This article has been edited by the author from the version originally published. (January 2019)
Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls
Edited by Melinda Tankard Reist
Spinifex Press, North Melbourne, 2009, 208pp.
I would love to be able to say that ‘Getting Real’ exaggerates the problems facing young girls, and that the sexualization of our culture has only impacted the ‘consenting’. But tragically, this is not the case. Sex is everywhere. ‘Sexy’ is the new normal. And sexual naivety is being taken from our children all too soon. This is not something that Christians can just ignore, in the hope that it will go away. This is an issue that Christians and churches must address.
Getting Real is thus an important resource in starting a conversation, and raising awareness. The basic argument of the book is that the media is contributing to a horrific and damaging sexualization of younger and younger girls. It is not just that we’re being fed the idea that sex is good—have it with whoever, whenever—but that girls and boys alike are being groomed by a pornified culture into an understanding of sexuality that is all about girls being ‘service-stations’ to boys. Getting Real argues that the media objectifies women in a way that teaches boys that they can get what they want, and girls that their significance and womanhood rests almost exclusively on their sex appeal.
Getting Real is a compilation of essays, written from a range of secular perspectives—from psychology to parenthood, advocacy to research, sexual ethics to feminist theory. With fourteen individual essays, there is a wide range of content covered, and some chapters are much more useful than others. I shall briefly overview the most helpful chapters of the book, and then offer some suggestions for engaging with the resource in a Christian context.
The editor of Getting Real, Melinda Tankard-Reist, is well known in Christian circles for her confronting and counter-cultural work in areas such as abortion and medical eugenics. In Getting Real, her Christian faith is not articulated, but she writes a confronting introduction to the issue of sexualization—revealing the problem and helping the reader to see the corrupt and pornified trajectory our culture is following. Also worth reading is the chapter by Maggie Hamilton, which makes the political, personal, and shows what a sex-saturated culture does to the health and development of girls. Clive Hamilton’s chapter, though less engaged with the sexualization of girlhood, is a fascinating re-assessment of contemporary sexual ‘freedom’, arguing that our current society is one of the least sexy and least autonomous to have existed. Melissa Farley, writing on the media’s glamorization of prostitution, helped me to see that porn isn’t just a ‘guy issue’—it actually influences the way girls present themselves, regardless of whether or not they view it firsthand. Finally, the chapter by Steve Biddulph provides an insightful father’s perspective, and offers some helpful advice to parents.
All the essays within Getting Real raise pressing questions and reveal disturbing problems, and these five essays I felt, particularly so. However, whilst Getting Real is excellent at asking questions and stimulating thought, it can’t be our sole resource for tackling this issue. As a secular book, written primarily to influence the public sphere, it is not offering—nor pretending to offer—the diagnosis and cure of the gospel. But as we seek to disciple people, we must offer them this.
In particular, we need to expose our young people to the problem within. Books like Getting Real are fantastic for opening our eyes to the perpetual assaults on teenage self–esteem, assaults that we ought rightly to condemn. But the secular perspective fails to identify the extent of human sin. Women, and even young girls, aren’t just victims of society’s sin. We’re also the perpetrators.1 For Tanya Andrusiak, the problem with society is: “[w]e reject the truth that women are perfect without the constant dieting, waxing, buying and dyeing.” But if our young women are going to embrace the forgiveness and new identity offered in Christ, they need first to see extent of their spiritual imperfection. They need to see the desperateness of their condition without Christ.
Self-esteem that is based on something ‘within’—whether physical appearance, character or ability, will always be faulty self-esteem. Teenage girls will never be fulfilled so long as they are taught to look within themselves. A healthy, biblical self-esteem comes from an understanding of oneself in light of the created and redeemed order, in light of being created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:27) and in light of being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18). It is the knowledge that though sinful, fallen wretches, girls are valuable because they have been valued by God, and it liberates them from the desperate struggle to prove themselves worthy.
Understanding the extent of the problem within also affects our pursuit of solutions. Getting Real suggests many profitable activities that Christians can take part in, such as advocacy, consumer boycots, teaching media literacy, political lobbying, nourishing resilience, and parental action. I will discuss a few of these in closing. But as Christians, we need to remember that we can’t legislate or educate the world from fallen to flawless. Only Jesus brings real, deep and lasting change. And so as we consider the effect of sexualization on those whom we are discipling, we need to keep pointing them to Jesus. Whilst we shouldn’t ignore the insights of secular psychologists or activists, we mustn’t completely outsource sexual ethics to professionals. We need to use the insights they provide critically, bringing the gospel to bear on the issues they raise.
With this qualification in mind, Getting Real is a must-read, especially for anyone in ministry to teenage girls. Perhaps too often in Christian culture we see the sexualization of our society—the billboards, the porn, the advertisements—and we think, how are we going to help our boys to stay pure? What we tell our girls is often informed by our agenda for boys. While this is incredibly important, Getting Real gets us thinking about our girls. How are we going to help them to stay pure, and not to sell out to a prostituted version of themselves? How are we going to help them to see that Christian modesty is not just about a few basic clothing rules, but about choosing to go against an entire society and seek godliness over sexiness? How are we going to help them to see that they are complete in Christ even when everyone else is telling them they need a boyfriend and a perfect body?
Getting Real could be a wonderful book for getting these issues on the agendas of parents, ministers and youth group leaders. As mentioned earlier, the book makes several suggestions that Christians could take to heart: making specific complaints to the Advertising Standards Board, giving girls and women magazines to read that are not full of unrealistic images, parents monitoring a child’s use of television or the internet, and older women spending more time with younger girls to give them healthy role models.2
But perhaps the most important point of the book, and particularly from a Christian perspective, is the argument made for media literacy. While boundaries are helpful, Christian girls (and indeed boys) need to be told more than what they can and cannot watch, read or listen to. They need to be taught how to interpret the messages they are receiving, so that, in Melissa Farley’s words, “they learn to counteract toxic messages about their sexuality”. Some years ago now, I gave a Christian article analysing Twilight to a 15 year old girl I mentor (who is slightly obsessed with that series of books & movies). She lapped it up, and realised for the first time all these things about what the movie was saying—some of which I had assumed were obvious. Her youth and newness to the Christian faith left her so vulnerable to false messages.
In my view, the biggest take-home point of Getting Real is to teach girls discernment. Girls need to have the gospel preached to them, and taught to distinguish between truth and error, between godly living and worldly culture. Though facing their own unique set of problems, teenage girls need what everyone else needs in our congregations, that is, to have faithful men and women proclaiming Christ, “warning everyone, and teaching everyone”3, that they too may be presented mature.
2 While he doesn’t specifically suggest this, Steve Biddulph laments that “Girls today spend perhaps one tenth of the time in conversation and company of older women than they would have even fifty years ago”.