One day, we have interviews with officer from DIMIA, she say our language is from Pakistan, she say she is expert at knowing this,’ Nasrim says. He throws his hands up in disgust. ‘She knows nothing of our language!’

The young men wear an assortment of trainers, T-shirts, shorts and track pants. Nasrim is edgy, he fidgets, picks at his fingers, runs his hands through his short hair. Ali in contrast is still: he sits calmly, gazing out the door. Mohammed rests his elbows on the table and puts his head in his hands. These young men are close in age to Jennifer’s sons. She imagines Harry and Samuel living this life. It is an intolerable imagining. She looks out of the door into the compound. A wedge-tailed eagle rises from the roof of a donga and moves upwards in slow circles out of her line of sight.

‘Ali makes the garden,’ says Mohammed.

‘The garden at the administration building?’ Jane asks.

‘Yes, I like it, I like it to do the garden, ‘I keep garden clean, plant things, empty rubbish, I have life here, job, it is not so bad.’ He has a slow, wide smile. He eats another biscuit.

‘Idiot!’ scoffs Nasrim. ‘You should dream of leaving here.’

Ali smiles again. He seems institutionalised, Jane thinks, he doesn’t have the fierce dreams of leaving detention that clearly fuel Nasrim. And what of the events they suffered before fetching up in detention centres, she wonders. What is the aftermath of those traumas?

They all met, it turns out, on the boat from Indonesia sailed by people smugglers, a journey that landed them at Ashmore Reef. None of them has any other family in Australia. All of them have come to the end of their appeals for visas to stay. What will happen to them now? Jane asks. Ali shrugs and doesn’t answer.

‘The Australian Government they give us money to go back to Afghanistan, everybody says so,’ Nasrim tells us. ‘I will go, I think.’

‘But what will happen to you? Will you be safe? Have you any family left there?’

‘I have uncle. Our village is destroyed. The Taliban is not so big anymore. Maybe I work for the Americans. It cannot be worse than this.’

He waves his hand at their surroundings.

‘I would rather die man than animal. If I die let it be for being Hazara in Taliban fatwah, not here in black hole of hell in Australia like pig.’

He stands abruptly, then paces the small room with his hands in his pockets. Ali shakes his head at us.

‘Would you go back, Ali?’ Jane asks.

‘I don’t know, Missus. I am afraid of soldiers. They try to make me killed. I don’t know if I will go back. Maybe I stay here, grow garden.’

Mohammed has his head in his hands and doesn’t speak. Outside Mustafa has begun screaming again. Nasrim flings himself back into his plastic chair and bites at his fingers.

Jennifer thinks to herself that there was a long and venerable democratic tradition that once existed in the world, a tradition that recognised the right of the stranger to seek sanctuary and to ask for help. There was a corresponding duty to oblige and offer assistance. What has happened to this tradition? Or was it just a dream?

‘Why is Mustafa crying like that?’ Jane asks.

Ali and Nasrim shrug.

‘He’s crazy, his wife, his children they died in his country and he is made crazy.’

Nasrim makes the motions of putting a needle through his lips.

‘Very bad,’ he says, ‘the children, some of them too do this.’

The guards are not in the room but they are by the door in the next room, keeping an eye on things, talking among themselves, laughing, their radios squawking intermittently. Jennifer gets up and goes over to them, leaving Jane talking to the three men.

‘We were invited to visit some of the women here,’ she says. ‘Are we going to able to do that?’

‘There’s nobody else on your list,’ the guard tells her, checking his clipboard.

‘I have the letters here that the women sent, asking us to visit them.’

She takes them out of her shirt pocket and shows him. He gives them a cursory glance and looks away. He’s in his thirties, clean-shaven, medium build with a crew cut. He works out: she can see the muscles under his tight blue shirt. He’s a rock. Nothing she says will persuade him to let them see anybody else.

‘Well, I don’t know, they’re not on your list, except Parvin and she’s too sick.’

‘Parvin had Federal Court a couple of weeks ago. Did she get a visa?’

