Sexualisation and Trafficking

Trafficking of human beings, be it for slave labour or as sex slaves, has grown exponentially in recent times such that there are more human beings experiencing slavery today than when slavery was legal. Trafficking of human beings is the 3rd most lucrative criminal activity after trafficking in arms and drugs. Because of this we must use our resources and commitment directly to raise awareness of this issue and combat it head on. However, it is also important to consider its causes. Working directly against human trafficking may be treating the symptom but failing to treat the disease. The disease is the objectification of human beings in our society due to various trends fuelled by a decline in morality and values in general. This article uses extracts from Melinda Tankard Reist’s book, “Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls,” to specifically explores the way that the sexualisation of girls in particular contributes to desensitise society creating a template that makes trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation more than viable.

The sexualisation industry has a voracious appetite for appropriating and corrupting people and things deemed ‘innocent,’ and remaking them in their own image. Adult sexual concepts are seeping into the world of children, co-opting girls into a world of sex well before they understand what is happening.

In The Body Project: An intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes: ‘More than any other group in the population, girls and their bodies have borne the brunt of twentieth-century social change, and we ignore the fact at our peril’. The revolution in electronic communications such as the internet have allowed for the proliferation and globalization of sexual imagery. This, along with sexualised clothing, music, games and magazine content for girls, and the social imperative of a perfect body, are all part of this social change.

Objectification is reinforced through embedded sexual content everywhere we look. According to the APA, ‘A culture can be infused with sexualized representations of girls and women, suggesting that such sexualisation is good and normal’.

One example of this can be found in the marketing of children’s underwear, which is described as reflecting moods which are ‘frisky, seductive or mysteriously alluring’ (http://www.jellydeal.co.uk/girls-underwear.html), and padded decorative bras and g-strings are sold in the children’s wear sections of department stores. T-shirts for babies include slogans such as ‘Breast Fed Baby: Stick around for the show,’ ‘All daddy wanted was a blow job,’ ‘Hung like a five year old,’ ‘F!# the milk, where’s the whiskey tits,’ ‘I tore mummy a new one,’ ‘I enjoy a good spanking,’ and ‘I’m too sexy for my diaper.’

Everywhere girls are ‘being invited to see themselves not as healthy, active and imaginative girls, but as hot and sassy tweens on the prowl’, write Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze in ‘Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of Children in Australia’.

The pornification of young women is carried out under the guise of being in ‘her own interest.’ Cleverly, this process has become linked with the support of ‘good causes’ such as care for the environment. It is becoming more routine for women to be expected to strip off for a good cause. The message is clear: if you’re a young woman and you want to make a positive difference, get your clothes off. You can’t possibly expect to change the world fully clothed.

Music video clips present women in highly sexualised ways, often as adornments, decorations and sexual play-things. A 2009 clip featuring Ciara and Justin Timberlake, Love Sex Magic, depicts Ciara in a tiger stripe body suit behind bars as if she were a caged jungle animal, and with a chain on her neck pulled by Timberlake, bringing to mind slavery.

The enmeshing of sex industry practices throughout the culture can be observed in the rise of ‘sexting,’ where teens and even preteens exchange sexual images of themselves via mobile phones. Girls as young as 13 send explicit photos of themselves to others. This is the wallpaper against which women and girls have to live.

Girl.com.au is a Melbourne-based website allegedly devoted to ‘empowering girls.’ In 2008, the site’s home page was promoting Brazilian waxing along with High School Musical Two, Playschool, Fisher-Price smart toys for pre-schoolers and Barbie Princess dolls. The site’s creators wrote, ‘Nobody really likes hair in their private regions and it has a childlike appeal. Men love it, and are eternally curious about it.’ The creators seemed to have no problem combining waxing, men and childlike appeal in the one sentence.

The ‘Lolita Effect’, derived from a character in the novel by Vladimir Nabokov, is the distorted and delusional set of myths about girls’ sexuality that circulates widely in our culture and throughout the world whereby girls are encouraged ‘to flirt with a decidedly grown-up eroticism and sexuality.’

