My research about queer women and media has been selected the winner of the Lesbian Unpublished Manuscript Award by the Association for Women in Psychology! I’ll present my findings and analysis at the conference in 2014.
Are you a lesbian, bisexual, or queer woman (cisgender or transgender) and 25-40 years old? If so, you are invited to participate in a 90 minute focus group about sexualization of women and girls in media.
This focus group will take place on the campus of UMass Boston. Your name and identity will be kept confidential in all study-related material.
Participants will receive compensation for their participation in the form of a gift card to Amazon.com for $25.00.
The principal investigator in this study is Renee Randazzo (Renee.Randazzo001@umb.edu or 207-266-8725), supervised by Dr. Sharon Lamb. This study has been approved by the UMB Institutional Review Board.
Your ideas and experiences are important!
Lesbian, bisexual, and queer women are often underrepresented.
Please contribute your voice.
I have been unapologetically feminist since birth, as far as I can tell. Then again, considering my developing consciousness as a simultaneously autonomous and vulnerable being housed in a female body, I’m not sure how I could not be. Nobody knows my value better than I, and any assertion that contests my experience of myself as fully human was perceived as absurdly ignorant and unjust from my earliest ability to grasp such concepts.
Sadly, representations of girls and women as less than fully human populated my environment from day one. My discomfort with sexualization of the female body in media emerged the moment I was first exposed to it, and expressing feminism for me meant vocalizing my objection to such images and envisioning alternatives. By age 7, I was proposing advertising campaigns that positioned women as authorities on their own experiences, represented women as diverse in every way, and positioned women as independent of what I now understand as the “male gaze.” (Of course, at age 7, any discourse critiquing the consumer culture that organized my world into commodified fetishes had not yet been discovered. Many frameworks, like that of capitalism, stood as unquestioned truths.)
At age 33, I am still growing up. As a good friend of mine stated, gaining knowledge is not a process of receiving an ultimate Truth, but is instead a creative process of constant re-interpretation of representations. My feminism is an ongoing journey of revising interpretations of dominant discourses and their alternatives, and re-imagining my position in relation to concepts. While my awareness of my full humanity remains constant, my understanding of my sexuality has evolved over time with such subtle shifts and grand metamorphoses as an ocean amidst the fluctuations of the weather. Even today, I have not landed in a subject position that grants me comfort with a label. Undesirable, sexy, heterosexual, lesbian, pansexual, monogamous, polyamorous, promiscuous, celibate… all of these have felt appropriate at one time or another, yet none of these has ever felt complete.
Along with my sexual behavior, what has required constant renegotiation in my mind as my sexuality continues to morph is my feminism. What was once a objection to commodifying narrowly defined female sex appeal in media, felt as a clear threat to my sense of self as a fully human woman, is now a stance muddled with complexities. My certainty that I am a person whose value comes from forces other than my sexual attractiveness to men now must exist alongside other convictions, including: I am a mature sexual being with a right to express it; Women can be sexually desirable, both aesthetically and relationally; and, Sex with men need not be defined by my culture’s toxic gender stereotypes. These truths are not always easy to reconcile, and as my sense of identity changes so do the ways in which I engage in feminism.
Understanding feminism for me means understanding sexism’s detrimental impact and working to support younger feminists (primarily adolescent girls) in their creative processes of constant re-interpretation. I would consider my work successful if women’s coming of age was no longer marked by shame about their bodies’ deviations from narrow Western standards of attractiveness. I would celebrate if girls and women’s realities were shaped by their true knowledge of their value, deriving from forces as multiple and variable as their imaginations can allow. I would jump for joy if girls and women would honor their own desire, pleasure, and subjectivity in their sexual lives, even as it continuously evolves within and in opposition to cultural discourses of what is “normal” or “allowed.”
The power of discourse to shape what is “normal” or “allowed” organizes my journey into chapters of adherence, exception, and outright resistance. Sexualization of girls and women in media, i.e. imposing narrowly defined sex appeal as the only measure of women’s value, is widely understood to be harmful to girls, leading to increased eating disorders, depression, and lower self-esteem. The discourse that casts girls and women solely as sexual objects for men still dominates our cultural narratives, and it is a force we must resist. It is a force we must support young people in learning to resist. We absolutely must provide alternative discourses and images about gender, sexuality, and value lest young people grow up believing that sexism constitutes Truth. We must teach resistance.
