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Monday, 13 February 2012
Page: 1039


Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (18:49): I am pleased to rise to move this motion, because the increasing sexualisation of our children is a trend that concerns me greatly, as it does you, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke. I have raised this issue publicly before, both in national debates and in this House, and I have received extensive support from people in the Australian community who share my deep concern about this important issue. One mother from Brisbane, Bridgette, was among many parents and teachers who contacted me to express their support for action on this matter. In expressing her concern about driving past inappropriate billboard advertising with her children in the car, Bridgette said, 'I feel powerless to control these kinds of images.' It was a common theme in the correspondence I received on this matter. While many parents want to be the ones who control their children's exposure to adult content, they feel it is almost impossible to do so. While I understand that this is a complex and difficult issue to address, I believe it is high time that we as a society start to take stock of these significant concerns and work together as a group to ensure that our children can grow and develop in a positive and healthy way.

The motion before us today acknowledges the findings of the Letting children be children: the report of an independent review of the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood commissioned by the government of the United Kingdom and released in June last year. This review draws on evidence collected from the survey of a sample group of 1,198 parents as part of a wider evidence-gathering process. It revealed significant public concern about the sexualisation of young girls and boys through the media and the commercial world.

The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls defines the process of sexualisation as one where a person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal to the exclusion of all other characteristics; a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness with being sexy; a person is sexually objectified or sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. The Letting children be children review found that children are growing up against the backdrop of a culture that is increasingly commercialised and sexualised.

The evidence pointed to widespread public concern in the United Kingdom about children's almost constant exposure to sexualised imagery through billboards, magazines, pre-watershed television programs containing adult themes, music videos depicting sexually explicit dance routines or provocative lyrics, and adult material available on demand through the internet and through the commercial world in the form of advertising and marketing. Images of this kind convey to children a clear message that suggests that women and girls are nothing more than sexual objects.

The report found that many parents felt that these images were becoming increasingly sexualised and gendered and they expressed concern about the influence from exposure to these images on the development and attitudes of their children. As this motion states, the review also found that parents are very concerned about the clothing, services and products being specifically marketed to children, which often reinforce gender stereotypes and portray children as being more sexually mature than their age would suggest. Parents were particularly concerned about the sexualisation of clothes designed for young girls, listing items like padded bras, bikini swimwear, clothing made from fabrics like animal prints and black lace, high-heeled shoes and clothing incorporating suggestive slogans.

Lastly, the review noted that parents often feel their concerns are not taken into account and that little effort is made to assist parents to control what their children are exposed to, despite the fact that they feel they are in the best position to say what is or is not appropriate for their child. As I stated earlier, many parents want to take charge and limit their children's exposure to what they see as adult content but feel powerless to do so.

As stated in the motion, I believe, along with many Australian parents, that the sexualisation of children is a growing issue not just in the United Kingdom but also here, in Australia. A number of reports into this issue conducted by both the Australia Institute and the Senate Standing Committee on the Environment, Communications and the Arts found a high level of public concern about the premature advancement of the sexuality of children caused by their frequent exposure to highly sexualised images of adults as well as pressure to consume products designed to directly sexualise them.

The motion recognises that the sexualisation of children and, in particular, of girls has been associated with a wide range of negative consequences, including body image issues, eating disorders, low self-esteem and mental illness. We all know that viewing images that depict an unrealistic standard of beauty can make us all feel bad. I often feel bad when I open up a magazine and see unrealistic images of women. However, the important point is this: unlike adults, children have not yet developed the cognitive ability to objectively analyse these kinds of images, and so they are particularly vulnerable to this kind of content. While adults are able to determine whether something has been airbrushed or is unrealistic or a person has had their body altered, children are unable to do this.

The report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls presents a summary of the significant body of evidence linking exposure to highly sexualised content with a process of self-objectification, whereby young girls internalise the sexualising images of the culture in which they are developing and start to criticise their own physical selves for failing to conform—which is often impossible—with what is a narrow concept of attractiveness. The report notes that constant attention to one's physical appearance caused by self-objectification can often have a disruptive effect on performance in a range of areas, including schooling, because less time and energy is available for these other tasks. I saw some reports that showed that young girls were unable to attend to their school work because they were obsessing about their bodies.

The report highlights studies showing that young girls exposed to sexualised and gender stereotyped content in magazines and through television can experience low self-esteem and become extremely dissatisfied with and anxious about their bodies. These feelings of inadequacy can then lead to serious health concerns, such as disordered eating.

In addition, research shows that the sexualisation and objectification of girls in society can have significant adverse effects on the attitudes that boys have and on the ways that they perceive and interact with females throughout their lives. Not only can this lead to men struggling to maintain intimate relationships because they have unrealistic expectations of women but it can also teach young boys negative messages about how it is appropriate to treat and interact with girls. Worst of all, it can cause young boys treat women purely as sexual objects. There is little doubt that the frequent exposure of young children to sexualised content leads to a whole range of negative consequences.

The motion before us today urges governments, industries, regulators and the wider community in Australia to take note of this report. But it is also time for action. I believe that as a community, we in Australia, including industry and government, need to work together to address the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood in Australia. We are living in an increasingly sexualised and commercial world. While adults have developed the skills to navigate this—not always successfully, but a lot of the time we are able to navigate, analyse and critically evaluate this material—children can be extremely vulnerable to these influences. As a result, these influences can affect how they develop and determine what kinds of adults they grow up to be.

I do not think that it is any one group's responsibility, and that has been the trouble—one group of people has not been responsible, because it is complex issue. But I believe that we need to raise awareness of this issue. We need to work together. Industry, government, parents and the community need to work together to ensure that as a society we deal effectively with this important issue so that future generations of Australian boys and girls can grow and develop in an environment that promotes positive and healthy messages. Unfortunately, I feel that we are going the other way.

I strongly believe that we need to prevent the increased sexualisation and commercialisation of our children. That is why I am moving this important motion. I notice that there are quite a few speakers on the list. I hope for their support on this motion. I commend the motion to the House.