Published in Sunday Life, 8 January 2012. Copyright Rachel Hills 2012.
Love her or hate her, anti-porn crusader Melinda Tankard Reist is a force to be reckoned with. Rachel Hills meets the “pro-life feminist” increasingly shaping the gender-politics debate.
Melinda Tankard Reist is a woman of strong opinions. She is also a woman whom people have strong feelings about. If you’ve seen her proselytise on pornography on TV, read her opinions on the sexualisation of girls in the newspapers, or watched her go after do-badding companies on Twitter or through her activist group Collective Shout, chances are you’ve got a few opinions about her of your own. Perhaps like these:
She’s a wowser. A religious conservative in feminist clothing. A no-nonsense political crusader beloved by both teenage girls and their mothers. A brazen careerist. A gifted networker and generous mentor.
The Canberra-based activist, mother of four and author of four books is difficult to pigeonhole and impossible to ignore. Friend and collaborator Julie Gale, founder of the advocacy group Kids Free 2B Kids, describes her as “one of the most misunderstood women in the public arena”. Melinda Tankard Reist grew up in rural Victoria, the oldest of four daughters. Her parents were farmers – “Good country people who have no idea how they produced me,” she jokes.
Young Melinda loved motorbikes and horses, but she was also drawn to words. She began her career as a journalist, contributing to the Herald’s racing guide and working as a regional newspaper cadet before turning her hand to opinion and feature writing in the late 1980s, after a stint in the United States. “I had started to realise that my opinions were quite strong and maybe I wasn’t suited to life as a daily reporter,” she recalls.
One topic on which she had particularly strong opinions was abortion. Tankard Reist is a self-described “pro-life feminist”, and it was the intersection of these two identities that formed the focus of much of her early writing and activism.
But it was only when she started writing about the sexualisation of children in the late 2000s that Tankard Reist became the household name she is today. Picking up where debates around young women and raunch culture had left off, the term gave voice to parents’ fears about the impact that sexual imagery and popular culture were having on their kids. Says Tankard Reist: “I think people had been feeling an unease about the issue, but hadn’t been able to join all the dots. When Getting Real [the 2009 antisexualisation anthology edited by Tankard Reist] came out, people were able to name the disease they felt: the pornification of culture, little girls being too sexy too soon, children being pressured to look and act much older than they actually were.”
Now Tankard Reist is taking on the global pornography industry, with her new anthology Big Porn Inc. The book presents a collection of 40 essays covering everything from strip clubs to sexting to the role pornography plays in shaping the advice proffered by sex therapists. But most of the contributions can be boiled down to one of two concerns: that pornography that uses violence, abuse and exploitation to get users off has become increasingly mainstream, and that the ubiquity of porn on the internet is perverting our experience of sexuality.
“My biggest concern is the effect of pornography on young people and children,” says Tankard Reist. “We are socialising boys into a very brutalised version of masculinity. Boys are often looking at porn before they become sexually active, and they’re seeing very callous images of women. What we are allowing to happen to the sexuality of our young people is diabolical.”
She recalls one 15-year-old boy she interviewed who told her he looked to porn as a way to figure out how sex works. When he’d tried to act out what he had seen online in real life, he was surprised to discover that girls didn’t like it. “Here we have a teenage boy who is using pornography as a sexual handbook. What hope is there for his natural sexuality to develop when he has been trained in hardcore misogyny?”
Certainly, the sexual culture presented in Big Porn Inc is bleak. One chapter details a Japanese computer game (banned in Australia, thanks to a campaign led by Tankard Reist) that asks players to simulate the sexual assault of a mother and her two daughters. Another describes the trivialisation of incest in online pornography. A Scottish woman recalls the betrayal she felt upon discovering her husband was a regular porn users; a young American the horror of knowing that images of her childhood rape at the hands of her uncle are circulating online.
At the book’s Sydney launch in October, Tankard Reist described the book as “the hardest gig of [her] life”. Her co-editor, Abigail Bray, broke down in tears part-way through her own presentation, describing the abusive and degrading material she had encountered as part of her research for the book – much of it literally a 20-second Google search away.