Yet, the discourse that opposes sexualization is not without its shortcomings. Developed in large part by feminists of a generation before mine, the efficacy of anti-sexualization discourse is compromised by its tendency to seem anti-sex. It frequently ignores the question, if we are to resist the sex stereotypes media sells us, how do we express our authentic sexuality? How are we to honor our desires, pleasures, and subjectivities if our only framework is one organized to resist a dominant discourse rather than promote a multiplicity of alternative visions? Knowing what I oppose does not constitute knowing what I endorse or what I want.
It was during a phase of intense scrutiny of this question that I met Dr. Sharon Lamb, a slightly older feminist with deeper frameworks to offer me. While I described the search for “authentic” or “healthy” female sexuality, citing Jaclyn Friedman’s latest book as a guide to help women discover such a thing on their own, Dr. Lamb began a gentle process of illuminating the pitfalls of “authenticity” discourse. To speak as though an authentic sexuality exists inside awaiting our discovery is to consider it fixed and stable, existing independent of social forces. This is simply not so, and no attempt to define “authentic” sexuality will endure poststructuralist scrutiny no matter how strategic we might find the concept as something to which we aspire. Sexual desire is and will always be shaped by cultural narratives, and we have no way of conceiving of its “pure” form because none of us can be isolated from our environments and networks of relationships to people, ideas, and discourses.
While the discourse of sexism gets away with twisting perceptions to create consumers, the discourse of feminism must never resort to over-simplifications of the mechanisms that turn language into understanding. Unlike sexism, feminism can’t be packaged and sold. The complexity of its implications is unavoidable. And yet we attempt to reach the same audience, namely youth, to support their enlightenment about just how twisted sexism is.
Since that fateful first meeting with Dr. Lamb, I have felt compelled to reconcile my wish for a successful campaign to bring feminism to young people (by demystifying the sexualization imposed by dominant discourses) with my understanding that resistant and alternative sexualities are never static, pre-discursive, nor easily defined. It is a balance between two truths that I aspire to maintain, especially as her guidance brings me more opportunities to work directly with youth.
Just as other discourses do, the discourse of authenticity functions to create reality, and perhaps the reality it creates simply by prompting and encouraging people to envision “authenticity” is a positive alternative to popular cultural discourses that sexualize girls and women. In fact, if discourse creates subject positions, it behooves us to build on the discourse of authenticity in service of future generations so that they have an alternative way of thinking to the ones consumer culture reinforces. Promoting “authentic” and “healthy” sexuality can be instrumental despite its shortcomings, namely, its reliance on pre-discursive truths. The key is to refrain from imposing how we might define these concepts, recognize that our definitions are formed in adherence, exception, or outright resistance to the narratives of our world, and instead allow young people the supportive space to wrestle with definitions on their own.
A discourse about authenticity, when constructed as a journey rather than a destination, mirrors discourses of spirituality across religious traditions by calling for a receptivity to an “inner voice,” one whose desires align with moral principles, connectivity to web of life, and purpose or life’s work. Authenticity discourse can substitute for discourses about spirituality among those who do not wish to invoke theological frameworks. With increasing emotional maturity comes the ability to ascribe salience to some desires and pleasures over others, and with increasing social consciousness comes the impetus to honor our own subjectivity and that of our sexual partners in every interaction. Authentic sexuality is not a gem to be unearthed by digging through layers of lies; it is a decision to grapple forever more with how we position ourselves within the frameworks at our disposal, how we invent new frameworks out of the raw ingredients of the human experience, and how we share the simultaneous autonomy and vulnerability of our full humanity with others.
