A great blog by our newest member of the team, Penny Forsyth.
I had been aware of the report ‘Letting Children be Children’1 for some time. In this report, Reg Bailey identified the sexualisation of childhood as a problem and not only that, a problem rooted in our wider adult culture. “Surely not!”, had been my first reaction but now, as I reflected on the last 24 hours, three examples easily sprung to mind.
It had been a sweltering hot day and my 4 year old grand daughter and I walked into town for ice cream because the nearby corner shop displayed ‘lad mags’ at child height and I did not want her to see them. As we went down the High Street she spied a barrier and rushing off started swinging on it. Showing off her Saturday morning gymnastics, her underpants were clearly visible to those passing. As positively as possible I encouraged her to stop. “Why?” she innocently asked. Why indeed ?? I was trotting out my own well remembered childhood lesson that this was ‘not ladylike’, which as an adult I now recognised as an oblique reference to the world of sexuality. And then not far from my mind, were the words of a middle aged character, in a Howard Jacobson2 novel I was reading, musing on his sex life, “ his dreaming inclination ….the schoolgirl bending to fasten her shoelace…”. An isolated statement about paedophilia dropped into the prose without further comment.
Curious to know more I explored the research that formed the basis behind Reg’s statement. What exactly was meant by the sexualisation of childhood? My grand daughter was one year away from starting school, my oldest grand daughter already there, a grandson starting in two months and another not a year old, it was important to know.
The American Psychological Association3 define sexualisation as valuing a person only for his or her sexual appeal, equating attractiveness to being sexy, seeing people as parts for sexual use,. and imposing this and adult sexuality onto children and young people before they are capable of dealing with it, mentally, emotionally or physically. Healthy sexuality, 4 on the other hand, is based on a mutual respect, that fosters intimacy, bonding (a relationship that establishes ongoing mutual attachment) and shared pleasure, between consenting adult partners. So I was on the right track but this was far more than I had expected.
More worrying, as I read, was the fact that sexualisation, through the greater use and dissemination of sexualised visual imagery, had become increasingly prevalent since the late 1990s. Putting the flesh on the bones, this meant,; sexual attributes portrayed as a measure of a person’s value; an increased volume of sexualised images and messages visible to all including children and young people and increased explicitness. Not only that, the lines are being blurred between ‘mainstream’ media and pornography and between sexual maturity and immaturity (as children are increasingly ‘adultified’ and adult women infantilised). Alongside this is an increase in extreme caricatures of femininity and masculinity e.g. the right physical attributes and a willingness to submit to male desires are a ‘passport’ to acceptance, money and fame. Lastly, chilling figures to consider are those related to child sexual abuse in the UK. In 2011/2012, 1 in 20 children were known to have been sexually abused, the ratio of female to male victims being 3:1. 30% of these offences were committed by children and young people with 98% of the perpetrators being male5
Had I really been unaware of this? Well, no actually, if I was honest I had felt quite a bit of disquiet about what I had seen and heard, but had felt largely powerless over the ubiquity of this material and at times wondered was I over-reacting to the visual imagery?! Time to look then at what capable of dealing with sexualisation mentally, emotionally or physically looked like, not only for children but also for myself.
The Sexualisation of Young People review 4 provides a comprehensive picture of the social and psychological forces in play. It seems, children are particularly vulnerable as perspective taking (the ability to consider the motives behind an image and message) does not develop until around the age of 7 to 8 years old. Even then children may believe they understand and even say the right things, but their actions can be quite different. This is known as conscious learning dominated by unconscious learning e.g. messages for boys centring around ideas of physical strength and dominant, controlling behaviour including manliness requires treating girls as sex objects and / or behaving in an aggressive manner. In addition, many of the messages children and young people have to contend with target their emotions at a time when ‘emotional instinct’ often influences decision making rather than cognitive reasoning.
Perspective taking, it seems, is necessary but not sufficient, and other forces are at play not only for children but for us all.
