Category Archives: Making the news

Discussions on current news stories discussing young women’s sexuality and sexual behaviour

Dying of shame

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard about the tragic suicide of a nurse after 2Day FM DJs prank called her about the British Royals.

We as a public have an intuition that we need to be punishing someone for what happened. And as a result there’s a lot of debate about blame and vulnerability going on, but I think a lot of it misses a very important point. At present the focus is on either whether the actions of the DJs were the actual cause of this tragedy, or if the nurse had mental health issues (to coin a diminishing phrase). What is not being discussed is the context in which these events took place.

In the past – five, ten years ago – pranking someone (as bullying as it can sometimes be) had a small ripple effect with respect to the audience. But now the globe is our stage. Do something local and it can quickly become global. Social media and the current appetite for low quality shock news means events like the prank hospital call can become global very quickly. What might have been an embarrassment that might have been ok to handle as a local event now turns into a global mockery. When we think about it, it’s actually not that surprising that such a terrible turn of events occurred – how many of us could really handle the scrutiny of billions of judging strangers and the constant meming and viral spread of a mistake that suddenly calls your mental and professional competency into question.

What we do in public, in our surveillance society, has the potential to spread like wild fire and become uncontrollable in an instant. This is the point that is lost on those that undertake this kind of humor work without considering the consequences of just what can unfold.

Are the DJs to blame? Sure, but not in the ways the public is trying to blame them. Was the nurse simply vulnerable? Yes, but only in the same way we all are vulnerable to a disproportionate public response to a mistake.

What do we do then? We change our behavior about how we publicize others and think about the weight of audience on individuals we highlight.

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Moral panics everywhere

One of the interesting things to come out of my research was the snapshot of the tone of moral panics in New Zealand pertaining to women’s sexuality, and how the media chooses to frame it (reflecting  political editorial agendas).

A pertinent example is the media coverage of Dr Albert Makaray, an Egyptian-Christian gynecologist who has had considerable airtime from the media.  His most classic description of young women analogises them to paddock-mating sheep.    In this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuVP9GW8Hlc) , he talks mostly about the problem of promiscuity and alcohol as related to female subjects – women are the most promiscuous, the most at risk.  What he doesn’t consider is the cultural discourse we have around teaching women that they have to protect themselves from being sexually assaulted, and not our young men about not sexually assaulting, and how New Zealand drinking cultural performances are particular to us as a country (and therefore not solely determined by chemistry and physiology).   What he is not referencing are the realities of the drink/sex culture, and how they are taken up by young people, beyond the ones he sees in his clinic.  Makary’s opinions are inaccurate and extreme fear-mongering: for example, he says that young people get drunk and have sex with whoever is beside them at the time.  If this was the case the the number of lifetime partners New Zealanders would have would far outstrip the 20 reported by Durex (whose survey may not necessarily represent a fair sampling of the nation).   And the young women I talked to would have had hundreds more sexual partners than they reported, as many were out drinking most weekends.

Beyond what he is saying, the fact is, he is quickly being picked up by the media and his voice disseminated through the social discourse as an attractor point of conversation.  A quick Google search of his name brings back over 100,000 results, highlighting the amount of media airtime he receives, and the number of those who are in some way engaged either in propagating his opinions (and using him as (what I consider to be) an ill-qualified expert (he is a practitioner, not a researcher)), or attempting to talk back to him/his proponents.

What also needs to be referenced is the use of his voice by the media and its moral/political agenda .  Media is a mechanism for shaping social discourses and they do so in a number of particular ways.  Because we as individuals often have no experience of the many of the events happening in the world we rely on stories from others and frequently use media sources to fill information gaps(1), often with an idea that there is a knowingness that presents information in a way superior to our own individual analyses – they are after all the experts/professionals, and we accept what they present as such.  What is, however, often washed out of the presentation of news events is the atypical nature of stories that make it to the headlines.  They are headlines because they are unusual, not common events. To make these suitable for inclusion in the drive to present more in less time, stories are cleaved of that very important point, along with other contextual information that would allow the judging/viewing public to make better assessments of the salience of stories, their reflections of the commonly lived experience, and their bearing on personal realities.

These issues are made more problematic when we consider how the media frames story-kinds.  Examination of, for example, how media frames stories of crime points to a predominance of punitive and individualist slants that place the cause of crime at the feet of the individual rather than examining its broader social issues (2). Framing of feminism and feminist activities also shows negative framing, away from the positive social impacts to a reduction of feminist agents/agency to harpies making mountains out of molehills.   These frames reflect political agendas – moral panics focus on risk towards political ends, and risk-focus always reflects a politics of social control and political investment.  When we hear about risk, we should ask ourselves, if we comply with risk-averse behaviour such as that being suggested, what does that mean in terms of broader social outcomes?

