New Nordic Mythologies

This article was published in M/C Journal (A Journal of Media and Culture), Vol 20, No 6 (2017).


Nordic mythology, also known as Norse mythology, is a term used to describe Medieval creation myths and tales of Gods and otherworldly realms, told and retold by Northern Germanic and Scandinavian tribes of the ninth century AD (see for example Gaiman).

I discuss a new type of Nordic mythology that is being created through popular culture, social media, books, and television shows. I am interested in how contemporary portrayals of the Nordic countries has created a kind of mythological place called Scandinavia, where things, people, and ideas are better than in other places.

Whereas the old myths portray a fierce warrior race, the new myths create a utopian Scandinavia as a place that is inherently good; a place that is progressive and harmonious. In the creation of these new myths the underbelly of the North is often neglected, producing a homogenised representation of a group of countries that are in actuality diverse and inevitably imperfect.


Generally the term Scandinavia always refers to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. When including Finland and Iceland, it is more accurate to refer to the five as the Nordic countries. I was born and grew up in Denmark. My observations are skewed towards a focus on Denmark, rather than Scandinavia as a whole. Though I will use the term Nordic and Scandinavia throughout the article, it is worth noting that these definitions describe a group of countries that despite some commonalities are also quite different in geography, and culture.

Whether we are speaking strictly of Scandinavia or of the Nordic countries as a whole, one thing is certain: in recent years there has been a surge of popularity in all things Nordic. Scandinavian design has been popular since the 1950s, known for its functionality and simplistic beauty, and globalised through the Swedish furniture chain IKEA. Consequently, Nordic interior design has become a style widely praised and emulated, as has Nordic fashion, architecture, and innovation.

The fact that Scandinavian people are often represented as being intelligent and beautiful adds to the notion of stylish and aesthetically pleasing ideals. This is partly why sperm from Danish sperm donors is the most sought after and widely distributed in the world: perhaps prospective parents find the idea of having a baby of Viking stock appealing (Kale).

Nordic countries are also known for their egalitarian societies, which are described as “the holy grail of a healthy economy and society” (Cleary). These are countries where the collective good is cherished. Tax rates are high (in Denmark between 55 per cent and 60 per cent of income), which leads to excellent welfare systems.

In recent years other terms have entered the collective Western vocabulary. New Nordic Cuisine describes a trend that has taken the culinary world by storm. This term refers to food that is created with seasonal, local, and foraged ingredients. The emphasis being a renewed connection to nature and old ways. In 2016 the Danish word hygge was shortlisted by the Oxford Dictionary as word of the year. A word, which has no direct English translation, it means “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture)”. Countless books were published in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, explaining the art of hygge. Other Scandinavian words are now becoming popular, such as the Swedish lagom, meaning “just enough”.

In the past two years, the United Nations’ World Happiness Report listed Denmark and Norway as the happiest places on earth. Other surveys similarly put the Nordic countries on top as the most prosperous places on earth (Anderson).

Mythologies and Discursive Formations

The standard definition of myth is a “traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” Or “A widely held but false belief or idea” (Oxford Dictionaries, Myth).

During what became known as the “discursive turn”, both Barthes and Foucault expanded the conception of myth by placing it within a wider socio-political and historical contexts of power and truth. “Discursive formations” became a commonly accepted way of describing a cluster of ideas, images, and practices that define particular “truths” within a given cultural context (Hall 6). In other words, myths serve specific purposes within given socio-cultural constructions.

I argue that the current idolisation of Scandinavia is creating a common global narrative of a superior society. A mythical place that has “figured it out”, and found the key to happiness. The mythologised North is based on an array of media stories, statistics, reports, articles, advertising, political rhetoric, books, films, TV series, exhibitions, and social media activity. These perpetuate a “truth” of the Nordic countries as being especially benign, cultured, and distinguished.

The Smiling Policeman

In his well-known essay Myth Today, Barthes analyses an image of a North African boy in uniform saluting the French flag on the front cover of a magazine. Barthes argues that by analysing the semiotic meaning of the image in two stages, one can identify the “myth”.

The first level is the signifiers (what we see), a dark skinned boy, a uniform, a raised arm, a flag. The signified is our recognition of these as a North African boy raising his arm to the French flag. The second level of interpretation is the wider context in which we understand what we see: the greatness of France is signified in the depiction of one of her colonial subjects submitting to and glorifying the flag. That is to say, the myth generated by the image is the story of France as a great colonial and military nation.

Now take a look at this image, which was distributed the world over in newspapers, online media, and in turn social media (Warren; Kolff). This image is interesting because it epitomises much of what is believed about Scandinavia (the new myths). If we approach the image through the semiotic lens of Barthes, we firstly describe what is seen in the picture (signifiers): a blonde policeman, a girl of dark complexion, a road in the countryside, a van in the distance, and some other people with backpacks on the side of the road. When we put these elements together in context, we understand that the image to be depicting a Danish policeman, blonde, smiling and handsome, playing with a Syrian refugee girl on an empty Danish highway, with her fellow refugees behind her.

The second level of interpretation (the myth) is created by combining the elements into a story: A friendly police officer is playing with a refugee girl, which is unusual because policemen are commonly seen as authoritarian and unfriendly to illegal immigrants. This policeman is smiling. He is happy in his job. He is healthy, good-looking, and compassionate.

This fits the image of Scandinavian men as good fathers (they have paternity leave, and often help equally with child rearing). The image confirms that the happiest people on earth would of course also have happy, friendly policemen. The belief that the Scandinavian social model is one to admire would appear to be endorsed.

The fact that this is in a rural setting with green landscapes adds further to the notion of Nordic freshness, naturalness, environmentalism, and food that comes from the wild. The fact that the policeman is well-groomed, stylish, well-built, and handsome reinforces the notion that Scandinavia is a place of style and taste, where the good Viking gene pool produces fit and beautiful people.

It makes sense that in a place with a focus on togetherness and the common good, refugees are also treated well. Just as the French image of a dark-skinned boy saluting the French flag sent out messages of French superiority, this image sends out messages of inherent Nordic goodness in a time where positive images of the European refugee crisis are few and far between.

In a discursive discussion, one asks not only what meanings does this image convey, but why is this image chosen, distributed, shared, tweeted, and promoted over other images? What purpose does its proliferation serve? What is the historical context in which it is popularised? What is the cultural imagination/narrative that is served? In the current often depressing socio-political situation in Europe, people like to know that there is a place where compassion and play exists.

Among other news stories of death, despair, and border protection, depictions of an idealised North can help calm anxieties by implying the existence of a place that is free of conflict. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen writes:

The flood of journalistic and popular ethnographic explorations of the Nordic region in the UK is an expression, perhaps, of a search for a lost sense of identity, a nostalgic longing for an imagined past society more in tune with pre-Thatcherite welfarist values, by way of consuming, appropriating and exoticising proximate cultural identities such as the now much hyped Danish or Nordic utopias. (Nordic Noir,6)

In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, British writer Michael Booth wonders: “one thing in particular about this new-found love of all things Scandinavian … which struck me as particularly odd: considering all this positive PR, and with awareness of the so-called Nordic miracle at an all-time high, why wasn’t everyone flocking to live here [in Denmark]?” (7).

In actuality not many people in the West are interested in living in the Nordic countries. Rather, as Barbara Goodwin writes: “utopias hold up a mirror to the fears and aspirations of the time in which they were written” (2). In other words, in an age of anxiety, where traditional norms and stabilities are shifting, to believe that there is a place where contemporary societies have found a way of living in happiness and togetherness provides a sense of hope. People are not flocking to live in Scandinavia because it is not in their interests to have their utopian ideals shattered by the reality that, though the North has a lot to offer, it is inevitably not a utopia (Sougaard-Nielsen, The Truth Is).


Paradoxically, in recent years, Scandinavia has become well known for its “Nordic Noir” crime fiction and television. In the documentary TV series Scandimania, British TV personality Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall travels through Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, exploring the culture, scenery, and food. He finds it curious that Denmark has become so famous for its sombre crime series, such as The Killing and The Bridge, because it seems so far removed from the Denmark he experiences riding around the streets of Copenhagen on his bike.

Fearnley-Whittingstall ponders that one has to look hard to find the dark side of Denmark, and that perhaps it does not actually exist at all. This observation points to something essential. Even though millions of viewers worldwide have seen shows such as The Killing, which are known for their dark story lines, bleak urban settings, complex but realistic characters, progressive gender equality, and social commentary, the positive mythologising of Scandinavia remains so strong that it engenders a belief that the underbelly shown in Nordic Noir is perhaps entirely fictional.

Stougaard-Nielsen (see also Pitcher, Consuming Race) argues that perhaps the British obsession with Nordic Noir (and this could be applied to other western countries) can be attributed to “a more appropriate white cosmopolitan desire to imagine rooted identities in an age of globalisation steeped in complex identity politics” (Nordic Noir, 8). That is to say that, for a segment of society which feels overwhelmed by contemporary multiculturalism, there may be a pleasure in watching a show that is predominantly populated by white Nordic protagonists, where the homes and people are stylish, and where the Nordic model of welfare and progressive thinking provides a rich identity source for white people as a symbolic point of origin.