Some, like me, may never find a comfortable resting place in this journey. Every label, narrative, and discourse will fall short of conveying all that is true about my sexuality. Nonetheless, my sexuality is one of many parts of me that I consider worthy of celebration, even as it seems to transform and evolve right before my eyes. Each day, I decide again to move forward with creating my identity with attention to an inner voice and a certainty that the meanings I make of my felt experiences are a welcome alternative to those of a woman for whom rampant sexualization in media has instilled self-hatred. In fact, as my sexuality gains complexity, I love myself more than ever. Perhaps it is this self-love to which I attribute the sense that the sexual identity I am constructing through my language and action is, for me, authentic. And perhaps it is facilitating this journey of self-love for future generations of girls and women that defines how I “do” feminism.
As I sit under a willow tree at Reservoir Beach in Arlington, Massachusetts watching my daughter swim with new friends, I feel it is the perfect time to close out this blog. In the writings here, I documented some very big changes which have transformed me inside and out over the past two years. I have come out as queer; I integrated sex positivity into my anti-sexualization activism; I moved my family to Boston. Such growth, prompted by a spiritual awakening and aided by the support of some amazing people, has led me onto a path that is absolutely perfect for me.
Strangely, after years of metamorphosis, I must now adjust to the realization that things are just right. Life is ever changing; that I know. But having had my wishes granted I now need to shift my focus away from shedding skin and making leaps of faith, and toward maintaining a focused commitment on the challenges ahead. In September I begin a full course load at UMass Boston, studying Mental Health Counseling. I also begin assisting two incredible professors in their research on girls’ development and LGBTQ issues, respectively. I will be busy and I will love it.
Included in my work for one of the professors, Dr. Sharon Lamb, I will have the honor of piloting a new sex ed curriculum, Sexual Ethics for a Caring Society. I will be teaching ninth graders lessons from this innovative applied philosophy curriculum, teaching not WHAT to think about sexuality, but rather HOW to think about sexuality and develop and defend their own moral and ethical standpoints. I have a feeling I am perfectly cut out for this task.
Last month, my years of research and writing about sexualization and healthy sexuality culminated in the opportunity of a lifetime: teaching two day-long workshops on the subject in partnership with the Hawaii Youth Services Network. That’s right; I went to Hawaii! The experience felt like a dream, as I not only got to see some of our planet’s most fantastic sights, but I also got to deliver resources and new perspectives to health educators and youth advocates on two different islands. My audiences were wonderful, and they challenged me to defend the complexities of my talk… which I did with pleasure. By day’s end, a room full of diverse individuals, some feminist and some not, some men and some women, all responded with gratitude and inspiration to my call to support the development of healthy sexuality in young people with comprehensive education and dialogue. I have never felt with such clarity and certainty that I truly can help change the world. And I intend to.
But blogging here is not how I will do it, at least not right now. Rather than writing my own story, I will immerse myself in the study of psychology and design research studies to widen my lens. Perhaps the next you’ll hear from me will be the publication of my first book! I have visions of a project in which I interview adult women who identify as queer to learn about the impact of sexualization of girls and women in media on their development. I have come to admire the nuanced work of women like Kari Lerum and Shari Dworkin, and hope to contribute to the growing wealth of information out there that will ultimately support girls and women in owning their authentic sexual identities.
As I sign off, I want to express my immense gratitude to the people I love, the people who love me, and the Universe for presenting me with such incredible opportunities. I also want to encourage anybody reading this to turn your attention away from popular media and social conventions, and toward the voice inside your heart. Create opportunities to listen to her carefully. You will not regret it.
On April 2nd, I had the privilege and pleasure of presenting at the 5th Annual Sex::Tech Conference, hosted by Isis, Inc. alongside Scarleteen’s Founder and Executive Director Heather Corinna. Our presentation was titled “Countering Sexualization; Supporting Sexual Expression,” and was one of the few at the conference that focused not on new technologies with which to deliver education about sexual health to young people (of which there are an impressive array), but on the potential for nuanced content of comprehensive sexuality education, with an emphasis on navigating media.
Heather and I first met at last year’s Sex::Tech Conference, where I presented on behalf of Hardy Girls Healthy Women. I was highly impressed by her multiple presentations that year, and found my eyes and mind opened to the importance of educating young people and the diversity of sexual expression. For reasons beyond explanation (except, I suppose, that she began following me on Twitter), Heather took note over the months that followed that she and I share a passion for this work and think in similar ways. She calls us the wondertwins! Me, a wondertwin with Heather Corinna? I can hardly imagine a higher compliment! When she invited me to co-present with her I jumped at the opportunity, not only because of my immense respect for her work and perspective, but because this was finally my chance to critique, reinforce, and elevate the work with which I have been heavily involved since the SPARK Summit of 2010.