In this regard, what can we say about the over-representation of Makary in the media, especially in formal news sources, in comparison to those voices that would refute his claims, or argue differently regarding social issues?   The preference for sensationalising stories is obvious – headlines that describe young New Zealand women as mating in paddocks like sheep is bound to capture anyone’s attention.  Makary is aware of this – as a professional he does not use the language of his cohort, but chooses to use terms that will inflame and negatively frame in an attention-seeking way.  As do all of those with a cause.  His framing of young women reflects a highly vocal and powerful conservative politics in New Zealand that is very interested in maintaining a status quo of power differentials that locate efficacious social power and control primarily not in the hands of minority groups such as Maori, those with disabilities,  those in lower socio-economic bands, women, LGBTIQ,and so on, but in the hands of (most often) white, educated conservatives (usually men).  This political context provides significant privileges attached with not belonging to a minority, even if those that access those privileges are not active in enforcing them.

What is Makary supporting then?  He is not talking about a general adjustment of society – he is talking about a behavioural adjustment of one section of the population.  In his 2010 interview he noted that young women needed to return to their roles as sexual gatekeepers to keep a sexually uncontrolled male population in control. That promiscuity is the moral and social responsibility of women, in curbing their own sexual access and as a result curbing men’s.   To do this he stokes the moral panic that suggests young women have declining morals and self esteem, that they are promiscuous (doesn’t it take two people to have heterosex that results in unwanted pregnancy??).  Where in the past the moral panics around male sexuality and STIs put the onus on prostitutes as the source of the moral scourge, now Makary’s comments suggest that the problem of promiscuity is all about young women to the exclusion of young men – men now are less promiscuous – suggesting that instead of a few women servicing many men we now have a small number of men servicing many women.  Lucky chaps.  But more importantly, what this discourse suggests is a population of young women who are out of control.

We conceive of male sexuality as a biological drive that can be difficult for men to handle – it takes a strong and rational man not to succumb to his sexual urges, the dominant discourse goes.  But our discourse also places women as in control of a sexuality that is not as rampant and biologically driven – it is not obsessional or overwhelming and once it is turned on it it is not seen as a foregone conclusion that something must be done about it.  How then to account for these rampantly promiscuous women if they have no recourse to biology?  The evils of alcohol, lack of morality, low self-esteem, poor values system, lack of agency.  The list goes on.  Very few conversations come back to women wanting to have sex as rational agents.  Rather their many partners is a kind of moral or psychological pathology.  We don’t talk about those 20 partners as chosen, but only as the result of drunken one-night stands.   Needless to say, I didn’t talk to anyone who thought that their wanting to sleep with a variety of different men made them psychologically unwell, though many were aware that they may be judged that way.

What Makary is wanting is to curb the behaviour of young women and return us to a society where fewer people crossed his office threshold with STIs and unplanned pregnancies.  (Fair enough.)  And the way to do this is to reduce the number of people we sleep with.  I doubt the young woman who catches an STI from her first and only sexual partner would think that this strategy is of much help to her, however.  What Makary should be pushing for is a greater level of education about self-care and self-protection in sexual encounters.  And equally importantly he needs to push for education that teaches people how to care for and about those they are sleeping with.  When we consider that a large majority of negative complaints from young women regarding casual sex outcomes are to do with being poorly treated by either their casual sex partner, or their peer group (or fear of these things), it would suggest that how we treat people as experiencing ‘others’ is of primary importance.

Unfortunately care for the other directly contradicts moral panics and risk-culture propagation  where we are taught to consider the ‘other’ not as someone to be cared about but as someone who is a potential danger, a risk-vector of disproportionate negative consequences, that is it best to practice risk avoidance altogether than reap (disproportionately) negative outcomes.  So, don’t sleep with non-relationship partners, because he or she may have an STI, may not use protection, may sexually assault you, may negatively talk about you, may …. this is a very long list of cons.  The reality of course not so horrific.  Yes we do need to be mindful of our own safety, and that of others.  But to live in a culture of fear is to close down avenues of education and learning, of experience and enjoyment, of agency  action, response, evaluation, criticality, and common sense.  There is not room to care when fear is the disproportional emotional state.  And care, ethical self-care and care of the other, seems to me a much better solution to the problems inherent in contemporary western sexual culture than running around, drecying women who like to have sex with someone who isn’t a relationship partner.

Refs on request: Beale (2006);  (Green, 2009).

