Minjue Wu. Originally published in the HIR Winter 2019 Issue.
Two centuries ago, child sexualization and pedophilia made an appearance in mass media via black humor. While the erotic and satirical novel Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage was written in 1781 and set in remote medieval French castles, its concerns about childhood sexualization are still very relevant today thanks to consumerism and technological globalization worldwide.
The Developed World
First World countries only became concerned in the past two decades that exposure to sexualized images and media, separate from reports of pedophilia, may harm children. Instrumental to this paradigm shift is a widespread recognition of how “sexualization” is distinct from “sexual abuse.” While the occurrence of the latter can certainly perpetuate and normalize the former, sexualization as defined by the American Psychological Association is “the inappropriate imposition of sexuality… through objectification, overvaluing or emphasizing appearance and/or sexual behavior,” regardless of the presence of physical sexual assault. As the number of sexual incidents involving children grew alongside popularized sexual imagery, the quiet taboo against voicing detrimental effects of sexualization began to melt under the burning scrutiny of researchers, feminists, and politicians.
Sexualization has expanded beyond a simplistic view of precociousness. As described in the Economist, the two forms of sexualization are both “direct” and “indirect.” The former encompasses advertisements and programming that target and sell commodities to children, particularly girls. Such items include Bratz Baby Dolls, which target six-year-olds with fishnet stocking and miniskirts, and padded bras on bikinis sold for seven-year-olds, raising national controversy on the dangers of encouraging females to portray their identities using sexual items from a young age. One nation that exemplifies this phenomenon is Japan, where the national commercialization of the “Lolita complex” has earned its own abbreviation: Rorikon. On the streets of Tokyo, plastic models of prepubescent girls hang open-bloused from price-tagged windows, while their uniform-clad real-life counterparts sell their time to men in “JK,” or “schoolgirl” cafes. Although child pornography was banned in 2014, soft porn known as “Chaku Ero” featuring children is permitted as free speech as long as the children in question do not display naked genitals, chest, or buttocks.
The indirect form of sexualization is more subtle and harder to quantify. There is an under-the-radar fear that the globalization of technology enables children to access pornographic content. Children and teenagers are the biggest consumers of online media today, and in some countries such as the United Kingdom, over half of the teenage population has encountered pornography on the web. The increase in media sexualization is also coupled with a reversal in the roles of victims and perpetrators; children find themselves on both sides of the spectrum, often at the hands of their peers.
Social Harms and Causes of Sexualization
It is difficult to pin down the direct damage sexualization inflicts. On one hand, statistics of risky behavior such as teenage pregnancy and early loss of virginity are falling. Gender and childhood sexuality researcher Deevia Bhana reconciles these observations by attributing backlash to sexualization to a societal fear of children deviating from morally proper behavior—a conclusion supported by a Scottish Executive report released in 2010. Although research conclusively linking sexual content exposure to harm is limited due to restrictions on conducting experiments with young subjects, there is solid evidence for mental health harm caused by early sexualization.
Laura Vandenbosch of the Leuven School of Mass Communication discovered that boys develop strong expectations of appearance and obligatory social behavior based on perceived expectations of the male sex drive in and out of the bedroom. For girls, the impact is often more severe. Their self-esteem is drastically lowered when they feel validated only by expressing themselves through sexualized means. The mixture of these two increasingly under-informed and confused groups often result in devastating interactions. According to the United Kingdom’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), cases of child-on-child sexual abuse have risen to a third of all child sexual abuse cases in the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, Internet-initiated sexual assaults among U.S. adolescents have increased over the past twelve years with the phenomenon of “sexting.” Teenagers, armed with new ideas from watching sexually explicit materials but ill-equipped with a definition of consent, find themselves behind bars and printed in sex-offender registers for clicking “send” on explicit photographs. For the victims, there is often the long-term consequence of traumatization and repressed guilt over the liability of the perpetrator’s actions. As the line between sexual desire and shameful social repercussions blend, children become increasingly conflicted as to their own agency in sexual actions and how to draw the line between their own values without the backdrop of sexualization.
Efforts to Combat Media Sexualization
In 2011, the Bailey Review—known as “Letting Children Be Children”—led to the United Kingdom’s administrative crackdown on commercialization and sexualization of children. The report, which was compiled by Reg Bailey, the Chief Executive of the Mothers' Union, laid out several themes that emerged after interviewing a wide scale of individuals as well as businesses and organizations. The Christian pro-family charity laid out its mission to make society “more family-friendly” by demanding four pillars of immediate regulation: 1) the "wallpaper" of children's lives, banning sexualized images in public spaces; 2) clothing, products, and services for children: penalizing retailers and marketers from advertising inappropriate images or logos for children; 3) children as consumers: establishing laws protecting the right of children to sue companies using explicit messages to entice buyers; and 4) making parents' voices heard: expediting process of parents voicing concerns to regulators and businesses.
Despite increased top-down regulation of sexualization, governmental efforts still do not quite reach the public to the extent necessary for fostering healthy development. Besides the time lag to implement and execute new initiatives, there is still the question of whether the children themselves are armed with knowledge to prepare for exposure to a world not quite ready to support their development. Sex education systems are severely lacking in extremely conservative or religious countries, such as Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. Even in the United States, lobbyists from Abstinence Clearinghouse protest against sexual education because they fear acknowledging the concept of sex will encourage children to partake in the act. The concept that children’s “purity” is only possible when the children are deprived of tools necessary to inform and protect themselves from sexual actions is increasingly unworkable in a day and age when the economic and political systems are unable—or unwilling—to stop exposing children to being assaulted by sexual content in media.
Perhaps the best model, therefore, is practiced in countries where the focus is on informed, positivity-primed sexual education. In countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, sexual education is not restricted to the abstinence-based or pitfall-prone attitude of its counterparts in North America. Tellingly, there has been no “premature-sexualization panics” observed in other Western countries. Rather, the emphasis is placed on preparation for a healthy and fulfilling sex life in addition to the usual precautions against sexually transmitted diseases. They start young too: the Dutch begin a “spring fever week” crash course on reproduction in kindergarten, while Norway’s “Puberteten” explicit sex education series targets 8 to 12-year-olds. Of course, the education system is not the sole bearer of this higher standard. The Swedish administration takes an active role in enforcing a healthy information pool for its young audience by banning broadcasts aimed at pre-teens. The combination of government initiatives, bottom-up educational initiatives, and positive changes in cultural attitudes may be the only hope for practicing any meaningful shift toward de-sexualization for our future youth.