Beware the “Sexualisation” BogeymanPosted: March 13, 2012
After the publication last week of a French government report on the sexualisation of children, the Guardian called for readers’ thoughts on the topic for their People’s Panel series. My submission wasn’t among those selected for publication, but I thought I’d share it with y’all here.
When the sexualisation of girls hits the headlines, various concerns emerge and are merged. These include the imposition on children of rigid gender stereotypes; the media’s relentless regurgitation of a “pornified” idea of female sexuality, to the exclusion of other models; and the impact on kids of being targeted as consumers. While these issues are interconnected, “sexualisation” is a misleading banner.
Firstly, it creates a narrow, sensationalist focus: cue push-up bras for pre-teens. Putting “sex” and “children” in the same sentence guarantees some tabloid moral panic. Phenomena such as the pinkwashing of girlhood, virtual disappearance of gender neutral toys, and perpetuation of gender stereotypes within education settings, cause less outrage. The sexualisation bogeyman distracts from the harmful effects – on boys and girls – of everyday gender socialisation.
Secondly, “sexualisation” suggests that sexuality is the problem. The rhetoric of sexualisation fits a socially conservative agenda centred on protecting “innocence”. I’m wary of this framework, which implicitly situates sexuality in the realm of guilt and shame, and skeptical that it best serves the interests of girls. I’d favour a debate on how we best support children to grow into adults with a healthy sexuality: one that develops at their own pace, grounded in a sense of self-worth and mutual respect with others.
A good starting point would be holistic, age-appropriate sex ed that explores gender and incorporates media literacy. It’s unlikely that companies will spontaneously stop targeting child-consumers, or the media be purged overnight of its inclination to titillation and widespread sexism. Kids need to be equipped for the world they live in, and encouraged to question it. Rather than fixate on what we can ban and regulate, let’s think about how we teach and nurture.