‘Can’t tell you that I’m afraid. Confidential.’

‘So we won’t be able to visit with the women?’

‘Nope, they’re not on your list. Anyway a whole bunch of them have lost privileges for playing up.’

‘The women?’

‘Not just the women but some of them are women.’

‘What did they do?’

‘Can’t tell you. Confidential.’

‘What if we come back tomorrow?’

‘You’ve only got this one list, that won’t change tomorrow.’

‘Who made up our list?’

‘We have officers who do that.’

‘Can I see one of them?’

‘They’re not here at the moment.’

‘Thanks.’

Jennifer returns to her plastic chair. Nasrim pushes the biscuit packet across. Vanilla creams.

‘Thanks, Nasrim. What happened here, why have so many of you lost your privileges?’

‘There was fighting, somebody broke computers, people screaming, women throw chair, very bad.’

‘One month ago a big fire light in our detention centre,’ Mohammed suddenly speaks without lifting his head from his hands. ‘I working in kitchen with Ali. Everybody lose privilege. No visitors.’

‘How long do they lose privileges for?’

‘I do not know. Maybe days, maybe longer.’

Nasrim casts furtive looks at the guards in the next room. Jane looks over at Jennifer. Jennifer feels as if great weights are tied to her ankles and wrists, preventing her from movement, a sense of overwhelming oppression and helplessness. Jane’s eyes are glazed behind her glasses, her features dulled with heat, shock, Jennifer doesn’t know.

‘We do not have mothers,’ Mohammed lifts his head from his hands and says this quietly but with feeling.

‘We do not have mothers, his is killed, mine is lost, Ali, nobody knows of Ali’s mother. You have sons, missus?’ he directs his question to Jennifer.

‘Yes, two sons,’ she tells him.

He takes a drink of orange cordial. Cottee’s Cordial?

My dad picks the fruit
that makes the cordial that I like best.

‘They are free, they work, have girls, go out, they are in city?’

‘Yes, they do all those things. Harry works for the United Nations in a refugee camp in Tanzania. He teaches the children how to play football. Samuel is a chef, in Stockholm.’

‘Ah!’ Ali cries. ‘I too am cook! I cook here sometimes, in kitchens.’

‘Do you like cooking?’ Jane asks him.

‘Oh yes, very much. Good job. Plenty to eat!’ he chuckles.

‘In our country,’ Nasrim, glowering, says,’ when visitor come we make feast, much food, goat, chicken, rice, here we have only these biscuits and this drink!’ He sweeps the pile of plastic cups off the table.

‘Even when little food always we share with visitor! This,’ he gestures at the biscuits and the cordial, ‘this is…’

His English leaves him and he flings his hands in the air. He says something in his own tongue. The others look at him. A guard enters, curious about the noise.

‘Not playing up, are we, Nasrim?’ he asks.

Nasrim replies again in his own language.

‘Time’s over, anyway,’ says the guard.

‘Can we have a bit longer,’ Jane asks,’ we promised to take a list of things the men need with us so we can send them.’

‘They’ve got everything they need. But okay.’

They have to ask the guards for pencils and paper as all their things are in their backpacks in the lockers. Jennifer can’t believe those children are still out there in the broiling sun. The little baby is sitting down now in the red dust with the older children. Mustafa has vanished, as has the children’s mother. She can’t see any other adults. How long the days must seem in here.

‘Jennifer,’ Jane says as they drive back along the bitumen road to the caravan park, ‘how is it that they’re denied visas because the immigration people don’t believe they come from Afghanistan, yet they’re offered money to go back there?’

‘I don’t know, I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why they release the men and keep women and kids in there either.’

Jennifer saw some film footage on the news before they left, of an Afghan man who’d returned to his bombed-out village. He was scraping blindly at the earth where his home used to be with a teaspoon. It was one of the saddest images she’d ever seen. Is that what’s awaiting Nasrim, she wonders.

As they leave the three men, Mohammed thrusts a piece of paper into Jane’s hand.