The accumulative effect, the drip, drip, of being exposed to sexualised images and messages also needs to be taken into account. Called social learning, this powerful mechanism sees the previously unthinkable become widely acceptable. We learn by observing others attitudes and behaviours and by seeing the outcome of them; in this case the cultural norms of what it means to be female and male. Praised for adhering to them or punished for going against them, the expectations of society are eventually internalised. We create our own rules that mirror them and thereafter self police these self imposed standards e.g. I need to look pretty; being a boy means being tough. There are also beliefs that operate at an unconscious level known as ‘subconscious associations’. For example, viewers are more likely to associate sex and sexuality with non-sexual depictions of minors after viewing sexually explicit content featuring actors who appeared to be under age.
And then the media also helps to shape our perceptions and beliefs; e.g what to focus on, what is cool, what is acceptable, and by employing objectification, (the treatment of people as a collection of body parts to be used rather than as individuals), our internalisation of this perspective.
So now I could understand my confusion better. Old internalised norms were battling it out with newer social messages and subconscious associations as I tried to work out where I ‘belonged’. Few of us enjoy being an outsider for too long!6 The next question then had to be “Was this sexualisation of childhood detrimental ?” The answer, the evidence says, is “Yes ”.
The Rapid Evidence Assessment7, three years on from Letting Children be Children, has looked at the effects of access and exposure to pornography on children and young people and confidently concluded that a significant proportion of children and young people are exposed to or access pornography both online and offline, with one method positively related to accessing it through others. This exposure and access increases with age and there are gender differences . Boys are more likely to be exposed to pornography, to access, seek or use pornography and to do so more frequently. They also generally view pornography more positively while girls generally report it as unwelcome and socially distasteful and feel more uncomfortable, than boys and young men, when viewing it.
In addition, access and exposure to pornography affects children and young people’s sexual beliefs and is linked to unrealistic attitudes about sex; maladaptive attitudes about relationships; more sexually permissive attitudes; greater acceptance of casual sex; beliefs that women are sex objects; more frequent thoughts about sex; sexual uncertainty about their sexual beliefs and values; and less progressive gender role attitudes (e.g. male dominance and female submission). Not only that, it is also linked to their engagement in “risky behaviours”. These include engaging in sexual practices from a younger age, unprotected anal or oral sex, the involvement of drugs and alcohol in sex,. and “sexting” which is associated largely with young men bullying and exploiting young women. Exposure to sexualised and violent imagery also affects children and young people and may affect their attitudes and sexual and violent behaviour.
So what had I learned? It seems that we are being led, slowly but surely, towards a world where sexuality is increasingly pushed onto children and young people and often packaged as using others for your own ends, pleasure or status or being used. Yet we do not thrive in such an environment. For our own well being we need mutuality, caring, friendship, and yes, healthy sexuality as a part of that8,9,10.
The sexualisation of childhood is rooted in our wider culture to which we, each in our own way, contribute either by commission or omission. Therefore it is going to take the wider culture, (that means all of us: parents, family, education, researchers, business, the media and the regulators) to create an alternative, more positive and better informed approach to sexuality for the future. We need to wake up to this new sexual revolution for our children and grandchildren cannot wait.
- Department of Education (2011) Letting Children be Children: Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood.
- 2. Jacobson, H. (2010) The Finkler Question. London : Bloomsbury Publishing,(p.192)
- 3. Report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls (2007) (Online)
http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf (Accessed 13th July 2013)
- Papadopoulos, L. (2010) Sexualisation of Young People Review. Crown Copywright.
- NSPCC (2013) Statistics on Child Sexual Abuse. (Online) http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforprofessionals/sexualabuse/statistics_wda87833.html (Accessed on 14/7/2013)
- Macleod. S. (2008) Social Identity Theory. Simply Psychology. (Online) http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-identity-theory.html (Accessed14/7/2013)
- Horvath, M.A.H.; Alys, L.; Massey,K.; Pina, A.,Scally M. & Adler, J. R. (2013) Basically… porn is everywhere” A Rapid Evidence Assessment on the Effects that Access and Exposure to Pornography has on Children and Young People. Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
- Lamb, S. (2007 ) “Have Girls gone wild?” Counselling Children and Young People. September, 18 – 22. British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
- Siegel, D. J. (2007) The Mindful Brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of wellbeing. New York, W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
- Heard, D., Lake, B. & McCluskey, U. (2012) Attachment therapy with adolescents and adults: Theory and Practice Post Bowlby. Revised Edition. London, Karnac Books.