But evidence of the impact this content is having on our collective sexuality – and on our psyches more generally – is thinner on the ground. Tankard Reist links media reports of increased child-on-child sexual assault to “children acting out what they’re learning from pornography”, but the 2010 Australian Crime Commission study the stories were based on stresses that “sexualised behaviour in children is only rarely a result” of sexualised media. The American Psychological Association’s 2007 investigation into the sexualisation of girls is more concerned with narrow beauty standards than it is with sexual media content.
“There is often a suggestion in the anti-porn movement that men’s attitudes towards women’s sexuality were better in the ‘good old days’,” argues Alan McKee, a professor in film and television at QUT and co-author of The Porn Report. “But we know statistically that young men today have far better attitudes towards women than their fathers or their grandfathers did.”
“There is some awful stuff online,” McKee admits. “But there is a big difference between what you can find if you look for it and what people are actually choosing to look at. If you look at the most popular [pornography] websites, the top five are all amateur sites, where people post home-made videos of themselves having sex.”
But for Tankard Reist, the distinction between these and the abusive material detailed in Big Porn Inc is only one of degree. All pornography entails treating another human being as an object for sexual gratification, she argues; therefore all porn is degrading. “I don’t believe [that there is a safe degree of pornography],” she told the ABC’s One Plus One in November. “I think that any level of depiction of women as subordinate, as second class, as purely for sexual pleasure, as service stations for men and boys, is dangerous.”
This kind of unwavering conviction is one reason for Tankard Reist’s success as an activist. A scroll through her Twitter feed reveals a woman of dogged determination, who will pursue her targets – be they radio shock jock Kyle Sandilands, retailer Kmart or US pop star Kanye West – relentlessly.
It is a message that has attracted a wide range of fans and collaborators, from teenagers to teachers to psychologists such as Steve Biddulph and Michael Carr-Gregg. “It’s very difficult to debate with her because if you’re talking to a mainstream audience, you sound like a boring dick,” observes one commentator who is regularly pitted against Tankard Reist. “She argues anecdotally, she argues emotively, and she is highly effective at it.”
She is also a master at coalition building. Tankard Reist doesn’t just use Twitter to proselytise and campaign – her feed is a rapidly updated collection of back-and-forths with supporters, snippets from her personal life, and promotion of other people’s work. “The first time we met for a coffee, we were still talking five or six hours later,” says media blogger Erica Bartle.
But Tankard Reist’s campaigning style has also attracted enemies. “Some days I don’t want to turn on my computer,” she says. It is not just Tankard Reist who is on the receiving end of their vitriol: it extends to anyone associated with her. Several Tankard Reist associates Sunday Life contacted for this story later retracted their interviews, afraid of the personal and professional fallout. Others would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
Nor is the criticism directed at her just an extension of the misogyny she rails against in her work. Tankard Reist’s brand of feminism may be media-friendly, but it is also a feminism that makes many people uncomfortable. Much of that discomfort goes back to her identification as a “pro-life feminist”.
Tankard believes that abortion is a form of “violence against women”, one that many find traumatic and laden with regret. “Abortion is often an excuse not to deal with the structural conditions that compel women to have abortions,” she told One Plus One. She draws the line at government regulation, she says, preferring to focus “on those women who would rather not choose abortion. What can we do to make it easier for women who would prefer to make another choice?” (In the ’90s, she co-founded Karinya House, an organisation providing support for pregnant women “in crisis”.)
But Melbourne-based ethicist and regular sparring partner Leslie Cannold is sceptical. Tankard Reist worked as a media and bioethics adviser for former Tasmanian senator Brian Harradine for 12 years, during which time he successfully blocked and continued to campaign against the abortion drug RU486. She also personally opposed changes to legislation which would have required pro-life pregnancy counselling services to disclose their affiliations in their advertising. Says Cannold: “To get the wide reach she does, she is absolutely dependent on us not knowing the full extent of what she’s done in the past.”
For others, the discomfort is more philosophical. As high-profile second-waver Eva Cox puts it, it’s about the difference between “a view of feminism in which choices and opportunities are not determined by gender” – a group in which Cox includes herself – and “one that wants to protect women, whether it be from men, from sexuality or something else”, the world view she suspects Tankard Reist subscribes to.
However, as UNSW historian Zora Simic observed in a recent speech to the European Conference on Politics and Gender, Tankard Reist is now one of Australia’s best-known feminist voices. And whether you agree with her or not, it is her language – and that of her supporters – that increasingly frames our debates on sex, gender and popular culture.