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It’s Great to be an All Black: you can get away with pretty much anything …

Poor Zac Guildford.  And I say that with genuine sympathy, though perhaps not for the reasons the media and the All Blacks organisation of apologists thinks I ought to.   We as a nation are being asked to cut Zac some slack, despite his assaulting two bystanders and sexually harassing another (female) athlete.   Guildford is yet another in a long line of professional sportsmen who drink excessively, act violently and abuse women.  I sympathise with him not because his fame is hard to handle, not because being a professional sportsman comes with pressures that can cause self-destructive behaviours, but because the kind of masculinity Guildford enacts clearly has negative impacts on his own well-being, and the well-being of those around him.

When rugby players are seen as pretty much the penultimate in male role models, and this kind of drunken and abusive behaviour appears to be generally condoned (or at least expected and therefore tolerated) when we see how common it is in the professional and amateur ranks, perhaps we ought to be thinking about what we are teaching our boys and men with respect to the kinds of masculinity they perform.   Some might say that it the alcohol talking, but there has been sufficient cross-cultural research showing that drunken behaviour is culturally defined.  Excessive consumption does not by necessity lead to violence and sexual aggression.    Not unless you live in New Zealand (and a few other western nations – proud lot, aren’t we?).     Alcohol often acts as a disinhibitor and facilitator.   It also comes with some cultural rules about how it is consumed and how consumers are to behave when consuming.   It’s not hard to see what New Zealand’s culture is.  For some of our men, it’s about potential violence and potential sexual aggressiveness.  A walk around any city centre on a Saturday night will cough up any number of fights and women being harassed by unwanted (and sometimes aggressive and insulting) sexual attention.

If we are to feel sorry for Zac Guildford, it is because he is little more than a publicised stereotype of a kind of  Kiwi manhood.  We all know Zac, he lives down the road from us, he’s one of our mates (or used to be), we went to school with him, he’s in our work place.    He is the height of hyper-masculinity in our culture, hard drinking, womanising, rough and strong, and to top it all off, a hero/an All Black.   The question of whether we ought to cut Zac some slack comes down to whether or not we ought to cut this stereotype some slack.   Personally I think there are other ways to be masculine.  And it really is about time that this kind of masculinity was reformed, rather than fed with sympathy.  Guildford was lucky not to have seriously injured someone, or killed them (whether through assault (he is after all an athlete built for physical conflagration) or a motor accident with his reckless riding).   The men he assaulted appear to be happy to shrug it off – perhaps this is the acceptance of men being men.  Kelly Pick on the other hand has had reinforced the cultural lesson that for women no space is safe from sexual harassment – an unhappy reminder of a social reality that is archaic and socially constraining.   What is ironic for Kelly is that Zac – who really is a nice guy (according to allies) – now becomes more the ‘everyman’ than ever, because our culture frames Zac this way – a regular guy, not unusually aggressive, just a rugby player with a bit of a drinking problem.  Sexual harassment and aggression can therefore come from any man, any regular guy, once he gets a drink in him.   So not only is Zac an example of masculinity, but he also reflects the kinds of femininity women ought to perform when men like him are around: cautious, aware, avoidant.   Ironically the kind of behaviour some young women discussed or exemplified in my own research.

What we also ought to remember too is that there are plenty of other ways to be masculine. I know plenty of masculine men who are not like Zac – some of them play rugby, some of the drink, and some even get trashed, but as far as I know none of them have assaulted anyone, and as a woman I feel  safe around them.  They are the kinds of men I like spending time with – but you couldn’t get me within a mile of Zac Guildford.  Yes, personal choice I know, but for me our culture’s apologetic attitude for men like Zac means that he will continue to be a lose cannon, as are many of the men who behave as he does.   No doubt he is a nice guy, for all I know he is a prince among men, but the kind of masculinity he performs frames him as a potential risk.  I doubt Zac would be happy about this if he understood just what his performance actually means to those in his very large audience.   And as a culture we ought to be unhappy about this too, because it places within our midst another thing to be wary of, another social element that constrains our behaviour (regardless of gender), another force to be avoided or capitulated to.

Poor Zac … and poor us.

 

 

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Selling sex, selling virginity

If you’ve been to one of my lectures you might remember me talking about a young American woman who auctioned her virginity over the internet – for a tidy sum I night add.    It appears as though the concept has reached the Australasia, with a Sydney escort agency advertising the ‘sale’ of a young Chinese woman’s virginity.

http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/sydney-nsw/sydney-escort-agency-selling-19-year-old-virgin/story-e6freuzi-1226189394808

The article above describes this as selling body parts, as putting women’s liberation back centuries, and the young girl as likely being exploited.  What I found interesting is that it wasn’t a young woman engaging in sex work, or a young student (apparently prostitution is a not uncommon way for young women to get an education without incurring crippling student debt), but that she was selling her virginity, that made the news.

