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Our culture makes a sexual fetish of youth, innocence and beauty

SOME months ago, the Barbican held an exhibition of work entitled Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. The exhibition was strictly 18s and over. Even though Kate Bush, the head of the art galleries at the Barbican, promised a "no-holds barred" exhibition, she did add, "Auto-eroticism and fetishism are in. Paedophilia and violent imagery are most definitely out."

And then she spoke of a Picasso which they hoped to show (Scene Erotique) which depicted "a man and a boy 'engaged' with each other". Which makes one wonder where the line between accepted sexual activity and paedophilia begins and ends.

I got to thinking about the history of sexuality last week when I watched a programme on BBC 2 presented by clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron.

Part of the Am I Normal? series, Byron's programme investigated the sexual practices of certain "challenging" persons who indulged in acts which some may feel are abnormal or inappropriate.

First up was a middle-aged gay man, Tim Fountain, who boasted of having had at least 5,000 sexual encounters. He managed to notch up this astonishing number by spending pretty much all his free time 'cottaging'.

Cottaging, for those of you who have never heard of George Michael, involves having homosexual sex with a stranger, usually in a public toilet. It's an activity that has been practised for centuries, from the bathhouses of the Romans to the bathrooms of Waterloo train station.

Tim Fountain was particularly diligent in his activities, happily declaring himself a 'sex-addict', while Dr Byron seemed more interested in the fact that he had had his first cottaging experience (not initiated by him) at the relatively tender age of 14.

But is this behaviour normal, asks Byron.

To be honest, I didn't really care one way or the other as long as neither Fountain nor his squillions of partners tried their tricks in my front garden.

Ditto with Byron's next guest, Nick Molloy, a man who loved to go 'dogging'. 'Dogging' is very much like cottaging, except it's usually done in parked cars by heterosexuals with others watching from outside.

It seems to be very popular in Ireland if the websites dedicated to it are anything to go by. (And different forms of 'sex-watching' have been popular here since before the Celts arrived.) I didn't think an excuse was needed for what seems to be a relatively popular practice of sexual exhibitionism, but Nick blamed his mammy anyway, sniffing that she had prevented him from becoming a professional sportsman. He's now a professional stripper. Bless.

I nearly switched off the television at this point. Some gay men like to have a lot of sex; some heterosexuals get off on others watching them having sex. It may or may not be what we call 'normal' but what harm are these people doing? Who and what were they challenging?

But then Byron travelled to America to interview the mother of a 10-year-old beauty queen and the programme suddenly took on a far more interesting, albeit sinister, tone.

Most parents today are very aware of the increasing pressure which advertisers and marketeers put on girls to adopt a 'sexy' persona from a very young age.

T-shirts with 'Porn star in training' or 'Little bitch' written on them, padded bras, G-strings and pole-dancing kits are just some of the items aimed at the under-10 female market these days.

Just recently, Disney tween icon Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) caused uproar when Annie Leibovitz shot a very sensual photo for Vanity Fair of Cyrus posing naked with just a satin sheet draped across her. Leibovitz is quoted as saying she is "sorry that my portrait of Miley has been misinterpreted".

Misinterpreted? It's a classic sultry, seductive come-to-bed shot -- unfortunately of a 15-year-old beauty who is an idol to millions of under-12s.

The 10-year-old beauty queen whom Byron spoke to showed her how she "flirted with the judges" and practised her coquettish "smiles" in front of her mirror. Her mother is hugely approving of her little darling's behaviour, seeing no apparent wrong in encouraging a pre-pubescent child to behave like a sexually knowing woman.

Watching a small girl, heavily caked in make-up, strutting down a catwalk, fluttering her eyelashes at the judges, is mildly unnerving, but Byron's next guest made my stomach churn. Lindsey Ashford is a self-confessed paedophile who believes that oral sex between grown men and seven-year-old girls should be legalised. He is adamant that he does not act on his sexual desires as they are illegal, but until recently he ran a website devoted to abolishing the age of sexual consent and containing content for young girls which Byron described as "grooming".

I found Ashford terrifying, principally because he seemed so normal outwardly and yet was convinced that he was entitled to have a sexual relationship with a seven-year-old girl as long as he didn't coerce her in any way.

In many of today's western societies all manner of sexual activity is acceptable, but paedophilia -- rightly -- remains a taboo. Consenting adults should be free to perform whatever manner of fetish they enjoy privately, but society agrees that children should be protected from adults who wish to engage in sexual activity with them.

As I mentioned earlier, even though Kate Bush from the Barbican explicitly said that the show on art and sex would be "no-holds barred", she was adamant that paedophilia would not be included. The notion of engaging a child in any type of sexual relationship is anathema and unacceptable to most adults.

Which is why I don't understand parents who encourage their pre-teen daughters to dress up as sex objects and strut down catwalks.

Recently the Tesco chain got into a whole lot of trouble for selling a cleavage-enhancing padded bra for girls as young as seven. Tesco said it had developed it in consultation with parents!

What kind of responsible adult thinks it's OK for a seven-year-old girl to wear a padded bra?

What sort of parent allows a small girl to wear a T-shirt with 'Porn star in training' written on it? And who on earth would think it's appropriate to purchase a pole-dancing kit for a nine-year-old?

Well, somebody does, otherwise they wouldn't be on sale.

Our culture makes a fetish of youth, innocence and beauty, particularly in women.

Young equals sexy, which is why the surgeon's knife is so popular among women of all ages who can afford it. We spend zillions on anti-ageing creams and expensive dentistry. Twelve-year-old girls are allowed to have breast implants and 10-year-olds parade the streets in belly tops and mini skirts.

Britney Spears made her career as a sexualised schoolgirl; Hannah Montana has now joined the ranks of under-age nymphets.

Is the boundary as solid as we would like to believe between a man like Lindsey Ashford and those who found Britney posing in a school uniform, or Hannah all rumpled and pouting on her bed, sexy? Or is it an unacceptably extreme form of our desire for youth and beauty?

The sexual abuse of children can happen in many ways. Images of sexualised children are becoming increasingly common in advertising and marketing. Images of children posed and dressed as sexy adults are becoming normalised. It's no accident that using children to sell products in this way is called 'corporate paedophilia'. This is an abuse of children and of public morality. It may cause some children to become sexually active far earlier than is good for them and it also sends messages to some men that these children are sexually mature and ready for a relationship.

Unlike Dr Byron, I don't find understanding why some people would engage in the sexual practices of 'cottaging' or 'dogging' particularly challenging. Whatever consenting adults want to do to each other in private (relatively speaking) is their own business. What I do find challenging is trying to protect my small daughter from a corporate world which seems intent on turning her into a seven-year-old Lolita, in a society that seems to think a child dressed -- and acting -- like a hooker is somehow endearing.

Now, that's not normal.