Breakout: Conservative feminism
Tankard Reist isn’t the only high-profile woman redefining feminism … and making enemies in the process. In a speech in 2010, former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin rallied the “pro-woman sisterhood” and spoke of
an “emerging conservative feminist identity”.
Like Tankard Reist, Palin is pro-life, which immediately disqualified her from being a feminist according to many – among them, When Harry Met Sally screenwriter Nora Ephron. “You can’t call yourself a feminist if you don’t believe in the right to abortion,” Ephron wrote, while blogger Amanda Marcotte dismissed Palin as “just the latest incarnation of a long and noble line of feminist antifeminists.” LA Times columnist Meghan Daum was less cynical, writing: “If [Palin] has the guts to call herself a feminist, then she’s entitled to be accepted as one.”
To date, this is one arena in which Palin’s successor Michele Bachmann is yet to follow her lead, but evidence suggests that Palin-style feminism is catching on Stateside. Conservative women’s group Smart Girl Politics, born from the blog of the same name, boasts 55,000 members and hosts an annual activist training summit.
“I was at a debate recently where a lot people were saying we needed to reinvent feminism because it has become loaded with too much negativity,” says Eva Cox. “But if it’s negative, it is interesting that the right is picking it up.”
Still, Cox warns: “Those who don’t want feminism to be co-opted by the Palins and the Tankard Reists need to do some thinking about what direction they want to take it in instead.”
For Tankard Reist’s part, she says she’s not interested in labels – she just wants people to engage with the substance of what she has to say. “Call me whatever the hell you want, I don’t care,” she says. “I believe my work is pro-woman, progirl. Just let me get on with it.”
Published in CLEO, March 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
Men and sex. You know how it goes. They’re only after one thing. They can’t go seven seconds without thinking about it. They get turned on by cottage cheese. According to folks like sex therapist Bettina Arndt, author of What Men Want In Bed, the male sex drive is relentless, uncontrollable and all-consuming. Except when it isn’t.
We’ve all been there. You’re in bed with a guy, hoping for a little action between the sheets, and… things don’t go the way you hoped. Maybe he’s tired. Maybe he’s not in the mood tonight. Maybe he is in the mood, but he just can’t get it up.
If you’re anything like a lot of women, chances are you don’t always take it that well. “Have you ever seen how a woman gets when she’s denied sex?” says Johnny, 29. “They’re horrible! They’ll pout, they’ll rub other guys in your face, they’ll call you gay, they’ll threaten to cheat. It’s awful.”
It’s not pretty, but it’s also not surprising. There’s a tendency to think of male sexuality as a “perfectly functioning machine – ten inches, hard as steel, go all night,” says Dr Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. For guys, says Kimmel, sex – having it, wanting it, talking about it – is a “confirmation of manhood,” and it’s not surprising that women have internalised these ideas too.
“Women are used to being in the position of feeling desired by men who always want sex,” says Kimmel. “When that falters, they can take it personally.”
“They think, ‘If he doesn’t desire me constantly, maybe I’m not as desirable as I’m supposed to be.’ Alternatively, they might flip it around the other way – maybe he’s not man enough.”
Frances, 26, recently ended a seven year relationship, the last four years of which her sex drive far outstripped her boyfriend’s. “I really felt like it was his fault,” she says. “I felt that it wasn’t normal, that it should be the other way around.”
When she and her boyfriend did have sex – at first once a week, but later as rarely as once a month or less – Frances was wreaked with anxiety. “I’d wonder, maybe if I was doing a better job, he’d be more into it. It got to the point at the end where he couldn’t sustain an erection or anything. There was so much pressure whenever it would happen that we couldn’t enjoy ourselves.”
She says the situation made her feel isolated and alone. “I felt that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, because they’d never said anything like that to me. I remember reading an interview once with a sex therapist, who said relationships where the woman wanted more sex than the man were so rare they weren’t worth talking about. I thought, if an expert is saying this, then what hope do I have?”
Feelings like Frances’ are common amongst women whose partners have a very low libido. But even women who are evenly matched with their partners can freak out when their boyfriend fails to live up to the machine-like standard of male sexuality.
Olivia, 19, says she and her boyfriend are “pretty sexually active”, but that doesn’t stop her from “sulking or getting angry” on those occasions he turns her down. Ana, 27, tells me she’s never had an orgasm, but the one time her boyfriend couldn’t come, she thought, “What the hell has happened here?”
“It’s pretty ridiculous,” admits Olivia. “The whole ‘why don’t you find me attractive’ thing never comes up when I turn him down, but every time he does it he’s ‘not paying enough attention to me. I don’t have awesome self esteem, so it feels like a rejection on two levels – a literal rejection of my advances, and a rejection of how attractive I am to him or how good the sex is.”
These misconceptions don’t just create stressed out women. They hurt men, too – especially when that anxiety channels itself into behaviours we’d have no patience for if the genders were reversed. Olivia admits that she sometimes tries to “guilt” her boyfriend into having sex. “I don’t think it’s right what I do,” she says. “But it’s an ongoing process of getting used to understanding how guys and sex really work.”
Explains Kimmel: “One of the best things feminism has achieved is empower women to say ‘yes’ to sex when they feel like it and to say ‘no’ when they don’t. By contrast, men still feel the only answer they can give is yes.”
The solution, Kimmel says, is to practice empathy: if you have the right to decide when you do and don’t have sex, why shouldn’t your boyfriend? “So much about sex is about pleasing the other person. If you can put yourself in your partner’s shoes, isn’t not that you’ll have more or less sex, but you’ll have a lot better sex.”
Published by Alternet, 17 March 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
Even if we’re critical of the media portrayal of young people and sex, to some degree we internalize its assumptions.
As a researcher who talks to young-ish people (18 to 29-year-olds) about sex, one of the things I find most consistently — and most consistently amusing — is that almost everyone I interview thinks that other people are more promiscuous than they are.
If they went to state high school, they tell me private school kids start having sex earlier, with their Gossip Girl-style social lives and greater access to recreational drugs. If they went to a private school, it’s the state school kids who are really at it — they attend classes together, after all, so they have more opportunity. If they grew up in a big city, it’s bored country kids; if they grew up in a small town, it’s city kids who grew up before their time.
Almost everyone I interview though, no matter how old they are, tells me one thing: people their age are totally misrepresented by the media, but those younger people? Things are very, very different for them. Totally sexualised.
It doesn’t matter if they’re 28 and talking about 18-year-olds, or 18 and talking about 14-year-olds, the story is the same. The funny thing, of course, is that 10 years ago, when those 28-year-olds were 18, older people (Tom Wolfe, for one) were writing and saying exactly the same things about them.
Part of it is the tendency to view ourselves — or our own age group, at least — as the center of the universe. When we’re kids, we have no trouble imagining the complex psychological lives of four-year-olds. When we’re in eighth grade, seventh graders seem embarrassingly immature. When we’re 18, we don’t want to go to bars populated by 30-year-olds, because, you know, they’re old. And by the time we’re 30, most people under the age of 20 seem like children.
Part of it, though, is that even if we’re critical of media portrayals of young people and sex, to some degree we internalize them. We know (in the case of most people I speak to) that it’s not true of us, or anyone we actually know. But if people are saying it all the time, we figure it must be true of someone.
And we don’t just internalize the idea that everyone else is on some Bacchanalian bender — we also take on the value judgements attached to those behaviors. Even if we fancy ourselves as non-judgemental progressive types. So, if we hear a 14-year-old girl has had sex, for most of us the immediate visceral response is to assume it’s because she’s been “sexualized”; because she thinks that having sex will make her cooler, sexier, more grown up. We rarely consider that it might be because she actually wants to have it, that it might have been a deliberate decision that was actually right for her.
(I’m not saying here that having sex is the right decision for every 14-year-old — in fact, I think it’s the wrong decision for most 14-year-olds, which is part of the reason why we have an age of consent, and why the vast majority of 14-year-olds aren’t having sex — but as Jessica Valenti and Australian author Emily Maguire have written, boys aren’t the only ones whose bodies are flooded with hormones and desire. Or love, for that matter. This is about agency, and trusting people to make their own decisions.)
There’s also a strong whiff of sexism to these assumptions. We don’t assume that teenage boys who have sex are foolish, self-deluded or tricked into it, for example. (And often this double standard is as much to teenage boys’ detriment as it is to teenage girls’.)
