Melinda Tankard Reist is an author, speaker, media commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is best known for her work addressing sexualisation, objectification, harms of pornography, sexual exploitation, trafficking and violence against women. She is the co-founder of grassroots campaigning movement Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation.
On Wednesday May 31, Wesley College welcomed Melinda Tankard-Reist as the latest WES Talk guest speaker. In addition to her WES Talk, Melinda ran educational seminars with students from the Junior and Senior Schools.
In the Junior School she presented to Year 4 – 6 girls, exploring the messages they receive about their bodies and worth in an age-appropriate way. The ‘Girl Power’ session helped our young female students identify and separate good messages from negative messages and recognise that they are valuable and acceptable as they are.
In the Senior School session with Years 10 – 12, Melinda explored how sexual imagery is contributing to a distorted view of bodies, relationships and sexuality. She challenged the boys to acknowledge the sexualisation of popular culture and to re-align any negative attitudes towards women and themselves.
In-between seminars she made time to discuss the motivation behind her actions and the cultural shift she sees beginning to emerge as a result of those actions.
Where does your passion to drive change come from?
It’s a combination of formative aspects of my childhood growing up, a combination of seeing the mistreatment of women in my own community combined with my passion for journalism. One of the first stories I ever wrote as a young journalist was on the first domestic violence shelter to open in my community. I was awarded a journalism scholarship to study in the United States and that’s where I really connected with feminist and activist groups.
Having daughters really personalised these issues for me. I’ve always felt a calling to write on and protest against issues affecting women that I feel haven’t had enough attention. I wrote a book on the sexualisation of girls and it was the first of its kind. There wasn’t a movement against any of this, so that’s why we created ‘Collective Shout’.
Can you explain what Collective Shout is?
Collective Shout is about creating a social transformation. We want to recognise the harmful impact pornography has on our young people and the reflected rise of mental health problems as a result. It is about working together to change the increasing pornification of culture for the better of everyone. This is a central issue that underpins many other issues and that is why we have to address it. Collective Shout is about changing this culture and we are seeing some direct actions as a result of it.
Last week Supré admitted that they had trashed their brand, they had trashed girls and they had profited off the backs of girls. They acknowledged they had not treated girls well through sexualised products, imagery and advertising, and they wanted to change. They asked us ‘how can you help us and how can we partner together to change?’ I think we are seeing the beginnings of a culture shift.
How can the internet and social media have a negative impact on children?
The internet and social media has enabled the spread of hypersexualised images and messages in a way that wasn’t possible before. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 11 and often they are seeing porn featuring extreme violence against women, and they think that’s normal. Part of my message to the students today was to help them to see how they are being lied to, conditioned, and moulded to think that this is what authentic intimacy looks like – when it doesn’t.
What did you focus on in your educational seminar with the Year 10 – 12 students at Wesley?
My main focus was on their formative attitudes towards women. What do they learn about women in their culture?
What I tried to do to with the students was to unpack the messages they get about themselves, their bodies, and sexuality from media and popular culture. I started out by trying to talk about mental health and body image, because body image issues are affecting young boys now as well. Steroid abuse is on the rise in our boys, eating disorders are on the rise in our boys, self-harm is on the rise. I acknowledge that boys are having problems in these areas as well.
I showed them images I’ve collected over half a decade from toys, games, music videos, billboards and advertising, to help them see that the message they’re being sold about masculinity is harmful to them, and that it will not enable them to have respect-based relationships with women and girls.
I talked about the harms of pornography and what research has been done in this space. I told them first-hand accounts from boys who have had their sexual attitudes and behaviours shaped in harmful ways by pornography and then I looked at how they can act personally and politically to make a difference. I wanted to give them good examples of positive masculinity in young men.
What is your core message to young men in today’s world?
We need to deconstruct the harmful cultural messages that our young men are getting; it’s not about coming in and beating up on them. We need to say ‘this is how culture is trying to distort and twist your idea of your male identity, here are the reasons why you should be upset about this, and here is what you can do about it’.
It’s really about unpacking the cultural formative landscape these boys are growing up in and I also make the point of saying the good guys have nothing to fear from this message. We need those boys then to speak out on inappropriate behaviour and to not be bystanders. It’s one thing to make the personal decision not to be a part of something, but there is the extra step of making other people accountable for their behaviour.
We also want them to be concerned for the way women and girls are objectified and sexualised in mainstream society. We make the point that this could be your girlfriend, your sister, your future wife, your future daughters. We try to tap in to their empathy and compassion, and help them to connect emotionally.
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