Thursday, May 07, 2009

Stop It Before It Starts: Part 3 Sexually Toxic Environment

Wednesday of last week I attended the seminar Stop It Before It Starts: Preventing Sexual and Domestic Violence presented by: Minnesota Men's Action Network: Alliance to Prevent Sexual and Domestic Violence.

In part 1, I gave my thoughts on the first session which was about the dynamics of domestic violence. In part 2, I covered the session on sexual violence.

This post is a recap of the third session, Addressing the Sexually Toxic Environment: A key element in primary prevention by Cordelia Anderson of Sensibilities Inc.

Her first point was that the problem is toxicity not sexuality.

Our society is hyper-sexualized but our society has a problem with sexual health messages. Porn thrives and is easily accessible while comprehensive and accurate sexual information is much harder to find.

The environment matters because our social norms feed the demand for harm. We need to find ways to counter the ways exploitive and violent use of sex have been normalized. Prevention involves broad based social change beyond education or individuals.

She used the analogy for our current response to sexual harm as tossing out flotation devices and giving swimming lessons while leaving children to swim in toxic waste. We cannot treat, prosecute or educate our way out of this problem. Prevention requires action beyond what individuals can or need to do.

We live in a 'culture of cruelty' in which sexual exploitation & violence are normalized.

From the Institute of Medicine, 2001, p. 4:

It is unreasonable to expect that people will change their behavior easily when so many forces in the social, cultural, and physical environment conspire against such change.
"Toxic decisions seem rational in toxic environments," Dr. John Briere. This explains both resistance to change and why it is wrong to view violence as nothing more than an individual problem.

Anderson didn't mention it, but some people distort this message to claim that those who make toxic decisions should not be held legally responsible for the harm they do to others. This concept is not an excuse for violence. What it does is show how harmful actions are enabled.

We need to seriously seek the answer to the question about why so many people, primarily male, are willing to sexually exploit children and/or adults. When 1 child pornography site in Texas was busted, it revealed 70,000 names (primarily of men) who paid $29.95 a month to view images of children being sexually abused.

Normalization is the process by which an idea or behavior goes from clearly problematic to an accepted part of societal culture or becomes "just the way it is."

I was struck by the idea that normalization is not just eager acceptance of something, it is also the feeling that taking strong action against something is futile. When we give up the fight as a society we have made what we no longer fight, "normal," and that allows what we don't want to grow.

Using sex to sell stuff is old, but through a series of advertising images, Anderson showed how the images in mainstream media have changed to use sexualized images of younger children in more problematic ways. These images can cause children to not understand appropriate boundaries, as victims and as perpetrators.

At some point during her presentation, Anderson showed the award winning PSA titled, Everyone Knows Your Name, warning girls about providing too much information, including pictures, online.

The PSA's message is directed at girls like, "Sarah," but the obsessive sexual focus of boys and adult men on this girl is presented as normal. That's exactly why that PSA turned my stomach when I first saw it 2 years ago and why it did so again last week. This PSA utterly failed to address the cause of the danger to girls who are online. She is presented as being the cause of the behavior of the boys and men shown in that PSA when she is not the cause.

The only instruction is directed at girls, "Think before you post." This sends a strong backhanded message to boys and men like those portrayed in this PSA which reinforces their disregard for Sarah and other girls who are online.

I believe part of our sexual toxicity is the widespread belief that messages which teach or reinforce appropriate boundaries directed at boys and men are a waste of time and money while it is critical to scare girls and women about what could happen to them if they seem too slutty. This type of message which makes the girl responsible for the negative actions of those around her is central to the absolute fear I had of disclosing my rape and it contributed to my 20 years of silence.

The normalization of this pattern is why I was so delighted to learn earlier in April about a prevention campaign related to rape by intoxication which was aimed directly at boys. Frankly, we do boys a diservice if the first clear message they get about sexual boundaries is when they are rightfully accused.
Update: After thinking about the behaviors shown toward "Sarah," and how there was a progression of creepiness, I created a script for sexual violence PSA called Sexual violence prevention, not just for girls. Check it out.
Brain research has shown that toxic stress harms the development of children's brains. Sexual toxicity contributes to toxic stress. This explains to me why witnessing violence in the home can be as harmful to children as experiencing violence in the home.

Unfortunately, adults are often confused about what is healthy and what is harmful and have a tough time talking about sex and sexuality. Adults make decisions on behalf of their children and adults produce and market the products which contribute to sexual toxicity. This isn't a problem with the kids these days.

To develop in healthy ways children need constructive supports.

  • Caring connections - supportive families, communities and environments
  • Protective factors/assets
  • Supports for adults raising children
  • Quality information & education
Anderson highlighted the extensive marketing which is aimed directly at children. Without counter action, children are being taught to value things more than people. This is a harmful message.

This reminded me of all the excuses I've heard made on behalf of the sexually violent who only wanted sex and who weren't motivated by a wish to hurt their victims. The thing (sex) was more important than the other person and this is considered by many people to be an acceptable excuse not to hold those sex criminals accountable. I never considered that non-sexual marketing messages could contribute to this disregard for victims of sex crimes.

What is seen in the digital world is part of the real world and because of this prevention needs to be integrated no matter what technologies are involved.

Children who view porn are impacted by what they see. So while sexual desire and curiosity during development is normal, that normal development can be hijacked by steady exposure to porn. By default porn becomes our country's main sex education for boys and girls.

