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Why taking action on sexualised ads should be part of the national conversation on ending sexual violence

March 2021

We are living through a time of reckoning.

For over a month, Australia has been grappling with revelations about allegations of sexual assault in our Federal Parliament.

These events have rocked the nation and started the #March4Justice movement. Shocking and saddening as they are, for too many women they come as no surprise.

As a nation we have been asking ourselves: how safe are women?
How safe are women in their homes?
How safe are women in our streets?
How safe are women at work?

We know that gender inequality is the leading cause of violence against women. As Our Watch describes in Change the Story these issues are complex and deeply rooted.

We know there is no silver bullet, but we do know what the problems are, and the solutions.

Advertising plays a significant role in shaping our beliefs and attitudes every single day. But it is easy to look past the link between advertising and the discussions we are having today on women’s safety and violence against women.

Research has found that exposure to advertising impacts how girls and boys understand gender, how they play, and their future ambitions – from as early as the age of six.

When we grow into teenagers and adults, advertising continues to shape our beliefs, including those relating to violence.

Research has found that exposure to objectifying imagery influences both men’s and women’s perceptions about responsibility for rape (Romero-Sánchez et al. 2015).

That is, when young men and women are shown objectifying images of women, then given a scenario that describes a rape scene, they are more likely to perceive the woman as responsible for being raped (Loughnan et al. 2013).

Men and younger people who are exposed to sexualised and objectifying ads are particularly likely to accept rape myths and sexualised violence, compared to women or older people (Capella et al. 2014).

This makes sense when we look at Australian studies, such as the National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey (NCAS) from 2017 that found that compared with young women, young men have a lower level of understanding of violence against women, a lower level of support for gender equality, and a higher level of attitudinal support for violence against women (ANROWS, 2017).

What these studies suggest is a clear link between exposure to objectifying advertising, and attitudes that condone violence against women. This is concerning because we know that one of the main underlying causes of violent behaviour towards women is attitudes that justify and excuse that behaviour.

To end violence against women, we need to stop it before it starts.

Much of the current national conversation has focused on what interventions are necessary: reporting, survivor support, legal prosecution. These interventions are all critical to supporting survivors to recover and achieve justice, but to eliminate violence, we need to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Transforming the harmful portrayals of women on our screens, billboards and magazines from sexualised and objectified to authentic, empowered and diverse, is key to ending violence against women.

We need advertising to play its part in preventing violence against women.

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