‘Read this,’ he tells her. ‘My friend he is at Baxter now, he write this, is good, good writing. Maybe you put in paper in book for him but you not use his name, he is afraid of people knowing.’

They look at the poem as they sit in the truck in the Detention Centre car park. They’ve retrieved the dog and their personal belongings, thanked the guards, walked out to the truck on trembling legs, exhausted. Jennifer’s now trying to take photos of the centre through the windscreen without drawing the attention of the guards. She wants a picture of the water cannon at the gates. The guards are in their towers with binoculars, and patrol cars pass by every few minutes. Nevertheless, she manages a few badly-focussed images.

What kind of stupid incompetent terrorists would try to infiltrate the country via people smugglers and end up imprisoned here for years, Jennifer wonders, recalling a politician’s claims about the asylum seekers true purposes.

Down the road a bit, they stop and look back at the steel compound topped with razor wire. It has a beauty that comes from its simple proportions, the satisfying alignments of all its angles, the sun glinting off its shadowless surfaces. It is simultaneously incongruous and perfectly placed in the wilderness that surrounds it; a savage stronghold, impossible to ignore. Its designers have succeeded in eclipsing the drama of the arid landscape: the eye is drawn in awful fascination: one cannot look away.

‘Christ,’ says Jane.

It isn’t until a week later, camped by a flowing Victorian river in a field knee-deep with poplar seeds like balls of ripe cotton and a herd of roaming Jersey cows rubbing up against their caravan, that they both break down. It was awful, they agree, to have to leave the men behind in that place (Surrounded by peoples with no love,as the poet wrote) to have to say goodbye and walk away. And those children.

They know bad things happen in that desert place; they’re in its atmosphere. Later they will discover just how bad when the conditions are gradually revealed to the public by people who’ve worked there and decided to spill the beans.There are raped children behind the razor wire, beaten women and crazed men.

A common suffering. A common humanity. The women are full of admiration for the visitors who live close by, who go there every couple of weeks, month after month, offering support and companionship.

Their journey home is long and much of it passes in silence. What has confounded them both is that these things are happening in their own country. They are ashamed, and very angry.

‘Not in my name,’ growls Jane. ‘Not in my bloody name.’

One Silent Night
The wind is blowing to one side
Here it touches my body
I feel like just in heaven
Suddenly I open my eyes and look around
Oh God I am behind the fences
Still filled with unhappiness
I would like to fly just like a bird
But I know I can not
God created this world for everyone
But some people try to destroy it
And some people try to keep it for their own way
Why do they keep on behaving like that
I need a new world to live
I want different skies every day
Can I live with out fear of war and terror
Could my dreams come true one day
In my childhood I thought
I was the luckiest person in the world
Because my life was secure
Now I think I am the unluckiest person in the world
Surrounded by peoples with no love.
By………
Baxter IDF.

Debating the religious right

9 Mar

First up, don’t, if you can help it.

by Medusa's Lover via flickr

One might as well get in a fight with a three year old about the existence and purpose of the tooth fairy. Rigidly faith based positions founded on moral absolutes are not debatable This is but one of the things inherently wrong with them.

The female face of the Australian religious right

Reluctant as I am to make any of this about Melinda Tankard Reist, she is undoubtedly the public face of the religious right in their attitudes to female sexuality, and the influences of popular culture on boys and men.

I don’t know of anyone else in this country commenting as loudly and as frequently on this topic, and topics related to it from that perspective. Having positioned herself thus, I have little choice but to acknowledge her primary role.

The religious right believe that to succeed, a society must operate within a framework of common assumptions. Dissent is divisive and must be smothered. It therefore makes sense that censorship through protest is a cornerstone of what some describe as a dominionist sexually and socially ultra conservative theocracy.

Tankard’s Reist’s practice is to resort first to censorship. In this she has adopted the tactics of the American religious right, and Tea Party luminaries such as Sarah Palin herself described as a dominionist, though this is contested.

