Ever feel like you're living in a giant porn theme park? Billboards dominate public space with hyper-sexualised messages. Buses are painted with semi-naked women. There are pole-dancing themes in shopfronts, porn mags next to the lollies at the petrol station counter, T-shirts in youth surf shops depicting S&M and Playboy bunnies on everything from girls' jewellery to doona covers.
Children are absorbing distorted messages about their bodies, sexuality and gender roles because the Advertising Standards Board does not consider objectification of women contrary to prohibitions on discrimination and vilification.
It's been called the ''adultification'' of children, where sexualising messages combine with the commercialisation of childhood to constrict the childhood years.
Now doctors are calling it a public health issue. Their umbrella organisation, the Australian Medical Association, called last week for an inquiry into the premature sexualisation of children in marketing and advertising. Self-regulation by the industry was clearly not working, its president, Steve Hambleton, said, pointing to images and messages that were ''disturbing and sexually exploitative''.
''These are highly sexualised ads that target children, and the advertising industry is getting away with it,'' Dr Hambleton said.
''There is strong evidence that premature sexualisation is likely to be detrimental to child health and development, particularly in the areas of body image and sexual health.''
Perhaps his intervention will get the attention of our otherwise negligent leaders. Psychological bodies and adolescent health experts have documented these negative physical and mental health outcomes for years, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, body image dissatisfaction and poor academic performance. Girls especially are affected.
As psychologist Steve Biddulph, who is writing a book on girls, says: ''There is an erosion of self-image by the corporate media sector … the creation of anxiety about physical appearance and sexuality in pre-teen and mid-teen girls.''
The Senate standing committee on environment, communications and the arts examined the issue in 2008, reporting that ''the onus is on broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers to take account of these community concerns''.
It recommended a review 18 months later, to see how industry had responded. So what has happened since? Very little. The recommendations were essentially ignored and the review still hasn't happened. Meanwhile, the situation has got worse.
Groups continue to campaign against corporations that exploit the bodies of women and girls for profit. But without government and regulatory bodies demanding real change, it's an advertisers' free-for-all. Self-regulation continues to mean the industry gets away with whatever it wants.
Inadequacies in the present system include a weak code of ethics, the voluntary nature of the code, a lack of pre-vetting, the Advertising Standards Board's lack of power to order removal of advertisements and meaningful penalties, and no consultation with child development experts. Even when campaigners get a win, it is meaningless. By the time the ruling is announced, the particular ad campaign is already over.
Last year the House standing committee on social policy and legal affairs put advertisers and marketers on notice, asking them to report back on what they were doing by December this year. In Britain and France, these industries are also under considerable pressure to change their ways following parliamentary inquiries into the sexualisation of children.
We need a regulatory system independent of the vested interests of marketers, and which draws upon the expertise of child health professionals.
It is time for corporate social responsibility in this area. If industry continues to show almost no willingness to be proactive, then someone should step in and make it do the right thing. Corporate profits shouldn't come before the welfare of children and young people.
Melinda Tankard Reist is a commentator, co-founder of Collective Shout and the editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009).