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Stepping up the fight against childhood s*xualisation

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop - posted Friday, 19 February 2010

Historically New Zealand has been in Australia's shadow concerning action against the sexualisation of children. The Australia Institute's ground breaking 2006 report Corporate Paedophilia (PDF 104KB) prompted a 2008 Senate Inquiry and the formation of advocacy group Kids Free 2 B Kids. However, awareness of the issue in New Zealand has now been stepped up a gear, with initiatives by Auckland University and the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCWNZ).

Child sexualisation degrades childhood through, for example, sexualised clothing for girls, the presentation of children in advertisements as sexual beings and their exposure to sexually explicit music videos. Its effects are far-reaching and include eating disorders, low self esteem and self-justification for sexual offenders.

Undergraduates from Auckland University's Gender and Psychology department recently presented research on child sexualisation and strategies for change. The event was unprecedented, undergraduates not normally participating in public events. However, the strength of their work was such that Associate Professor Nicola Gavey was determined to provide a forum for the students to speak to a wider audience.


Showing just how far-reaching the issue is in New Zealand society, a wide range of public sector representatives attended including from the police force, mental health experts, family planning and district health boards.

Courtney Ross, 20, one of the students presenting comments: “New Zealand has that green clean image which extends into the nostalgic idea of childhood: a beach filled wonderland of hokey pokey ice cream and playing in the street, and not coming home until dark. What gets forgotten is that childhood belonged to my father's generation, not to us.”

Meanwhile at the recent International Council of Women (ICW-CIF) General Assembly in Johannesburg, a resolution on child sexualisation by NCWNZ was passed unanimously, demonstrating the level of international feeling on the issue and New Zealand's leadership in the area. The resolution calls on the 63 ICW affiliated members to urge their governments to ban products and advertising materials that enable children to be seen as sexual objects.

Elizabeth Bang, NCWNZ National President, comments "Although the issue has received international recognition, New Zealand must rise to the challenge by ensuring our domestic focus continues. Our current system relies on self-regulation, which allow the boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable to be pushed. NCWNZ wants to see the appropriate measures put in place to protect children, along with an education campaign that informs parents of the potential risks associated with the sexualisation of childhood."

In December, NCWNZ launched a Boycott the Sexualisation of Childhood page on its website and a facebook campaign page “Cotton Off Our Kids” - a campaign established in July 2009 by NCWNZ and supported by Family First and other organisations. Cotton On were boycotted for selling T-shirts for babies with slogans such as “I'm living proof my mum is easy” and “Mummy likes it on top”.

Both websites are portals through which members of the public can inform NCWNZ of sexualising material. Each Christmas NCWNZ also actively looks for any products or advertising that are not age appropriate.


As a result of the Cotton Off Our Kids Campaign, many of the Cotton On T-shirts were slowly withdrawn from sale. However T-shirts with the slogans “I'm a Tit's Man”, “I'm bringing sexy back” and “milk today, beer tomorrow” remain on sale in parts of New Zealand. The Australian Senate Inquiry goes as far as to say that “the purchase and forced wearing of such clothing by children constitutes child abuse ... as important as the offensive nature of the message is what its selection conveys about the value the child's parents places on them ... and the degree of respect which they attribute to them”.

Television and music videos

Sexualisation of children also manifests itself through television output including music videos and material on the internet, with media regulators acting as a key conduit for complaints. Critics of media regulators argue that the “case by case” approach used is inadequate, the Australia Institute saying that “harm is caused by cumulative exposure to sexualising material from a range of sources”.

The Auckland University students produced a montage of clips from music videos showing widespread sexualisation. In one clip a boy aged about nine is seen dressed in adult business attire gyrating his hips to a barely dressed Fergie. Commenting on the clip, Courtney Ross, editor of the video says: “Boys are absolutely being provided with sexualised role models to aspire to, just as much as girls. Boys are taught how they should act around girls and how they should treat girls in sexual terms, just as much as girls are being taught to adopt sexualised behaviours.”

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About the Author

Elizabeth Willmott Harrop is a freelance writer. She is based in Christchurch, New Zealand, and has a Masters Degree in Human Rights and Social Change.

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