Research confirming close ties between the Tea Party and the religious right is here

The narratives of propaganda

Religious campaigners are not required to provide any evidence that the object of their disapproval is what they say it is. They simply have to use florid rhetorical propaganda to inflame and frighten enough petitioners so that corporations will be equally frightened, and for the sake of peace and unwanted attention, pull the offending material.

If at all possible, they make at times extremely tenuous links to the welfare of children. The threat of being promoted as acting against the interests of children will cause just about anybody to fall to their knees, begging the Christian conservatives for mercy.

Again, they are not required to provide any evidence for their claims, though they do sometimes offer the opinions of a like-minded individual, preferably one with some experience in a relevant field. For example, this quote from sexual assault counsellor Alison Grundy quoted on MTR’s website:

“Now we have thirty years of research to show that the sexualized and violent messages of popular music, media and video games do shape and provoke male aggressive and sexualized violence. I wonder how long it will be before songs like this are seen as inciting crimes under the criminal code?

Any research that directly links any part of popular culture to the increased abuse of women’s and children’s human rights is important. MTR and her fellow travelers argue that popular culture causes an increase in violence and sexual offenses against women. Research supporting this claim, is, one would imagine, foundational to the religious right argument.

However, the reader isn’t told what the research is, who conducted it, when, and where, and how, and we are not provided with any links. This is not unusual, as those forum commenters who’ve attempted to find links to another survey quoted by Reist in her article New song from Delta’s man (Delta’s man? He has no name?) feeds rape myth, have discovered. Despite many requests, the sources have not been supplied.

On her website, Tankard Reist provides share buttons under the French Vogue photo shoot of sexualized five-year-old girls so that visitors can boost their circulation on the Internet. This on-going exploitation of the little girls is justified as raising awareness.

However, sourced research that supports serious claims against popular culture and female sexuality is entirely absent.

The Australian religious right don’t feel the need to interview males about their reactions to popular music and video clips before agitating for censorship on the grounds that they provoke violence of all kinds. Collecting and collating data, reaching informed conclusions as to the effects these things actually have on the demographic, well, why go to all that trouble when God is in the house telling you everything you need to know?

Fox News by Justin via flickr

The US neo cons, Tea Party supporters and the religious right long since perfected the art of moral panic by rhetorical floridity. They are enabled in their endeavours by such luminaries as Rupert Murdoch, and his Fox News media slaves Bill O’Reilly, the recent Mormon convert Glenn Beck, and Megyn Kelly. Fox News is apparently the trusted news source for a majority of Tea Party followers, more than twice as high as in the general population

It’s all relative, isn’t it?

John Malkovich, in the character of hapless CIA operative Osbourne Cox in the Coen Brothers’ movie Burn after Reading (2008) is confronted about his drinking by an aggrieved co-worker.

“You’re a Mormon,” he snarls back, “everbody’s a f*cking alcoholic to you.”

In the same spirit, (acknowledging the blatant use of stereotypes) when your bottom line for the expression of female sexuality is that it should be confined to the marriage bed, everybody’s sexually licentious. If Victoria’s Secret underwear is pornographic to you, everybody’s a pornographer.

Incidentally, it’s likely that only in a wealthy Western liberal democracy could women’s underwear be co-opted as a symbol of the abuse of women’s human rights. Women in many other countries can’t afford it, are earning five cents a day making it, or are distracted by mass rapes, genital mutilation, hunger, and sexual slavery.

Even in this country we have our distractions. A report on the economics of Domestic violence released by researchers at UNSW on March 7 revealed it costs Australia 13 billion dollars a year. Abuse of children, and sexual assault continue at alarming rates but strangely, the most vocal advocate for women and girls in this country has selected underwear and bad songwriters as her symbols of injustice in her tilt against the abuse of women’s human rights.

To be fair, I notice there is a piece on the website about the bustling streets of Mumbai in honour of International Women’s Day.

Disclosure rocks

Here I need to take a personal moment. Another of the shared religious right/Tea Party/ neo con tactics (taken to new heights by Sarah Palin’s Got you in the cross hairs campaign against Democrats who voted for healthcare reform) is to discredit anyone who disagrees with them by launching a personal attack either on their private life and/or their knowledge base. This tactic is also used by feminists of all persuasions, including Christian.

