The battle against 'sexualisation': what next?

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

So it's just over a week since the publication of the controversial Bailey Review, the independent review carried out in an attempt to address that buzzword of our times, 'sexualisation' - and how it affects children and teens.

The report, carried out by Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mother's Union under the banner 'Letting Children Be Children', has issued a series of recommendations to businesses, advertisers and the media after finding that some parents are concerned about the way their children are exposed to 'inappropriate' messages and 'sexualised' imagery.

It comes after many months of discussion surrounding the concept of 'sexualisation', and the effect it may be having on young people, but how much of an impact is it going to have - and how useful are its findings?

One of the issues I've had with the outcry against 'sexualisation' is that a lot of it seems to be about expressing shock and disgust at high heels for little girls, or Rihanna's dance moves on primetime television, or Bratz dolls - but that's as far as it gets.

Every few days you'll come across an 'Ooh, isn't this awful! Think of the children!' story in a tabloid newspaper, or a programme like Channel 4's Stop Pimping Our Kids will feature a presenter showing passers-by on the street miniature miniskirts or thongs. The passers-by will look shocked, talk about how they wouldn't want their daughters wearing clothes like that and the presenter will nod triumphantly.

But what has it actually achieved? Very little, so far. What I see is a lot of people very happy to moralise about the state of the world today but far fewer people showing an interest in the issues behind the problems they see.

In the days following the report's publication I read some really insightful blog posts and articles from people talking about looking past 'sexualisation' - this word which is fast becoming meaningless - and at the expectations surrounding sex and relationships, commercialisation and obsession with money which is fueling the issues detailed in the Bailey Review.

"The problem is not the sexualisation of childhood, but the commercialisation of sexuality," wrote Symon Hill for Ekklesia.

Suzanne Moore, writing in the Guardian, accused the review of telling us nothing we already knew and providing no evidence to back up its claims.

"What is needed then is not some weird repression of sexuality or of young people, but of a rapacious capitalism that commodifies every desire and yes, will sell sex to children," she said.

There's also been criticism of the snobbery implicit in the furore, with some commenting that the government are only taking steps to placate middle-class parents and care little about anyone else.

My major problem with those clutching at their pearls about 'sexualisation' is that they often offer little in the way of criticism of what our culture expects of women in general.

They get upset at children being sold padded bras and heels or wanting to be 'sexy', but say nothing of the fact this is pretty much expected of adult women - the role models girls emulate. They talk of little girls looking and acting like 'tarts' and 'sluts' without a second thought at what that says about sexism in our society and gender stereotyping.

As Holly Dustin said, also in the Guardian, our culture:

"...reinforces stereotypes of women and girls as sexual objects who are sexually available to men and boys and sends strong messages about what it means to be a man or a woman."

The Bailey Review has recommended such solutions as getting retailers to sign up to a code of practice stating they will not sell 'inappropriate' clothes, covering up sexualised images on magazines and restricting the types of advertising which can be displayed near schools and playgrounds.

But these are recommendations and voluntary measures rather than new laws. One newspaper report last week suggested that the media industry is taking a 'relaxed' view of the review and that there is relief that measures will not be enforced.

There's been talk of tighter controls on what gets shown on television early in the evening, but all in all the media has reverted back to the usual outrage about children's beauty parlours and pole dancing classes for three-year-olds.

All at the same time, of course, as running the usual dearth of stories about celebrity starlets, models and hot royals 'showing off' their 'stunning' legs/curves/bikini bodies and posing for 'steamy' photoshoots. On the front pages of their newspapers or with large photos on their websites.

Want a comprehensive unpacking and discussion of the issues surrounding the Bailey Review and 'sexualisation', without the media spin? Sex educator Dr Petra Boynton has done a great job over at her blog.

Post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via natalialove's Flickr.

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