Feature Story 04-Sep-2011
At what age is this getting dressed up, rather than “sexualisation” of a child? There has been much debate in the media over the past few years and the lines seem to be becoming more and more blurred between acceptable and unacceptable, for behaviour, attitudes and dress. And this does not just apply to girls, as boys are being pulled into the debate because of the increasing use of social media and mobile technology.
Add to the mixing pot disparities in individual attitudes, moral and religious beliefs and we have a topic that can cause arguments between friends and possibly terrify the most calm of parent.
At a recent kids’ concert a young father sitting in the front row was wearing a black t-shirt, the image on the back of his shirt visible above the back of his chair. It was of a woman straddling a motorcycle backwards in a skimpy bikini, which barely contained her inflated breasts. She was pouting with full red lips, her hair long and wind-swept. It was the kind of image that used to be considered pornographic and be contained within pornographic magazines. It was the kind of image that once upon a time would not have been emblazoned on a t-shirt and casually worn to a kids’ concert.
Our society has developed what social commentators label a ‘hyper-sexualised raunch culture’. Canberra-based author, Melinda Tankard Reist, says, “We should be troubled and disturbed by the way pornified messaging stalks girls and boys and threatens their healthy development.”
A string of books has been published on the topic in the last few years, Getting Real, Consuming Innocence, Sex in Public, This Little Kiddie went to Market, So Sexy So Soon, to name a few: it seems many people agree it’s time to think about what has led to saturating childhood with sexual messages, and ask what will be the consequence?
What is the sexualisation of children?
Professor Louise Newman, Director of the Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology says, “The ‘sexualisation’ of children refers to the imposition of adult sexual themes and images on children at a developmentally inappropriate stage and in a way which may compromise child psychological development.”
While some instances of sexualisation are a by-product of children observing adult behaviours, dress codes and advertising, others are strategically aimed at kids. Experts from various fields are voicing their concerns about the trend of sexualised marketing to kids. Dr Karen Brooks, Senior Lecturer in Communication & Cultural Studies, from the University of the Sunshine Coast, says, “Sex is being used to grab the attention of not just adults but kids as well. If the multibillion dollar ‘tween’ market is any indication, it’s a sales pitch that’s working”.
What’s at stake?
Authors of So Sexy So Soon, Dr Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne, are concerned that children are paying an enormous price for the sexualisation of their childhood. “Children are routinely exposed to images of sexual behaviour devoid of emotions, attachment, or consequences. They learn that sex is the defining activity in relationships, to the exclusion of love and friendship. And they learn to associate physical appearance and buying the right products not only with being sexy but also with being successful as a person.”
Levin and Kilbourne say these lessons will shape children’s gender identity, sexual attitudes, values, and capacity for relationships, for love and connection, into adulthood. They worry that kids are robbed of valuable time for age-appropriate developmental play while they struggle to make sense of the sexual messages, and fear this may lead children to engage in “precocious sexual behaviour”.
Opportunities for growth
Social commentator and Sydney Morning Herald columnist Emily Maguire explains “We need a reality check: despite the often hostile world we adults have created for them, most children are not dopey, fragile creatures lurching from life-threatening crisis to life-ruining mistake.”
If we start talking to our children when they are young, explaining about the media and the world we now live in, parents are not only developing strong bonds, sharing their own moral standards and expectations but helping shape well rounded individuals.
We have started seeing teenagers taking their own actions against advertising that they see as inappropriate or offensive. A young group in Sydney recently started defacing bus shelters with black paint in protest of advertising they found degrading; after finding out this was illegal they quickly switched to placing protest stickers onto the covers of the offending magazines in newsagents and supermarkets to drive their message home.
As our children get older, social media will become more and more a part of their lives. Social media is the wild card that has completely changed the landscape of the teen years, capturing their lives on the internet—instantly, globally, and permanently. From Facebook to the ever changing mobile technology, our children are able to share anything, anytime with anyone.
Since phones could take, send and receive images and videos, there has been a growing trend of ‘sexting’ amongst teens; the sharing of pornographic images and videos. Sometimes the images are of themselves, sometimes of others, sometimes from the net.