There’s no point in rehashing the arguments for and against sex work. To be honest, I stand on both sides of the fence on this.  On one hand I am all for women making the choice to enter into this profession (informed choice, mind you), but on the other the buying of women’s sexual services is instrumentalist and can treat women as fungible objects (no fan of that).  This is too sticky a debate to untangle here – the fact that the debate is still live suggests there is no real answer to the right or wrong, good or bad of the oldest profession.

What is most striking for me with this issue however is that what has triggered the newsworthiness of this story is the uncommon element that elevated the event above banality and subsequent un-news-worthiness of student prostitution and prostitution in general – namely the woman’s virginity.    Should we be horrified about a woman selling her virginity for $15,000?  Would we be horrified if she was selling her sexual product for such a sum if she wasn’t a virgin?  Probably not actually.  It is already being done, without much social comment.  The fact that virginity auctions and sales in the west get significant media attention suggests however that we consider virginity to be something sacred, something not to be sold, and something we ought to treat more respectfully.

The irony is that sending a son to a prostitute to lose his virginity is a great western tradition, codified and celebrated in media and popular culture.  Beginning to see the double standard ?  If men are willing to pay to lose their virginity, what is wrong with a woman being paid to lose hers?  Because it’s not the prostitution that is the issue (as noted above) its her purity.

The irony goes further.  Although we have a growing acceptance of women having extra-marital sex, there is still stigma connected to a woman’s number of pre-marriage sexual partners (it’s even the topic of movies these days), a stigma that is connected to the desire for virgin brides – brides that are clean and unused.  After all, we call women who are known to have sex outside of relationships skanks and sluts – words connected to dirt and filth – even when we don’t know how many people they have slept with (just think to the gossip and bitching you hear about someone you don’t know hooking up with someone you think is hot).    As some of my research participants pointed out, it’s not how many people women have slept with that makes them a slut, but how they go about it.  And as the slut label gets so quickly attached to women who engage in extra-relationship sex in so many ways, it’s not a giant leap to suggest that all women who engage in extra-relationship sex are potentially sluts.  Considering the variety of story types from participants who noted they had been called a slut for having sex with someone else other than a boyfriend, I don’t think  this is a giant leap at all – in fact it feels very much like a tiny step.

We ‘know’ that prostitution is dirty and demeaning – look at the social commentary against which pro-sex work supporters battle – and that virginity is something that is sacred and pure (I don’t endorse either of these ideas).  To place these two aspects together clearly is not socially acceptable.  We are willing to have morally questionable women charging for morally questionable sex (so they say) but not moral women.  Virginity is after all a moral issue.  Good women do not sell their bodies for sex.  And a woman who is still a virgin, chaste and pure at age 19, well, she’s particularly moral in a culture where the average age of first sex is around 17.

What I find most disturbing about the ruckus this event has generated is how it has reflected back to us the value our society still places on women’s virginity and purity.  Not only is it worth AU$15,000 (apparently up to US$3.7 million if you are a hot white chick like Natalie Dylan), but it is also worth the media ruckus and the moral outrage of a variety of groups, from social purity groups to feminists.  Would this story have made the news if the young woman in question, a student looking to get our of debt (sounds familiar), was not a virgin.  I sincerely doubt it.

Considering how so many young women today lose their virginity, I do wonder what the hoo-haa is all about.  In Australia prostitution is legal, so this young woman had to have approached the escort agency of her own accord.  If she had approached a loan shark, committed a crime, or run out on her debt, no one would be commenting (save her family).  But because she is selling her virginity through an agency, we have a story that generate moral hubris, and has everyone assuming she is vulnerable and being exploited.  We don’t hear similar comments being made about non-virgin debt-laden students entering into prostitution.

Of course the hoo-haa reflects our old-fashioned attachment to women as sexually pure, to women’s sexual value being attached to that purity, and to women as sexually active as dirty and immoral (sluttiness).   Losing one’s virginity for women is supposed to be special, meaningful, sacred etc.  Selling it demeans all that.  Note the double standard again – there is no such sanctity around male virginity.  As the saying goes, a man wants to be a woman’s first, a woman wants to be a man’s last.