Then you have people like the New York Observer’s Nate Freeman, who have internalized stereotypes around young people and sex to such an extent that the fact that no one at a house party got laid at the end of the night (that he knows of) is considered cause for shock. Newsflash: the majority of people at a party not getting laid at the end of the night isn’t symptomatic of narcissism, low libido, or an obsession with updating one’s Twitter profile. It’s just the way most heterosexual casual sex cultures operate.
At the end of his article, Freeman recounts an exchange with a couple of the cast members of US Skins, who I think get it pretty much right:
The Observer asked them why young people in New York don’t want to have sex.
They both laughed.
“That’s a funny idea!” Ms. D’Elia said.
“I haven’t actually, um, heard that?” Mr. Newman said.
“I’m 19, so I don’t think I can weigh in,” Ms. D’Elia said.
Mr. Newman gave her a mischievous smirk.
“Both of us are kind of right out of high school,” he said. “We’re in that period where you supposedly ‘lose it.’”
“Everything makes you assume that this is Your Time,” Ms. D’Elia said. “For example, the media …”
“Or, for example, television shows …” The Observer said.
“Yes,” Ms. D’Elia laughed. “For example.”
Freeman, bafflingly, draws from this exchange that the characters on Skins get laid more often than the actors who play them because they don’t own web-enabled mobile phones. I’d be more inclined to suggest that they get laid more often because they’re fictional, and from a narrative drama perspective, having sex is more interesting than not having it. As one of my interview subjects put it: “Television is not an accurate portrayal of real life, but that’s kind of what we all like it for.”
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
When it comes to sex, it seems, teens and twentysomethings can’t win.
According to the popular media narrative, young people are either more promiscuous than any group before them, hooking up and dragging each other into club bathrooms with a frequency that would make the residents of Jersey Shore blush. Alternately, we are uniquely repressed and sexless, our carnal senses dulled by long hours at work, narcissism and too much time on Twitter.
In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, second wave feminist Erica Jong posited just that: worrying that the younger generation had “given up” on sex, trading it in for the “simpler” pleasures of marriage and motherhood.
Jong isn’t the first person to make these claims. In March, the New York Observer announced that “young New Yorkers no longer care about having sex”, blaming for its demise the rise of social media and a Manhattan house party at which nobody got laid. In 2010, Slate’s Jessica Grose charted a “backlash against casual sex”, spurred by raunch culture, slut shaming and “a new wave of anti-orgasmic sexual conservatism”.
On the surface, such articles seem like the flipside of the other type of commentary we often see about young people and sex: “Oh my god! Kids today are getting it on more than they ever have before, and they are ruining their ability to form lasting relationships!” But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that both narratives rely on the same set assumptions.
Both types of commentary are responding to a perception that the “norm” for young, single people is to be having a lot of sex with a lot of different people. For social conservatives, that’s a problem. For some progressives, it’s the natural course of events; one of the more delicious parts of being young and unencumbered by responsibility.
But as writers like Jong and Grose correctly identify, the perceptions don’t match the reality. The Online College Social Life Survey, the largest study of university aged young people in the United States, found that the average student “hooks up” with seven people over four years at university, and has sex with three or four of those. Twenty-five percent don’t hook up at all.
Another assumption that is consistent across the political spectrum is that this alleged outbreak of carnal activity is question of freedom. For conservatives, casual sex – or in many cases, even premarital sex – is a product of a too much freedom, and the waning of old moral and religious frameworks. For some progressives, there is a sense that if sex has historically been repressed, having lots of it must be an act of resistance.
When Jong was a young woman, these attitudes made sense. If you grow up being told that sex is dirty, that premarital sex makes you a “slut”, that having sex with people of the same gender makes you a “freak”, then it makes sense that you wouldn’t be happy about it. And in response to that climate, becoming sexually active – and doing it on your own terms – might feel like a juicy, sensual freedom.
Our own era is more complex. “Slut shaming” may be alive and well, as the debate around the recent SlutWalk protests showed, but if casual sex isn’t compulsory, sex itself now is. We now live in an age in which if you’re not having sex, you’re deemed boring, ugly or just plain weird. In which people worry that they’re not having “good sex” unless they’re engaging in carnal acrobatics six times a week.
