Why the Right has it wrong on the “sexualisation of children”

// 2 June 2011

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white child's feet in red high heeled shoes with white spots on

If the likes of Nadine “I-heart-depriving-women-of-the-right-to-determine-the-course-of-their-own-lives” Dorries and co. are to be believed, the real problem with thongs and padded bras being marketed at young girls and pop culture being defined by women writhing around half naked is that it encourages children and teenagers to have sex. Thus quoth Dorries:

From teenage magazines which promote the ‘sexual position of the week’ to porn channels, lads’ mags, computer images, TV, films and provocative advertising, each with the drip, drip effect and eventual acceptance that this is ‘normal’ behaviour.

For these right-wing, often conservative Christian types, the commercialised vision of sex being thrust in kids’ faces is dangerous because their view of “normal” has no place for anything other than sex between one man and one woman, bound together for life, who are willing to accept the tiny wee bundle of a consequence that may result. Sex for pleasure, sex outside relationships, sex that results in abortion – any sexual activity that deviates from their norm – is a sinful, threatening act that tears another rip in the moral fabric of a fading social order they are doing their darnedest to resurrect. This kind of sex is dark and dirty, while children are pure and innocent. By bringing the sinful world of sex into childhood, we defile our children.

But here’s the news: sex isn’t inherently dark or dangerous. It isn’t inherently anything. It’s up to us how we choose to define it.

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with children and young people engaging in sexual activity with each other. I’ve had sexual feelings since I was at primary school, I got up to things with friends that I guess I would have termed sexual activity if I had known what that was, and I first had a sexual experience requiring the use of contraception when I was 15 (Dorries would probably have called it “losing my virginity”, something that never existed in the first place). None of this did me any harm whatsoever. Why? Because both I and my partners wanted to do what we did, we were not coerced in any way, we had a nice time and we had no reason to view what we did in a negative light.

If I had engaged in sexual activity because I felt it was my role as a girl to sexually entertain my male peers, that would have been wrong. It may have done me harm. If I had been forced to engage in sexual activity because my male peers thought they were entitled to use me in that way, it would have been wrong. It would definitely have done me harm.

For me, these are the issues we should really be focusing on when we talk about the “sexualisation of children”. The cultural message being pushed on our kids and young people right now through the marketing of a very narrow brand of adult sexiness isn’t “Have sex, it’s great!”, it’s “If you’re a girl, you should be displaying and using your body to sexually please men – that’s what makes you female!” and, to a lesser extent, “If you’re a boy, you should be demanding and getting sexual attention from girls – that’s what makes you male!”.

The problem isn’t sex: it’s sexism. And heterocentrism, transphobia and homophobia. All mixed up with a heavy dollop of capitalism. That’s not a problem you deal with by restricting children’s access to sex education and teaching them to “just say no”.

Comments From You

MarinaS // Posted 3 June 2011 at 10:07 am

I swear, I was writing this post in my head on the way to work this morning… :) Brilliantly summarised and spot on. Teaching children to deny themselves pleasure will not shield them from harm – only from pleasure.

sian norris // Posted 3 June 2011 at 4:51 pm

Quote:

The cultural message being pushed on our kids and young people right now through the marketing of a very narrow brand of adult sexiness isn’t “Have sex, it’s great!”, it’s “If you’re a girl, you should be displaying and using your body to sexually please men – that’s what makes you female!” and, to a lesser extent, “If you’re a boy, you should be demanding and getting sexual attention from girls – that’s what makes you male!”.

Yes! totally agree.

evieS // Posted 4 June 2011 at 9:00 pm

Absolutely!! I soooo agree with you.

I scared my partner this morning with my harangue – triggered by an article covering this issue which appeared in today’s press. I was shouting at the paper – in the exact same terms you use.

Misogynistic capitalism. Women’s bodies as commodities. Every bit as objectified by the rhetoric of the conservative right which harks back to a time which never actually existed, seeking, I presume, to have little girls dressed some 1950’s vision of feminine innocence and loveliness – all bobby socks and be-ribboned ponytails.

Argh! This Government! Think I need tips on how to get through this Government’s term in office – and remain sane!

Holly Combe // Posted 4 June 2011 at 10:35 pm

What MarinaS said. I don’t normally like to come into a comment thread to just support every comment so far but I really couldn’t agree more on this one. After all the moral panic from public figures like Dorries and Bailey, it’s just such a welcome relief to see this view expressed so succinctly. Well said Laura :-)

Hear, hear to this too:

(Dorries would probably have called it “losing my virginity”, something that never existed in the first place)

Jane Holder // Posted 30 May 2012 at 12:00 am

I thought you, or your readers, might be interested in filling in this survey on sex and relationships education in the UK.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/L3CKG67

The British Youth Council are looking for people’s opinions before they run a campaign on the subject.We’re looking to make more things part of statutory sex and relationships education – including discussion of consent, rape and sexual assault, warning signs of violent/abusive relationships, and safe sex for same-sex couples.

Laura // Posted 30 May 2012 at 10:13 am

Thanks Jane. I’ve posted a link to the survey on our Facebook page.

karen smith // Posted 31 May 2012 at 7:32 am

I understand what you’re saying here, but the idea of children consenting to sex has to be treated with a degree of caution.

The age of consent exists for a reason. It’s to protect young people who are either so young they are unable to understand what consenting to sexual activity entails, or from exploitation by older people who may use the power imbalance caused by an age difference. For instance if we look at ‘grooming’ cases in a lot of these the victims may have ostensibly had consensual sex.

It’s not a cut and dried thing, which is why we have an age of consent of 16. This is an arbitrary cut off point – because it needs to be fixed somewhere – and 16 seems sensible because this is an age at which most people will have passed puberty and become physically ‘adult’ and also the current age at which compulsory education finishes.

Also bear in mind that although children will engage in sexual experimentation amongst themselves, it is possible for children to sexually abuse other children. And that a lot of adult paedophiles will claim that children both consent to and want sexual activity with adults.

Laura // Posted 31 May 2012 at 10:01 am

I do agree with there being an age of consent, for the reasons you outline. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

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