The watching/reading of Nordic Noir, as well as other preoccupations with all things Nordic, help build upon a mythological sense of whiteness that sets itself apart from our usual notions of race politics, by being an accepted form of longing for the North of bygone ages: a place that is progressive, moral, stylish, and imbued with aspirational ways of living, thinking, and being (Pitcher, Racial Politics).

The image of the Danish police officer and the refugee girl fits this ideal of a progressive society where race relations are uncomplicated. The policeman who epitomises the Nordic ideal is in a position of power, but this is an authority which is benevolent. The girl is non-threatening in her otherness, because she is a child and female, and therefore does not fit the culturally dreaded Muslim/terrorist stereotype. In this constellation the two can meet beautifully.

The reality, of course, is that the race relations and issues surrounding immigration in Denmark, and in other Nordic countries, are as complicated and often messy and hateful as they are in other countries. In Sweden, as Fearnley-Whittingstall touches upon in Scandimania, there are escalating problems with integration of the many new Swedes and growing inequalities in wealth. In Norway, the underlying race tensions became acutely topical in the aftermath of the 2011 massacre, where right-wing extremist Anders Breivik killed 77 people. Denmark has one of the harshest anti-immigration laws in Europe, laws that are continuously being tightened (Boserup); and whenever visiting Denmark I have been surprised to see how much space and time discussions about immigration and integration take up in the news and current affairs.

If we contrast the previous image with the image above, taken within a similar timeframe on the same Danish highway, we can see the reality of Danish immigration policies. Here we are exposed to a different story. The scene and the location is the same, but the power dynamics have shifted from benign, peaceful, and playful to aggressive, authoritarian, and conflict ridden. A desperate father carries his daughter, determined to march on towards their destination of Sweden. The policeman is pulling his arm, attempting to detain the refugees so that they cannot go further, the goal being to deport the Syrians back to their previous place of detention, just over the border in Germany(Harticollis). While the previous image reflects the humanity of the refugee crisis, this image reflects the politics, policies, and to a large extent public opinion in Denmark, which is not refugee-friendly. This image, however, was not widely distributed, partly because it feeds into the same depressing narrative of an unsolvable refugee crisis seen so often elsewhere, and partly because it does not fit into the narrative of the infallible North. It could not be tweeted with the hashtag #Humanity, nor shared on Facebook with a smiley face and liked with an emoji heart.

Another image from Denmark, in the form of a politically funded billboard, shows that there are deep-seated tendencies within Danish society that want to promote and retain a Denmark which adheres to its traditional values and ethnic whiteness. The image was displayed all over the country, at train stations, bus stops, and other public spaces when I visited in 2016. It was issued by Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish People’s Party); a party which is anti-immigration and which was until recently the country’s second largest party. The title says “Our Denmark”, while the byline cleverly plays with the double meaning of passe på: it can mean “there is so much we need to take care of”, but also “there is so much we need to beware of.” In other words, the white working-class family needs to take care of their Denmark, and beware of anyone who does not fit into this norm. Though hugely contested and criticised (Cremer; see a counter-reaction designed by opponents below), the fact that thinly veiled anti-immigration propaganda can be so readily distributed speaks of an underbelly in Danish society that is not made of the dark murder mysteries in The Killing, but rather of a quietly brewing distain for the foreigner that reigns within stylishly designed living rooms.


Myths are stories cultures tell and retell until they form a belief system that becomes a natural part of our collective narrative. For Barthes, these stories were intrinsically connected to our understanding of language and our ability to read images, films, artifacts, and popular culture more generally. To later cultural theorists, the notion of discursive formations expands this understanding, to see myth within a broader network of socio-political discourses placed within a certain place and time in history. When connected, small narratives (images, advertising, film, music, news stories, social media sharing, scientific evidence, etc.) come together to form a common narrative (the myth) about how things are and should be in relation to a particular topic.

The culminating popularity of numerous Nordic themes (Nordic television/film, interior design, fashion, cuisine, architecture, lifestyle, sustainability, welfare system, school system, gender equality, etc.) has created a grand narrative of the Nordic countries as a type of utopia: one that shows the rest of the world that an egalitarian society of togetherness and progressive innovation is possible. This mythologisation serves to quell anxieties about the flux and uncertainty of contemporary times, and may also serve to legitimise a yearning for a simple, benign, and progressive whiteness, where we imagine Nordic families sitting peacefully at their beechwood dining tables, candles lit, playing board games. This is a projected yearning which is otherwise largely disallowed in today’s multicultural societies.


Anderson, Elizabeth. “The Most Prosperous Countries in the World, Based on Happiness and Financial Health.” The Telegraph, 2 Nov. 2015. <>.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. London: Vintage, 2000 [1957].

———. “Myth Today.” Mythologies. London: Vintage, 2000 [1957].

Booth, Michael. The Almost Nearly Perfect People. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014.

Boserup, Rasmus Alenius. “Denmark’s Harsh New Immigration Law Will End Badly for Everyone.” Huffington Post. <>.

Bridge, The. (Danish: Broen.) Created by Hans Rosenfeldt. Sveriges Television and DR, 2013-present.

Cleary, Paul. “Norway Is Proof That You Can Have It All.” The Australian, 15 July 2013. <>.

Colson, Thomas. “7 Reasons Denmark Is the Happiest Country in the World.” The Independent, 26 Sep. 2016. <>.

Cremer, Justin. “The Strangest Political Story in Denmark Just Got Stranger.” The Local, 19 May 2016. <>.

Dregni, Eric. “Why Is Norway the Happiest Place on Earth?” Star Tribune, 11 June 2017. <>.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin Books, 1998 [1976].

Gaiman, Neil. “Neil Gaiman Retells Classic Norse Mythology.” Conversations. Radio National 30 Mar. 2017.

Goodwin, Barbara, ed. The Philosophy of Utopia. London: Frank Cass, 2001.

Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage, 1997.

Hartocollis, Anemona. “Traveling in Europe’s River of Migrants.” New York Times, 9 Sep. 2015. <>.

Helliwell, J., R. Layard, and J. Sachs. World Happiness Report 2017. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2017.

Kale, Sirin. “Women Are Now Pillaging Sperm Banks for Viking Babies.” Vice, 2 Oct. 2015. <>.

Killing, The. (Danish: Forbrydelsen.) Created by Søren Sveistrup. DR, 2007-2012.

Kolff, Louise. “Part III: The Hunk & the Refugee.” Perspectra, 3 Dec. 2015. <>.

Oxford Dictionaries. “Hygge.” <>.

Oxford Dictionaries. “Myth.” <>.

Pitcher, Ben. Consuming Race. London: Routledge, 2014.

———. “The Racial Politics of Nordic Noir.” Mecetes, 9 April 2014. <>.

Scandimania. Featuring H. Fearnley-Whittingstall. Channel 4, 2014.

Sougaard-Nielsen, Jacob. “Nordic Noir in the UK: The Allure of Accessible Difference.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 8.1 (2016). 1 Oct. 2017 <>.

———. “The Truth Is, Scandinavia Is Neither Heaven nor Hell.” The Conversation, 19 Aug. 2014. <>.

Warren, Rossalyn. “The Touching Moment a Policeman Sat Down to Play with a Syrian Refugee.” BuzzFeed News, 15 Sep. 2015. <>.


The 6 Habits of a Litterbug

I live in arguably one of the most beautiful areas of Australia: the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. Just 6km to the border of Queensland, in the lush green hinterland caldera surrounding Wollumbin (Mt Warning). Sacred to the aborigines, the tip of this 23 million year old volcano is the first place in Australia to be illuminated by the sun’s rays each morning. Because of the beauty of the place, I feel even more confronted when I come across rubbish on the side of the road. It’s out-of-placeness is so acute, that I cannot help wonder who would throw it out of their car window and why?

Though this is not a topic that immediately seems relevant to a visual culture blog, the items of rubbish are visual. They are visual in their effect on the landscape, and they are visual because they are pieces of packaging that have been designed by graphic designers. The issue is also one that public sector campaigns, community organisations, and not-for profit organisations are trying to tackle through media campaigns and billboards. As such, the way the problem is approached through visual campaigns is influenced by our understanding of the causes of littering behaviour.

Mt Warning view
Views of Mt Warning (Wollumbin) from my walk. Overlooking the road leading to the “Help, I’m a celebrity…” site.

Litterbug Fieldwork

When going for walks or runs with my daughter in her stroller we help each other spot the rubbish and pick it up to throw in our own bin. We sometimes sing a Playschool song that goes “Pick up the litter at your feet, pick up the litter in the street. Don’t just throw it away. You don’t want to be a litterbug…”. After many such trips with always the same types of rubbish, I started to wonder what the correlation is between the types of people who throw litter out of their car, and the content of the packaging they are throwing.