We began our presentation with a look at “Healthy Sexual Development,” as defined by Alan McKee and a multi-disciplinary team of colleagues in an article published in the International Journal of Sexual Health. Heather breaks it down in an excellent post here, and I highly recommend you read it in full. In our presentation, we highlighted specifically that healthy sexuality should include self-acceptance, and that it should be free from coercion. Although all of the attributes of healthy sexuality are important, it is these two characteristics which, we argued, are threatened by “sexualization,” a word we then sought to define.
To define “sexualization,” we turned first to the working definition in the APA Report on the Sexualization of Girls. The four-point definition has been the backbone of anti-sexualization work since the report was published in 2007. While it highlights some seriously damaging trends in the way sexuality is portrayed in mainstream media (narrow definitions which hinder self-acceptance among us real people, and promotion of gender stereotypes and rape myths which reinforce messages that coercion is okay,) it also rests on oversimplified notions of media, youth, agency, and their relation to one another. The working definition of “sexualization,” the tone of the report itself (as critiqued here), and the activism that has evolved in response to it is both productive and flawed. At its worst the activism can fall into a sex negative trap that shames young people for sexuality, thereby hindering healthy sexual development rather than supporting it. In our presentation, Heather and I sought to delve deeply into both the pros and the cons of the anti-sexualization movement in the hopes of unlocking its potential to make positive change in the lives of young people.
You can check out the whole presentation here, and I am always happy to chat more about nuance we seek to explore. We examined specific images with attention to their production, studies about sexualization in media, critiques of those studies, and the words of young people themselves. We posed questions about un-noticed sexualization of boys and different sexual cues of queer-identified people, beginning a more deliberate effort to be inclusive in conversations about sexualization and sexual expression.
There was a thread of tension underlying the Sex::Tech Conference as a whole, tensions among feminism, adultism, and sex positivity. It was felt during certain moments at the conference (Dr. Marty Klein being redirected from a discussion of youth consuming pornography, for example) as well as in the subtle contradictions between various workshops. I am proud that our presentation addressed the tension explicitly and recommended that folks working with youth do the same. It was easier to discuss various sides of the issue because Heather and I were not there to provide concrete answers about sexuality, youth development, and media. We were there to guide people who work with youth to ask them the right questions rather than give the right answers. Young people have the capacity to negotiate messages they receive from media, and our prompting to help them widen their lens is the best service we can provide in countering sexualization and supporting sexual expression. Heather knows more about working directly with adolescents and teens than I do, and her wisdom confirmed my instinct. It is not our place as adults to impose our opinions on the next generation, but to support them as they explore for themselves the forces and tensions that define their world. What role they can claim within it is a work in progress, as is their sexuality.
Thank you to Heather, to Isis, and to all of the wonderful professionals and young people I met at Sex::Tech. It was a great experience. Seeds were planted, new partnerships discovered, and new project ideas launched. More details to come!
As a curious new (half) lesbian, I decided to do some research into lesbian cultures by reading lesbian erotica. There is much to be learned about gender performance and pleasure, although one must remember that erotica, like pornography, is fiction not fact. Still, from the stories hidden under my bed I am discovering the sensibilities of queerness, and there is one theme whose repeated presence in stories of women surprises me: the longing for “Daddy.”
I guess I vaguely knew that “Daddy” can be a sexual word. Straight couples might like it for its power implications. Queer men use it too, as in “leather daddy.” But it surprised me to see how prevalent this word is within stories that feature only women. This gendered, parental word can describe a woman with a masculine gender presentation, a woman who calls the shots, and as it clear from the frequency of its use in these stories, the word carries quite a charge.
