Public hysteria or "sex panic" involving the "sexualisation" of children may be getting a decent outing in Australia at the present moment, but it is certainly nothing new: fifty years ago it was Elvis Presley's hips that portended imminent moral collapse, two hundred and fifty and a dance craze called the "waltz" was considered immodest and the "emo kids" of the late eighteenth century were committing suicide after reading The Sorrows of Young Werther. The more recent alarmism -- typified by Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze's discussion paper on the "sexualisation of children" in the media, or Miranda Devine's predictable whipping-up of outrage over the 2008 Bill Henson photo exhibition -- is nothing new in this regard. (At this point, the new youth-related sex scandals can barely keep up with advances in technology, as the Saint Kilda's schoolgirl suddenly resorts to apologizing via YouTube, after conducting a campaign of terror via cameraphone and text message.) Egan and Hawkes summed up the situation in 2008, and their characterization continues to apply:
Cultural apprehension about the impact and magnitude of the sexualization of girls has proliferated over the past five years…in the form of academic literature chronicling the potential developmental, cognitive, and physical risks associated with sexualizing materials, news media forecasting a 'generation of girls' damaged by 'sexy toys, clothes and cartoons' or frustrated mothers blogging about the unremitting onslaught of marketers….(Egan and Hawkes 2008, 291)
As in keeping with more recent sex panics in western society, the sort that Devine is promoting hinges on a kind of scientistic assertion of "overwhelming evidence of psychological damage wrought on a generation of children, particularly little girls, of premature sexualisation" (Devine 2008). Yet is there really such evidence? Devine offers, by way of example, a magazine with a "target market" of 16-year-olds, which includes frank discussion about sexual matters that are certainly relevant to today's 16-year-olds even if it scandalizes Miranda Devine (such as anal sex), and which eventually gets handed down to much younger children. I would like to give a brief review of the literature related to the actual effects which "early sexualisation" has on children through an examination of existing academic literature on the subject. I will suggest that ultimately our misguided interference in children's sexuality is already considerably more damaging to them than the free exercise of that sexuality. Or, as Lerum and Dworkin summarize their own stance:
Sounding the alarms on sexualization without providing space for sexual rights results in a setback for girls and women and for feminist theory, and is also at odds with the growing consensus of global health scholars (Lerum & Dworkin, "Bad Girls Rule" 2009, p. 260).
Even if the protection of little girls is considered a feminist issue in this regard, I will cite enough female academics who consider the larger feminist issue to be one of autonomy, and who would suggest that paternalism is hardly a progressive stance.
For a start, it is worth noting that the trend in youth sexuality in Australia pre-dates any supposed sexualised media content and there is no way to actually specifically identify that any increase in sexualized media content would be the one factor, above all others, responsible for what seems like a large-scale demographic trend. Indeed the 2004 Australian Study of Health and relationships seemed to indicate a pattern of movement which pre-dates any kind of increase in the availability of sexualized media: "Mean age at first vaginal intercourse has declined from over 19 among women born in the early 1940s to around 16 among those born in the 1980s" (Reproductive Health Matters, 2004). Rissel Richters et al. (2003) had identified this long-term trend the year before based on preliminary survey data (136-7). On the other hand, it is easy to mistake the import of these numbers, when in point of fact they could very well indicate nothing more than a subsidiary phenomenon to the well-documented declining age in menarche in western societies, largely attributed to improved childhood nutrition. The larger more salient issue is whether or not we are applying an irrelevant moralism to the interpretation of those statistics, something which seems to be a larger more endemic problem in the analysis of these questions. Lerum and Dworkin (2009) think this itself is the larger problem, and trace a host of moralistic assumptions to various contemporary attitudes which they think need adjustment. Their critique of the APA's own stance on sexuality is worth quoting at some length:
… we suspect that an ideological gulf may exist between the APA's (2007) concept of healthy sexuality and the more widely recognized concept of sexual health. For one, the APA's version of healthy sexuality seems to rely on the existence of a sexual partner: ("intimacy, bonding . . . shared pleasure . . . mutual respect between consenting partners," p. 2). In contrast, the concept of sexual health is often explicitly tied to a rubric of individual sexual rights (some of which may apply to both children and adults). Originally developed by the World Association for Sexual Health and now widely recognized (and modi-ed) by other organizations including the World Health Organization, the concept of sexual rights may include the right to sexual pleasure (not necessarily with another person), the right to emotional sexual expression (including self-sexualization), and the right to sexually associate freely (Lerum & Dworkin 2009, p. 259).
Of course those who agree with Miranda Devine are likely to assert in reply that the absence of solid research regarding the long-term effects of exposure to heavily sexualized culture are not likely to be available because the trend is new enough that no such studies have been able yet to be conducted, but is also worrying enough that our intervention is necessitated before waiting for social science to come back with analytical data. Yet I think Lerum and Dworkin overall are correct in the two journal articles they have published on the subject, especially with their implication that the absence of any specific scientific proof of long-term damage is the surest way to allow outdated moralistic assumptions to creep back into the study of children and sexuality. The notion that somehow the sexualisation of children is in some way responsible for an increase in sexual exploitation of children is handily debunked by Howitt's study for the British Journal of Medical Psychology, which found that culturally-generated visual imagery barely played a role in the appetite or motivation of paedophiles: it seems more that abuse rather than exposure to imagery was the significant factor in all cases surveyed by Howitt, who concludes that "in no case did exposure to pornography precede offending-related behaviour in childhood" and that "all of the offenders had experienced childhood sexual abuse, whether by adults or older peers" (1995, 27). This last issue reminds us of an additional wrinkle to the portrait of corruptible childhood innocence offered by Devine, namely the noteworthy lack of innocence in plenty of children available for survey. Okami (1992) notes the conceptual difficulty this seems to have played with numerous scientists researching the issue, who fail to address the fact that to a certain degree our policing of the sexuality of young persons has created a new "deviant" category of the young person who acts as "perpetrator" of "sexual abuse": Okami observes that "many of the behaviors implicitly defined as deviant in the literature on 'child perpetrators' may instead more properly warrant the label species-typical" (115). But this is in keeping with the larger conceptual problems that are identified by Kincaid (1998) as clouding the issue of childhood sexualisation altogether, and rendering it as a "gothic" narrative conducted in public: Kincaid notes the ubiquity of cultural narratives in which the child is imagined to be at risk of abduction or rape by a total stranger, then contrasts the relatively miniscule percentage of children abducted by total strangers to the overwhelming preponderance of recorded abuse cases having taken place at the hands of close family. We do not culturally behave as though the child has more to fear from his or her own parents than from a slavering paedophile leaping out from behind the shrubbery, although Kincaid demonstrates that statistically this is the case. Rich (2005) by contrast notes the propensity of misdiagnosing as inappropriately sexual behavior material which has merely been assimilated through media consumption, which is growing among children at an astonishing rate. But Rich concludes, as I think we must, by suggesting that really the research correlates an overall trend:
However, there are only 6 published research reports on the associations between media exposure and attitudes toward or beliefs about sex and only 7 more that investigated relationships between media use and sexual activity. Although their outcome measures differed widely, their findings are generally consistent: greater exposure to sexual content in media is associated with more permissive attitudes toward sexual activity, higher estimates of the sexual experience and activity of peers, and more and earlier sexual behavior among adolescents. (Rich 2005, 560)…