The area surrounding Murwillumbah is a funny mix of all sorts of people; there are the farming families who have been here for generations; there are those from lower socio-economic backgrounds; there are the alternatives and hippies; there are those of aboriginal decent, there are the Hare Krishnas, there are the rich who have moved from the cities to find their private piece of paradise; there are the hipsters/artists/intellectuals; and there are the average working families being out-priced from the Gold Coast and Byron Bay. Furthermore, there are the celebrities. At the end of our neighbouring road the reality television game show “I’m a celebrity…Get me out of here!” is filmed. In the show B-grade British or German celebrities are subjected to all kinds of wilderness horrors. The supposedly remote “jungle” setting of the show is at the end of a residential road, 10 minutes from town.

Back to the rubbish. From my non-scientific field work, these are the six types of packaging I have found again and again, and therefore these are what I would classify as the top six habits of a litterbug:

1. They eat junk food. Usually McDonald’s or KFC.

2. They eat unhealthy snacks. Often chocolate bars and potato chips.

3.  They drink sugary drinks. Soft drinks, chocolate milks, milk shakes.

4. They drink energy drinks, or eat those energy gels you get in little packets.

5. They drink alcohol. Often beer or ready mixed alcoholic beverages.

6. They smoke cigarettes.

(7). They smoke marijuana. I have only found one bit of evidence for this, so I cannot make any firm conclusions. I first thought this was just a vitamin drink bottle, until I turned it over and discovered it was a home-made water bong (for smoking weed).

1. Junk Food
2. Junk snacks
3.  Sugary drinks
4. Energy drinks & gels
5. Alcohol
6. Cigarettes
(7). Marijuana
water bong
Homemade water bong

Now from these habits one could easily form an opinion about the type of person who would carelessly throw something out of their car: (1) young; (2) male, (3) racing along in a bombed out car with some mates (probably doing burnouts), (4) a bunch of inconsiderate hoons (or as Australians would call them bogans). The scene is set: They’re having a few drinks, smoking a ciggy, and munching a burger or some fried chicken with loud music blaring. Or they are hung over, downing a can of coke and an energy drink, while snacking on Mars bars and Magnums. They are loud, they are obnoxious, and they just don’t care. Puzzle solved. Or is it… Stereotypes are usually over simplistic, and complexities far more interesting and confronting are frequently behind the social constructs of our culture.

bogan burnout_Simon Davidson
The stereotypical image of an Aussie hoon or bogan. Photo: Simon Davidson.

Investigating Litterbug Habits

One day on my walk I came across this rubbish:

It was so out of the ordinary, that it took me by surprise. These were wrappers of so called “healthy” drinks/foods. Did it prove my theory of the 6 habits wrong? A little further down the road I found one of my kids’ doodles among the items, and realised it was my rubbish! I was a litterbug! So much for being on my holier-than-thou trip. It turned out these items had fallen out of our bin, when it was stolen by a neighbour. It made me realise that while I might think myself beyond littering, anyone can be a litterbug, depending on what is going on in their life.

What if rather than being about a particular type of person, the habits of a litterbug is about a momentary (or systemic) disregard for health. There is a common trait in the 6 (or 7) types of rubbish: They are all associated with consuming something which is considered unhealthy, which is fast and convenient, and which gives either stimulation or an energy hit. There seems to be a correlation between disrespect for the body and disrespect for nature. A need for fast and convenient access to energy and stimulation (from sugar, fat, empty carbs, alcohol, caffeine or nicotine) reflecting an impatience symptomatic of contemporary life in general. When we expect instant gratification the need for instant rubbish disposal follows. In that moment we have lost touch with our body and its real needs, and in that moment we have also lost touch with a sense of belonging to nature.

In his book Changeology, Les Robinson explores how people’s beliefs are often not in line with their actions. For instance research shows that most people who litter do in fact care about the environment, and what people think about them; however, they are unable to match their beliefs to their actions1. In the book Robinson sites a research project, which focuses on littering in Australia. The following is a quote from the report:

One of the most significant findings was that a simple two way split between ‘people who litter’ and ‘people who use bins’ is not the best way to characterise people’s disposal behaviour. In many cases, there appear to be greater differences between different sorts of littering and binning behaviour than there are between some people who litter and those who use bins.2

The report shows that it is ineffective to classify people into categories of litterers and non-litterers. Any of us can end up littering, and often people do so unconsciously. Stereotypes are not reflected in the findings, as men and women seem to litter equally, and though they litter somewhat more than other ages when in a group, people between the age of 15 and 24 litter less than other adults when they are on their own.

Perhaps whether or not someone litters is dependant on how they feel in that exact moment, and how they feel about the item they are consuming and themselves. Certainly the majority of the rubbish I found could have come from drunken hoons, showing off their rebellious disregard for authority to each other. But it could also have come from a dieting nurse, who feels disgusted with herself for eating another chocolate bar, and therefore throws the wrapper out the window. Or it could come from a lawyer who doesn’t want his wife to know he has not given up smoking, and wants to get rid of the evidence. It could come from an exhausted parent, who has finished off a burger and a thick shake on the go, and hasn’t got the mental energy to deal with the rubbish. It could be from a high school teacher who is drinking in secret driving home from work, and feels ashamed. It could come from one of the many lycra cyclists who hasn’t got a spare pocket for her energy gel wrapper. Or perhaps from a B-grade celebrity who just needs a Coca Cola pick-me-up after a rough night sleeping in a snake pit and eating hand sized spiders. Whatever the mental and emotional state in that decisive moment will dictate whether the window is rolled down and the rubbish tossed, or whether there is a capacity and willingness to hold on to the rubbish and dispose of it correctly.

My suggestion is that the nature of these 6 habits (eating junk food and snacks, drinking sugar, alcohol and caffeine, and smoking cigarettes), render them prone to induce rubbish tossing behaviour, because generally these habits make people feel bad about themselves, or ashamed, or apathetic. Those who toss packaging from these item groups, may at other times dispose perfectly of other packaging. As the research shows, the very same people were observed sometimes littering, and at other times putting rubbish in the bin3. Whether people were in a group or not also affected their likelihood to litter (young people were more likely to litter in a group, while older people were less likely to). So littering behaviour is connected to the type of rubbish, and to the social setting at a given moment4.

Tossers and behaviour change. 

With this in mind, what might image makers, social marketeers, and packaging designers do differently to curb the spread of litter? In Australia government campaigns have focused on shaming those who litter. For instance, the NSW Environment Protection Authority have created a campaign which uses billboards, TV and radio ads. The message is “Hey Tosser! Put it in the bin”. In the campaign a number of people littering are shamed by appalled bystanders who call them “tossers” (in British, New Zealand and Australian slang a “tosser” means a “jerk” or a “wanker”). The bystanders are encouraged to report a “tosser”, which can be done online.

Bottle litter:

Takeaway litter:

Cigarette buds:

Shaming is something that is often used in public sector campaigns. However, research warns that the use of shame in campaigns is likely to be ineffective, or even counter productive5. Shaming can lead to anger and feelings of isolation, which are usually not emotions that encourage behaviour change. When shaming occurs in relation to littering of items that already potentially make people feel ashamed of themselves (e.g. smoking, drinking, unhealthy eating) the shaming may have double the negative impact. Viewed through the lens of behaviour change research the “Hey Tosser!” campaign ticks all the wrong boxes, creating a “them” (the tossers) and “us” (the good citizens) scenario. As Robson writes in Changeology:

An aim of this book is to show that change need not be an attack on people’s badness. It will always be better to treat people with kindness and respect, recognising their need to remain safe, be in control of their lives, and feel good about themselves… Rather than trying to change people, it will always be better to help people change themselves.6

So if we can’t shame people out of littering, what can be done? Firstly, looking at the 6 habits above, it might be useful for creators of anti-littering campaigns and information initiatives; for the producers of goods; and for packaging designers to consider the types of items that are littered. That means a responsibility lies with those who produce and design packaging for fast food, sugary or fatty snacks, alcohol, energy drinks, soft drinks and other sugary drinks, and cigarettes, because these are the items often littered (of course more “scientific” field work would be needed). Chances are that health food packaging will be disposed of appropriately, because the person feels better about consuming it. So if we know a cigarette package, a chocolate bar wrapper, or a beer can is more likely to end up on the side of the road, how might it be designed differently so that it degrades? That would be one challenge to put to packaging designers.

A second challenge would be to create more sustainable social change through positive means. Robson7 suggests 6 steps that can successfully create change:

  1. Positive buzz (when people share optimistic stories about change)
  2. An offer of hope (when people make the connection between a novel action and their own hopes and frustrations)
  3. An enabling environment (when people’s environments make new behaviours easy to do and sustain)
  4. A sticky solution (when behaviours are reinvented to better fit people’s lives)
  5. Expanded comfort zones (when people are helped to reduce their fears)
  6. The right inviter (when inspiring, trusted peers invite action)

How these 6 steps could be implemented would depend on a number of different factors such as where the littering is occurring, and the social and cultural background of those in the area. The solutions would be unique for each situation. In each scenario it would be important to recognise that it is not necessarily a certain type of person who litters. Rather, it is worth considering that the type of rubbish littered tells us something about the emotional state of those who litter in that moment, their feelings toward themselves and their bodies in that moment, and in extension their lack of concern for the environment in that moment.

