The Power of One: Melinda Tankard Reist
“Sex sells,” as the old advertising saw goes. But according to Australian writer and activist Melinda Tankard Reist, sexploitation in the media comes at the expense of children’s well-being.
Tankard Reist has talked to thousands of parents, teachers, and kids about the effects of provocative images and pornography on children. She says her talks are filled with “me too” moments and stories that bring her message to life in troubling ways.
“I hear about children acting out sexually on other children, and little girls gyrating and acting like porn stars,” Tankard Reist said. “There’s terrible pressure on girls, especially, to style themselves and to pose in provocative ways [on Instagram].”
A journalist by background, Tankard Reist made it her mission to uncover stories she thought weren’t getting enough attention. She was particularly struck by how little was written about the sexualization of girls. So, she wrote—or rather edited—the book on it. Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009) brought together experts on the effects of premature sexualization and the flawed messages kids absorb about sex and body image.
Some research has shown that the sexualization of children and adolescents in the media can lead to an increased risk of depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem, particularly in adolescent girls. These effects occurred when kids saw other minors dressed and posed in a provocative manner in the media or when they were exposed to sexualized pop culture intended for adults.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘We know what the research says. We know porn culture is harmful to our children. We know it’s forcing them to grow up too soon. But where is the grassroots, oppositional campaign to bring about change and cultural transformation?’” Tankard Reist recalls.
So, she founded Collective Shout. Eight years later, the movement is a well-known opponent of advertising that objectifies and sexualizes women and girls. One of the movement’s major goals is to transform the advertising industry’s self-regulatory system in favor of a system where experts in child welfare, development, and psychology weigh in on ad content to ensure it’s safe for kids.
Each holiday season, Collective Shout releases a blacklist of corporate offenders that have used sexploitation in their advertising or business practices. The idea is to help shoppers vote with their wallets, while putting pressure on companies like Hooters, Amazon, and Honey Birdette, an Australia-based lingerie store.
Tankard Reist also hopes to see Australia adopt something like the recent policy embraced by the U.K. government to keep porn out of reach of kids and teens. Starting this April, porn sites in the U.K. will require pre-entry age verification using a system called AgeID that will store names, phone numbers, and addresses.
Critics of efforts to regulate hypersexualized media suggest it’s the parents’ responsibility to keep kids from accessing inappropriate content. But Tankard Reist points to too-sexy images on billboards and shop windows, which kids can’t help but see. Most recently, Collective Shout took on Sexpo, an Australia-based “Health, Sexuality, and Lifestyle Expo” that advertised on the sides of buses kids used to ride to school. (As a result of the protest, Collective Shout is now in the middle of a lawsuit initiated by Sexpo.)
“People say it’s up to the parents. Well, what do we do, close our eyes when we go out in the public domain because of what we might see?” Tankard Reist said. “It is in the vested interest of businesses, corporations, and the sex industry to put everything on the parents. Then they don’t have to behave ethically; they can do whatever they want.”
Tankard Reist said her biggest professional victory is raising awareness of an issue many parents felt uncomfortable talking about. “Even five years ago, you didn’t hear much about sexualization, pornification, or porn culture,” she said. “We built a movement that has now established that language in the public lexicon.”
A parent of four herself, Tankard Reist is hopeful that Australia and the rest of the world will begin to adopt a community approach to protecting kids from the side effects of sexploitation. As she put it, “It is too hard for parents, in the current culture, to raise happy, healthy, resilient children on their own.”
Five Questions for Melinda Tankard Reist
Where were you born, and where do you live now?
I was born in the state of Victoria. I’m a farmer’s daughter and a country girl by background. Right now, I live in Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory.
What was your childhood like?
I had a very free-range childhood. I grew up on a farm, and I had horses and motorbikes and cats and dogs, and I took a bath once a week whether I needed it or not.
What’s your parenting style?
I tried to give my kids exposure to the broader world. There’s a tendency to narcissism, because that’s what the culture encourages, so I’ve tried to help my kids see that there’s a bigger picture, and they can be part of making it better.
What was your first job?
A journalist for a country paper in Mildura, Victoria, where I grew up.
Who has been most influential to you?
The people who are influential to me aren’t famous or well-known; they are women who have survived horrendous experiences. My last book is called Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, and how those women survived is very inspiring to me.
April 9, 2018 at 6:30 pm
Join Child’s World America and Melinda Tankard Reist for “Too Much Too Young: The Sexualization of Our Children & What We Can Do About It”.
Have you noticed that your children seem to be growing up too fast? That they are worried about their appearance and more aware of sexual issues at earlier stages?