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Feminists in anti-raunch-culture revolt

A DECADE ago, Mia Freedman was one of the country's most powerful and provocative magazine editors. As editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, Cleo and Dolly, she chased circulation gains with sexually explicit "sealed sections".

Today, at 38, Freedman is deeply concerned about the harmful effects on children of what feminists have dubbed "hypersexual" or "raunch" culture.

The former glossies queen and high-profile blogger says: "It is becoming more prevalent, this hypersexualisation, and this idea of raunch being OK and normal.

"You've got mums doing pole classes or babies wearing T-shirts saying `I'm a tits man' at three months."

Freedman embodies a striking cultural shift - the revolt against raunch - in which a growing cohort of feminists and libertarians are turning against the 21st-century excesses of the "free love" cultures they once embraced.

They are now allied, on this issue at least, with many of the social conservatives they once regarded as reactionary.

 
Freedman told The Weekend Australian this week that unease among mothers about our highly sexualised culture - from the rise of internet pornography to sexually explicit music videos and sexed-up tween idols - would spawn a new kind of feminism.

"It feels like mothers are going to lead this new wave of feminism," she said. "I think that your viewpoint changes when you become a parent."

Freedman, a mother of three who now runs the website Mamamia added: "I sense an enormous frustration and anger on my website . . . Women are angry because we feel like our kids are being bombarded with (sexual) things and you can't watch them 24 hours a day.

"What has occurred is that popular culture has been turbo-charged by technology and, as parents, we have absolutely lost control of what our children are exposed to . . . and I think that does change everything."

This month, British feminist Natasha Walter releases in Australia her new book, Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism, in which she renounces her earlier position that "feminism has nothing to bring to women's sexual experiences".

In Living Dolls, Walter argues that although women today have more opportunities than previous generations, they are undermined by a "hypersexual" culture that idealises an exaggerated femininity among girls and a porn-star style sexuality, coupled with narrow physical ideals, among women.

"For this generation of young women, being sexy has become an almost constant imperative," Walter writes.

The 43-year-old mother of two quotes Canadian research that suggests the majority of 13- and 14-year-olds have viewed pornography, mostly over the internet. "The voyeur's view of sex has been normalised, even for children," she warns.

Like Freedman, Walter's disquiet about the "hypersexual" culture intensified when she became a parent. In an interview in today's Review section, Walter says: "I think a lot of women my age feel that we were too relaxed about this stuff and now we are a bit worried about what is happening to our sons and daughters."

University of Melbourne academic and radical feminist Sheila Jeffreys is a long-time campaigner against raunch culture.

She said other Australian feminists had been slow to protest against the glamorising of prostitution and the spread of "vicious" types of pornography, but she added: "We are now seeing a change in the tide.

"What I see around me is the development of a new wave of young feminists who are very, very concerned because they are living in the world that these (sex industry) values have created."

Professor Jeffreys's students have told her of young women being pushed up against walls for sex in nightclubs, of hen's nights being held in strip clubs; of online anal sex being "the sex education of the moment" for young males, who then expect such sex from every relationship.

"For many young women, this has become an ordinary part of their lives," she said.

Clive Hamilton, former head of left-leaning think tank The Australia Institute, admits that, until a few years ago, he was "too uncritical of the sort of libertarian position I not only adopted, but vigorously advocated as a radical during the 60s and 70s".

Dr Hamilton, who once described himself as "a card-carrying member of the protest generation", has since taken a stand on issues such as shielding teenagers from violent pornography and the corporate sexualisation of children - and has been labelled a social conservative and puritan by others on the Left.

He told The Weekend Australian increasing community unease over such issues had "really opened up a wedge in progressive opinion".

Nevertheless, Australia Institute reports on child sexualisation, the 2008 Senate inquiry into that issue and the row over Bill Henson's art works of naked adolescents pointed to a "rebalancing" of public debate, he said.

Dr Hamilton added that libertarians who attacked critics of child sexualisation as "moralisers" betrayed "a lack of discernment about the way in which commercial forces have exploited and corrupted the liberation trends of the 60s and 70s".

The growing revolt against raunch reaches across party political lines. Melinda Tankard Reist is an anti-abortion women's advocate and perhaps Australia's most outspoken campaigner against the sexualisation of girls. She said: "There has been a shift . . . the debate has entered a new phase. It is being taken more seriously."

But some feminists think the problem is overstated. Libertarian feminist Eva Cox said: "There is an undertow of puritanism emerging on both the Right and Left . . . under the guise of a new feminism."

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