Perhaps the imagined dieting nurse who tossed the chocolate wrapper always composts her vegetable scraps. Perhaps the lawyer who chucked the cigarette package always recycles his milk bottles. Perhaps the exhausted parent at other times disposes correctly of the kids’ muesli bar wrappers. Perhaps the high school teacher who threw the beer can always recycles his disposable water bottles. Perhaps the cyclist usually picks up litter when she walks the dog. Perhaps the celebrity would never normally drink a can of Coke. And perhaps the reckless hoons who tossed the homemade bong, always feed their scraps to their worm farm at home. Rather than being permanent “tossers”, they momentarily became litterbugs.

  1. Les Robinson, Changeology: How to Enable Groups, Communities, and Societies to do Things They’ve Never Done Before (Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2012), 16.
  2. Rob Curnow, Peter Streker, and Emma Williams, Understanding Littering Behaviour in Australia (Beverage Industry Environment Council, 1997), 8.
  3. Ibid, 8.
  4. Ibid, 7.
  5. e.g. Roger Bennett, “Shame, Guilt & Responses to Non-profit & Public Sector Ads”, International Journal of Advertising, 17, no. 4 (1998): 483-499; Linda Brennan and Wayne Binney, “Fear, Guilt, and Shame Appeals in Social Marketing”, Journal of Business Research 63 (2010): 140146.
  6. Robinson, Changeology, 48-49.
  7. Ibid, 49.


Part II: Relevant Sex Education, a Visual Culture Tool

In Part I I discussed the problems facing kids and teenagers in a contemporary culture with easy access to internet pornography. I argued that, as well as being an emerging public health crisis, this can be seen as a visual culture crisis. Tools to deal with the crisis, however, are also to be found within visual culture. This is where relevant, down-to-earth, unabashed and humorous sex education comes in. Sex education that can help children and teens interpret and assess what they see in a critical way, encouraging positive perceptions of body diversity, and sexual diversity. It can help emphasise the importance of ensuring sexual encounters are enjoyable, intimate, fun, safe and loving for both partners at an appropriate age within mutually consenting relationships. It can help children and teens understand that beliefs and emotions surrounding sex are part of a much wider field of interaction; influenced by cultural belief systems, the media, peers, parents and partners.

Not only can good sex education help youngsters deal better with explicit sexual images; research shows that if kids and teenagers are taught well about sex, they tend to delay having sex for the first time, teenage pregnancy rates come down, as do the rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Teaching children and teens about sex is a topic fraught with controversy, and widely polarised opinions often lead to heated debates and a politicisation of the subject matter. Generally on one side of the debate those with conservative views advocate sex education on a need-know basis only, fearing that children and teens will be unduly influenced to have sex, if they are taught about sex. On the other side of the debate, those in favour of early and comprehensive sex education, argue that openness and honesty can assist children and teens in developing a healthy understanding of sexuality, and in turn develop healthy sex lives as adults. Sex education efforts (by parents, schools and institutions) fall into a wide array of variations between the two ends of the spectrum. Until fairly recently the conservative belief-system has reigned, and still does in many places (particularly within faith-based communities, schools and organisations). In some places, such as Scandinavia and the Netherlands a more liberal approach has been developing over the past century, in particular since the 1970s.

Australian Sex Ed

Australia (and most other countries) have had a strained relationship to sex education. The spread of venereal disease amongst soldiers visiting prostitutes during the First and Second World Wars initiated the first large scale sex education efforts in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, through mostly misogynistic propaganda posters (see Venereal Disease Propaganda in the Second World War by Joanna Close). Here the ‘loose woman’ was portrayed as the enemy on a mission to spread disease to unsuspecting soldiers.

Australian venereal disease poster
World War II venereal disease poster by Cyril Jones, 4th Medical Corps Division, Australia.

In the decades following the Second World War sex education in Australia was sporadic and inconsistent. It was taught for example through meetings held by puritan groups such as the Father and Son Welfare Movement, advocating abstinence, and giving moral lectures with very basic anatomical information. Some education for boys took place in schools, but education for girls was very limited.

sex education booklets
Sex Ed Resources, Father and Son Movement , Australia, 1967.

Throughout the years sex education for both genders has moved into Australian classrooms, though it has been difficult to find a unified approach within the Australian curriculum, and there are still vast differences in the teaching techniques and messages taught to kids across schools. In recent years sexual education has been added to the National Health and Physical Education curriculum in Australian primary and secondary schools. Critics on both sides of the spectrum, however, are unhappy about the changes to the curriculum. Some organisations advocating a more comprehensive and unified approach to sex education are worried that the curriculum is too vague, while other organisations advocating against compulsory sex education in schools argue that the curriculum is too extreme, forcing parents to accept a specific type of teaching that they may not feel comfortable with.

Despite the national curriculum requirements for education regarding human sexuality, it is up to the individual schools to take the initiative to implement some form of sexual education, and laws in some states make it possible for religious schools to legally discriminate against those practicing “unacceptable” sexual behaviour according to the school’s doctrines. As a result there are concerns that sexual education can become irrational, fear-based and stigmatising. For example, one Catholic school ordered students to rip out and destroy a page in their health workbook, which discussed premarital sex and homosexuality.

Text book page
The page from the St Francis Xavier College health workbook that was ordered to be torn out.

Generally Australia has seen a shift towards a more conservative approach to politics in recent years. Political alliances with Christian lobby groups has resulted in efforts to stunt the introduction of marriage equality laws, and efforts to sabotage the introduction of the ‘Safe Schools’ program—an anti-bullying initiative, aiming to teach school kids about tolerance towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students (see also Safe Schools Review Findings: Experts Respond).

The recent defunding of Australia’s only youth-led sex education service, YEAH, is an other example of what some describe as an ideological anti-sex education agenda pushed by conservatives. This move comes at a time when sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates are rising amongst young people and condom use is declining. At a time when experts are stressing the need for effective sex education, that promotes safer sex practices, through honest discussions with young people.

What Does Research Say?

Peggy Orenstein from the New York Times writes in her article When did Porn Become Sex Ed:

What if we spoke to kids about sex more instead of less, what if we could normalize it, integrate it into everyday life […]? Because the truth is, the more frankly and fully teachers, parents and doctors talk to young people about sexuality, the more likely kids are both to delay sexual activity and to behave responsibly and ethically when they do engage in it.

Orenstein is echoing the findings of research, which suggests that abstinence based sex education is counterproductive, and may lead to earlier first time sexual intercourse, higher rates of teenage pregnancy, and is likely to lead to higher rates of STIs. A comprehensive study of existing literature compared the age of first time sexual encounters, rates of condom use, rates of STIs amongst youth and teen pregnancies in the United States, Australia, France and the Netherlands. The study reveals that the Netherlands, a country with a comprehensive and “open-minded” approach to sexual education has very low teen pregnancy and STI rates, compared to the United States, where sexual education efforts have been strongly focused on abstinence programs, and where statistics report the highest rates of teen pregnancy and abortions of all industrialised countries (read more here).

Another study that compared female college students in the United States and the Netherlands found that “the American sample experienced sexual behaviours at a younger age and with more partners, whereas the Dutch sample showed a better use of contraceptives during high school, more talk with their parents, and greater sexuality education”. Through in-depth interviews with the young women researchers found the U.S. women felt unprepared for sex, engaged in sex because they were driven by hormones or peers, or wanted to satisfy their partner. They generally had parents who were uncomfortable talking about or silent about sex. The Dutch women, on the other hand, spoke more about being motivated by love, feeling in control of their own body, and about having parents (and teachers/doctors) as supporters and educators, who introduced them to books about sexuality at a young age.

Australia does not generally have an abstinence only approach (though this is promoted in some religious schools); however, it does also not have a comprehensive approach to sex education like the Dutch, or a culture in which sex is readily talked about in a natural and educational way with children and teenagers. Consequently, research is indicating that sex education is starting too late, since children are entering puberty earlier than commonly believed, and since many teenagers are sexually active (see Worried About the Sexualisation of Children? Teach Sex Ed Earlier). Young Australians themselves are reporting that school-based sex education is providing them with important information about sex. They are, however, asking for lessons that focus less on the biological/anatomical aspects of sexuality, and more on gender diversity, violence in relationships, intimacy, sexual pleasure and love. This is what Nelly Thomas calls the ‘sex education paradox’: we live in a culture that is rife with sexual images and content (on the internet, in the media, popular culture, and advertising), but refuses to discuss honestly and courageously the real issues that can either hinder or assist young people in developing healthy, happy sex lives and relationships.

What Can We Learn from the Australian Response to HIV/AIDS Prevention?

What does the history of HIV/AIDS campaigns have to do with contemporary sex education for kids and teenagers? There are obvious ways in which sex education differs from the HIV/AIDS crisis: (1) the emergence of HIV/AIDS was a public health emergency, with people getting very sick, and in many cases dying; (2) the people most affected by HIV/AIDS were adults within particular population groups (in Australia men who have sex with men, sex workers, and intravenous drug users). However, there are also many similarities: (1) the producers of the education materials are dealing with the delicate subject of sex; (2) the materials need to promote safer sexual practices; (3) the materials need to be engaging, informative and memorable.

Australia is widely known for its pragmatic and proactive approach to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s (see for example Learning to Trust: Australian Responses to AIDS by Paul Sendziuk). The key to its success was strongly collaborative partnerships between the government and community organisations. These organisations were mobilised to educate and assist the communities most affected on a grass-roots level, rather than through a top down approach. This meant that educational campaigns could be created that spoke directly to the people within these communities, in a language they could relate to and understand. The key being trust and communication between government authorities, and those working closely with risk groups in peer based organisations (see also Australia’s HIV Response).

In short, the four key elements that made HIV/AIDS campaigns effective were:

  1. The campaigns were funded by the Government, but developed by peer-based community organisations, who knew well the target audience they were trying to reach.
  2. The campaigns used straightforward visual language and words that were relevant to the target audience. At times using sexual explicitness, and at times using humour.
  3. The campaign did not use fear strategies. There is strong evidence that scare tactics generally alienate, rather than engage target audiences.
  4. The campaign material was incorporated into the everyday lives of the target audiences. For example, ads were run continuously, in weekly magazines published for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Posters were displayed at LGBT clubs, and events.

Despite the obvious differences between sex education for kids and HIV/AIDS campaigns, one could apply parallels between the four key elements:

  1. Sex education is most effective if done as a collaboration between parents (the primary educators), schools, experienced sex educators, and peer-based programs.
  2. In an age where many children and teens are exposed to highly sexually explicit material on the internet, using tame and prudish visual language will not seem relevant to kids. To reach kids the education materials must be relevant to the age group, and kids must feel that they can openly ask questions and engage in discussions with the educator. Humour is a good way of making it easier to communicate and engage with kids.
  3. Fear is not effective in reaching children and teens. Shaming and abstinence only programs will lead to secrecy, and potentially to higher rates of unwanted sex, and/or unprotected sex.
  4. Incorporating sex education into everyday life is more effective than having ‘THE TALK’ once a child hits puberty. If kids are from an early age encouraged to ask questions, and are given relevant answers, honest communication channels are opened, and kids are more likely to discuss with an adult if they are feeling uncertain, scared or confused. In her resource Talk Soon, Talk Often Jenny Walsh outlines how it is beneficial for parents and schools to keep the conversation open from an early age (listen to Jenny Walsh talk about the subject here). It is also useful for schools to adopt a ‘whole school’ approach, where sex education is not just something the PE teacher does, but something that can be relevant to and incorporated into a wide array of subjects (see for instance the resource Catching on Early).

The Practical Guide to Love Sex and Relationships

From a visual culture perspective then, what does an effective resource for teenagers look like? A good example is a new resource produced by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), La Trobe University, and funded by the Australian Government. The project was authored by Jenny Walsh, (researcher, educator and curriculum writer within the field of sexual education), Anne Mitchell (researcher within the field of youth sexuality), and Mandy Hudson (community educator). The resources were created on the foundation of Professor Moira Carmody’s Sex and Ethics research and education project, and on the results of the Fifth National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2013.

What makes this project stand out is the way it deals with the issues surrounding sexuality and relationships in a contemporary, non-condescending, humorous and appealing way. The visuals are comprised of hand drawn black and white illustrations, with sporadic splashes of colour. The project includes a website with lesson plans, teaching resources, activities and training videos for teachers, and online videos for young people that accompany the lessons. These are divided into age appropriate sections for Years 7 & 8 (12-14 year-olds), and Years 9 & 10 (14-16 year-olds).

One of the strengths of the resource is a series of animations that discuss a variety of topics to do with sex, relationships, gender and pornography. Each is narrated by a young male and female, who have humorous conversations with each other, while drawing the storyline. The actual visualisation of the cutting, pasting, ripping and scrunching of images, continuously changing the context, the emotions and the story, makes the films fresh and funny. In addition, the cut and paste approach also shows the transient, weird and confusing nature of identity, sexuality and relationships. In this way it is not only the message and language that is relevant; the visual style itself becomes meaningful.

In Standing Up For Yourself kids are taught strategies for communicating in a friendship or romantic relationship.

Screenshot from “Standing Up for Yourself”, ARCSHS 2016.

In What to Do if You Like Someone kids are taught strategies for dealing with crushes and rejection.

Screenshot from “What to Do if You Like Someone”, ARCSHS, 2016.

In Freedom Fighters gender stereotypes are addressed through a humorous sci-fi storyline.

Screenshot from “Freedom Fighters”, ARCSHS, 2016.

In Porn – What You Should Know the topic of pornography and its shortcomings are discussed in a funny and at times explicit way.

Screenshot from “Porn – What You Should Know”, ARCSHS, 2016.

In The Truth About Desire the myths of male and female desire are dispelled.

Screenshot from “The Truth About Desire”, ARCSHS, 2016.

The Rollercoaster explores the ethics of sexual relationships, and the importance of respecting ones own boundaries and the boundaries of the other person.

Screenshot from “The Rollercoaster”, ARCSHS, 2016.

When’s the Right Time? discusses the decision making around engaging in first sexual encounters.

Screenshot from “When’s the Right Time?”, ARCSHS, 2016.

The Good Ship ‘Relationship’ deals with relationship issues surrounding trust, communication, respect and breaking up.

Screenshot from “The Good Ship ‘Relationship'”, ARCSHS, 2016.

The following observations can be made looking at The Practical Guide to Love Sex and Relationships in relation to the above mentioned four key elements:

  1. Community based rather than top-down: The materials are designed by experts in the field, who have worked extensively as sex educators, and with youth more generally. As with the HIV/AIDS campaigns, this project was designed by those ‘on the ground’, with first hand knowledge and experience working with the community they are trying to reach (in this case teenagers). As part of the project resources have been designed to train and assist the teachers who will be using the material with their students.
  2. Relevant: The visual language and words used are fresh, funny and relevant to the target audience.
  3. Non-fear based: Fear or shaming strategies are carefully avoided. Instead there is a strong emphasis on validating diversity in experience, and on safety through honesty and respect. Rather than focus on the mechanics of sex and condom use, the resources focus strongly on the complexity of relationships, emotions, identity and sexual feelings.
  4. Incorporated into everyday lives: The materials are designed to be used over a period of time, with some used in earlier years of high school and some in the later years. The videos are available online, making it possible for students to revisit them. In this way, the resource can be integrated into the everyday lives of teenagers.

Relevant Sex Education: A Visual Culture Tool

In a culture where sexual imagery is all around us, and where pornography is often the first exposure to sex for many children, experts are emphasising the need for  contemporary, honest and relevant sex education. Being taught a more balanced view on sexuality can provide kids and teenagers the opportunity to develop the emotional intelligence necessary to build healthy relationships and navigate a highly sexualised world.

For information to be conveyed in an engaging way it needs to be visual. These visuals need to be cleverly designed to navigate the fragile line between showing what needs to be shown to communicate effectively with kids and teens, while staying within the boundaries of what parents, teachers, politicians, the media, and society at large find acceptable to visualise.

As the controversies over the ‘Safe Schools’ program has highlighted, Australia is still a country with widespread conservative views deeply embedded into its culture. Consequently, it is the job of visual culture makers – graphic designers, illustrators, animators, artists, photographers, and sex educators – to find ways of dealing with the problematics of visualising difficult issues that many would rather not see visualised. If the information becomes too confronting and explicit, there is the risk of political backlash. However, if the material is too tame kids and teens will feel it is irrelevant to their current lived experience; one which is often already saturated with sexual imagery.

The Practical Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships is a good example of a sex education project produced in collaboration between sex educators and visual culture makers, resulting in an intelligent, genuine and comprehensive set of resources. Though some of the resources deal with sex and sexuality, they are seldom sexually graphic. However, when they need to be (i.e. in the Porn – What you Should Know) the illustration style and humour disarms the potentially awkward subject matter. In this way, the creators have found ways of being direct, while remaining within the boundaries of acceptability.

In Part I I suggested that we are in the midst of what might be described as a visual culture crisis—the excessive availability of highly stereotyping sexual imagery (i.e. in popular culture, pornography, and social media). Simultaneously this crisis is an opportunity for visual culture makers to use their craft as a tool to counter the superficiality, stereotyping, and body anxiety this type of imagery can generate. The clever use of visuals, in combination with honest and engaging information, can create deeper and more meaningful ways of understanding sexuality, emotions, relationships and body diversity. This is a call for visual culture makers to take on that challenge.

Part I: Kids Watching Porn, a Visual Culture Crisis?

Recently a symposium was held about a contemporary public health crisis that is potentially changing the way males and females relate to each other; it is a crisis of sexual relations, emotional connections, physical abuse and mental health. The premise of the symposium was that pornography is harming kids and teenagers to an extent that we have perhaps not yet realised the consequeces of.

Apart from being a public health crisis, this can also be seen as a visual culture crisis. Pornography exists in the visual realm; it is carefully constructed and scripted according to particular rules and expectations; it tends to use very specific body types, camera angles, “storylines”, sounds and words; and it is carefully marketed to make money. In this article I will explore why this is becoming such a problematic issue. In the second article (Part II) I will discuss how visual culture plays an important role in giving kids and teenagers the tools to make sense of pornography and other sexual imagery.