I’ll disclose my credentials in the area of women’s human rights, in the vain hope of forestalling more “feminist” tirades against my ignorant “anti feminist” bent.

By the way, is anti feminist the same as un Australian, only specially for women?

I’ve just completed a chapter for a forthcoming book on human rights titled Intimate Violence as Human Rights Abuse: Re-Framing Intra-Familial Violence against Women and Children.

I’ve published nationally and internationally on this topic, as well as presenting at conferences around the world. I’ve also written extensively on the failure of prominent male human rights commentators to include intimate violence as human rights abuse in their publications and their thinking.

That’s enough trumpet blowing for one day. May it keep me safe from harm.

Truth claims, damned truth claims and statistics

In psychological terms, the interpretations put on the expressions and representations of female sexuality by many on the religious right are nothing more than their own projections, fed by, among other things, their faith-based beliefs about sexuality. These are then extrapolated into truth claims, and concerted efforts are made to impose them on the rest of humanity.

Truth claims such as these need to be taken out of the sphere of personal projections and religious imaginings, and backed up with hard evidence.

OMG by Skye Nicolas via Wikimedia

If Christian conservatives don’t provide evidence they should be ignored. We should learn from the US experience while we still can, that it’s not good enough for our cultural and social landscape to be determined by people who are offering nothing more than their own projections, based on their relations with imaginary friends.

If they are too lazy to get out and find hard evidence for their claims, there’s no reason why anybody should listen to them. Hard evidence is the first step on the road to addressing the problems.

Let’s trash the songwriter’s partner while we’re at it

Through laborious trawling I discovered innumerable Christian websites that instruct the Christian wife on her manifold responsibilities to her husband. Among them I found this one and a warning, turn off your sound unless you want your senses assailed by the most spectacularly awful piano rendition of Rock of Ages known to humankind, rivaled only by the pianist accompanying Elvis’s cover of Unchained Melody circa 1977. The quote is:

The wife is to reprove her husband privately and lovingly when he is in sin and point him back to the Lord.

As well as following that lead from US religious right, Tankard Reist also seems to be taking a lesson from political dictatorships in the matter of holding responsible the relatives of those who’ve offended you, as well as the original offender.

On her website you’ll find an attack on singer Delta Goodrem, songwriter Brian McFadden’s girlfriend. The Christian right apparently holds Goodrem partially responsible for the offending lyrics in his latest song, because she should have vetoed McFadden’s work. Reist suggests that Goodrem is perhaps inured to violence against women, and therefore didn’t notice it was present in the song.

She then reveals that Goodrem is a spokeswoman for Avon Voices, an organisation that works to raise awareness of violence against women. There’s also a video of Goodrem speaking on behalf of this group.

I cannot find any explanation for this flaming that is not born out of deep and incomprehensible malice. Goodrem bears no responsibility for her partner’s actions. She merely lives with the man against whom the Christian right has taken censorious action.

In what feminist universe is a woman subjected to this kind of malevolent public harassment, solely because another woman doesn’t approve of something her male partner has done?

Answer: in the co-opted feminist universe inhabited by Christian conservatives.

As L. Cohen puts it about another kind of prison:

I don’t believe you’d like it
No, you wouldn’t like it here
There’s not much entertainment
And the judgments are severe…

The “adultification” of childhood: the questions some feminists will not ask

3 Feb

Slow Down, Children. By Steve Voght via flickr

Being a Disney princess doesn’t cut it anymore for some little girls and their mothers. Being “hot” does. This means mini adult clothes, high-heeled slippers, the raunchy swing of the infant bum, bras long before there’s the least need for them, lip gloss and worse, and the emulation of adult sexual behaviour in the pursuit of being “cute.”

All of this is currently known as the “adultification” of children.

It’s horrible. Anybody who’s seen footage of the two year old girl toddling down the catwalk in full make-up and wearing a mini sized version of Madonna’s iconic cone shaped bra, can judge for themselves how horrible it really is.