Despite our sexualised culture, it appears that we are not that liberated after all.  I don’t think that it is the sale of this young woman’s virginity that is setting our culture back with respect to sexual liberation.  It is that we have to comment on it, rail against it, and rescue this young woman from a ‘horrible future’.   What would be a better issue to discuss  is why anyone would feel that prostitution was a good way (outside of those who genuinely want to engage in sex work as a profession) to meet the burdens of education costs.   Or perhaps that our current society fails to support its members such that prostitution as a means to financial emancipation is on the cards for so many people.  (And please, before anyone starts to talk about prostitution and addiction, I’ve known a lot of prostitutes in my time, and very few were addicts.  Most were mothers with children trying to make ends meet, or young women trying to get on their feet after financially devastating events.)

Frankly I don’t care that the young woman in question is a virgin.  To me that makes no difference in her decision (save good business sense if the commodity is so highly valued), despite what the story’s publicity suggests.  How a young woman decides to end that sexual status should make no difference.  Especially when we celebrate the variety of ways men find for doing so, including paying for first sex, and having it with a pie.

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STIs and the Double Standard

Today that wonderful paragon on anti-conservative content the New Zealand Herald (you can tell from my sarcasm that I am often no fan of their journalism)  ran the story blow about a mother who impersonated a sexual health practitioner in order to slur the reputation of a competitor of her daughter’s.   Quite an outrageous thing to do, you might think, and certainly news-worthy in its extremism.

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10759864

Two things came to mind when reading the article – the wide-ranging nature of the sexual double standard to which women are vulnerable, and unfortunately contribute, and the gendered nature of STIs.

Within my thesis I discussed briefly the power of STIs over women, both in terms of contraction, and also as a danger to reputations.   When we talk about sexual health the risk-based dialogue we hear frames STIs as though they are the worst thing that can ever happen to a woman.  Going to the doctor for something you contracted under any circumstance comes with the dread of a possibly judgemental health practitioner, a pharmacist, and then partners, friends and family members.  An STI for a woman comes with a lot of baggage – getting one means you were slutty, promiscuous, slept around, are a dog, a skank, slept with some dirty guy, didn’t use protection, were irresponsible about your health, were unnecessarily risky and engaged in dangerous sexual behaviours and practices … the list goes on.

These judgements are wonderfully gendered too.  Researcher Adina Nack noted that a man with an STI is just a man with an STI, whilst a woman with an STI is all manner of things, none of them nice, and none of them neutral.   Add to that that a man with an STI is one who slept with a skanky woman, whilst a woman who has an STI is that skanky woman.  That’s some double standard.

Risk dialogue about women’s health outcomes when contracting STIs is also often framed as though its a life and death, life-determining event.  How often do we hear that if you have contracted something that it can be cured, managed, or lived with without necessarily diminishing your health and/or sex life?  Yes, there are some pretty terrible STIs and some terrible outcomes, but worst case scenarios appear to be the predominant message for women, and the serious nature of that messaging appears again to be gender-skewed.   And generally this category of diseases and infections is unique in our public opinion  – we don’t harangue someone with lung cancer the way we harangue women for catching Chlamydia.  STIs hold a special place in our social commentary, especially for women.

Taken together, the risk-dialogue around STIs for women can be quite disciplining.  What I mean here is that the threat of catching one, or being known to have one, or being in situations where one could be contracted, contributes towards the sexual behaviour of some young women by acting as a significant deterrent.  During my research many young women mentioned the threat of STI contraction and its related reputational damage as significant reason for their controlled sexual behaviour.   Some noted that if these aspects were not so scary they would likely have more non-relationship sexual interactions, and/or would enjoy the interactions they had, more.

This dialogue about STIs is deeply ingrained in our society, and has incredible power to affect women – something the mother in the above story was obviously aware of.  That we feel it is permissible to use this shaming tactic as a way to diminish women (and not men) speaks to the pervasiveness of its underlying idea – that sexually active women are dirty and not to be respected.  The ridiculousness of this fundamental idea is obvious to many, but it does not stop women shaming women.  Although many of my participants noted that judgement was a factor that dampened their sex lives, some also judged other women for their behaviour by labelling them skanks, sluts, bitches, and so on.  Unfortunately, by doing so, by categorising women as dirty by our language, we legitimise the degradation of ourselves by others, and the use of these kinds of tactics against us and other women.   We support the double standard we dislike so much.

At its most basic, no one should be shamed for their sexual behaviour.  Nor should they be shamed for an unfortunate outcome like an STI.  The very nature of these infections dictates that they can be contracted even under the safest conditions.  That does’t mean that we ought to be more paranoid about our behaviour per se, but rather that our attitudes to them ought to be less harsh with respect to judging ourselves and others.

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