Kids Watching Internet Porn: The Facts

Pornography has been around in some form or another for thousands of years. However, only in the last decade or two has it become so readily available through the internet, so easy to access annonymously regardless of age, and in so many thousands of diverse clips where any type of sex thinkable can be seen.

The Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls Report released in 2015 by the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development states:

” The growing ubiquity of mobile devices means those targeted or indirectly implicated are getting younger and younger — with children as young as 5 or 6 years of age now exposed to cyber bullying and online pornography — sometimes of the most extreme kind. In some contexts online culture represents the worst form of gang violence.”

On the Porn Harms Kids website a long list of worrying statistics show that children and young teens in large numbers are accessing pornography regularly. Many at an age of 10 or younger. Research is also showing that watching pornography is becoming normalised. Studies of pornographic scenes show that much of the content is violent with 88% contained physical aggression, 94% of it directed toward women; and in 95% of cases the victim was shown to respond either neutrally or with pleasure. The result is that minors who have been exposed to pornography generally have less progressive gender attitudes, are more likely to view women as sex objects, are more likely to be accepting of and engaging in sexual violence, and are more likely to be the victims of sexual violence. Furthermore, increased use of internet pornography has been shown to decrease the academic performance of boys.

The Problem for Boys

Internet pornography (as opposed to previous forms of porn) because of its potentially addictive qualities, its increasingly “hardcore” often aggressive content, and its frequent degradation of women, is having unforeseen and often detrimental consequences to the lives and relationships of men in particular. As this TED Talk by Gary Wilson explains, regular exposure to internet pornography literally changes the brain. He explains how the primordial male brain continuously looks for MORE and MORE virtual “mates” (through an unending variety of women on the screen), and for a continuous flow of novelty (meaning more and more hardcore and unusual forms of sex). This can lead to addictive behaviour that may cause problems relating to “real” mates, depression and ultimately erectile disfunction.

Gary Wilson calls it the “Great Porn Experiment” because we have no real idea what effects it will have on society when a large number of males are frequently watching pornography. Wilson speaks mainly of adult men, but one could speculate that the effects will be even more severe and difficult to navigate when prepubescents, pubescent kids and teens with developing brains are frequently exposed to online pornography. The images and belief systems about sex, bodies and performance will become hardwired at an early age. Increasingly psychologists and sexual educators are seeing a rise in abnormal sexual behaviour in children younger than 10, who are engaging in oral and anal sex acts after being exposed to pornography.

Many boys will have watched porn regularly for several years before they have even had their first kiss, let alone their first sexual encounter with a partner. This can lead to warped expectations of what sex should be like. Sexual educator Maree Crabbe explains that internet pornography popularises three main sexual acts: ejaculation on faces and bodies, fellatio with penis pushed into the throat inducing gagging, and heterosexual anal sex. She explains that because these three acts are continuously repeated, and porn actresses are instructed to make it look enjoyable, boys and men want to repeat them with their sexual partners. They often do not realise that girls and women mostly do not enjoy these acts, and in actuality gagging or anal sex may be painful to them, rather than being arousing. At a time when youngsters are just entering into sexual relationships, which in itself can be a daunting and confusing time, pornography can lead to a type of sexual encounter where mutual exploration can easily be overshadowed by a pre-scripted scenario of what sex should be. One where the male thinks he must perform specific acts in an aggressive way to please himself and his partner, and where the female likewise believes she must engage in these acts to be “good in bed”. Within such a dynamic intimacy, respect and honesty are qualities that can easily remain undeveloped. (See also Gonzo, Porn and Sexting – teenage boys, teenage girls and expectations. Should parents be worried?)

The Problem for Girls

Teenage girls are increasingly expressing their dismay at the pressure they are under from boys to engage in pornographic sex. They are suggesting that the romance has been removed from sex, and that boys often want to dominate in a culture where sex rather than being gentle, loving and fun, is increasingly becoming painful and brutal. As well as feeling pressured during sex, teenage girls are frequently pressured to send sexual images of themselves via their phones or tablets. In a UK study of 500 teens almost eight out of 10 young women said that “pornography has led to pressure on young women to look a certain way”, and almost as many young women said that “pornography has led to pressure on girls and young women to act a certain way”.

infographic IPP research
Infographic from the study of 500 18-year-olds in the UK by the Institute for Public Policy Research, 2014.

Most articles and studies on the subject have focused on boys and men watching pornography, and what it does to their expectations of sex. However, a large percentage of girls and young women have also been exposed to pornography, and though it is not spoken of, girls and women can also feel aroused by watching it. This can lead to confusion and shame, because the imagery is often degrading towards women. If one’s sexuality is not yet fully developed, it can be hard to understand that it is possible to become aroused by images, that one would not necessarily enjoy in reality. It also becomes difficult for girls and young women to express what does give them pleasure, which is often intimacy, soft and gentle touching, slow movements, and feelings of love and safety. When young women see that they are “supposed to” find the opposite arousing, it can lead to difficulty expressing their true desires. 

Porn and Body Image

The effects of advertising on body image has been widely studied (click here for a list of studies on the effects on teens). Porn takes this to another level. Not only is the shape of the body scrutinised (the right size waist, thighs, breasts, facial proportions, skin colour, etc), but the most private parts are maximised on the screen. Generally there is a specific type of penis one is supposed to have (straight, circumcised and large), a specific type of vagina (waxed smooth, with small labia, akin to a child’s), for men broad muscular chest, for women small waist with large breasts and small nipples. Repeated viewing of these specific body types would have a worrying effect on pre-puberty, puberty, and teenage kids who’s bodies are in the middle of transformation. Hair is sprouting where pornography tells them it is not supposed to be. The labia is growing, perhaps becoming “too large”. The penis is changing, perhaps not becoming as large and straight as it “should be”. Breasts are growing, maybe unevenly, or not growing “large enough”.

The changing of the body in puberty and teenagehood has always been a complicated and anxiety ridden passage, but pornography is potentially exasperating these anxieties by prescribing set visual “rules” for the correct and incorrect body, not only with regards to its overall shape, but also in relation to the details of one’s genitalia. This will in the long run lead to increases in body dissatisfaction, and most likely increases in plastic surgery that “corrects” and mainstreams what is perceived to be abnormalities, but in reality are simply a true reflection of the normal diversity of the human body. This can already be seen in the rise of “designer vagina” surgery (a 49% rise in the United States from 2013 to 2014), which to a large extent is attributed to pornography, and to the fact that women do not see other women’s vaginas, therefore not knowing that diversity is normal (see also The Perfect Vagina). Similar trends can be seen in regards to penis surgery.

Screen shot from “The Practical Guide to Love, Sex and; Relationships: Porn – what you should know”, a resource developed by The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, 2016.
screenshot Porn what you should know
Screen shot from “The Practical Guide to Love, Sex & Relationships: Porn – what you should know”, a resource developed by The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, 2016.

In an age where many kids, teens, and adults are increasingly overweight, and where body dissatisfaction is increasingly becoming a problem for children and teens, porn actresses (and actors) show body shapes that are far removed from the reality of many youngsters. Slim women generally tend to have smaller breasts, while rounder women usually have larger breasts (as breasts are made of fatty tissue). However, in the realm of porn most women seem to be both slim and have large breasts, a body shape that is often fabricated through plastic surgery. Research shows porn actresses to have a similar BMI and body shape to that of supermodels and shop mannequins. Frequent exposure to porn will inevitably cause young women and men who do not have these desired body shapes to feel that their bodies cannot possibly be sexy, resulting in increased uneasiness and shame in a sexual situation.

Typical porn bodies
Typical porn bodies. Here porn stars Sandee Westgate and Jared Grey.

Another aspect of internet pornography that we perhaps do not yet fully understand the consequences of is a tendency to show young looking girls. Even though the actresses may be 18 or over, there is a whole genre of “hot teen slut” porn, where the girls look like very young teens, sometimes dressed in school uniforms. Coupled with the general absence of pubic hair and large labia in pornography this could potentially lead boys and men to become attracted to younger and younger females.

Apart from the above mentioned issues relating to body image, there would be added anxieties and feelings of inadequacy for those of different ethnic backgrounds than those predominantly depicted in porn, for those with developmental or physical disabilities or bodies that do not conform to the “norm”, and for those kids and teenagers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (of course there are whole other potentially problematic porn industries that cater for LGBT people).

Why a “Visual Culture” Crisis?

The field of visual culture is the study and critque of images (still or moving) that we encounter in our everyday lives; from high art, to popular culture, and anything inbetween. Pornography is a facet of visual cuture, and with its growing influence on society, it elicits the attention of those engaged in the critical analysis of visual representations. The emerging crisis is increasingly being recognised within the fields of public health, education and psychology. Those who study images also have an important role to play in furthering an understanding of the difficulties and solutions surrounding a problematic porn culture.