You’ll find this and other nasty images on Melinda Tankard Reist’s website, where there are examples of “adultification” that make wet hair stand on end.

I do have serious disagreements with some of MTR’s positions, but there’s no denying she is certainly doing a thorough job of raising awareness of this particular cultural development, and somebody must. I acknowledge her vigilance in this.

The weaknesses in the arguments.

I don’t agree with her analysis, however. Reist and other feminist commentators hold the media, and the apparently perverted sexual appetites of adult men, responsible for this situation.

They take a swipe at men in general in the mistaken belief that “the patriarchy” is a term applicable to anyone with a penis, plus their collaborators, that is, women with a pr*ck in their heads. Or “pro male women,” as the Reist people prefer to put it.

As sociology Professor Raewyn Connell described it in her book, Masculinities, (1995, Allen & Unwin) hegemonic patriarchal masculinity is but one expression of the masculine in Western culture. Men who do not identify with that dominant expression are frequently vilified or ignored by the mainstream group. Connell’s work exposes the weakness of any argument that depends on male stereotypes.

Tarring all men with one brush is as offensive as stereotyping women. I wish the feminists engaged in this process would stop it, because it isn’t helping anyone and it doesn’t add anything to the debate. Indeed, it puts so many people off side the debate is at risk of losing what would otherwise be a sympathetic audience.

Let’s go deeper than claiming all men are the same. We’re capable of that.

Capitalism, the market and the media

Hegemonic masculinity is a category generally well represented in the pursuit of profit. Captains of industry, masters of the universe, dominant alpha males, and their female cohorts, tend to set the tone in popular culture when they perceive that there is money to be made from it.

I would go so far as to argue that the entire “adultification of childhood” process is driven by a market in search of more and more ways to increase profits, as fashions and fads quickly fall by the wayside and offer less returns.

Then there’s the media. The media has a complex role to play in the game. They simultaneously promote and critique cultural trends, sometimes in the same couple of pages. The media bears its fair share of responsibility for the creation of our desires, and the fact that those desires are so frequently deliberately contradictory and unattainable.

Even MTR throws up unacceptable contradictions. How many more people have seen the appalling French Vogue photo shoot featuring five and six year olds in adult clothes, and blatantly sexually posed, since she put those very same photos up on her website, complete with sharing facilities?

Not, however, with a link to French Vogue so we could dash off a condemnatory email.

I’ll never understand that move. Protest, by all means but perpetuate the children’s abuse? Non, merci.

The elephant in the room

In the frantic outpouring of blame for the sexualization and adultification of little children, and the tortuous self-questioning about “how did this happen?” one thing seems to be consistently overlooked. Perhaps the most important thing of all, and that is the market.

The market is mothers. It is overwhelmingly mothers who buy this merchandise for their little girls. It is mothers who dress their little girls in these inappropriate ways. It is mothers who train these little girls to pout, and strut, and wiggle. It is mothers who paint the little faces, highlight the infant hair, and whiten the baby teeth.

Mothers are the market. If they weren’t interested, if they didn’t buy the merchandise, if no mothers thought it was good for their little ones to look “hot,” there would be no market. Last time I looked infants weren’t out there in droves buying make up and tiny sexy clothes. And neither were blokes, patriarchal or not.

Some women, an increasing number it would seem from the unease that’s around, are acting out their own fantasies and desires through their little girls. The market has sussed out this development and pounced, because that’s its job. Once making kids look like little big girls was confined to those crazy American moms and their children’s beauty pageants. Now, apparently, it’s pre-schoolers all over the place.

The sexualization of children is becoming normalised at an earlier and earlier age. Little boys come home from kindergarten and tell their sisters they’ve got “sexy butts.”  Where does that come from?

The mother in that instance explained that “sexy” wasn’t an appropriate descriptor for a little girl, or for a little boy to use about a little girl. It was adult language, she said.

Children start to apply pressure as more of their peers show up to school in inappropriate clothes, and nobody wants to stand out as different. The market rubs its hands, and sees only profit. It’s a vicious cycle.

