Thursday 19 September 2019

Sexualisation of our children has opened a gateway to exploitation

The portrayal of young girls as sexy seductresses only helps men like Tom Humphries, writes Joanna Fortune

Jailed: Tom Humphries. Photo: Collins
Jailed: Tom Humphries. Photo: Collins

Can a society that sexualises teen girls ever empathise with them as victims of sexual abuse?

I found myself reflecting a lot on this question as commentary broke following the leniency of Tom Humphries' sentence.

Comments about what an upstanding member of society and talented writer he was, followed by remarks that this was more of an 'inappropriate relationship' than abuse, diluted the reality that this was the sexual exploitation of an innocent child by a clever, manipulative perpetrator hiding in plain sight among those now struggling to reconcile his paedophilia with the man they thought they knew.

Eamon Dunphy summed up this juxtaposition in his comments at the time.

"It was not about grooming. It was more a question, I was told, of under-age sex - which is of course serious, but he had been a colleague of mine and I went to see him and brought him a book."

In such remarks we see how difficult it is to see someone for who they really are, when we have created a truth about them over years of knowing them. People who groom children are very good at what they do and don't just groom the child but also friends, family, colleagues and in this case, society.

This enables them to build emotional connections with the victim and others, which affords them a trust-based relationship - their gateway to sexually exploit the child.

Groomers make not only their victims feel complicit in their abuse but broader society too, as we struggle to understand how we failed to see it.

But why is it that we often struggle to see a teenage girl as a victim in these scenarios? Narrative can quickly shift to it being consensual albeit inappropriate - and away from it being the abuse it was.

Popular culture has long since portrayed girls as sophisticated seductresses. This dangerous stereotype is perpetuated with things such as 'sexy schoolgirl' outfits - indeed in the current Halloween season we see how most costumes marketed at teens and women are "sexy".

Think back to the photo editorial in French Vogue (2010) that saw little girls made up to look like femmes fatales. Consider also the sexualised clothing marketed at young girls, including bikinis, thong underwear and T-shirts with highly-suggestive messages on them. Pageants for children encourage makeup, clothing and rituals that really belong to adults.

It is also true that a sizeable amount of easily accessible pornography portrays young women as adolescent and under-age. This all serves to inappropriately impose sexuality on to children.

Of course, all of this makes us worry that girls will grow to see themselves as sex objects, but it should also cause us concern as to what effect the sexualisation of girls has on society in general. Do these sexualised images of young girls change how we view them? There is a scarcity of research in this area to provide a conclusive answer, but anecdotally it would seem that it does. It also seems that certain kinds of sexual imagery - and this has been the subject of research - can make ordinary people form unconscious links between children and sex.

Other research worth considering is a 2006 study by the American Psychological Association, which found a variety of media outlets are far more likely to sexualise women and girls than men and boys. It further found that how adult women are objectified and portrayed in the media directly influences how girls begin to model their behaviour and understanding of themselves.

This research also highlights the impact society's sexualisation of girls has on their broader development. I'm suggesting it can also result in us confusing child sexual exploitation with "under-age sex", as we can view the sexualised adolescent girl as a willing participant in a sexual encounter, rather than that an adult sexual predator preyed on a vulnerable, still developing girl who had no power or say in the perpetrator's agenda.

If I was to offer some advice in response to all this it would be for us to invest in, and protect, the emotional life of our children. Allow them to be children - and reject in the strongest terms the sexualisation of childhood and, in particular, girlhood.

Above all, place the burden of responsibility and accountability firmly where it belongs - with the adult perpetrator - because the child has done nothing wrong in these situations.

  • Joanna Fortune is a child and adolescent psychotherapist who has worked extensively with victims of grooming

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