Don’t teach your babies how to fall in love… @NoPlaceForSheep and Melinda Tankard Reist duke it out

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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.

And thus we have the recurring conflict between Dr Jennifer Wilson and Melinda Tankard Reist (‘MTR’).

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)

5 thoughts on “Don’t teach your babies how to fall in love… @NoPlaceForSheep and Melinda Tankard Reist duke it out

  1. I got interested in what Jennifer Wilson had to say after seeing Ms Reist’s articles on the ABC’s Drum. I found Ms Reist’s approach most disconcerting in that she proselytises against “sexualisation” and “objectification” without ever expanding upon why she thinks that they’re so harmful. She presents no real evidence of harm, nor do she or her supporters tend to entertain questioning on any of the matters we of the great unwashed seem disinclined to automatically agree with them about.

    So apart from what you quoted what I found Reist saying in that episode of Australian Story was “I wish we could see these images as innocent… the pornographic landscape has changed everything”. Given that it came just after Olympia saying “It’s not porn it’s art!” the inference may been taken by some to be endorsing Reist’s interpretation as an adult “cultural commentator” somehow qualifying or refuting Olympia’s declaration. My first thoughts were simply that more contrast was necessary between these two very different takes on the viewer’s gaze if the intention was to remain true to the portrayal of Olympia’s views she it was she about whom the documentary piece was being made.

    I see MTR is now backpedaling with respect to the way she feels her Australian Story segments were cut to make her attitudes to Polexini Papapetrou’s art seem unsympathetic, even while taking a completely unnecessary swipe at Bill Henson.

    The question for my money is what informs the viewer’s gaze and whether indeed our expectations about it are relevant. Dr Wilson and others at least try to examine what motivates our variously positive and negative attitudes towards sexuality in the gaze that we bring to different kinds of images in different contexts. In contrast Reist and others can’t even talk about being sex positive and safe in the same sentence because they seem to see most expressions of sexuality as inherently unsafe. And here I get most frustrated with them because they either can’t or won’t say why.

    You mentioned the furore about MTR tagging Dr Wilson with a defamation threat. The matter as you may well be aware was one of Reist’s religious affiliations. What Ms Wilson wrote was possibly sourced from Leslie Cannold’s blogged biography of MTR, link below.

    http://blog.cannold.com/2011/09/melinda-tankard-reist-biography.html

    So without going over a lot of very old ground, the issues you raise there can’t be reduced to whether Ms Wilson was right or wrong to label Ms Reist incorrectly if the latter refuses to drawn upon the matter of clarification. She denies her religiosity informs her opinions rather hollowly when should she want to be taken seriously she could frankly disclose her beliefs with a view to allaying our suspicions as to why her brand of sexual conservatism seems to track quite so parallel with that of the religious right.

    I’ve read and commented on Jennifer Wilson’s blog on and off over the past year or so. I’ve followed a link here from Forrest Gump wondering as it were what you had to say and whether you might in responding to Dr Wilson’s opinions not also choose to post your question on her blog. just as I have tried to question MTR on her’s in the past, without luck….

    You may also find me somewhat in agreement with you to the extent that I see nothing to celebrate the the rise of the selfie, but nor do I see very much to condemn. I think we probably break the mystique of the popular culture by not overreacting to it in precisely the way it expects to draw attention to itself through soliciting outrage. Maybe the less inhibited kid winds up happier in the long run if they’re not assailed by many of the same sexual hangups I know my generation struggled to overcome.

    • ‘Dr Wilson and others at least try to examine what motivates our variously positive and negative attitudes towards sexuality in the gaze that we bring to different kinds of images in different contexts.’

      This is an interesting quote because I haven’t seen this from Dr Wilson. Admittedly, I only see Dr Wilson’s stuff when she’s saying outlandish things about MTR. This could be my confirmation bias.

      ‘The matter as you may well be aware was one of Reist’s religious affiliations.’

      From memory, it was a bit more than that. I read the passage and could identify from it which church here in Canberra MTR attended. If it had been published about me, I’d have called my lawyer as well.

      ‘So without going over a lot of very old ground, the issues you raise there can’t be reduced to whether Ms Wilson was right or wrong to label Ms Reist incorrectly if the latter refuses to drawn upon the matter of clarification.’

      I don’t quite follow you here.

      ‘She denies her religiosity informs her opinions rather hollowly when should she want to be taken seriously she could frankly disclose her beliefs’

      This is literally an ad hominem attack. The veracity of the propositions is linked to the identity of the author. In some cases, the ad hominem is a legitimate claim (‘my doctor says this; random Internet weirdo says this’) but I’m yet to see why her religious beliefs might be relevant in this context. From the perspective of Hegelian immanent critique, it’s somewhat irrelevant if the position holds on the explicit assumptions.

      ‘and whether you might in responding to Dr Wilson’s opinions not also choose to post your question on her blog’

      I don’t quite follow you here.

      ‘Maybe the less inhibited kid winds up happier in the long run if they’re not assailed by many of the same sexual hangups I know my generation struggled to overcome.’

      I’m not sure that this is an assumption we can make. California, for example, is considering an anti ‘revenge porn’ bill. The idea being that people (typically women) are the victim of having pictures of themselves published in various fora by ex partners who were given ‘sexy’ pictures in trust.

