Julie Gale, campaigner for children to be 'free to be kids'

One day in 2005, Julie Gale, a Melbourne comedy writer and mother of a daughter and son then aged 11 and 9, was confronted by a giant billboard at the end of her eastern suburbs street.

The encounter was to spark a mass people-powered social movement against the sexualisation of children in Australia and led to Julie Gale becoming an international speaker and commentator, who harnessed humour and satire to advance her cause.


Julie Gale in costume wearing items she bought from girls' fashion shops.

Photo: Supplied

Julie Gale was farewelled by 350 friends, family, co-activists and cancer survivors at the Tara Institute in East Brighton on February 24, following her death on February 13 after a five-year journey with breast (and secondary) cancer.

Australia has lost an outstanding campaigner who helped pioneer a radical change in the public atmosphere regarding the sexualisation of children.

Born on December 19, 1962 in Shepparton to a mechanic father and home-maker mother, Julie attended high school in the small rural town of Mooroopna. After working with children with disabilities, she branched out into comedy writing and performing. Her one-woman Melbourne Comedy Festival shows in 1994 and 2004 were sell-outs, attracting rave reviews.

Julie re-tells the story that propelled her unique brand of activism in my book Getting Real: Challenging the sexualisation of girls (Spinifex Press, 2009), in a chapter titled 'One Woman's Activism: Refusing to Be Silent'.

"A billboard appeared at the end of my street which read 'SEX FOR LIFE.' I stood there looking at it, thinking 'what the…?' Do my kids really need to be reading this on the way to the park?

"What a conversation starter! 'What's sex for life, mum?' 'Well, darling, it's about all those men there who can't get it up any more.' Yeah right! This billboard was eventually replaced with 'For a Star Performance…Premature Ejaculation and Erection Problems'. The text itself was graphic enough, but the 'woman' featured in the ad looked about 14 years old ...

"This time I thought, you guys have picked the wrong street!"

Julie had also been impacted by the Australia Institute report Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of children in Australia (October 2006), in which lead author Dr Emma Rush observed that there had been "no sustained public debate" about the issue in Australia.

As a result, Kids Free 2B Kids was established in February 2007 in alliance with the Australian Council for Children and Media (ACCM, previously known as Young Media Australia). Julie attracted significant media coverage and an outpouring of public support. The premature ejaculation billboard disappeared. Many victories against advertisers and marketers were to follow.

In an email to Patricia Edgar, founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, and Barbara Biggins, of Young Media Australia, in 2007 she asked:

"What on earth do you think it will take to shift the consciousness… or is it just a matter of chipping away?"

Julie Gale chipped away and shifted the conscience of a nation. Her motto was:

"People should not underestimate the power of their own voices."

Sexualisation – a word barely in use a decade ago – is now in the public lexicon. Most Australians understand that children should be "free to be kids" because of her work.

Multiple corporations were brought to account for putting vested interests above vulnerable children and the community. She wrote hundreds of letters pointing out that sexist, degrading and exploitative representations of women were major social concerns.

With the help of the Democrats Lyn Allison, Julie was instrumental in establishing the first inquiry into the sexualisation of children in June 2008.

Because of Julie and her raids on illegal porn magazines containing rape and incest themes and depicting young girls as eager for sex, BP, Shell and Mobil service stations removed them. Her expose contributed to the setting up of the Attorney-General's working party on the issue and two inquiries into classification system failures.

The Australia Institute was saved from legal action against it by David Jones over AI's Corporate Paedophilia report. Julie's FOI request turned up documents from the NSW Office of the Children's Guardian revealing information that young girls aged 10 to 12 be posed "slightly more adult and sexy" for a photo shoot for the company's advertising catalogue. As a result, the action was dropped.

Julie's early advocacy regarding advertising codes of ethics has just seen a long sought-after change to the wording of the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) code of ethics, now incorporating wording on "exploitative or degrading" treatment'.

Julie's actions met with significant backlash. She was labelled the fun police, a moral crusader, a zealot, hysterical mother, a self-appointed moral guardian fuelling a "moral panic", and, a particular favourite, "pearl clutcher".

Julie and I had a daily competition to see who got the worst insults. We were accused of everything from wanting to ban all sex and forcing Australian women to don the burka to have them all circumcised and hastening armageddon.

This from the ABC Unleashed comments section: "I have read some drivel on this site but, really! What else does Ms Gale want to ban – shorts, singlets, short skirts (nothing above the knee) or puberty. Moreover, how about a time machine so that she (and those who support her) can be transported back to the Victorian era!"

Julie responded that she did indeed want to ban EVERYTHING. "Everything must go!" she said.

Julie's work was a service to all.

"It was really waking people up," recalls public intellectual Clive Hamilton. "Julie provided continued motivation to keep going. Her enthusiasm was infectious. We were fighting against forces that were too powerful… She would come along with a joke to lift us up. All protest movements need humour and Julie delivered in spades."

Psychologist and best-selling author Steve Biddulph wrote:

"So sad to lose a dear friend, activist and livewire Julie Gale. We will never forget her inspiration for our work."

Actress Noni Hazlehurst:

"Our approaches to the issues were very different. Mine was sober and serious, but dear Julie, a true clown, understood the power of laughter to get a message across like few do. Her passion and commitment were an inspiration to all of us who were lucky enough to meet her."

Julie Gale's "luminosity of being" was acknowledged at her memorial service by psychologist Bob Sharples, who leads a healing meditation program at Melbourne's Tibetan Buddhist Centre, the Tara Institute, where the history of her vision and mission were recounted, including her later campaign for better treatment and support for those experiencing cancer.

Towards the end, Julie turned from activism to leading a quiet peaceful life, meditating daily, writing poetry, focusing her energy on health and happiness. After a life on stage, she turned inwards.

As her stepdaughter Lisa Ball recounts:

"In the face of illness, daily fatigue and pain, each day she made the choice to find small joys in each moment. To rest in the great mystery of life. To find refuge in the trees, the wind, the sun, the birds."

Through her journey with life-threatening illness, Julie taught her friends – including me – to Be Here Now. Every morning she woke and declared:

"I'm alive and I'm not going to waste one day of this precious life!"

Her friends are trying to do the same in the wake of our cavernous loss.

Julie is survived by husband Harry, children Marnie and Matthew and stepdaughter Lisa.

* Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra writer, speaker and activist. She addressed the memorial service.

See article in SMH here

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