Have you heard about the “sexualisation of youth”? Bet you have. This has been the topic of countless articles and essays, as well as a recent book entitled Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls.
Opponents of the “sexualisation of youth” include feminists, conservatives, parents and politicians. They are concerned about the way in which representations of youthful sexuality are used to sell everything from Bratz dolls to Bill Henson photos. These representations, it is argued, are responsible for promoting unrealistic ideas about sex and body image among young (read: teenage and pre-teen) people. These representations also make young people (and especially young women) vulnerable to sexual violence.
These concerns are valid, and indeed I share many of them. Nevertheless, I argue that simply attacking the “sexualisation of youth” or the “sexualisation of culture” is misguided. There are several reasons for this.
First, this use of the term “sexualisation” seems to assume that all sex is inherently harmful. Young people are corrupted and misogyny is perpetuated every time sex appears on a billboard or in a music video. Second, attacks against a “sexualisation of youth” assume that young people are asexual, and should be shielded against all sexual references - unless, of course, you are promoting abstinence.
The assumptions that I have just described are politically conservative and patronising. Young people are understood here to be unthinking, easily led astray and therefore in need of increased adult protection. If this kind of standpoint sounds familiar, then it should: similar views about the chronic vulnerability of young people have also informed arguments against video games, rap music and horror movies.
So how can we move forwards? How can we intervene in debates about young people, sexuality and representation in a manner that is pro-sex, anti-sexist and aimed at empowering children and teenagers?
We need to start by acknowledging that sex itself is not the problem. In an incisive essay published in Overland in 2008, Mark Pendleton and Tanya Serisier argue that the problem lies squarely with “capitalism and its gendered nature”. Advertisers who use images of young girls in skimpy, provocative attire are not trying to promote female empowerment. They are trying to market a product, and if they generate a public outcry - even better. Sex sells, and so does controversy.
Parents/guardians and teachers need to talk meaningfully about sex with young people. I recognise that this may be difficult in certain conservative and/or religious environments. Nevertheless, knowledge equals power. Young people need to be taught to say “no” to unwanted sexual encounters, and to keep safe when engaging in sexual encounters that they do want. Abstinence is one option for young people, but it should not be portrayed as the only option. To suggest otherwise is naïve and dangerous.
Young people should also be encouraged to express how they feel about their bodies, and taught that their self-worth should not depend on the pursuit of that ever-elusive “body beautiful”. This is a particularly important lesson for young women and girls, who have been bombarded with the “thin-is-in” message since the days of Twiggy.
There should be a greater media focus on what young people themselves think about sex. In saying this, I am not trying to silence Clive Hamilton, Catharine Lumby or Melinda Tankard-Reist. I am suggesting that these commentators (all of whom are well past their teenage years) should not be the only ones whose opinions on the aforementioned issues are quoted in newspapers or on television.
Moreover, we need to listen to what the diversity of young people think about sex. Young Aborigines, for example, are rarely heard in debates about the “sexualisation of youth” (although there has been abundant media attention given to the issue of sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities). The voices of same sex-attracted young men and women are also little heard in mainstream media forums (perhaps because - according to a certain right-wing myth - these young people have already been corrupted by a toxic sexuality).
I agree with calls for companies to exercise “corporate responsibility” when addressing children and teenagers. There are many reasons why it is unacceptable to market (say) T-shirts with sexually suggestive messages towards girls as young as five. Parents and guardians should also think twice before purchasing such items for their children. Supply and demand are closely related.
I am less certain about the issue of “internet filtering”, or the blocking of certain websites. Again, those who have advocated such measures have a genuine basis for their concerns. Young people surfing the web can be targeted by sexual predators, and can also stumble upon material that is sexually violent in nature.
Yet I am also wary that measures put in place to regulate sexually explicit material have frequently been co-opted by conservative and reactionary forces. In the 1980s, for example, US feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon designed an ordinance to protect women hurt by the production and/or consumption of pornography. Unfortunately, this ordinance was used by the political Right to censor books by gays, lesbians and feminists - including Dworkin herself. Who is to say that “internet filtering” will not be used to ban websites that aim to give comprehensive advice about sex and sexuality-related issues to young people?
Phrases such as the “sexualisation of youth” might be useful in spicing up a newspaper article or scholarly essay. Ultimately, though, such phrases are unhelpful. We need to educate young people about sex and body image, and listen to what they have to say about these issues. Companies should exercise “corporate responsibility” when marketing their products towards young consumers, but this should not mean censoring all material that takes sex as its subject matter.