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Tramps like us: Target and modern day misogyny

The sexualisation of children issue – this week vomited up in the form of an attack on Target - encapsulates much of the hideousness of the contemporary political landscape. The debate neglects to acknowledge…

When it comes to sexuality and young girls, the debate is desperately confused. flickr/Andreas Neustifter

The sexualisation of children issue – this week vomited up in the form of an attack on Target - encapsulates much of the hideousness of the contemporary political landscape.

The debate neglects to acknowledge that sexuality is not something foisted on girls by svengali retailers. That girls - young girls - possess a sexuality that exists even without discounted hotpants.

The debate consistently implies that women, that girls, are passive cultural dupes who robotically buy and don anything offered to them. Because they are, quote clearly, morons.

The debate neglects to acknowledge that parenting is the responsibility of parents. Not department stores. Not the state.

The debate places all attention and all responsibility onto the bodies of girls and neglects that viewing children as sex objects is a pastime of parents, of adults, and not their peers.

The debate places disproportionate power onto garments as though cloth can somehow magically make a girl want to have sex and coerce paedophiles to molest her.

I’ve written enough - perhaps too much - about these issues in the past. For this article, I’m interested in the most egregious, but least discussed, aspect: the faux feminism.

Anti-sexualisation mothers groups have framed their conservative diatribes as being feminist; as a promotion of equality and women’s and girls rights. Canny of them, granted, because evidently, the public is far more inclined to swallow “feminist” rationales for whinging and boycotts, rather than the closer-to-the-truth reality that female sexuality continues to frighten to horses and is best remedied with hessian sacks.

This week and the email that ignited the Target furore perfectly summarised just how unfeminist and misogynist the childhood sexualisation wowsers are.

The whole palaver started with one woman claiming Target was selling clothing that made girls look like tramps.

Tramp is not a neutral or innocuous word. And mothers aren’t using it to pretend that clothing could turn their precious daughters into vagabonds. Instead, they’re tapping into the sex work connotations of the word. They don’t want their daughters to be like prostitutes. (Cue the misogynist assumptions about the worth and the ethics, the morals and the dress sense of sex workers).

The dedication of my book Part-Time Perverts was a simple one, referencing the lyrics of one of my favourite Springsteen songs:

For tramps like us.

The Boss was likely thinking about vagabonds, but my preoccupation was how often tramp is used to criticise, condemn and demonise women. How sex is continually the distinction between those who deserve respect and those who don’t.

Listen to the faux-feminists and there is no-one more loathsome, more abhorrent, more an encapsulation of everything that is wrong in our culture than the sex worker. And apparently it’s perfectly justifiable to point to her as the absolute most hideous thing a girl could be.

I’m not sure what this nonsense is best described as, but I’m thinking “feminism” is one big bloody stretch.

I’m pro-legalised sex work. But let’s pretend for a moment that I’m not. Let’s pretend that I can stick my head in the sand and play the radical feminist game of militant abhorrence until it all spontaneously goes away. Is the sex worker herself still not worthy of our respect?

If we lived in a world where sex workers were treated decently and with dignity, then perhaps the wowsers' slurs wouldn’t be so repulsive. Alas, in the process of trying to “save the children” and wage the pseudo-feminist good fight, in turn an entire other group of women are being considered as worthy of contempt.

I’m not sure what’s worse: a child dressed as someone’s deranged caricature of a prostitute or the delusion that using a word like tramp to insult is even remotely in line with the equality tenets of feminism.

Feminism can’t be about women’s rights to use misoygnistic language against each other.

Join the conversation

30 Comments sorted by

  1. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Thanks, Lauren. I admire your stance, but I don't see this issue as anything to do with faux-feminism but everything to do with a combination of extreme risk-aversion and exaggerated moral outrage. I also see it as part of the so-called "Mommy wars".

    As we've seen with various topics on this site, there is extreme competition in parenting these days - one must go "natural" at all costs, never promote cesareans or question breast-feeding benefits. An adequate mother baby-wears, exclusively breast-feeds…

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  2. Kate Rowan-Robinson

    Registered Nurse/Sexology Student

    I often wonder why people are so against prostitution as a career for their kids. When I look at my line of work it is rather similar: I position people intimately, I handle bodily fluids, do the clean up, smile nicely and make the bed. And prostitutes get paid many times more an hour than I do.

    What's so bad about that?

    I do agree with the articles sentiment. Since when is creating a fuss about the lengths of girls shorts a show of feminism? Surely, in the name of feminism, we should be telling young girls and boys they can dress, how they choose, without retribution. Feminisim is about empowerment and equality, not degrading and limiting young girls because of their clothing choice.

