Thoughts on the ‘Sexualisation of Children’

Say the words ‘sexualisation of children’, and emotive arguments blaze forwards (especially from our friends at the Daily Mail). The issue is so contentious and controversial that the government recently announced a review into it and on Monday evening BBC News presenter Sophie Raworth contributed to the debate in an episode of Panorama. On the whole it was a thoughtful episode, containing some genuinely interesting and thought-provoking points, especially thanks to its involvement of children themselves.

Take for example, the issue of padded bras. They are one of the easy targets in the debate about sexualisation – they seemingly make girls look older and are aimed at making them feel more sexually attractive in a wholly artificial way (ie before puberty). But research for the Scottish Parliament indicated that whilst adults saw them this way, the younger girls actually saw them as serving two functions – that of increased comfort and of protection. In other words, the girls felt that padded bras actually made them feel more covered up. This is the first issue we encounter in trying to break through the rhetoric and outrage in the sexualisation of children. It raises an important issue of intention compared with usage. It’s highly unlikely that the company selling the padded bras is intending them to be ways for girls to feel covered up, but at the same time, if girls see them as fulfilling that function, and feel safer and more comfortable wearing them, then can we really call this sexualisation? To the extent that the product exists, we could argue it is intending to make a sexualised society, but if girls do not see it that way, and in fact feel the opposite, has it really sexualised them?

The issue of intention is also relevant not just from the perspective of a company marketing a product, but from the perspective of the children themselves as well. For example, when Raworth asked Chloe, 13, about whether her dancing was sexual, she responded: ‘We’re not trying to be sexy, it’s just the moves you have to learn to be a dancer.’ When asked if she does it to look good for boys she said that she wasn’t – ‘I’m doing it because it looks good.’ So is the adult perception that it is a sexual dance enough to say that children are being sexualised, even if they’re not intending it to be seen that way? From this girl’s perspective, whilst she was aware of the potential for it to be ‘sexy’, it is simply the dancing that is done by famous pop stars. If she doesn’t have sex in mind when she does it, is it sexualisation?

It’s easy for the issue of sexualisation to be tied up with other issues – a man from Consumer Kids was shown complaining about a t-shirt with the text ‘Future Footballers Wife’ printed on it. Aside from the grammatical error in the text, this strikes me as not an issue of sexualisation but of gender stereotyping and male dominance. Contrast, for example, with another item of clothing mentioned later in the programme which had ‘Porn Star’ printed on it. This clearly does represent a sexual item of clothing. The text ‘Future Footballers Wife’ is not, however, trying to sexualise the girl wearing it, but it is imposing on her a subservient existence that turns her into an accessory for her strong and successful male husband. It seems that in this case the debate has been overcome by adults’ fears. Similarly, Raworth is thrown by how difficult it is to define something as ‘sexual clothing’. Are leopard skin tights sexual clothing? Reg Bailey, conducting the government review said that in actuality ‘A lot of it is down to parental taste’, but what about the perceptions of children? Do they like wearing them because they make them look sexy, or because they like the item of clothing itself? This crystallises one of the key issues raised in the programme: what adults and children see as sexualisation is not necessarily the same thing. We must be clear what we are looking for when we talk about a sexualised society, and we must bear in mind both perspectives, rather than attempting to judge our children’s world for them.

Rachel Russell who conducted the now completed report for the Scottish Parliament thought that the whole issue had been overhyped. She said that of sexual clothing that ‘We actually found a limited extent marketed at children … you had to really search to find them.’ She also called the issue ‘a perfect example of a moral panic.’ These ‘moral panics’ tend to arise in particular around issues such as teenage pregnancies or STIs, and some calm statements made by Simon Blake, Chief Executive of the Brook Advisory Centre (advising teenagers on sex and relationships) provided some of the more important points of the programme: ‘The really important thing to know is that most young people under the age of sixteen don’t have sex, that our teenage pregnancy rates are the lowest they’ve been for twenty years and that whilst STIs have seen a rise, much of that is because of the determined efforts to test and treat that infection that was already there.’