Pornography is a billion dollar industry, with films that are carefully constructed. Just as advertising plays on very specific emotional resposes to the imagery it portrays, pornography is produced to elicit repeated emotional reactions. When the same imagery is repeated enough times it becomes normalised, and over time images that deviate from this norm will be seen as abnormal. The archetypes continuously reproduced in porn are often mirrored in advertising, music videos, films, magazines, television and the media. Scholars and commentators accustomed to examining these types of media from the fields of visual culture, marketing, graphic design, photography and art history have wisdom, experience and unique perspectives that can be useful in analysing the culture of pornography.

The Age of Porn

The sexual liberation movement of the 1960s changed western sexuality to one of more freedom — in many ways it was a movement towards women’s sexual liberation. New forms of contraception gave women more right to choose, and more freedom to express themselves sexually. The utopian message of the movement was “free love”. This movement towards a relaxed attitude to sexuality was of course not without its own problems, and as happens when something swings to one extreme, it swings back again. Following the complexities associated with free-flowing family structures, and the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a somewhat more conservative approach to sexual partnership has again become the norm.

In contemporary culture one could argue that rather than a movement towards free love, as seen in the sexual liberation movement that began in the 1960s, the current movement is influenced by a restriction of roles defining what men and women should find pleasureable and what they should look like. Paradoxically amidst an ever growing cultural diversity, the normalisation of mainstream pornography is a movement towards the normalisation of unequal power structures. A culture where women and girls may end up pretending to enjoy things they often do not, and where men and boys may feel like they must engage in certain practices to be “a real man”. On the surface it seems that liberation has taken place, that the choices have been opened right up, so that one can have any kind of sex imaginable. However, if sex is being taught to a new generation according to a pornography script, there is not much room for real diversity. Love, respect and tenderness are not facets of pornography, and if unchecked could diminish from young people’s understanding of what sex could and should be.

I am not advocating bans and restrictions on pornography; this would be unrealistic and ultimately ineffective. Pornography has its place as a tool for exploration, and for release, and is a much more complex issue than can be explored in this article (see for example Gonzo: we need to talk about young men and porn).  Nevertheless, whereas a 12-year-old child 30 years ago might have found her/his dad’s porn mag in the sock drawer, today’s 12-year-olds have access to tens of thousands of films, some with very disturbing content, at the click of a button. To help him/her navigate this never-ending supply of stimulation, open and non-judgemental dialogues need to be in place within our cultural framework. A great deal can be done to educate kids, teens (and adults) to engage critically with pornography, and to ensure that the other aspects of respectful and loving sexual relationships are learned. This is what will be discussed in Part II.



Part III: The Hunk and the Refugee

In the last two articles (Part I and Part II) I have written about the connection between “beauty” and suffering in media images relating to the European/Syrian refugee crisis. In Part I “beauty” was found in the way in which the horrific image of a drowned toddler moved global sentiment toward a more compassionate view of Syrian refugees, which in turn influenced asylum seeker policies in many countries. In Part II stunning images of refugees rescued from overcrowded boats between Libya and Italy serve as a reminder of the humanity behind the refugee crisis in a time of renewed hostility following the recent Paris terrorist attacks.

Part III focuses on a series of images taken by Claus Fisker (September 2015) showing a police man playing with a Syrian refugee girl travelling along a Danish highway. The images went “viral”, and were Tweeted, shared, and reproduced by the public and the media worldwide. They have an enormous “feel good” appeal, giving a sense of hope in an otherwise grim global crisis. The juxtaposition of a smiling playful policeman, usually associated with authority, punishment, bravery, and no-nonsense masculinity, connecting with a young refugee girl, associated with innocence and vulnerability, as well as illegality and conflict, provides an unexpected visual experience that is very heart warming. This is the kind of photo we all want to see. It would be so lovely to believe that people help people in need. To believe that the goodwill of others (in this case a policeman) is making this complex crisis with no immediate or easy solution turn out all right. We want to believe this little girl will soon have a comfortable place to be, so that she does not have to walk for days and weeks along Europe’s highways towards an unknown future. However, the ironic reality is that Denmark recently opted out of agreeing to an EU collaboration to rehouse 160,000 Syrian refugees.

In his article Framing the Refugee Crisis Marco Bohr writes about a tendency in the news media to choose photos of the refugee crisis that show the “good” or “touching” stories of those who survived the journey to Europe, while avoiding graphic images of those who died. For example, when 71 refugees (men, women and children) suffocated to death in an abandoned truck in Austria, the media would only depict the truck, not the dead (see also Feeling Good About Feeling Bad About Aylan Kurdi). In this way we get a skewed representation of the horrors that are taking place, and that continue to take place, parallel to the horrors of recent events in Paris. This tendency to avoid visualising the suffering of refugees was reversed when media outlets around the world decided to publish the photo of the drowned toddler, Aylan Kurdi (see Part I). However, there is a danger that after the recent surge in negative media attention surrounding the potential terror threat from refugees, the media will again chose to leave out images of refugees suffering.

What I have found disturbing about the above set of images is the superficial attention they have attracted from tweeters and social media enthusiasts. The reason the photograph became so prolific is not just its feel good appeal, but because of the good looks of the police officer. After the release of the photo entire threads on Reddit are dedicated to discussing the merits of Scandinavian men, with additional comments such as “I’d cross the border to see him too” (262mel) and “I’d let him cross my southern border, if you know what I mean” (superhope). The fact that people are so quickly distracted and entertained with shallow chit chat, rather than engaging with the real issue is deeply troubling.
Clause Fisker’s image photoshopped and posted on Imgur.
Clause Fisker’s image photoshopped and posted on Imgur

As a result of Reddit banter some contributors changed the image into “humorous” gag pictures (see more here). Though they might elicit a quick laugh, these photoshop images reveal a lot about the power dynamics between the police man and the girl. The power dynamic in the first picture is reflecting the reality that though little refugee girls are not being directly pepper sprayed by Danish police, they are being detained against their will. The second picture visualises a deep seeded cultural belief that is at the heart of the widespread fear of and resentment towards refugees (muslim refugees in particular): They, including their children, will take over and “kick” out the fair skinned secular civilised Danes (or Germans or Frenchman or Australians) from their own country.
Danish police officers try to restrain a group of Syrian refugees attempting to march through the country. Sept 9, 2015. © The New York Times

In conclusion, the original images by Claus Fisker display two aspects of “beauty”. Firstly, they are beautiful because they show us a situation of tenderness, playfulness and innocence through the juxtaposition of the powerful but kind-hearted policeman and the powerless but joyful refugee girl. Secondly, they are perceived as beautiful in a disturbingly shallow way because of the good looks of the police officer. They capture a moment of true beauty, which celebrates humanity, and simultaneously conceals and distracts from the fact that Denmark has very tough refugee and immigration policies (which they are continuously tightening), and have declined to take part in united EU efforts to fairly distribute some of the hundreds of thousands who are seeking asylum. This reality is visualised in the less well known and less romantic photograph above.

Part II: Visualising Humanity in a Refugee Crisis

There is something deeply disturbing about images that are visually beautiful, while simultaneously telling the story of suffering, dread or sorrow (see Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Reinhardt). When I first saw a photograph by Massimo Sestini, showing an overloaded boat carrying asylum seekers, I was struck by this tension. The photograph is stunning, with its vivid colours and symmetry. It is perfectly timed, snapped exactly as the boat is in the middle of the frame, with almost every passenger looking up. The mass of people in the arrow shaped vessel creates a compelling and somehow visually pleasing pattern. Yet, when one looks closer, the harsh realities behind the image become aparent. More than 200 people are crammed onto the drifting boat. There are no lifeboats, and no life vests. Upon reflection there is a realisation that the the mass of human bodies could make the boat sink. Many of the people on the boat would drown, just as thousands in similar boats have drowned in the recent past. In an interview the photographer, Massimo Sestini, explains that at the time of the photograph the people on the boat had been drifting, stranded at sea for two days. They were desperate, and feared for their lives; hence they are reaching up their arms and smiling because the helicopter means they will live. The photographer sailed for several days with one of six Italian navy vessels that on average each rescued 2000 asylum seekers a week. What makes the image stunning, is simultaneously what makes it so powerful: in visualising the vulnerability of this human mass confined to a primitive boat, the continuous media flow of refugee statistics becomes visual.

Boat Migrants Risk Everything for a New Life in Europe: African asylum seekers rescued off boats and taken aboard an Italy navy ship, June 8, 2014.
Asylum seekers rescued close to the Libyan coast by an Italian navy ship, June 8, 2014. © Massimo Sestini

Looking closer at each face, I become curious about their individual stories. What lead them to embark on this journey? What will become of them? Practical questions also arise: how do people survive, sleep, eat, drink, and defecate for days on end aboard such overcrowded vessels? Since the success of the image (it won second price in the prestigious World Press Photography competition) the photographer has been looking for the people photographed on the boat to find out more about their stories.