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    1. Lynne Newington

      Researcher

      In reply to Kate Rowan-Robinson

      A career for children?
      Even the word "sex workers" is has a certain element of ... I wonder if they would prefer to be called "comfort women", in fact that's what they are.
      One only hopes they are treated as such.

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    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Lynne Newington

      Couldn't agree more Kate.

      Sex work is hardly ever mentioned in the vocational guidance advice suggestions made at least in the state school system. "Sharon would make an excellent lap dancer." "Ronald has obvious talents as a rent boy". Pity really isn't it?

      Perhaps it's because the whole business is just too equalising, too empowering... too "feminist" for the patriarchy to come at.

      Or is it because there is simply no suitable vocational training for sex workers. It is an industry open…

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    3. Kate Rowan-Robinson

      Registered Nurse/Sexology Student

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Haha, I just don't understand why anyone would urge their kiddie into nursing, when prostitution would offer approximately the same experience, offer much better security if undertaken in a legit way and certainly pays much better. Nursing does offer more respect, but only slightly, by some.

      "Comfort Women" of the "Federated Fork Hawkers" (best giggle I've had all day), sponsered by Target. Why not?

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    4. Shauna Murray

      Research Fellow at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Biggest giggle I have had all day.
      Thanks Peter and Lauren for the laugh....
      I'm thankful my daughter is too young to understand any of this, and once she's a teen, we're moving to outer Mongolia.

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    5. Diana Brown

      Parent; language student

      In reply to Kate Rowan-Robinson

      Kate said above, "Surely, in the name of feminism, we should be telling young girls and boys they can dress, how they choose, without retribution."

      Is that feminism, or liberalism? I don't think the two are the same.

      I wonder whether the writer of the article has any children of her own.
      Just askin.

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    6. Kate Rowan-Robinson

      Registered Nurse/Sexology Student

      In reply to Diana Brown

      Diana, I understand the difference between the two, I suppose it comes down to my personal interpretation of feminism, which is to empower women to be able to have the same equal opportunities as men.

      I mentioned boys as well due to hearing an interview with the outraged parent that started all of this, saying she didn't believe black clothes or clothes with skulls on it was appropriate for young boys of the same age group. I don't believe young boys should be told how to dress or labelled, as much as the girls shouldn't be.

      I don't understand why it's necessary to ask if the author has children - surely one doesn't need children to qualify for an opinion on the debate?

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    7. Diana Brown

      Parent; language student

      In reply to Kate Rowan-Robinson

      Of course one doesn't need practical experience to have an opinion on anything, it's just that a parent will inevitably have a particular dimension of experience unavailable to those who are not parents, and for that reason I am more interested in the opinions of people who are parents when it comes to issues like this one.

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  3. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Heavens! An attack on Target - how utterly hideous our society has become when respectable retailers like Target can be willfully assailed without fear of reprisal. I mean the utter check, customers daring to post a comment on a facebook page complaining about the range of goods on offer. Clearly this was nothing more than a disguised attack on the professional integrity of the sex workers.

    Is nothing sacred?

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  4. Eamon Vale

    eLearning Designer

    This is a complicated issue and your article doesn't do anything but offer an angry opinion on it.

    You have made no attempt to link your statements with research (what does linking your assertion that young girls possess a sexuality to a previous article of yours on the matter achieve?) or other relevant material and you seem to jump from one debate to another.

    I don't think the Mother who used the word 'tramp' described herself as a feminist (perhaps she did) and I don't know what any of it has to do with 'radical feminists' and their alleged hate of sex workers. I say alleged because you don't offer any examples so I have to take your word that they exist.

    Honestly I think the Conversation can do better than opinion pieces like this and the proof of that can be found in its other article on the issue (the first issue that is not the faux-feminists).

    https://theconversation.edu.au/should-girls-have-to-choose-between-being-a-tramp-and-being-good-7418

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    1. In reply to Eamon Vale

      Comment removed by moderator.

  5. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    An incredible article, that helps define the lines between feminists and everyone else.

    While boys are concentrating on football, surfing, skateboarding or anything that has wheels, girls want to be seen and noticed, particularly by boys who seem to be concentrating on other things.

    So there needs to be new and inventive ways for girls to be seen and noticed, and clothes shops such as Target may provide just that.

    Well done feminism.

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    1. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      "boys are concentrating on football, surfing, skateboarding or anything that has wheels"

      Are you serious, Dale? Boys of this age-group are concentrating on nintnedos, wiis, laptops and anything that has screens. Just like the girls are. And lots of both sexes are playing soccer.

      It's no longer "Mary can cook, John can jump" you know.

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    2. Gary Myers

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      By the 'under-10s' all the girls dropped out of soccer at our local club. They're all round the netball courts now.
      There's still massive self-segregation between girls and boys interests.

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Sue Ieraci
      Of course you are correct.