It certainly makes me react. My response to the word is so potent, in fact, that I have felt compelled to examine its meaning in my life. What accounts for this word’s power? Why does its use in erotic contexts make me feel simultaneously excited and resentful? Why is the “longing for Daddy” so common and so deep? This has been on my mind for some time, and I must admit that, for me, it is a difficult subject about which to write. As a feminist, I feel like admitting I like the word is a betrayal of my dedication to women’s empowerment. But as I explore my own psychology in preparation for graduate studies in human psychology, I think I finally have some clarity about this that is worth sharing.
I would like to propose that the longing for Daddy in our culture is a direct result of the absence or scarcity of compassionate fatherhood in most of our lives. Even if a father or father figure was not entirely absent, an emotional distance often characterizes the father/child relationship because of the social constructs of gender and parental roles. So in my life, for example, my father was present but his tenderness toward me was limited due to boundaries established by my mother and by accepted cultural standards of men’s roles in families. (Dad, in case you’re reading this and dear God I hope you’re not, I don’t blame you.)
Examining the “Daddy” phenomenon in this way allows me to move away from the vulnerable and child-like place where the word can bring me and into my comfort zone: feminist theory. The personal is political, after all, and I know my life does not exist in a vacuum. My experiences of both childhood and parenthood are shaped by the notions that we as a culture perpetuate about the roles of men and women in families. And for all the progress we women have made by entering the “public sphere,” equality of the sexes still feels like a distant goal because things are so slow to change in the “private sphere.” In homes across America, children are growing up without fathers, or with partially absent fathers, or with fathers who consider their parental role to consist of providing rather than emotional connection. Mothers, even with our participation in the workforce, are still most often the primary givers of engaged and compassionate nurturing in children’s lives. Like me, we have to become Superwomen, capable of juggling all of these responsibilities while our children’s fathers are praised to the heavens for “helping around the house” or “babysitting” their own children.
I’m sorry; do I sound a little resentful here? My bad. I am a single mom so this subject hits home quite literally. Even in two parent households, though, this trend is upheld by both men and women, as this offbeat mama blogger discusses.
I don’t want to come across as hostile toward men because in all honesty I am not. My diligent efforts to find and cultivate relationships with good men have been and continue to be successful. I know men who “get it” and I know wonderfully devoted and attentive fathers. Thank goodness for those good men I know. They have restored my faith that we, as a people, are getting closer to that place where we all recognize one another’s humanity with compassion.
Nonetheless, I believe examining the impact of society’s undervaluing of fatherhood is of fundamental importance to the feminist movement and the wellbeing of all people. I cannot state strongly enough, in fact, that I believe this is the missing piece of the feminist revolution. As problematic as the label “feminist” can be sometimes, I will never call myself or this world “postfeminist” until fatherhood is valued equally with motherhood. And in case you haven’t noticed in your own life, the lives of those around you, or in the cultural narratives of our time, we aren’t even close to achieving this goal.
Let’s take the cultural narrative of Six Feet Under, for example, which happens to be one of my favorite shows of all time. I tend to think of this show as uniquely realistic, featuring complex story lines, multi-dimensional characters, and a spiritual message about appreciating life. I have watched the entire series many times over simply because the characters are so real to me that I actually miss them! Brenda especially always intrigued me because she is brilliant, empowered, and “unapologetically sexual,” three qualities you rarely find in female television characters. While I praise the show’s producers for the diverse cast of flawed but loveable characters, I realized recently that Brenda’s story line throughout the series is one of pathology, punishment, and sacrifice. Her “unapologetic sexuality” becomes a story of sex addiction that ruins her relationships. Meanwhile, the Nate character impregnates another woman, and upon learning of it gets to decide whether to be a present father. After much soul-searching, Nate chooses fatherhood and, thank goodness he does, because the child’s mother dies. Nate reunites with Brenda and she unquestioningly inherits the motherhood role and then she and Nate have a child of their own. When Nate dies in season five, the show’s dramatic climax, Brenda is left a single mother with two children, one of whom is not biologically her own. The sexual woman is now the sole provider of care for two little human beings.