Nevertheless, Blake also says that this isn’t the whole story, and some of the debate will always return to how women are presented, or present themselves. One example used was Christina Aguilera’s controversial performance on ‘The X Factor’, which Fiona Crawford, a member of the Mothers’ Union described as a ‘sex show with ladies pumping and grinding chairs and showing their pants’. A member of the Girls’ Schools Association showed Raworth a typical girls’ magazine with ‘two girls dressed in low cut tops, presenting themselves in a virtually sexual and provocative way in order to sell shoes’. Meanwhile, the mother of one girl, Nicole, 14, tells Raworth that when her daughter came downstairs in her clothes for a party, she wasn’t sure about the length of the dress, but when she saw that Nicole’s friends were all wearing similar dresses, she felt she couldn’t interfere. When asked about the clothing they wear, the girls featured in the programme were defensive: Chloe, 13, said ‘We can’t stay in pink boots forever can we?’, whilst Nicole herself said ‘You want to look glam and when you want to look glam you always look older I think.’ We could take comfort in knowing that Nicole said she wants to look ‘glam’ rather than ‘sexy’, or we could question why looking glam equates with looking older and the implications of this.

Ultimately, this issue is to do with our judgements on what is appropriate at what age. David Cameron is shown saying that he and all parents worry about children ‘growing up too fast and missing out on their childhood’, something echoed by parents in the programme expressing concerns about clothes and behaviour such as the above. This is a very problematic statement however, mainly because Cameron seems to have an objective definition of childhood in mind. He seems to be assuming it is something fixed and external to society which children must experience in order to grow up properly. It doesn’t take a long look at history, however, to see that attempting to objectively define ‘childhood’ is hugely problematic, as it is a concept which has shifted massively over time, and is seen differently geographically as well. It is important, therefore, that we understand that ‘childhood’ is a social construction, separate from biological processes of adolescence and growth, and that this means sexualisation is an issue tied more to social judgements and values than it is to an objective sense of childhood, a rise in teenage pregnancies or even large numbers of teenagers engaging in underage sex. As Raworth says, ‘Sexualisation seems to be a complex calculation of taste, values and fashion sense.’ We must be careful to avoid being caught up in a moral panic which makes spurious assumptions above careful discussion.

A separate strand to the debate hinges on the intersection between sex and technologisation of society. The fundamental issue here is one of access/contact – primarily in terms of the Internet, and in particular social networking. Raworth explains that according to research by the LSE, half of children have online access in their bedroom, and half have access on a mobile device. The question isn’t even whether they have access, but increasingly, where and how they have access to the Internet. One of the biggest realms in which this is relevant is social networking. Raworth meets Joel, 14, who has what she describes as a ‘gigantic network of virtual friends’, later numbered as around 800. Frustratingly, she doesn’t make clear (although you can hear him say it in the background) that a substantial proportion of these ‘virtual friends’ are probably people he knows personally at varying levels, not just online. Not everyone watching the show will necessarily realise this.

What is most interesting is how central photos turn out to be to usage of Facebook: Joel says: ‘Some lads take photos with their tops off, and girls are like I’ll add him, I’ll add him, I’ll add him’. Chloe, 14, meanwhile, says ‘There’s quite a lot of ‘sexy’ pictures on Facebook, especially of … Year 9 students.’ When asked what she means she clarifies: ‘Posing and pictures of themselves in bikinis. I don’t think that’s right … I guess if it’s a holiday picture that’s different, but … it was in their room. So it was obviously done intentionally.’ Here then, we return again to the issue of intention, and the technology becomes a side issue. For Chloe it’s not so much that the girls are wearing bikinis at all (although clearly some would object to this) but why they were doing it. In the case of these pictures, it is implied that the girls were doing it to be added by guys or have their bodies admired. It’s difficult to know if this is the case, or what Chloe means by ‘a lot of pictures’, but what’s important here is that the issue is one of intention. A girl wearing a bikini to look ‘sexy’ is different to a girl wearing a bikini because she’s swimming.