      Thus we get to two points in this conversation: wouldn’t it be great if people were sufficiently relaxed about sex that they could send pictures of themselves to people without fear? wouldn’t it be great if people didn’t feel the need to send pictures of themselves to other people (particularly through the lens of male sexuality which, in turn, is influenced by some extent to the porn industry) in order to feel sexually worthwhile?

      • Dr Wilson is a psychotherapist who spent much of her career working with abuse victims. I felt as such she came to some of the other questions Ms Reist and others were raising at the time with some of the tools to deconstruct the language of sexualisation and objectification being applied, as I came to understand it, far more liberally than I find supportable. In other words I don’t think she’s quite the figure you may imagine her to be if you only come to what she’s written in defence of MTR.

        But it is MTR about whom I guess our opinions most differ. You say if what JW wrote of her was said of you then you’d have “called a lawyer as well”. So I’d ask you the same question I’d ask of MTR if only she’d answer it, why would you call a lawyer rather than simply setting the record straight?

        And this is where I’m not reaching for ad hominem in saying that Reist’s claims that religion don’t inform her opinions ring hollow in the ears of those of us who are expected to simply take her at her word without allowing us the information with which to draw our own conclusions. Reist does make those professions of detachment, and it is difficult to conclude anything about the relationship between her opinions and her faith while she simply self declares it to be moot.

        Maybe that is part of a bigger question I have about MTR. If her opinions were mathematics and she a student then I’d simply want her to show her workings. She’s not showing evidence of using psychology or even very much sociology to establish the platform from which she has something of a record of basically wanting to ban stuff because….. well because its her opinion and if you know that you don’t like certain things then you’re bound to agree with her, until one of them happens to not be something you think should be banned and if you ask why then the answers a vague and unsatisfying and you start to question more an more. Then you encounter others who say her’s isn’t the same feminism they find authentic, and some of them even have answers. Cue JW and Catherine Manning.

        Back to the religion thing because I found myself still questioning motives, and you’ve now more or less asked why it is relevant so I’ll offer a few lines. Christianity is a broad church and as a political term pretty much used to unite communities who’ve been known in the past to fragment along sectarian lines under a single banner mostly behind sexually conservative issues. Its pretty much always being against homosexuality and reproductive rights that causes all the friction. I should state at this point that I’m an atheist if it doesn’t mean I have to argue ontology and an agnostic if it doesn’t seem too much like fence sitting. But I was brought up in a religious family so when I cast a quizzical eye towards somebody who claims “Christianity” then I know how much denominations mean. Your common or garden unitarian will never as the day is long be half the dogmatist that your evangelical baptist creationist is. You can reason with an episcopalian and even some catholics, but with adventists thru mormons you might as well save your breath. To be a fundamentalist of just about any stripe you have to believe things that so shape your opinions that were MTR one then she could not help but be a religious shill.

        I don’t think she is, or seems to be a fundamentalist, but it seems to me that while she keeps mum on the subject she’s all to happy to recruit them since she’s running an agenda that as I said tracks parallel with the christian right.

        I think it;s also implicit in what I’ve written that I disagree with the christian right and some of MTR’s anti-choice views. But let’s also be clear even on a completely atheistic account of our cultural tendencies to prudishness come from somewhere within our collective psyche carried by the taboos and stigmas we’re all quite well aware of regardless of our religious heritage.

        So the dimensions of the question to me are that maybe you can come to some of those cultural tropes by means quite apart from religion, it’s just that the answers to those questions seem to always get lost in hypocrisy and sophistry. There may be emotional intelligence of a sort there but even that fails to receive any real acknowledgement. They may not be religious fundamentalists but they’re practicing a form of presuppositionalism that means they might as well be.

        re: posting on JW’s blog maybe I’m just hinting that you might get more conversation out of her than I’ve ever gotten out of MTR, but either way you don’t have to fear the lair of the beast or anything.

        I have heard mention of the revenge porn thing in the US. I think its going to be as problematic as trying to ban sexting if most of the people who’re caught up are more to be thought of as young and thoughtless than old enough to know better and criminal.

        Whereas in the case of fearing the need to send pictures of themselves without being diminished in their sense of being sexually worthwhile surely that point, as it that of porn, would be to titillate and enjoy whatever sense of flirtatiousness or sexual fantasy that evokes in a sexually satisfying context. Rather than simply assuming there’s guilt and shame in it, because it’s only the male gaze or vice versa and pleasing isn’t as enjoyable as being pleased, my take on it would be that an image shared with me by a person who wishes it shared contains an element of intimacy absent in any other context. So considering that context would build a different understanding of how we use technology to simply be as humans wish to be.

      • P.S. On the revenge porn question it only later occurred to me to ask why it is that so called “pornographic” content can be used to obtain revenge. Clearly it can, but just as clear to me was the realisation that this really ought to be inverted. The notions that any girl who is ever photographed naked can be called a slut, that there’s anything wrong with being a slut anyway, and that slut shaming is something anyone could do without being roundly condemned are all well overdue for a serious comeuppance. So it’s not so much legal recourse that I think I want to see for revenge porn as it is real and genuine social opprobrium.

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