In reflecting on this in finally hit me: Devaluing fatherhood upholds the virgin/whore dichotomy that keeps women’s sexuality oppressed. Women are expected to be chaste, virginal, the gate-keepers of sex while men are expected to constantly seek sex. This tired construct just won’t break down even as women in droves and even men too try to dismantle it and illuminate its absurdity. But the fact remains that when pregnancy results from sex, it is most often the woman whose life is forever dramatically altered, and not necessarily the man’s (or at least not to the same extent.) Do you see what I’m saying here? Until pregnancy means for men what it means for women (i.e. A LIFETIME OF ENGAGED PARENTHOOD), society will continue to place the responsibility of sexual inhibition squarely on women’s shoulders.
I guess I am a lot like Brenda. I am smart (brilliant?), empowered, and I do not apologize for my sexuality. When I conceived my daughter, it was on purpose and it was a mutual decision with her father. But her father, for reasons I will not disclose here, has not yet chosen to be a present, engaged, and compassionate parent in our daughter’s life. He is not entirely absent, but he is not taking ownership of the parental role in the same way that I am.
So let me tell you a secret. I believe whole-heartedly that this is his loss. Granted, I have moments of resenting how hard I have to work to maintain all that is on my plate. But those moments are far outnumbered by moments when I realize that having a child makes my life make sense. I am showered with more unconditional love than anybody I know, and my sense of purpose is stronger than ever. As my daughter grows up, I am awestruck at the wisdom she brings to my life. I see her personality develop and I relish in my role of providing a safe nest for her from which to embark on adventures, a framework from which she can understand her world, a cheer of support as she cultivates her numerous talents. While people around me struggle with depression and existential crises, and even while I have my ups and downs, my grounding in motherhood never falters and I am, at my core, profoundly happy.
Undervaluing fatherhood is a spiritual loss for men. It is nothing short of tragic that so many are deprived of the responsibility and accompanying privilege of engaged and compassionate parenthood. We need to do better.
Undervaluing fatherhood is a deep, painful loss for children too. I bear witness to my daughter trying to understand why her father is not more present, and it makes my heart ache. She longs for her daddy because, in her fragile developing psychology, he holds the power to validate and comfort her. Deprived of the emotional connection with him that she craves, she must learn to live with unmet need, a hole in her heart.
That place of vulnerability, craving for validation and approval, desire for affection and connection from the person who represents authority and love… that’s where the word “Daddy” can take me. It can make me feel the unmet need, the hole in my heart that started in childhood and is masked by an extensive array of defenses in my adult mind. Used in a moment of submission, it can cut through the armor and touch a nerve that, I believe, is shared among many across our culture as a symptom of an endemic scarcity of compassionate fatherhood.
Does knowing this make me feel less conflicted about the word “Daddy”? Yes and no. The word still makes me very uncomfortable because, frankly, I feel a whole lot safer with my armor on. But at least I can allow myself freedom from feminist guilt now that I understand the word’s power as a symptom of a not-yet-postfeminist society. I can appreciate how erotica conjures the contents of our deepest psychological impulses and plays with them, flips them around, and harnesses them for pleasure. And since I am smart, empowered, and unapologetically sexual, I can enjoy it if I want to.
I think it’s fair to say that I have undergone a pretty drastic metamorphosis over the past couple of years. Just look at this blog chronologically for evidence of the shift, the gradual move from emphatic critique of sexualized media to a call for more exploration of healthy female sexuality. Those of you who know me will understand that this transformation has affected me on many levels, creating changes in my relationships, my living situation, and my career. Though disruptive and painful, I believe these changes to be positive as they are bringing me closer to my true identity and calling.
I do have regrets, though, about moments when leaving pieces of the old me behind unintentionally disappointed others. Often, it was engaging in projects based on values different from my own that allowed my own value-set to truly crystalize in my mind. During work with allies, a certain dissonance would emerge as I realized that I wanted to do the work differently. There were moments when I did not address these tensions with the clarity, self-assurance, or courage that I wish I had, and instead retreated into passive resistance.
This is not who I am. My call for more attention to development of healthy sexuality in anti-sexualization work is a valid one, and I will stand by my perspective. Turns out, it is shared among researchers who have critiqued the APA Report on the Sexualization of Girls, as well as among activists for comprehensive and accessible sex education.
Realizing that my voice does not always fit in with those who got me started in my activism has been difficult. Today, I realize that the most productive approach to working through my growing pains is to outline exactly what I have learned about my values and my path.