      Society should be so over the time when people are labelled girls and boys, and clothes stores should not be making any distinctions betwen the two.

      Everyone should be seen and noticed, and not just girls.

      Gonna use my arms,
      Gonna use my legs,
      Gonna use my style,
      Gonna use my side-step-
      Gonna use my fingers.
      Gonna use my, my, my, imagination.

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    4. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Gary Myers

      Not sure where you live, Gary - but ours are moving away from netball towards soccer.

      Not sure whether the actual sport matters, so much as getting them away from those screens...

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  6. Markie Linhart

    Rouleur

    "…They don’t want their daughters to be like prostitutes…"
    This issue isn't just confined to Target and tween's clothing.
    Earlier this year at the Ballarat City International Foto Biennale there was hung a series of hauntingly beautiful photographs taken by Czech photographer Jan Saudek.
    Due a single complaint regarding one of the photographs - Black Sheep, White Crow - which was claimed to promote child prostitution, was removed by the organisers apparently fearful for future funding.
    The mother in the photograph is the Saudek's daughter-in-law was quite bemused by all the fuss…
    http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/08/22/3299449.htm

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  7. Dan Fashaw

    Student

    'parenting is the responsibility of parents. Not department stores. Not the state.'

    Thaaaaaaank you

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  8. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email @internode.on.net

    It'd be nice to have some expert comment here about the developmental and mental health impacts of early exposure to media depictions not only of hyped up sexuality but also of violence and other grim realities.

    My guess is that the incensed mothers probably have a better appreciation of the age appropriate developmental needs of their children than do the retailers of lucrative popular fashion.

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    1. Eamon Vale

      eLearning Designer

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      I agree Fred.

      I would also like to add that although I agree with the article that people are not 'passive dupes' that does not mean that Target and other brand advertising are simply 'reflecting' consumer needs, desires etc. Advertising aims to create these needs and desires in order to increase consumption (that is why Target invests in it). The effects of advertising are not benign and although I don't agree with the value connotations inherent in the use of the word 'tramp' a rejection of brand advertising and desire/need creation should not be so quickly dismissed.

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  9. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    This I venture most people can agree with: "I’m not sure what’s worse: a child dressed as someone’s deranged caricature of a prostitute or the delusion that using a word like tramp to insult is even remotely in line with the equality tenets of feminism." In this prose the adjectives, descriptors and similes are vital.

    This, I agree with but have some philosophical, not pragmatic, issues with: "Feminism can’t be about women’s rights to use misoygnistic [sic] language against each other." If feminism doesn't include the right to appropriate misogynistic language against other women, then it ain't very feminist. But having the right does not mean that one should exercise the right either as a matter of course or indiscriminately, or at all: indeed, feminism might include knowing when not to exercise some rights that explicitly or implicitly denigrate other women, whether wives, mothers, tramps or tarts, as women.

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  10. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Lauren writes:

    "The debate neglects to acknowledge that sexuality is not something foisted on girls by svengali retailers. That girls – young girls – possess a sexuality that exists even without discounted hotpants."

    I think that statement is true. As someone who parented two children to healthy adulthood, one female, I would agree that young girls do have what could be described as a sexuality. It's a delicate business ... all mixed up with dreams, fairytales, biology, fantasy, imagination…

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  11. Margo Saunders

    Public Health Policy Researcher

    Many young girls are either given the freedom to buy their own clothes or essentially govern those purchases. So whatever you may think about 'pester power' in relation to food purchasing, it also exists in powerful forms (eg, 'But Mum, that's what all of the popular girls wear...') in relation to other purchases, including clothes, which are so closely linked to visible identity. But I decided some time ago that the battle was lost: the precise moment being when I realised that teen and pre-teen girls were proudly parading around wearing clothes and jewellry bearing the Playboy rabbit logo -- to my generation, the symbol of sexual objectification and the last thing in the world that any self-respecting Australian female would want to identify with or support. Such is the power of marketing, and of innocence.

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  12. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Of course, if you lived in Bangaldesh and wanted a career as a sex worker all you'd need to do would be to be born inside the 600 woman compound called the City of Joy. A photo essay of the City of Joy (Bangladesh), the Fish Tank (Thailand) and a Mexican bordello are available at Mother Jones:

    http://www.motherjones.com/photoessays/2012/07/ghettos-desire/waiting-brothel

    There's a text that accompanies the essay but me, I'll stick with Berger's enjoinder to "see what is there" when reading art.

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  13. Baljeet Degun

    IT Consultant, Community Activist & Volunteer

    Off topic, but... I'd love to see an article on male feminism. Then I'd understand my place in the world a bit better :)

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Laboratory Analyst

      In reply to Baljeet Degun

      What is male feminism baijeet, men who like women, men who want to empower women, men who have read the female eunuch?

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