The younger girl called Chloe who was mentioned earlier recounts another incident which emphasises this point. She had uploaded videos of herself dancing onto a website presumably because she was proud of her dancing, but then received a message in response to one from a stranger saying they wanted to meet her. ‘I started crying. I ran into my mum’s room’ she tells Raworth, ‘she [mum] said don’t message this guy, he’s a pervert. After that I deleted all my videos, I just didn’t want to be on that site any more.’ It is important to emphasise the importance of intention here too. Chloe just wanted to express her creativity through posting videos of herself dancing online – she wasn’t trying to be sexual, and the message from the stranger was an unfortunate consequence. A similar incident, however, could easily have happened at a talent show, or even in school. It is also important to emphasise that it’s impossible to know to what extent the ‘sexual’ (or not) nature of her dancing contributed to the man sending the message. Had the dancing been unquestionably unsexual, would Chloe have been guaranteed to be safe?

Attempts to protect children can end up causing problems too because, as barrister Felicity Gerry reminds us, ‘Kids swapping sexually explicit pictures of their friends under eighteen are breaking the law,’ before then adding that ‘I wouldn’t have thought it’s in the public interest to prosecute a seventeen year old for having a picture of his girlfriend, a sexual image, on his mobile phone.’ Again, intention is the crucial point, along with usage. Clearly a man taking pictures of young girls without clothes on is very different to a young couple in a relationship taking pictures of each other. Gerry adds that such photos would be investigated should they be disseminated around school or in cases of underage sex, which suggests an intelligent approach to the law. Nevertheless we must remember that blanket bans or laws could have adverse consequences should they be imposed too strictly.

The second issue the programme deals with in terms of the Internet is that of porn. Almost a quarter of 9-16 year olds have seen pornography according to LSE. A group of teenage boys asked for the programme don’t seem embarrassed to admit that they have – they say it’s ‘regular for a teenager’. In terms of the LSE statistic, it’s important to emphasise that this does not mean that a quarter of 9 year olds have looked at porn. It’s unfortunate that the survey lumps together such a wide age range as there is clearly a massive developmental difference between a 9 year old and a 16 year old. It also makes no comparison with previous generations. There is no way to know if the amount of teenagers looking at porn has increased as a result of the Internet. There may well be more porn out there, and it may be easier to access, but this is different to more teenagers actually looking at it, and it is by no means guaranteed that the proportion of teenagers looking at porn has increased relative to the amount of porn which exists online as compared with in print.

Simon Blake, the Chief Executive of Brook Advisory Centre, makes some important points about teenagers’ reactions to porn: ‘They will say things like … Do I need to shave all my body hair off? Should I be making the other person scream? … It creates anxieties about body image, about expectations about sex.’ However, he also says that ‘We do have to give young people credit. They do know that it’s not real most of the time and … particularly if we’re willing to talk to them’ This brings us to the final point, that online access to porn or sexual pictures does not result in entirely new scenarios relating to sex and relationships, but in new variations on existing issues. Intentions, usage and our response to these are crucial to have an intelligent understanding of and approach to sexualisation.

I haven’t attempted to provide answers to the issue here, but merely attempted to weave my way through some of the debates that arise from the programme to clarify key points. It’s a precursor to a debate if you like – they can so easily fall victim to ‘moral panics’ that important distinctions and facts can be overlooked. The issue is far too complicated for me to simply sit here and say that children have or haven’t been sexualised. All I can and will say is that we must tread incredibly carefully with everything we say about this issue. The risk of oversimplifying the debate is massive, and Raworth’s conclusion that we must ‘talk to our children, and more importantly, … listen to them’ is a worthy one. If we’re going to debate this, let’s properly involve children and get their views as the researchers and programme makers have done here, because it can transform our understanding of the issues.


PS – Just a little note. There’s a point in the programme when Raworth is talking to a group of children and asks them: ‘How many of you have talked to a stranger on Facebook?’

Four people put their hands up.

She points to one and says ‘You, who did you talk to?’

Young girl: ‘ … I don’t know’

Sophie should think before speaking!