Questioning The Moral Panic About “Sexualisation Of Children”

It keeps popping up on TV talk shows and is used as a debate silencer by right-wing pundits. Religious groups use it to put pressure on politicians to create greater censorship. It’s the term “sexualisation of children” and I suspect that it’s bullshit.

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this for a while but today I’ve found that Australian researcher Catherine Lumby has pretty much summed things up. Catherine is part of a new research group called Onscenity which is looking at the new climate of sexual openness in the media and researching its effects – without the usual moral hysteria.

The Register reports on a recent conference held by the new group. I’m going to get a bit quote-happy with this as it has a lot to say:

The real problem, though, is that no one knows what “sexualisation” is: it is a convenient label used to position the child as always the victim, and then to pile every problem imaginable on top, including paedophilia, body image, sex trafficking and self-esteem. Once that particular juggernaut gets rolling, it is almost impossible to have a sensible debate about what’s really going on.

Too many so-called experts – most famously, Dr Linda Papadopoulos – were speaking well outside their field of expertise. Eating disorders get ascribed to “sexualisation”, despite the fact that most dietary experts would question that conclusion. Worse is the way in which this debate is almost always framed in moralising terms, and a key question must be what political motive lies behind such framing.

Equally of concern was the way in which “healthy sexuality” is so often equated to “non-commercial” – as though sex alone can be an activity free from all commercial influence.

[David] Buckingham’s contribution was echoed closely by Professor Catharine Lumby, Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. She warned that a key driver to debate in this area is a parental view that “it must be possible to stop information getting out”. The current panic in Australia has its roots in a report – Corporate Paedophilia – which set the ball rolling in terms of claiming that children were being “sexualised”.

However, the report lacked all scholarship, being based on an inadequate sample, and contained no definition of sexualisation – or even what was meant by “child”. It was dominated by vox pop submissions from the Christian right, feminists and high-profile social commentators.

The entire debate was a trap, since as soon as someone declares an image erotic, it is then analysed in that context, as opposed to being viewed for whatever it is. In fact, Lumby suggested, it is arguable that analysing images by imposing an adult viewpoint on childhood activity is itself abusive.

Like Buckingham, Lumby felt that it was necessary to look at the political motives and context of the current panics. Buckingham suggested a concern with female working class sexuality, which was viewed as dangerous and in need of control. Absent from most debate was any view of boys or their sexuality, other than as a threat.

Lumby went further, expressing her utter surprise that some of the main proponents in this arena claimed the title of feminist, since in practice the whole debate was about policing how femininity should be performed. Moral critiques of imagery are highly normative – and therefore not in the interests of most women.

Finally, Clarissa Smith, programme leader of the MA media and cultural studies at the University of Sunderland, took issue with terms such as “pornification” and “pornographication” which, like sexualisation, are rarely defined, but assumed to be universally understood.

I do recommend you read the whole Register piece. I applaud these researchers for trying to see past the moralising bullshit and actually properly study this whole thing.


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The word “sexualisation” really needs to raise a red flag because it is so regularly used by religious people, anti-porn feminists and conservatives. It’s a word that has an agenda behind it and it’s a word that is used to inflame emotion; it’s a “somebody think of the children!” diversion, a way to derail sensible discussion by creating fear.

The pic above is the book by Maggie Hamilton called “What’s Happening to Our Girls” which is often used to back up these moral panics (and it should be noted, Maggie Hamilton is a Christian who conducts “spiritual healing” workshops). I haven’t read it but I do have one critique already: the use of the words “our girls”. This book is saying that todays girls and young women are “ours”, not their own selves. Apparently it’s our job to make sure they conform to a certain sexual stereotype, one of virginity and “niceness”. The panic over “slutty” clothes, drinking and promiscuity is laden with expectations about how “our girls” should behave. We expect them to keep a social norm. “Sexualisation” is somehow breaking that norm.

The other thing about “sexualisation” is it assumes that children are sexless and that they should somehow be kept in a state of perfect innocence until they’re 18. Either that or there is a set age at which they should discover sex; “growing up too soon” indicates a standard that is not being met. And yet we know that children are sexual from the moment they are born and all children grow up differently. And, indeed, different cultures, societies and religions demand that this growing up occur at different stages. So “sexualisation” is also a culturally relative term.