Almost everyone thought French Vogue went way too far. But it can’t be denied that the magazine operates within a general climate in which it is increasingly acceptable for little girls to be sexualised.

Don’t blame the mothers

Because that won’t help anyone. Rather, we need to look at what is driving more women to sexualise and “adultify” their very young daughters.

How has the concept of “beautiful little girl” become transmogrified into “hot little girl” in some women’s minds?

Who do they believe these tarted-up little girls really appeal to?

Without any evidence to substantiate my gut feeling, I strongly suspect it is the mothers themselves. I have enough faith left in humanity in general to recoil from the notion that these women are actually thinking of their little ones as sexual fodder and sexual eye candy for adult males.

I suspect there is considerable dissonance between how some feminists perceive this tragic form of theatre, and how the women involved perceive it.

The exploitation of these little girls, intentional or otherwise, is perpetrated primarily by the mothers. The market both caters to, and promotes this exploitation.

And I’m really at a loss to see how railing against the stereotyped and supposedly perverted sexual appetites of adult males, and railing against the media, will on its own do anything much to address the situation.

As long as there is a profit to be made from it, all forms of the commodification of childhood, including the sexualisation and “adultification” of young children will continue, and the media will not take a stand against it. If there is no market, interest will very quickly fade away.

Mothers are the key. Go to the source. Don’t blame, but do hold responsible.

Adult women can be held responsible for our choices, and we should be. Nothing will deeply change for us until we accept that.

One of my lasting memories of my grandmother is her scolding me for turning cartwheels without my knickers on. I don’t know what she would make of the way some of the little girls I’ve seen out and about lately are dressed.

There are so many years when we have to be grown up, and so few years to be a happily grotty kid.

I must be alive ’cos my heart’s still beating.

29 Jan

Some time ago I was told that I have an indolent lymphoma, a death sentence, the specialist implied. But so is life, I said. The moment I’m born I’m old enough to die. David stared in dismay, as if he found my attitude cavalier. As if he feared I hadn’t been listening.

Dying Rose. By lovestruck via flickr

After receiving this dismal news, I left David’s office and went into the hospital bathroom, where I stood looking in the mirror for a long time, talking myself down from the ceiling and back into my body.

Who am I, I wondered as I stared at the pale woman in front of me.

Where am I going?

This sudden loss of self- recognition and purpose spooked me. Get a grip, I advised myself. I adjusted my old leather backpack on my shoulders. I washed my face, put some balm on my cracked lips, and left the hospital.

I was wearing jeans, brown boots, and a white shirt. An emerald green silk scarf, a gift from my youngest son whom we all call The Adventurer, was thrown carelessly around my neck. The scarf was stiff with tears and snot. I’d lost my bravado when David insisted on repeating his diagnosis. I’d held up both palms in protest, as if to keep him and all his words away from me, then I’d sobbed like a little girl who’d been unjustly punished, that it wasn’t fair.

David pushed the tissues across the desk. I’d used my scarf instead. It smelled, still, of my child.

This is how my life ended, and my dying began.

 

GET OFF MY CLOUD

After leaving the hospital I walked carefully down the familiar Newtown streets,leaking vital energies like a dying alien.

Dog in the forest

To return to the city after a long absence is to invite a serious assault on the senses. My senses were attuned to the ocean, and the secret scents of the rainforest.To the distant chug of trawlers as they crossed the bar at sunset, heading out for the night’s fishing.

My senses were used to the sounds of the whistling kites nesting at the bottom of the garden, and the sorrowful cries of the black-capped terns on the winter beach. Calmed by the blue heron absorbed in picking its delicate way across the mud flats in the wispy grey of an early morning river mist.

These senses were ill-prepared for traffic fumes and the roar of trucks; the hot sun glaring off shop windows, and dog shit in steaming piles around my feet. Neither had they managed well with the hospital’s chemical odours, and the sight, through an uncovered window, of a purple-gloved hand preparing a large syringe.

Purple. The colour of bishops, martyrs,and feminism, and now of cancer.

