Hard News by Russell Brown


Media3: Panic or Peril?

There is rising concern about sexually explicit material in new media forms to which teenagers are exposed. An official report sounds the alarm about unprecedented sexual precociousness among girls and makes a string of recommendations to government …

 That was in 1954. And the so-called Mazengarb Report into "moral delinquency in children and adolescents" has long since been a national byword for moral panic.

But in the age of internet porn, as kids see and do things Oswald Mazengarb couldn't have imagined -- and indeed can create and distribute their own images -- it seems reasonable to have the discussion.

Catherine Woulfe wrote an able and absorbing feature for the Listener recently, under the title Pink panic: The sexualisation of girls (behind the paywall, sorry). It opens with pop parenting star Steve Biddulph and his new book, Raising Girls, in which Biddulph:

... describes a crisis facing girlhood. In the introduction, he writes of a “sudden and marked plunge in girls’ mental health, first in the United States, then quickly spreading across the developed world … “Something was happening in our culture that was poisoning girls’ spirits. It seemed to come on as they entered their teens, but was creeping ever younger.” Later in the book, Biddulph zeroes in on “five prime harms in the world of girls today”: bullying and exclusion; body image; alcohol abuse; the online world; and sexualisation.

But Woulfe also talks to Sue Jackson, a senior lecturer in psychology at Victoria University, and hear something quite different:

[Jackson] says that when people hear what she does, they often ask: “‘Well, should I be worried about my girls?’ And that’s one of the impacts. They’re quite concerned. “My research has been investigating claims about the sexualisation of pre­teen girls [by the media] and I can tell you that there is no empirical evidence currently available that shows New Zealand girls are embracing sexualised representations they encounter in the media.”

Jackson says anxiety over girls’ sexualisation has always been present, but it was launched into the public arena back in 2007, when the Australian Institute released a report called “Corporate paedophilia”. “I was very unsettled by its claims. [I thought] these are quite broad, sweeping, generalised claims, and what’s the evidence for them?” On the back of that report came an “explosion” of pop­culture texts – she counts Raising Girls among them – that positioned girls as vulnerable and passive in the face of sexed­up media. “What’s absent in all of that is ‘well, wait a minute. How do we know what girls are actually using, what popular culture they are engaging with in their everyday lives? And more importantly, how are they making sense of it?’"

On the other hand, the alarm is sounded -- although precisely over what its not necessarily clear -- in the US film Sexy Baby, currently playing in this year's Documentary Edge film festival, which has been reviewed both as a bold work about troubling trends and a disorganised, inconclusive mess:

The Serbian film Klip, currently making waves in the US, has no time for hand-wringing. Mobile phone porn is simply taken as a given amongst the Belgrade teenagers at the centre of the film -- along with vandalism, violence and loud parties.

In Britain, the New Statesman's Rafael Behr acknowledges elements of moral panic in the debate, but notes, correctly, that one genuinely novel factor is the extreme nature of some of the porn with easy reach of children. This account by Lizi Patch about the hurt and loss of innocence suffered by her 11 year-old son when a schoolmate showed him a "funny" video on a mobile phone has been widely circulated in the past month.

There are all kinds of unknowns in this debate -- what do we really know  about how young people respond to the new proximity of sexual imagery? Are they more resilient than we think? What should be make of the fact that in the midst of an apparent crisis, girls continue to do better than ever in education and careers?

The new ability to not only consume but produce sexual imagery might not be harmful in itself -- but it certainly opens up damaging new possibilities both for bullying and for the victimisation of young people in the name of moral enforcement. We've seen several US rape cases in which the distribution of video and pictures was an aggravating factor. And we've also seen young lives blighted when kids are charged as child pornographers for taking and keeping photographs of each other.

I'll be discussing these questions and more on this week's Media3, with AUT researcher and lecturer on sex and gender Dr Pani Farvid and Netsafe Chief technology Officer Sean Lyons.

You can see the show itself at either 11.30pm tomorrow night or 10.25am on Saturday. You can also view it on our show page after the first broadcast. Or you could even come along this evening for the discussion. We'd need you there at the Villa Dalmacihja ballroom at 5.30pm.

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