Leave them kids alone: On sexualisation

A shorter version of this post is available on Liberal Conspiracy

My four year old sister has a pink pair of plastic high heeled shoes. They are not the type of too-big heels that little girls tottered about in years gone by. They fit her little feet perfectly, and she clops about the house in them. She also has a red scooter that she rides along the street, picking up and collecting the elastic bands that postmen drop on their rounds. I ask her why she does these things (wears the heels, collects the bands). Her answer was the same for both. It’s fun. When my sister wears her pink high heels she isn’t vying for the attention of men or boys. She isn’t sexualising herself. Yet when I first saw her teetering about the house in these heels I panicked.  In my grown up mind, a high heel is a shoe designed to make the leg look elongated and sexually appealing. My instinctive protectiveness towards my sister made me want to snatch away the shoes, to dispose of them, to have her running around in trainers again. I didn’t want anyone looking at my sister like a sex object. But upon more thought, I came to the conclusion that the only person sexualising her was me. By assuming she thinks the same about high heels as my adult brain does, I was thinking of her as a being with a comprehensive understanding of sexual consciousness. She isn’t.

At a recent friend’s family get-together, music was playing, and one six year old got into the spirit by imitating the dance moves she had no doubt seen on TV. She was quickly reprimanded by a fellow party goer who told her not to dance like that, ‘because little girls who dance that way grow up to be whores’. She didn’t understand why she was being told off, and started to cry.

And yesterday on Question Time, Germaine Greer saw fit to brand little girls in sequined Jordan-pink jeans ‘tarts’.

Over the past week, lots of concerned adults have seen fit to speak on behalf of children, caught up in the grasping fear that they are all being sexualised beyond anyone’s control. Amidst all of the arm flailing, hand wringing concerns over the sexualisation of children, there has been some blind confusion about exactly who or what is sexualising them.  Reg Bailey, author of the Department for Education’s review into the issue entitled ‘Letting Children be Children‘, is baffled. In his analysis of this increasingly sexualised society, he finds it hard to pin down any cause, admitting ‘it is far from clear how we arrived at this point’.

Predictably, his much anticipated report was ultimately meaningless, based on emotional unease instead of quantifiable evidence, without even a distinct definition of sexualisation in the first place.  It’s almost depressingly comical to watch commentators and journalists alike repeatedly stumble over and miss the root of this dilemma.

The perspective of this sexualisation is almost philosophical. Many news reports cite worried parents lamenting the loss of their children’s innocence, but I think it’s worth asking- lost innocence in who’s eyes?

Children are not sexualising themselves. Adults are sexualising them by projecting adult morality on to them. More often than not, that adult sexual morality is entrenched in sexist ideals. The sexist ideals floated to the surface when that six year old girl was warned she would grow up into a whore if she continued to dance provocatively. Sexist ideals dictate to us that the way a woman or girl dances must reflect how much sex she has had, or wants. Sexism tells us that women don’t just dance for dancing’s sake- like every other female action and endeavour; it’s orchestrated for the benefit of men. Because after all, isn’t that why we function?

What happens when you project your patriarchal adult moral ideals on to pre-pubescent bodies? The judging starts.  Suddenly little girls are called whores, tarts, sluts.

This sexualisation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and is indicative of the wider problem of objectification of women’s bodies.  Is it any wonder that these toxic gender roles are filtering down to kids?

They imitate their idols and we shame and punish them for it. The female idols in question are often regarded with disgust for balancing on the knife edge between daring to announce publicly that they have sexual feelings, and exploiting their sexual imagery. Morality crusaders are quick to let us know that sex is all around us, and that sex sells. But that’s a lie. It’s not sex all around us, but the objectification and consequent marginalisation of women’s bodies, commodified into accessory status. But for some strange reason, nobody wants to talk about that. It’s too much of a stretch of the imagination to challenge patriarchy. It’s easier to wail about this sexualisation of our children, all the while colluding in the myth that all of these sexualising factors are immediately permissible once the girl in question turns eighteen.

Regulation and legislation will not fix this. Equality will. Free women from these narrow, suffocating gender-fascist ideals of appearance and behaviour, and the girls will follow.

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  1. The fundamental point is outlined in your final paragraph. It’s one I completely agree with, and used to criticise the hypocrisy of the banning of “Human Centipede 2”, as well as the introduction of Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. The government tacitly condones the wider issue because it makes good economic sense, but it will happily seize upon a “buzz” issue as a pathetic compensatory gesture if it can.

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  2. Rutendo says:

    @renireni Nice blog, certainly opened my mind to a different perspective. I think you’re right – we need to avoid projecting our own adult hangups about sex onto our children’s behaviour. But I can’t help feeling the point these criticisms miss is that the increased visibility of sexual imagery and clothes is partly if not primarily driven by commercial imperatives. As a parent I want to be able to manage and guide my daughter’s introduction into this aspect of her development, and the increased availability of sex on the high street and the TV screen erodes my opportunity to do that.

    Reg Bailey’s report does identify that parents misgivings on sexualisation of children is partly based on a sense of loss of control over this aspect of their children’s growth, not purely on a general sense of moral panic, so I that’s a bit unfair.

    To put it another way, to ensure that the next generation includes sexuality as a part of the gender quality agenda (as well as jobs and education and abuse), they first have to understand what sex is and it’s role as a key human interaction. Today this is increasingly presented to them without this context and from the prisms of faceless corporations with clear profit-driven agendas, which clearly undermines that goal.

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  3. Rutendo,

    I agree! How do we go about it though? Obviously gender equality is the long term goal- targeting big business rather than little children perhaps?

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  4. Rutendo says:

    Yes indeed – undercutting the profit motive with legislation will help even the playing field. And having parents with the courage and common sense to take ownership of and address sexuality directly with their children is key – no vacuum. But of course, the medium that we’re communicating by right now is the joker in the pack. The person who invents a foolproof parental blocker will become a rich person indeed.

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