Done with a degree of knowledge about your own body and a partner willing to figure out what makes you tick, sex can be fantastic. But just because sex brings us pleasure doesn’t mean there’s a problem if it isn’t the focus of our politics or identities. In an era that prizes self-determination, pursuing a narrowly defined version of “freedom” can become a form of repression in and of itself.
There are times when not getting laid does suggest a deeper issue: whether it be religious, a product of personal trauma, or simply not wanting to be labelled a “slut”. Other times, it just means you’ve got other things on your mind, or that there’s no one around you want to have sex with.
The same goes for casual sex. Sometimes it’s about pleasure, sometimes it’s about sport, sometimes it’s a thumbs up to the establishment, and sometimes it’s just an awkward performance of what we’re told is “liberating”.
Which suggests that there might just be a way to “win” the hook up wars after all. Do what feels right and makes you happy – regardless of it “reveals” about you as a person, or your generation at large.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly
by Catherine Mayer
Review by Rachel Hills
Getting older no longer looks the way it used to. Once upon a time, reaching your sixties meant saying goodbye to work, settling down in a wool knit cardigan and snuggling up with your grandkids. Today, it might equally mean running a marathon, starting your own business, or going on a full-scale bender worthy of a 21st birthday party.
Elongating life spans mean that governments around the globe are pushing back their respective retirement cut offs to cope with graying populations. People are even looking younger, due to a combination of cosmetic surgery, diet and exercise, and an ever-expanding impetus not to “let yourself go” – however advanced in years you may be.
We are in the midst, argues Catherine Mayer, author of Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly, of a full scale realignment of the way we think about ageing. “Youth used to be our last hurrah before the onset of maturity and eventual dotage,” she writes, “each milestone … benchmarked against a series of culturally determined expectations.” Now, Mayer argues, the links between a person’s chronological age and the way they look, feel and behave are eroding.
But amortality isn’t just about superficial vanities or a childish avoidance of responsibility. It’s about the rejection of the idea that the age you are determines who and how you should “be”: that twentysomethings are too young to run companies and fortysomethings too young to run countries; that your thirties are for having babies and your seventies for reminiscing.
Mayer is a skilled writer, weaving together complex science and sociology in a manner that can make Amortality either an easy, jaunty read or provocative social analysis, depending on how deeply you choose to follow her threads.
We’ve read about many of the surface trends Mayer identifies before – in laments of adult “kidults” who refuse to grow up and child “prostitots” who grow up before their time. But Amortality sets itself apart by situating these trends within a broader social context: of longer life spans, greater wealth, and the decline of traditional scripts around family, work and religion.
Those of us living in the affluent West, at least, are theoretically free to live our lives in whatever way, and in whatever order, we please. And that newfound freedom means that more of us are choosing to stay in perpetual motion – delaying childrearing or forgoing it altogether, falling in love, seeking out the next adventure – whether that motion is an attempt to ward off the Grim Reaper or simply a desire to maximise our exposure to life’s pleasures.
But not all amortals are created equal. Amortality may challenge ageism, but it is also a product of age prejudice itself. It seems no coincidence that most of the “ageless living” we see in Amortality is focused on the younger end of the life span.
Still, it would be wrong to dismiss amortals as self-indulgent hedonists. Indeed, their way of life may soon be a matter of necessity.
Mayer’s concerns are largely cultural – family, love, religion, consumption – but she also raises an important political and economic question. Namely: what do we do about our ageing population? In an era in which many of us will live beyond 80, does it really make sense to cease work at 65, or even 70? Work doesn’t just ward off boredom, vice and need, Mayer argues – if we want to stay young, “delaying retirement will do us more good than any elixirs of youth currently available on the internet.”
Amortality, after all, isn’t just about living longer, or even about living forever. It’s about living better: mentally, physically and experientially. Perhaps this spirit is where the real value of living agelessly lies. If we’re going to enjoy extra years, we may as well take advantage of them.
Published in Cosmopolitan, January 2012. Copyright Rachel Hills 2012.
Cocaine use has once again spiked among young women … but at what cost? Cosmo investigates.
Kate Moss was vilified by the British tabloids for using it. Paris Hilton was arrested and charged for possessing it , and her former bestie Nicole Richie was caught on camera allegedly licking it from a plate. The drug in question? Cocaine. And according to a new study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, a growing number of young Australian women are following in their footsteps.