- I have learned that I will not work with organizations and projects which prioritize funding concerns over their mission. These are tough times, and I have seen many a nonprofit in crisis put the cart before the horse. “How can we make money?” they ask, rather than “How can we make a difference?” Only when a project has the relevance, the attention to intersectionality, and the positive approach needed to make a difference will the project find the momentum and hence the funding to become real.
- I have learned that activists are more effective when they are proactive rather than reactive. Jumping on every incident of sexism in media with a harsh and angry critique becomes tiresome fast, and reinforces the use of shaming to exert control. Reclaiming what sexist media threatens to take from us girls, women, and allies is much more satisfying to me, and let’s be honest, much more fun. If we want young people to get onboard with our activism on their behalf, we need to teach them skills beyond “femven” writing and calling out marketers. We need to teach them all the good stuff about sexuality that mainstream media obscure.
- I want to see more, not less. I have no interest in “protecting innocence,” “preserving childhood,” or any other such phrase that treats sexuality as a demon. Stereotypes about sexuality I could do without, but in my opinion combating stereotypes means becoming MORE inclusive of complexities. I want to see more diverse bodies, more attention paid to defining healthy sexuality, more nuanced considerations of how media messages are negotiated, and more girls and women valued for qualities other than conforming to narrow stereotypes. Every project I work on from now on will promote these things rather than seek to silence anybody else.
I feel good about these lessons, and pleased with the opportunities ahead to put these lessons into action. There was a piece I wrote for SPARK which expressed my hopes for where the anti-sexualization movement is headed. The piece did not get published and so, in closing, I would like to share an excerpt of it here:
“Fighting sexualization in media is hard. So many new examples of the problem appear in the mainstream daily that it feels at times like we are fighting a losing battle. Will the authentic identities of girls and women (and boys and men and gender nonconforming people for that matter) ever be reflected by our media? Will healthy development of sexuality ever be valued above the simplicity of enforcing narrow gender roles to create good shoppers? I have had moments of fatigue where I feel like crawling back under my covers rather than fighting the seemingly unstoppable force of capitalism and its humanity-depleting side effects.
But my fire cannot be squelched. Moments of fatigue pass and my senses awaken once again to the intense heat of the flames that compel me to be louder than the crap they try to sell to us.
Because guess what? It turns out our authentic voices really can be LOUDER.
For me, the SPARK to Protest Sexualization through Action, Resistance, and Knowledge continues to grow. It has grown in a very specific way. It has become a FLAME of Freedom to Love the Authentic ME.
That’s right. Given the opportunity and the supportive community in which to truly understand these media images that seek to define me, I have experienced in the past year a personal revolution! I have, after three decades of feeling paralyzed by societal expectations, finally shed my hang-ups about the ways in which my gender identity, my sexuality, and my ways of moving through this world differ from all of the versions of them I have been sold. Sexualization of girls and women in media had a profoundly detrimental impact on me, especially on my relationship to my sexuality, in ways that I am now able to talk about and define. Having read the APA Report from 2007 many times, I can actually see my own story in its descriptions of sexualization’s effects on girls. In seeing this, I can also see that more positive alternatives to my story are truly possible with media literacy education and comprehensive sexuality education programs giving young people the tools to understand the world in which they are growing and to find their true selves within it.
For me, enlightenment didn’t happen until my thirties… until my introduction to SPARK. But as the constructs that masked my truths dissolved, more and more of my authentic self emerged. As narrowly-defined impositions of female sexuality became demystified, I built a healthy relationship with my real sexuality. As I dug deep and coached myself to dismiss the media messages that I had internalized, I unburied the treasures of my actual desires, strengths, and vulnerabilities.
Seriously, I am a new woman. I am free; I am real. And I love who I am.
Isn’t this what we want girls and women to feel? This is what I want my daughter to feel, and I want her to feel it SO much sooner in life than I did. I want her to have the SPARK of knowledge to resist sexualization right from the start so that it will ignite this FLAME in her heart, this freedom to love her authentic self.
So allow me to introduce myself, the new me. My name is Renee Randazzo and I am a Healthy Female Sexuality Researcher and Activist.”