Moving from the macro (the mass) to the micro (the individual) these more personal questions are magnified in another image taken by Sestini. The photograph shows a Syrian girl lying covered in glistening gold coloured emergency blankets. She is one of 443 Syrian refugees rescued by the navy ship from a different fishing boat to the one pictured above. When first seeing the image I was unsure whether the girl was alive or dead. Her face still, her eyes staring into nothingness. Yet, the girl’s face is emanating a sense of archetypical beauty and serenity. Taken out of context the combination of the youthful classical face, surrounded by glittering gold fabric, could be mistaken for a stylised fashion photograph. However, the reality behind those eyes, speaks of untold suffering. A dusty backpack peaks out from a blanket next to the girl; perhaps her only possessions carried on a long journey, or perhaps that of a co-passenger. One cannot help wonder from what she has fled, what her future holds, and what thoughts lie behind her stare.

Italian navy rescue asylum seekers
Syrian girl attempting to sleep after being rescued by an Italian navy ship from a fishing vessel carrying 443 Syrian asylum seekers, June 5, 2014. © Massimo Sestini.

Another photograph taken on the same ship further highlights the shocking statistic that more than 50% of the worlds refugees are children. The mass of children and babies huddled together in this photograph accentuates the extreme vulnerability of the youngest refugees—those who would easily drown if a boat was faulty, as so many have been. Seeing these children rescued is a reminder of those who have died. The image is contrasting but deeply interconnected to the well-known image of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach (see previous blog post, Part I). The photograph becomes deeply human through the touch of a mother’s hand on her baby’s cheek. Again, one cannot help wonder about the practicalities of fleeing with such young children. How would you carry your child over the long distances many refugees have to walk? How would you access nappies, spare clothing, or baby food? How would you soothe your crying baby in the middle of the night as hundreds of people try to sleep on the bottom of a fishing boat?

Syrian women and children on an Italian navy ship after being rescued from a fishing vessel carrying 443 Syrian asylum seekers, June 5, 2014. © Massimo Sestini.

Massimo Sestini is famous as a celebrity photographer. He has worked extensively as a paparazzo, catching celebrities in intimate moments, and revealing their vulnerabilities. Sestini himself says he learned determination from this type of work; a type of determination that aided him in his role as a photojournalist (see interview). In this case his persistence allowed him to capture refugee boats in a way no other photographer has; and his talent for showing intimate situations has lead to a series of deeply personal images of refugees, that are not only touching, but intensely beautiful at the same time. With recent events in Paris and elsewhere negatively influencing public opinion towards Syrian refugees, and causing countries such as the United States to re-examine their pledge to accommodate 10,000 Syrian asylum seekers, it is more than ever crucial that we be reminded of the humanity behind the numbers and statistics surrounding the refugee crisis. As the memory fades of the photograph that stirred the world in support of Syrian refugees (see previous blog post, Part I), we need in some way to re-connect on a personal level with the intimate stories of loss and suffering that continue to drive men, women, children, and infants en masse onto dangerous vessels in search of safety. At such a time it is worth revisiting Sestini’s photographs, and reconnecting emotionally with a large proportion of those looking for refuge: young children fleeing a devastating war (so far it is estimated that 200,000 have been killed in the war since 2011, and four million people have fled the country.

Part I: To Look and Look Away

On my bookshelf there is a book called Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Reinhardt. It has been sitting there for many years unopened. I do not open it because the images are too awful, too confronting, too painful—and so I look away. Nevertheless, I have kept the book, because there is something about this dichotomy between extreme suffering and beauty that warrants further exploration. The question being, when is it necessary to look directly at suffering, and when is it time to look away? When is the proliferation of a distressing image advantageous to the cause of those suffering, and when does the saturation of that image leave us numb?

A few weeks ago I was reminded of this book, and its presence on my shelf. Images of a 3-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, drowned on a Turkish beach swept through social and news media across the world. It quickly became a symbol of the refugee crisis, and has engaged and outraged people in a way that no asylum seeker debate has otherwise been able to do. In the Australian parliament the image has been used as an emotionally laden political tool, with both sides of the political spectrum siting the plight of Aylan in defence of their individual policies. Each side attempting to outdo each other in compassion, or lashing out at those who are (in their view) responsible. Days after the release of the photograph then Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, announced that 12,000 additional refugees would be offered asylum—a move that would have been unthinkable weeks before (see The Economist and The Age). Similar shifts in policy has been seen in Europe and elsewhere. The image changed public sentiment towards Syrian refugees on a global scale. In response to the images of Aylan, an almost immediate public outcry shifted something in the politics, in the media and in the everyday discourses surrounding asylum seekers. They became human; they became a small lifeless child, who died a terrifying death (along side his brother and mother, who are barely mentioned). Before the image refugees were largely seen as the ‘Other’—queue jumpers, illegal boat people, potential terrorists, potential bludgers, beheading mysogynistic arabs… However, the majority of people who saw the image of Aylan would be parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, neighbours, cousins, carers, or friends of young children, and something has to break inside us all when we look at a dead child washed up on a beach.

The photograph has been compared to other powerful images that have in the past century helped shape the course of history, such as the image of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. Though many thousands of children have died fleeing various crises, and these casualties are often cited in news reports, the impact of an image can be far more influential than words and numbers. It has been suggested that the reason this particular image has been so immensely powerful, is ethnocentric in nature. Other recent images of drowned African refugee children did not illicit a similar response. However, this little boy is light skinned, and wearing sneakers, shorts and a t-shirt—in other words, it has been easier for the predominantly light-skinned audiences of Europe, North America and Australia/New Zealand to identify with the suffering. In addition mages of Aylan alive, photographed as a baby or smiling next to his brother, have accompanied the beach photograph. The realisation that “this could have been my child/grandchild/nephew” has touched an intensely raw nerve; one that needed to be poked, and poked hard. Many newsrooms were in doubt whether or not to publish the photograph, especially as a cover story. As the vice president of Getty Images stated: “…a picture of a dead child is one of the golden rules of what you never published”. However, for something to shift this picture had to be shoved in the face of the widespread apathy towards the refugee crisis, and general contempt towards asylum seekers.

Coming back to the book I mentioned in the beginning. It is easy to identify the suffering in the image; but where does the beauty lie? The impact of the image could be described as beautiful. There is beauty in the fact that this image has had the capacity to instil more compassion and humanity into the global politics, media debates and public sentiment surrounding refugees. The beauty also lies in the image itself, in the simplicity, in the stillness, and the immense power of the sorrow that it instills in the viewer. In a different setting the little boy could be asleep. In our cultural imagination a southern European or Turkish beach is a place of holidays, sun and family fun. A place of beauty is transformed into a place of the worst kind of suffering. However, whatever “beauty” the image holds only exists when seen with fresh eyes; when it stirs something deep inside us. The reason I have not placed the picture in this article, is that I do not want to see it repeatedly. I know that the more times I look at it, the less I will feel; and the less I feel when looking at that tiny body, the less human I become. Picturing the photograph in my mind, rather than viewing it continuously, keeps the intensity alive, keeps the emotions raw. When I feel sorrow by thinking of the image it remains “beautiful”, because I need to feel this compassion. If I become numb when viewing it I am an accomplice to the suffering.

Part of the reason this image has had such a powerful effect, is that it was shared quickly and extensively via social media. This is has proved beneficial, because it has meant that many more people have seen it. As a result many more people have been appalled and deeply touched, and have hopefully felt a keener sense of compassion, and a more acute awareness that something needs to happen to help the increasing number of refugees in need. However, there is also a danger in the mass distribution and repeated sharing of an image like this. When something goes “viral” as this image has, it both grows in immense power by the sheer number of people it reaches and touches; and it simultaneously looses impact on a deeply personal level as soon as the image has been seen by an individual 2, 3, 5, 10, 20, 50 times on television, Facebook, news feeds, and in newspapers. This is the nature of saturation, it will gradually leave one a little more numb each time it is tweeted and flickers across ones screen. On the internet there are now countless versions of the image. Some have changed backgrounds, where the little body has been cut out and pasted onto a another image, for example lying on a bed or lying amongst politicians in parliament. There are others where he has been drawn with the now characteristic red t-shirt and blue shorts surrounded by whales and dolphins, held by an angel, surrounded by toys, placed on a map… Many of these are created with the best of intentions, but I cannot help feel that a little of the humanity is lost every time the image is reproduced, and reproduced, and reproduced. Until the viewer intellectually feels outraged, but does not really feel that deep sorrow they initially felt when they imagined their own child lying there.

Am I any closer to opening the book, or to understanding the dichotomy of the words “beautiful suffering”? My conclusion is that pictures of suffering play an important role in shaping public opinion, and in extension in shaping the language and policies of politics, and the tone of media debates. An image such as the one discussed above can be immensely powerful, because it is immensely uncomfortable to look at. It can therefore be immensely beautiful, because it stirs us in the deepest way; because it may bring us to weep for children drowned that we would otherwise have experienced as statistics. Therefore the photographer is to be applauded for taking the picture, the newspapers are to be applauded for showing it on their covers, and the public is to be applauded for sharing it online in outrage. When faced with such an image it is crucial to look at it, really look at it, and feel all the emotions that it evokes. Then the crucial lesson is to know when to close the book, to know when it is necessary to look away. Because a time comes when seeing the image again and again will start having the opposite effect; leaving us a little more numb each time. In other words, we must fling the book open, look intensely, and then look away to preserve that acute sense of compassion and humanity, so that it may be channeled into constructive action.