In September 2010 the Government launched a video “to make teens think twice before they ‘sext’.” Speaking at the launch was Sage Parker, who at 13-years-old sent images of herself to a man she met online and later in person. “At first I knew it was a bad idea but like a master manipulator, he swayed me to the idea it was just ‘skin’,” she said. “He said some stuff that made me uncomfortable, but I thought it would make me seem immature if I said something.” The man was later arrested for possessing child pornography and grooming a minor for sex. But what teens don’t realise when they’re sharing their nude image with their boyfriend or girlfriend, is that they too can be (and some have been) arrested for possession of child pornography, stamping them with an instant criminal record of a sexual nature.
Detective Senior Sergeant Garratt says, “Young people need to understand that with digital technology, once those images or videos leave their hands, they lose control of them forever. They can be across the world within seconds.”
How did we get here?
Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University says, “The objective of the social revolutions of the 1960s was to replace a society of oppressive rules and conventions with a society of autonomous individuals committed to the welfare of all and discriminating against none. Yet today we have never experienced more pressure to define ourselves in ways determined by others, including the marketing industry. Contrary to the arguments of some ‘pro-sex’ feminists, when young women mimic the boorish behaviour of young men, it is still men who set the standard. Raunch culture debases the dream of liberation.”
Where to now?
Mum, Dad & the Media
Author and Psychologist Steve Biddulph says, “The electronic and print media is now so shockingly pervasive, that it has become ‘the third parent’ for many children.” He fears exposing children to sexualised media messages leads girls to obsess over their external appearance, creating a “deeply impoverished world view” where there is no mention of the value of inner qualities or virtues.
Yet there is no way of avoiding the technological future for our children.
Clinical Psychologist Dr Melissa Farley says, “Children today need media literacy education so that they learn to counteract toxic messages about their sexuality. It is possible to teach children how to assess the sexually exploitive messages that are lodged today in a range of technologies from video games to cell phone applications to internet pornography. Technical and media consciousness-raising are essential—first for parents themselves, and then for parents to teach children.”
Family Smart Tips
Child/adolescent psychotherapist Collett Smart, of Family Smart, says, “A natural reaction is to protect and shield children from unpleasant and distressing facts, however most school-aged children are aware of media which involves sexual themes. If not acknowledged and discussed, the concerns and anxieties of children about these events can become too frightening and difficult for them to deal with. Alternatively, children will turn to unreliable sources, such as other children and the internet.”
Ms Smart suggests:
Talk to your children about images they may have seen and ask how it made them feel or think.
Really listen to your child’s perception of the world.
Talk about your own views and values as a family.
Encourage positive language at home with regards to skills, our intellect and our bodies.
Assure your child they can always talk to you about anything they have seen or heard.
Involve your children in pursuits that involve using their skills and do not focus on outward appearances.
Discuss blogs and books that critique the sexualised culture so they begin to understand and question media messages.
As parents, we can become involved in lobby campaigns, but we will never control all the media our children are exposed to outside the home. However, it is the responsibility of parents to discuss and monitor the media exposure inside the home from an early age. As Senior Lecturer in Child Development, Dr Glen Cupit says, “What we allow is what we approve”.
And the final word goes to Emily Maguire who says “We shouldn’t be surprised. Many teenagers possess powerful self-awareness (the flip side of teenage self-obsession) and a great capacity for constant questioning and insightful cultural critique. What they tend to lack is self-control, the ability to envisage the consequences of their actions and, obviously, life experience. That’s why we adults need to have their backs. We can encourage toughness while offering advice on how to minimise damage to the self and to others.”
www.kf2bk.com (Kids free 2B kids)
Getting Real, Challenging the sexualisation of Girls
Edited by Melinda Tankard Reist. Publisher: Spinifex. PB $34.95
Written by a number of experts, each essay raises new concerns for girls growing up in a hyper-sexualised raunch culture.
What’s happening to our Boys?
by Maggie Hamilton. Publisher: Penguin. PB $29.95
Maggie discusses how today’s high-pressure environment affect a boy’s confidence, his values and aspirations, his wellbeing, his sense of community, his attitudes to girls and women.