One more thing that gets me about this particular moral panic: we see the “experts” calling for greater censorship of adult material (e.g. Australian group Kids Free 2 B Kids demanding that R-rated magazines like Playboy only be sold in adult shops) but they don’t seem to have a problem with “tween” magazines that encourage young girls to conform to a certain idea of femininity: fashion and makeup, to be specific. Surely teaching girls to paint their faces and obsess about the “right” clothes is teaching them to be sexual as well? Where are the calls to ban Dolly magazine?

If we are going to be concerned about “sexualisation”, where is the outrage over the “Shine” program, a fundamentalist Christian outreach program that is currently being introduced into Australian schools? The program sees older women teaching girls as young as 9 how to put on makeup and make themselves “nice” for the boys. It also re-enforces stereotypical gender roles and, of course, seeks to “bring girls to Jesus” through the wonder of fashion. We don’t see Kids Free 2 B Kids campaigning against that.

The question is, what is the “right message” about sex that girls and young women should be receiving? As a sex positive feminist, I’m always on the side of education, not censorship. You can’t blindfold kids or put them in a burka. They’re living in the 21st century and the media is part of their everyday lives. So, talk to them about it. Teach them how to interpret images and think for themselves. Encourage self esteem so they are more confident and able to cope with the conflicting information offered by advertising, TV, films, magazines and the internet. Don’t create expectations of rigid gender roles or physical or mental conformity.

And don’t react with panic when the topic of sex comes up. If there’s one thing that is GUARANTEED to harm kids and teenagers with regards to sex, it is negative parental attitudes and a repressive home environment. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the ongong drama about “sexualisation” is actually doing more harm than good.

Update 22nd July
Dr Petra Boynton has written an excellent post called Sexualisation of Young People report released. How useful are the findings? Here’s your chance to find out. She urges the media and anyone else who’s interested to read the reports and take the time to analyse the findings. There’s a lot of reading to be done but Dr Petra does make an interesting summary of the Scottish research which seems to have started from a less biased background. Maybe it’s confirmation bias but this paragraph stood out at me:

‘Sexualisation’ is not an issue that immediately worries parents or teens, but when prompted it seems parents are far more worried about it than young people, and are often more concerned about the sexualised behaviour of other children rather than their own child. Indeed their work suggested a lot of parental anxiety over Sexualisation manifested itself in parents talking about how girls should behave and act in appropriate and modest fashions. Young people, meanwhile, seemed more aware of the media and potential sexualising influences than expected, although the authors acknowledge there are still issues about sexuality needing addressing. In short they concluded sexualisation is a complex issue that can’t be fixed with simplistic suggestions for policy change.

It does seem to be a feature of much of the discussion about “sexualisation” that young women are assumed to always be victims without any agency or media savvy whatsoever. It’s obviously a flawed idea, especially when so many young people are completely immersed in their own media environments and aren’t wide-eyed babes in the woods. One of the wonderful things about the internet is that is that it has been able to provide a wealth of educational content about sex and also a wide variety of opinion and criticism of mainstream culture.

As always, education and critical thinking are the key.

3 Replies to “Questioning The Moral Panic About “Sexualisation Of Children””

  1. Ms Naughty, I agree with your approach to this problem (I might even call it a predicament):

    “So, talk to them about it. Teach them how to interpret images and think for themselves”

    I agree 100%. Education, open discussion, introspection, critical thinking.

    Sadly, that message is completely at odds with the core economic, religious, and political values of our society which are based on consumption, conformity, and not questioning the status quo.

    There are few things more disruptive to our society than people who think for themselves and fail to fill the neat little social and economic pigeon holes ascribed to them.

    One such pigeon hole is that young women are “nice” and don’t watch porn. Another seems to be that there is something wrong with anyone who hasn’t lost their virginity by their early twenties.

    Children who learn about and become sexually active earlier than their peers are called “sexualised”. Adults who haven’t lost their virginity (but wish to) are said to “suffer” “involuntarily celibacy”. I find it really worrying that people who stray from the arbitrary definition of “normal” end up being labelled and diagnosed as if they have some kind of illness.

    So lets take a long hard look at ourselves and the things that we value in our society. Get the foundations right and we might just find that a lot of these “problems” just disappear.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post as usual.

  2. On the banning of so called porn mags, I did a little search for images of the Cosmo front page, every cover page 50-60% of the Tag/Straplines were sexually suggestive, ie 10 things guys crave in bed, how to climax together, how to read his dirty mind

    Interesting hey?

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