I was much taken with the name of my illness. It sounded refreshingly non-medical, even poetic. In.do.lent. Having or showing a disposition to avoid exertion. Sluggish, I read when I looked it up, the better to get a handle on the nature of the intruder.

I imagined the Indolent Lymphoma loafing on a Caribbean beach in a Panama hat, sunning itself under a striped umbrella, with a pink cocktail in its hand and a bag of weed in the pocket of its board shorts. I imagined myself confronting it.

‘We need to talk,’ I’d begin. ‘You’re on my cloud. You need to get off. Your attitude is costly for my life, and it cannot be allowed to continue.’

When I got up close I saw the creature had reptilian eyes and a self-satisfied leer. It winked at me and sucked on its roach. It didn’t speak, but roused itself enough to adjust the umbrella to keep the sun off its face. Then it idly threw the last of the roach into the warm turquoise sea. I lost my temper.

‘Well fuck you!’ I yelled.‘This isn’t fucking over yet, you know!’

 

STUFF FUCKING EVERYTHING

For a long time I slept with my teeth clenched, and woke each morning with an aching jaw. I couldn’t rouse myself enough to talk to anyone. I dreamed I was swimming in a turbulent sea and when I sank beneath the waves, my skirt became trapped under a rock.

I told no one I was ill. I thought that by telling someone I would make the diagnosis real. I lived alone then. My children were scattered across the world, and I was bereft of husbands and lovers. It was easy to keep a secret.

The dreams became worse. Apocalyptic, with tidal waves; angry wolves, soldiers, and smoking theatres of war littered with the limbless dead. I became afraid to fall sleep. I sat up at night watching infomercials on television and drinking red wine. In the early hours of the morning I’d swallow non-prescription calmatives. I didn’t consciously consider suicide, though I had it in mind if things became too bad, if pain became too bad further down the track.

A frightening aridity then took hold of me. My fevers were dry and wouldn’t break. My skin shrivelled. My eyes felt full of grit. My salivary glands reduced their output and my tongue, deprived of normal lubrication, became unwieldy and attached itself to the roof of my mouth as if both were lined with Velcro. I craved fluids and drank frequently and in large quantities. But the liquids brought no relief.

My spirit is burning itself out, I thought. I hadn’t anticipated this deathly dryness, this burning up, this slow progression towards grey ash.

Grim Reaper. By Brave Heart via flickr

‘I don’t know how long I’ve got,’ I realised in a rare moment of reflection and assessment. ‘What do I most want to do?’

I had infant grandchildren as yet unmet on the other side of the world. Why not take a trip and visit them? At this thought I was immediately afraid. Fear has always been my Achilles heel.

‘What if I get sick, really sick in a foreign country?’ I worried, as I walked the winter beach with my black and white dog.

‘But why does it matter where I get really sick?’ I argued back.’Does anywhere feel like home to me? Where do I belong, where have I ever belonged? Does it matter at all where I die?’

I considered these questions mostly in the abstract. As generalised philosophical meditations, as a scholar rather than a sufferer, and got nowhere.

There are times when knowledge fails to make the necessary journey from the head to the heart.

‘Stuff fucking everything,’ I thought one day, overwhelmed by circumstances of such magnitude that my mind rebelled against admitting them. And besides, I was beginning to bore myself. There is only so much time one can spend contemplating one’s death. It was now a time for action, not stasis.I also wanted very much to start smoking again after twenty-four years of abstinence, and that urge had to be resisted at all costs.

So, with what felt like my last reserves of self-care, I decided I would go to Mexico. My son the Chef lived on the Mexican Caribbean coast with the grandchildren I had yet to meet. What better journey could I make? And my best friend, Jane, agreed to join me there later in the year.

I stored my winter clothes in boxes. Where I was going it was always summer. I packed my bags and boarded the 10am Qantas flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, to Dallas, Forth Worth, and on to Cancún. A thrilling optimism took me over. No regrets! No tears goodbye! Hola! Buenos dias, senors y senoritas!

Flying into...

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