Since 2007, cocaine use amongst twentysomething women has skyrocketed by more than 60 percent , with one in 20 having used the drug in the past 12 months. The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed it a “national cocaine binge” , concentrated amongst young, childless singles with high disposable incomes. That is to say, us.
So, what gives? Talk to women who use cocaine and they’ll tell you that it makes them feel confident, relaxed and less “messy” than when consuming alcohol or taking pills. “Your senses are heightened, but you’re not out of control,” says Talitha*, 27. Mel*, 29, says cocaine makes her feel “articulate and intelligent. It’s obviously not the reality, which is how you can end up cornering someone and talking nonsense all night, but it can be the antidote to that point in a boozy evening where everything seems blurry and out of control.”
“If you’re a woman in your twenties and you’re feeling a bit insecure, cocaine can seem like the aspirational drug of choice,” suggests Lisa Pryor, author of A Small Book About Drugs: The Debate We Need To Have About Recreational Drugs. Pryor has observed a move away from ecstasy to cocaine, “partly due to the false perception that cocaine is less of a big deal [than other drugs]” – and “Cocaine Kate”, Paris and the rest of the young Hollywood crew have played no small part in that.
“In popular culture, cocaine will often be talked about in the same way something like Botox is. They both tend to be criticised, but the more we criticise them, the more normalised they become,” she says. Gone are the scary, 80s style images of coke addicts with collapsed noses - Kate may have temporarily lost her contracts with H&M, Chanel and Burberry , but she remained fashion’s queen of “cool”.
A DANGEROUS LIAISON
Mandy, 34, is more familiar with the pleasures of white powder than most – she first tried it when she was 27 and was a heavy user for two years. She is also well acquainted with the drug’s dark side. “When I took cocaine I felt like I could take on the world,” she says. “Everything felt amazing.”
But the “amazingness” was only skin deep. While she was using, Mandy tore through the $30,000 she’d saved in order to take a year off work to write her novel. She lost of the respect of her friends, and her health suffered. “At one stage about a year into using heavily, my nose started to bleed a lot,” she recalls. “I shrugged it off, laughing. I was in total self-destruct mode.”
Mandy never wrote a thing in those two years. “But I spent a hell of a lot of time organising my money, organising people to do cocaine with and sorting with my dealer when he had some to sell,” she says. “Ultimately it made me so very sad, and it took me two years to get happy again.”
Cocaine can feel good because it raises your heart rate and stimulates the nervous system, but those same qualities link it to heart disease and an elevated risk of stroke, says Dr Sharlene Kaye, a research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. The brief euphoria associated with its highs can translate into just the opposite when the drug’s effects wear off. It’s not surprising then that regular users are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders.
That it doesn’t make users feel “messy” or “out of it” can also make it difficult to know when to stop. “One of the particular dangers is that the vast majority of people take it while they’re drinking alcohol and it makes you feel much less drunk than you otherwise would,” warns Pryor. “You should never think I’ve had five lines already, so what’s five more?”
Kaye agrees. “Reactions to cocaine aren’t dose related, and they’re not always related to frequency of use. You’re playing Russian roulette – you don’t know if the next dose will be the one.”
A ROYAL RIPOFF
Australia isn’t the first country to observe a spike in cocaine use. In 2009, the UK Home Office reported that the street price for a line of coke was a cheaper than that for a glass of wine. Here, it’s a different story. Coke is hitting our shores in greater quantities not because it’s dirt-cheap, but because we’re prepared pay top dollar for it – around $300 to $350 per gram. “It’s not because it’s a better drug, but because it’s a better business model for organised crime,” says Pryor.
And for all its purported meteoric rise, it’s worth remembering that most young women aren’t using the drug. “If five percent of young women have taken cocaine in the past year, 95 percent haven’t,” reminds Pryor. “It’s still quite a rare thing.”
Regular use remains rarer still – the AIHW study found that only 12.7 percent of twentysomething users consume the drug once a month or more. Or to put it in another way, that’s just one in 167 twentysomething Australia.
“You’re actually in a rare and dangerous category if you’re doing this sort of stuff regularly,” says Pryor. “And you definitely don’t need to take cocaine to be normal in your 20s.”
* Names have been changed.