This is why teaching healthy sexuality, including concepts such as equality, is so important. But this education and healthy sexuality messages, on a practical level, are much more censored than porn.

On this point I was reminded of Ashwini's portion of our WAM! 2009 presentation where she talked about the MPAA rating system and how consensual sexual behavior often gets cut in order to get an R rating while extreme sexual violence can remain in R-rated movies.

Studies have shown that porn has a strong impact on not only the children who see it, porn can have a strong impact on children who have never seen porn because of other children who mimic what they have seen in porn or who learn to disrespect boundaries from porn.

She highlighted that media and products often push girls to be sexualized and the trap is that girls can easily be labeled as a slut -- in the worst connotation of that word. For boys the trap is they are supposed to be users, takers & porn makers, but if they get caught they will become registered sex offenders.

Hyper-sexualized and degrading messages and images feed the excuses used to justify perpetrating sexual violence and take away barriers between respectful and harmful behavior. These messages and images also make it harder for those who are not sexually violent to speak out.

Parent input matters which is why it is so important for parents to really talk to their children on a regular basis and not just about sex.

Anderson ended by focusing on the fact that prevention is possible. Hopelessness and inaction don't create social change. It's great when people beat the odds, but it is better when we improve the odds. Remember that teens are not problems to be fixed. In other prevention efforts teens have been quick to respond once they realize how they are being exploited or harmed.

Remember, sexual toxicity is about power and control, not genuine or appropriate sexuality.

I want to point to a useful document on Cordelia's website: National Plan to Prevent the Sexual Exploitation of Children (pdf).

Next, primary prevention -- moving to action.


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posted by Marcella Chester @ 8:10 AM   4 comments links to this post


At May 07, 2009 10:05 AM, Blogger JENNIFER DREW said...

Another central issue is the widespread belief how male sexuality is constructed and promoted is non-problematic. Whereas female sexuality is widely subjected to societal regulation, control and suppression.

When female sexuality is considered to be the 'problem' but not male sexuality then it is obvious only girls and women will be targetted as 'the problem' thereby leaving unchallenged the issue of male sexuality and also masculinity.

Pornography is now mainstream and yet consistently we do not hear questions raised as to why so many males believe it is their right to commit sexual violence against women and girls or how male sexuality is used to create a 'thrill' when a man or boy forces a woman or girl to submit to his sexual demands. Our society assumes it is a 'right' to express sexuality but also demands women and girls to gatekeep male sexual demands. If one gender is not held accountable for their actions whereas another gender is blamed and held responsible then this explains why male sexual violence against women and girls is endemic and perceived as 'non-violent.'

We cannot educate only one half of the human race but it is much easier to blame women and girls rather than challenge how dominant ideas concerning masculinity are promoted and normalised. Men like women learn what is and is not considered acceptable behaviour but if we do not challenge male power and behaviour then nothing will change.

Instead we will continue with a society wherein women and girls are blamed and men and boys are exempted. That is apart from the most extreme acts of male sexual violence against women and girls. Other more common acts of male sexual violence against women and girls continue to be denied, excused, justified or simply ignored.

At May 07, 2009 6:14 PM, Blogger samberg said...

"She used the analogy for our current response to sexual harm as tossing out flotation devices and giving swimming lessons while leaving children to swim in toxic waste."A few weeks ago I espoused this belief in porn's toxicity to support my anti-pornography position because I don't believe a couple of government-sponsored classes can put a tiny dent in the brainwashing pornographers inflict on children. For making the point that a few classes for teens cannot counteract the overwhelming ubiquity of pornography in daily culture I got called anti-education, but really what I am is anti-ineffective government solutions to problems caused by capitalists.

It is grotesque how people defend the right of capitalists to profit from polluting our environment with the explanation that poisons can just be extracted multiple years down the road. They even expect taxpayers to foot the bill for anti-rape education while the pornographers who dump their pro-rape messages into the community well walk away with millions of dollars.

At May 07, 2009 7:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just porn that's very harmful in this society. All kinds of mainstream tv shows and movies have the same message of male violence against women and girls presented as normal. Shows like the ones in this video for example:

And I think it's getting worse all the time. I'm really worried about the young girls growing up now who watch this kind of stuff and start to believe from a very young age that this is how it's supposed to be. They don't necessarily even realise that there is something wrong when a boy or a man treats them or others like this. They may even think it's romantic! You should never underestimate the influence of ordinary mainstream media on kids and teenagers...that's where they usually first learn most of these harmful behaviours. Of course porn is always very bad but I do think that this kind of "romance" stuff is a lot more insidious because it can be quite subtle and because it's so mainstream and common it's even harder to make people understand the harms it can cause.

But you are absolutely right about it being a problem only men can really fix because only them and not the girls and women are the ones responsible for their own violence. We can only show them the way...

At May 07, 2009 8:58 PM, Blogger Marcella Chester said...

Anonymous, you are correct that it isn't just porn which sends toxic messages and Cordelia highlighted this in her presentation much better than I did in my recap. Many of the toxic messages in porn are in mainstream shows, products and other materials which are viewed as child-friendly.

I don't believe it's only men who can fix this problem since there are many effective actions that women can take. But if men are not significant participants in the solution then the men who actively support toxicity will be much more effective at undermining or blocking everything we do need to do.

Indifference opposes change even when the change is positive. In this case indifference helps those who are violent against women.

This is an area of accountability that we women must focus on.


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