by Phoebe Tansley
One in five 8-10 year olds and seven in ten 11-15 year olds have a social media profile. What responsibility do internet megastars like Kim K have in promoting safe-sharing and awareness of the dangers of abuse perpetrated through the very platform that made them famous?
A few weeks ago, Kim Kardashian posted this self-captured image on Instagram, and I watched as opinion bloggers, celebrities and high profile feminists weighed in with their moral and philosophical stances on the picture. We saw a bizarre twitter ‘spat’ between Bette Midler and Kim K, Piers Morgan surprised no one by being misogynistic, ageist and irrelevant, and across the internet feminists fiercely argued Kim’s right to celebrate her sexuality and be proud of her body.
As I sat there, scrolling through article after article, tweet after tweet, I found myself in somewhat of a dichotomy. I proudly and absolutely identify as a feminist. I spend a portion of my time in my job as a sexual health advisor encouraging young girls to see their self-worth and to be kind to themselves. And I will argue till I am blue in the face with anyone who tries to deny women our bodily autonomy. However, I believe that in posting that selfie, Kim Kardashian is being a bad role model to young people. Hear me out on this one.
As I previously mentioned, by day I am a sexual health advisor. ‘So basically you give out free condoms?!’ I hear you cry. Yes, I do give out free condoms, but that is a relatively small percentage of what I do. Working in an under 25’s sexual health service, there is a huge focus on safeguarding children from harm and abuse. And in 2016, that harm and abuse all too often takes the form of children being sexually exploited after being groomed online.
The UK’s leading sexual health charity for young people, Brook, defines child sexual exploitation (CSE) as follows:
“Child sexual exploitation (CSE) involves under-18s in exploitative situations, contexts and relationships. This can involve the young person (or another person) receiving something such as food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts or money in exchange for the young person performing sexual activities or having sexual activities performed on them.”
CSE perpetrators typically invest a lot of time in targeting their victims, forming a friendship and developing a ‘romantic’ relationship, including introducing sexualised photos and/or language and showing the young person pornography to desensitise them to sexual activities, before beginning to sexually abuse and exploit them. And with the accessibility of social media today, this process is easier than ever for an abuser. Front-line services such as charities, schools and social care are faced with tackling the uncontrollable power of the internet. In other words; our work is never done, which is one of the many reasons why the government should stop hacking chunks out of sexual health provisions and make sex education compulsory – but that’s another blog for another day.
(stock image bauermedia.co.uk)
So; where does Kim Kardashian come into this? My issue with the selfie is twofold:
- Kim Kardashian has deliberately positioned herself as an icon for teenagers and children. Her gaming app, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has made over $100 million since its launch in 2014. Along with her sisters she has a baby clothing line, Kardashian Kids, which, despite being criticized for marketing ‘pleather’ skirts to toddlers, has received huge success. Not to mention the casual 64.6million Instagram followers and 42.1million twitter followers, to whom she announced 2 weeks ago that she would be joining Snapchat. News which was met with a resounding groan of despair in every child protection services’ headquarters across the world.
- The problematic part of the now infamous Instagram post is not purely the fact that Kim is naked. It is that the photo is a selfie. Apart from the obvious identifiable feature of a selfie – that it is taken by oneself – the thing which differentiates it from a magazine spread or a paparazzi image is that anyone can do it. Millions of teenage girls might say they want to be a Victoria’s Secret model, but realistically almost none of them will actually end up as a Victoria’s Secret model, and a grand total of zero of them will be a Victoria’s Secret model while they are still legally a child. But to be like your idol Kim K, all you have to do is stand in front of your bathroom mirror with no clothes on, take a photo on your smartphone and share it on social media. That’s the problem here. Accessibility.
And that’s where I come in, on a grey Tuesday morning at 9.00am, sitting in a chilly, strip-lit meeting room at a secondary school. Sat opposite me is a 13-year-old girl whose naked photo has just been shared across her school and community. She took it for her boyfriend, and the pebble dropped into the lake, and the ripples multiplied. She has just been in a meeting with the police who have informed her that she has captured and distributed naked images of a child, which is called child abuse, and is a crime. Her big eyes are brimming with tears, she anxiously tugs the end of her French braids as she tells me how she feels scared at school and wants to drop out. I ask her to tell me what she values about herself and am met with silence. I ask her what makes her feel happy, her reply? When boys compliment her body. When girls tell her that she has nice hair and makeup. At the end of a 60-minute session I manage to encourage her to write down three things she likes about herself; she writes that she is good at art, funny and loyal.
I have 6 sessions with her, 6 hours in total, to try and reverse the effects of this incident on her self-esteem and equip her with the assertiveness and awareness that might prevent another snapchat incident. Because the truth is, this situation could have been much worse. The result of this image being shared was bullying, social isolation and poor attendance at school, before we were able to intervene. In many cases, the image is intercepted by a CSE perpetrator, and there begins the grooming process. In these cases, it is much more difficult to intervene because the young person is being manipulated, psychologically abused, and often blackmailed.
After all the media hype over Kim Kardashian’s selfie, I saw a headline which said she had ‘penned a powerful essay’ in response to her critics. Perhaps naively, I wondered whether she may have used this opportunity to address the issue of online grooming, child abuse and exploitation. Surely she would acknowledge her social responsibility as someone who teenagers aspire to be. Turns out not so much. In fact, when I google ‘Kim Kardashian grooming’ I am bombarded with articles about how she shapes her eyebrows. And that’s fine. Be a beauty ‘inspo’; give tutorials on how to contour, you do you, Kim. But when you start writing statements on women’s and girl’s empowerment, you are contributing your voice to social issues. And yes; your statement included some important points about being proud of who you are and overcoming obstacles. This extract was particularly thought-provoking:
“The life lessons I’ve learned from my sisters, my mother and my grandmother, I will pass along to my daughter. I want her to be proud of who she is. I want her to be comfortable in her body. I don’t want her to grow up in a world where she is made to feel less-than for embracing everything it means to be a woman.”
Those are all very noble wishes for your daughter and I have no doubt that North West will benefit from her mum’s attitude. But right now, Kim’s daughter is not a woman, she is a child. And – maybe this is a controversial statement – I believe that protecting children from abuse supersedes everything.
The feminist in me feels empowered by Kim’s words on body image and self-love. But my job has revealed to me the disturbing reality of child grooming and exploitation, and I can’t un-know that. And after all, feminism isn’t just for adult women. As adult feminists we should be using feminism as a tool to engage and protect the vulnerable in our society. By failing to acknowledge that, Kim Kardashian is being negligent in her role as a high profile feminist as well as a role model. It is possible to give messages of empowerment to teenagers while building resilience and raising awareness of the dangers that they face through the internet; I do it every day at work. There is no reason why the two should be mutually exclusive.
for more information on CSE, grooming and how to anonymously report online abuse in the UK, visit the following websites: