There’s a certain kind of moral crusader whose response to any kind of issue seems more like a pathology than an expression of will. Like magnesium in hydrochloric acid, they bubble and foam with inflammable gas.
Although I disagree with a lot of what MTR claims, she definitely gets more than her fair share of abuse. Most of it is gendered. Back in January 2012, two fairly prominent Australian male writers, Justin Shaw and Ben Pobjie, responded to MTR’s anti-porn stance with claims that she just needed to orgasm (with a fire-hose, if necessary) and that she needed to watch porn through a man’s eyes. Dr Wilson went one step further and began to publish personal information about MTR. It was difficult to know why she did this, if not for the purpose of intimidation.
The latest outrage concerns MTR’s appearance on ABC’s Australian Story:
The sudden appearance of Ms Tankard Reist in the middle of what had, up till then, been an engrossing portrait of a loved-filled, creative family life complete with what I suspect were rescued greyhounds, was something akin to the shocking effects felt at the manifestation of a bad fairy at a joyous christening. [Source: Wilson, J. ‘Dark vision: the world of Melinda Tankard Reist‘, No Place for Sheep]
Hours dreadful and things strange, indeed. A falcon, towering in her pride of place, was by a mousing owl hawk’d at and kill’d. Horses turn’d wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out, contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would make war with mankind. ‘Tis said they ate each other.
Retreating from the overblown theatrics, it is difficult to know precisely the nature of Dr Wilson’s complaint.
In other places, MTR’s claim has been a very precise one: our culture is more sexualised than that of recent generations, thus depictions of nudity need to be viewed through this lens. Although individual items of art might not be sexualised, in the context of our modern culture, they become so.
On Australian Story, however, the claim was more specific:
I came across Olympia Nelson’s piece on the scourge of the selfie in The Age, and I was just so impressed that a girl of that age had perfectly captured this climate of exhibitionism in which girls are being pressured to send sexual images to please the boys primarily. […] If we don’t help girls to see that they are so much more than how hot they look in a selfie image, we’re just setting them up for failure and you know, are surprised that this generation of girls is beset by anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, body image dissatisfaction. [Source: ‘Turning the Gaze‘, Australian Story, ABC Television]
What’s quoted there is the entirety of MTR’s contribution to the show. Here’s Dr Wilson’s critique:
We have, whether we realise it or not, had our capacity to gaze innocently upon the young stolen from us by pedophiles. In some abominable alchemical exchange, that gaze has been replaced with their dark and evil vision, and most of us do not even know what we have lost. Obviously, it is up to Melinda to tell us.
I don’t know about everybody else, but when I see a naked child the last thing that comes to mind is sex. I don’t think, oh my, that child is sexualised!Heavens, I even take photos of my grandsons with their willies out and their gorgeous naked buttocks that I could just kiss and kiss!
Set against the backdrop of Olympia and her family, Tankard Reist’s message has never sounded so insanely deviant. Of course there are situations in which girls are exploited and abused. But to lose the ability to tell one thing from another is a dangerous tragedy. Most of us retain that ability. Tankard Reist does not. In warning us of the loss of the innocent gaze, she reveals only that hers is lost. Mine is not and no matter how many pornographic images I’m bombarded with, it will never be lost. [Source]
Is it even in the ballpark of being relevant? Naked children? Kissing the buttocks of naked children? Say what?
It really doesn’t matter what MTR said, the response was going to be the same. MTR says that young girls are encouraged to be exhibitionists, focusing on how they look for the benefit (and from the perspective of) young boys. Not an unreasonable statement.
Dr Wilson: ‘Tankard Reist’s message has never sounded so insanely deviant.’
The problem — which Dr Wilson refused to engage — is how we can encourage a sex-positive society which is also safe. The lack of safety takes two forms. First, exploitation. How do we know that people are consenting to be part of a sexual expression when we have deeply ingrained, systemic, and — worst of all — practically invisible forms of pressuring people to take part? There’s an unresolved tension between paternalistic interventions and laissez faire abandonment: should we prevent everybody from taking part in an activity in order to protect the vulnerable, or should we let grown adults form their own decisions based on whatever dominant ideology is operating at the time (even if that means the vulnerable get exploited)?
The second aspect of safety concerns the creep from the sexualised parts of culture into the non-sexualised part. What is the difference between a picture of a naked child and child pornography? Is it the intent? If so, is it the intent of the creator or the viewer that matters? Is it even possible for the creator to present the human body — of whatever age — in a non-sexualised way given the dominance of sexuality in our culture? Is there a divide between porn and art? What shields the non-sexualised parts of our culture from the sexualised parts? Parts of our culture which we previously thought were not sexualised are clearly being colonised by marketers, and I’m not sure that I want my kids learning about sex from the advertising industry. Does that mean that I have to teach my kids about sex earlier than I would have otherwise simply so that I’m not gazumped by advertisers? And so on and so forth.
I’m not backing a horse either which way in these two issues, but I think that they’re open questions over which two morally excellent people could disagree. In the case of ‘Turning the Gaze’, these questions were directly relevant. Are young women being pressured to take part in a sexualised culture in which they do not own their sexuality? Regardless of what Dr Wilson thinks of MTR’s many other views, MTR was being directly relevant and helpful to the discussion.
Obscure song lyric title: Half in Shadow, by Prom (listen to it here)
- Dark vision: the world of Melinda Tankard Reist (noplaceforsheep.com)
- Courage is Contagious (cjbailee.wordpress.com)
- Teen Olympia Nelson takes stand against sexualised selfie photos (abc.net.au)