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The market is eating our children

By Emma Rush - posted Tuesday, 16 February 2010

It’s great to see bi-partisan concern about the sexualisation of children. I commend those MPs who spoke up for children’s interests in the House of Representatives last week on a Notice of Motion introduced by South Australian Labor MP Amanda Rishworth.

The issue is not about banning little girls from putting on mummy’s lipstick or playing with Barbies - activities Jane Caro claimed critics of sexualisation were wanting to ban, on a recent ABC’s PM program.

It goes well beyond playing dress-ups. There is substantial evidence that sexualisation harms children: it promotes body image concerns, eating disorders, and gender stereotyping. Premature sexualisation also erases the line between who is and is not sexually mature, and as such, may increase the risk of child sexual abuse by undermining the important social norm that children are sexually unavailable. (See: APA TSG 2007.Report of the American Psychological Association Taskforce on the Sexualisation of Girls.)


So how can we stop the sexualisation of children? The 2008 Senate Inquiry into the Sexualisation of Children in the Contemporary Media Environment concluded that “the onus is on broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers to take account of these community concerns [about the sexualisation of children]”. It recommended some actions these industry bodies could take, including:

  • that broadcasters review their classification of music videos specifically with regard to sexualising imagery;
  • that publishers consider providing reader advice, based on the Office of Film and Literature Classification systems of classifications and consumer advice, on magazine covers indicating the presence of material that may be inappropriate for children;
  • that the effectiveness of the Australian Association of National Advertisers’ Code for Advertising and Marketing Communications to Children, introduced in April 2008, be reviewed by the Senate in December 2009;
  • that the Advertising Standards Bureau consider adopting a process of pre-vetting advertisements either (a) at the request of the advertiser where they are concerned that the content of the material may be pushing the boundaries of the codes or (b) where an advertiser or agency has regularly produced advertising material that has been the subject of complaints; and
  • that the Advertising Standards Board rigorously apply standards for billboards and outdoor advertising to more closely reflect community concern about the appropriateness of sexually explicit material and the inability of parents to restrict exposure of children to such material.

Importantly, the Senate Inquiry also recommended a review of these recommendations which was supposed to have taken place in December 2009. The review was to ensure that positive action was indeed being taken by industry bodies in the interests of the health and welfare of Australian children.

As of February 2010, this review hasn’t happened and the sexualisation of children continues apace.

Some industry bodies have implemented minor changes since the Senate Inquiry, but this minimal response has not yet come close to addressing the scale of the problem. Industry was warned, has had its chance to voluntarily self-regulate, and has conspicuously failed to act at the level required. Of course, it’s not altogether surprising that the industries that profit from the sexualisation of children are not backing off by themselves. Why would they? It’s a competitive market. It is now clearly up to the government to take the lead, on behalf of Australian children.

But what can government do?

  • It could start by conducting the now overdue December 2009 review of industry’s response to the Senate Inquiry recommendations, which would put clearly on the public record the failure of industry self-regulation to promote children’s interests.
  • It needs to recognise that what is happening today is sexualisation “by a thousand cuts”. One sexualised billboard, one television show or advertisement, one internet site, one toy, one child’s magazine: none of these alone cause the problem of child sexualisation. It is the combination of many sexualised billboards, television shows, advertisements, internet sites, toys, magazines, and so on, that cause child sexualisation.

The “case-by-case” approach to regulation which is currently used by both government regulation and industry self-regulation will not work for this issue. We need an integrated regulatory approach covering all relevant industries, with the expertise of child health and welfare professionals structured into the regulation process, and regulation enforceable by law.

The evidence of the past 18 months of minimal response by industry shows that the market culture around this issue will not shift without stronger government initiative.

Industry will squeal at the prospect of such regulation, of course - it always does. But our society is financially richer than almost any other society in recorded history. Regulating against the sexualisation of children might cause a blip in profit margins in some places, but it is hardly going to destroy the economy as we know it. We must hold this firmly in mind as we meet industry resistance, and ask, loudly and clearly: What is all our wealth worth, if the market eats our children?

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First published on Melinda Tankard Reist's blog on February 10, 2010.

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About the Author

Emma Rush is Associate Lecturer in Ethics and Philosophy at Charles Sturt University. She is the author of Child Care Quality in Australia, and the lead author of Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of children in Australia and Letting Children Be Children: Stopping the sexualisation of children in Australia, all published by the Australia Institute. Emma also wrote the chapter "What Are the Risks of Premature Sexualisation for Children?" in Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls.

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