One mother described the impact of these myths on her 13-year-old daughter, in a poignant letter to The Age newspaper (Melbourne): I am the mother of a 13-year-old girl. She is not overly developed, she does not wear makeup, she is aware of her burgeoning sexuality, but a little daunted by it and curious of it. Whenever I go out with her – be it to a shopping centre, a walk down the road or picking her up from school – she is gawked at, wolf-whistled and stared at by men usually aged in their 20s and 30s.

It doesn’t matter that she is standing with her mother. They do not hesitate for a second. They wave and gesticulate while she’s sitting in the car next to me. Her girlfriends also suffer this indignity.

I believe this is the result of the sexualisation of children that some men think it’s fine to lust after them – and not just fine, but acceptable. It doesn’t matter if they see revulsion, fear or confusion because they’re looking at these girls’ faces. The girls are totally objectified…I don’t think it even enters these men’s heads that it is not only offensive, but frightening to attract naked lust when you are only 13 (Morris, 2007, p.8). 

All this serves to desensitize society to what once would have been considered unacceptable. The ultimate conclusion: that young girls’ bodies are an appropriate element of sexual commerce. The scale of this enterprise is monstrous…The children involved are as young as toddlers, sometimes even babies…Children are garmented in skimpy skirts, bustiers, thong underwear, and transparent tops of the Lolita Effect.

Even more sinister in Third World contexts, where the sexual exploitation of very young girls, so often for the benefit of western male tourists, is on open display. In transmission of messages to girls about their role in providing round-the-clock sexual come-ons, the media acts in many ways as a de facto pimp for the prostitution and pornography industries.

Adult sex magazines encouraging sex with young girls, rape and incest, are easily accessible in corner stores, milkbars and petrol stations in Australia and elsewhere. Even if the models are over 18, they are often posed and styled to look much younger, with toys, braces, pigtails and other accoutrements of childhood. In the words of Pamela Paul, ‘the desire for a child and the desire for a childlike woman blur and overlap’ in these materials.

Pornography has become the handbook of sex education for many boys. The main aim seems to be the boy’s enjoyment, even when a girl is in pain. Pornography presents women as live sex toys, and men as wild and predatory animals. It makes the abuse of women inviting and erotic. Too many young men have become not only consumed by porn but have even taken to manufacturing it at home using their mobiles and computers.

In July 2007, a 13-year-old girl was assaulted in toilet blocks and on a rooftop in a Sydney Suburb. Lawyers representing 4 of the seven attackers told the NSW District Court that a ‘lack of sex education’ was one of the reasons they did it. However, it wasn’t a lack of sex education that was at work here; rather, the actions of the boys suggested that their sex education through porn was very thorough indeed. What they lacked was an education in humanity, common decency and respect. It’s as if we are witnessing the death of feeling or empathy for another’s suffering.

In the year 2000, the International Labour Organisation estimated there were 1.8 million children being exploited in the commercial sex industry (ILO, 2008). UNICEF’s report State of the World’s Children for 2006 gives an estimate of two million children now enslaved in this trade (ILO, 2008).

The children are put to work in brothels, massage parlours and strip clubs. They are used to produce pornography. Violence and abuse are part of their daily lives. Writing this now, I can see the faces of the ethnic Vietnamese girls I met in Cambodia, being cared for by the Christian organisations that had rescued them from unspeakable terrors. Small human fodder for the facilitation of masturbation by men of all ethnicities, they suffered physical and mental injuries. One had a colostomy bag. Another had surgery to repair internal damage. Another was mentally beyond repair.

According to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (Australia), ‘The increasing incidence…of boys perpetrating sexual crimes against women and girls in Australia might be an indication of a trend toward a more callous attitude in men’s sexual treatment of women created through the normalization of the sex industry’ (CATWA 2008).

No matter what spin is put on it, however, degradation is not empowerment. To apply a question asked by Ariel Levy in 2005: ‘Why is this the “new feminism” and not what it looks like: the old objectification?’

About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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