Can we 'sex-proof' our children?
We are drifting, unthinkingly, towards an increasingly sexualised society but parents have the power to say stop. If you're not willing to take action then don't complain
Published 24/10/2011 | 05:00
It's a simple, tight, white t-shirt and the model is really good looking. The slogan across her chest proclaims 'hot as fcuk'. Another ad from the same manufacturer shows a different figure-hugging t-shirt with the slogan 'possibly . . . the best fcuk ever'.
Just clever advertising or a good example of how sexualised our world has become?
The world being a sexualised place is not necessarily a bad thing. As long as we have the coping mechanisms in place to make sense of what we see and hear then we'll be ok.
As long as we can still make independent choices, free from undue influence, then a sexualised culture is merely a backdrop, or a scene rather than an actor creating the drama.
The trouble is that children don't have the same coping mechanisms or intellectual sophistication to filter the sexual messages that exude through our culture.
Not only are they exposed to sexual themes, they are also targeted by some manufacturers, advertisers and media outlets to become sexualised in their own dress and expression.
Recently I asked for opinions about the sexualisation of children on my Facebook page and the range of replies I got (exclusively from mums) was instructive.
One mum commented: "Many people complain about the sexualisation of children but many parents seem to be afraid to take control of their children's TV viewing.
"I have two boys and one girl and am particularly anxious that my daughter (aged seven) does not get the impression that her worth as a person is related to how she looks or how 'sexy' she can be."
There is no doubt that our culture and our society has become more sexualised.
We need only to think about the content of most music videos to see sexual themes paraded for our consumption.
There has been a rise in so-called 'porno chic' in advertising. There are innumerable sexualised representations of women in the media. There is clothing and accessories, for adults and children, that promote sexual themes, from t-shirts with suggestive slogans to the playboy bunny logo.
Recently shag bands, to signal availability for particular sexual acts, were hugely popular amongst teenagers and younger children, who may or may not have been aware of the significance of the coloured wrist-band they were wearing.
So sex is everywhere. Our culture has become more commercialised and since sex sells, sexualised themes are widely used in all forms of commercialism.
In the face of such an onslaught it is no wonder that we feel at a loss to know how to protect our children from experiencing too much, too soon.
Over in the UK, the British Prime Minister David Cameron recently hosted a summit with the children's minister and industry representatives to examine ways to limit children's exposure to sexually suggestive advertising, TV programmes and other services.
"There is a growing tide of concern up and down the country among parents who, like me, are concerned about our children being exposed to inappropriate advertising and sexual imagery and growing up too early," Cameron said at the summit.
At the same time he launched a new website, ParentPort, aimed at facilitating parents to understand the standards expected of the media and to make it easier for parents to report inappropriate material.
This website is an initiative that is a direct offshoot of recommendations from a report commissioned by Cameron into the nature of the sexualisation of children in today's culture and the best ways to tackle it.
That report, compiled by the Mothers' Union CEO Reg Bailey, concluded that there seems only to be a choice to either de-sexualise the culture through heavy regulation or let the culture become as sexualised as the market will allow and simply equip children with the skills and understanding to cope.
In Bailey's opinion the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
His view was that we, as a society, need to put some brakes on an unthinking drift toward increasing commercialisation and sexualisation, while also giving children help to understand and resist the potential harms they face.
One of the difficulties is that we are not even sure what those potential harms are.
We mostly have a feeling that it can't be good for children to be exposed to lots of sexual imagery and themes but research into this area isn't conclusive about what the impact of that exposure actually is.
One agreed line of research does suggest that being exposed to media that sexualises girls and women is linked with greater acceptance of stereotyped and sexist notions about gender and sexual roles, including notions of women as sexual objects.
It is tempting, therefore, to blame the media and the big commercial interests for dehumanising women by promoting them as little more than sexual objects.
What is more difficult, however, is to accept that media, manufacturers and advertisers are primarily responding to what people seem to want.
In the main, industry and media are responsive to consumers. If people don't want to consume what is being offered then the marketers won't be able to sell. So, in fact, it is us families who, as the consumers of media and products, add to what is marketed to children.
That means that we adults need to take responsibility for determining what children are allowed to consume. This was the point made by another of the mums who responded to me on Facebook.
"I always wonder where is the early sexualisation coming from?
"From the crap that is on the telly, in ads, in magazines, the celebrities, the current music industry and the way it's promoted have a lot to answer for.
"But then if nobody watched those programmes, if nobody bought those magazines; you can see where I am going with this. And also I wonder where is the parental supervision and responsibility when it comes to all this.
"Padded bras for young children wouldn't be on offer if nobody bought them."
I think that mum is right and I believe the role of parents in mediating, translating and filtering the information received by children is central.
We need to have a clear sense of our own values and moral viewpoints in deciding what we are happy to buy for our children and what we are happy to let them watch and read.
"I find the TV a major factor with this topic, as a result the parental control on my TV is in full use. Once I filtered out the stations showing 'attitude, innuendo and inappropriate behaviour' I saw a dramatic change in my six-year-old and these programmes are aimed at that age. I haven't had a 'Whatever, loser!' in a while," described another mum to me.
So it is possible to make the changes that allow us to take more charge of what our children witness.
This is not about keeping them entirely naïve, rather it is about making choices about what they will be exposed to and when.
Choosing to limit their exposure to certain TV programmes or to certain sites on the internet seems to me to be wise parenting.
It is always easier to loosen-up our control of children's behaviour after it has been restricted than to try to restrict it when it has been very loose.
Practically, of course, it is not possible to bubble-wrap our children and protect them from every image, every comment and every product that might be sexual.
It isn't even healthy to try to be that controlling.
In the real world our children will still see advertising billboards, like the recent crisp adverts with attractive girls wearing skimpy sports attire and accompanied by suggestive bylines.
They will still listen to music and watch the videos. They will still, perhaps, see TV programmes or sites on the internet in friends' houses.
So our job is then to help them make sense of what they are seeing and hearing. We need to contextualise these images and utterances, according to our beliefs and our understanding about what is good and bad, right and wrong.
Sometimes we may forget that children are sexual beings from birth.
The trouble is that we don't expect them to express that sexuality until their teenage years.
There is a reason that we call the ages from six to 12 years the latency period for children; we expect and have become accustomed to their sexual drives and urges being largely hidden and unexpressed at this time.
Part of the concern of most parents is that the increasingly sexual nature of society might lead children to early expression of their sexuality. We do want to try to protect some of their innocence and we assume that a sexualised culture will corrupt them and lead them to grow up too soon.
Physiologically, though, children are growing up sooner, whether we like it or not. Since industrialisation, for example, the age at which periods first happen for girls and puberty begins has generally decreased.
Even though children are coming into their physical sexual maturity earlier, it is not a guarantee that their emotional sexual maturity will keep pace. Indeed, a highly sexually charged culture, mixed with an early dose of hormones, could leave many children struggling to understand and regulate their own sexual feelings and behaviour.
Again, then, we have a role and a responsibility to discuss the complexity of human sexual desire, human sexual development and human sexual behaviour and to put it in a context of what we believe about relationships. If we need to do that sooner and younger then so be it.
Beyond simply trying to 'sex-proof' our children, however, we might be as well served by trying to be more proactive in influencing what comes their way in the first place.
We all contribute to society and culture and so at some point we must take charge of the dross that comes our way on screens, in magazines, on the shelves and online. The real difficulty is that it is hard to feel like a lone voice saying "stop, I don't want this for my child."
The key is to feel part of a communal movement toward changing the culture. Then it becomes easier to say 'stop' or 'no' without being ridiculed as a fuddy-duddy who is entirely out of touch.
To create that kind of community, or a counter culture, we parents may need help from broadcasters and businesses to support us in the messages we give children to make the world a bit more family friendly.
We also need to find each other, to know that there is a group of other parents who share common views and common values.
We need to accept individual responsibility for buying the 18-rated video games for a younger child (in which you can drive over prostitutes, for example), for not using parental controls on the TV or the internet, for buying the "fashionable" clothes even against our better judgment and for ensuring our children keep up with the latest technology.
If we can't make changes in our own behaviour there is little point in complaining about society. There is no point in being upset if we don't take action.
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