Over the last week or so I’ve read several articles on the sexualisation of children and teenagers in the press. Most of it appears to have been driven by comments made by two MPs; Claire Perry and Diane Abbott. Mrs Perry in her new role as David Cameron’s adviser on the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood made the headlines by suggesting that Parents should insist on seeing their children’s texts and internet exchanges to check on what they’ve been up to. Ms Abbott has been talking about the need for a revolution in sex education in order to tackle the problem of sexual bullying. Their remarks have led to articles suggesting that they are in a battle to become the next Mary Whitehouse.
This comparison feels a bit harsh. Although it was before my time, Mary Whitehouse’s crusading to maintain standards of decency in the media and public life always gave the impression of being out of touch with public opinion and trying to cling on to a form of society that no longer existed. In comparison both Claire Perry and Diane Abbott are talking about issues that the majority of people agree are a problem and need addressing in some way. The pornification of British culture is a reality that we’re all aware of. Children are being exposed to sex in a way that no previous generation has. With the advances in technology, sexually explicit imagery is easily available for teenagers and the phenomena of sexting is now common in our schools. At the same time it is becoming harder for parents to keep track of what their children are seeing and sharing through their mobile devices.
It is very encouraging to see MPs from both sides of the political divide speaking up and calling for action to see our children protected. They do indeed need protecting, but there is a clear acknowledgment that we can’t go back to how things were with the availability of pornographic images largely limited to the top shelf in newsagents. Technology moves on and we have to adapt to the challenges presented. With this in mind, calls for a crackdown on raunchy music videos and children’s access to ‘lads’ mags’ along with labelling of airbrushed celebrity pictures as proposed by Perry is going to make very little impact. On the other hand, getting the internet providers to enable tighter settings at home to limit porn on the internet will be of benefit especially for younger children. Once they get to the point where boys in particular are seeking to find it, the task becomes much more challenging. We can see that control of technology is never going to be the full solution.
Most of us instinctively know that it’s not beneficial for children to be exposed to the world of sex, which is why children’s Playboy clothing and stationery is so inappropriate. Yet most adults even if they are parents have little idea of the way sex has permeated the lives of young people and the effect it is having on their relationships. Cole Moreton’s article in the Telegraph yesterday brings the reality of the situation to life in a way that will leave many parents nervous. The whole article is worth reading. Here is just part of it:
‘I read a report by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which suggests [pornification] is very bad indeed. Researchers who carried out an in-depth study of the lives of pupils at two London schools in 2010 say that year eight was when they began to feel confused and overwhelmed by sexual expectations and demands.
‘Claire, who must be 12 or 13, is quoted as saying of the boys in her class: “If they want oral sex, they will ask every single day until you say yes.”
‘Kamal, a boy in the same year, says: “Say I got a girlfriend, I would ask her to write my name on her breast and then send it to me and then I would upload it on to Facebook or Bebo or something like that.” The profile picture on his phone, seen by everyone to whom he sends messages, is an image of his girlfriend’s cleavage. Some of the boys at his school have explicit images of up to 30 different girls on their phone. They swap them like we used to swap football cards. If they fancy a girl, they send her a picture of their genitals. As one teenage girl said after the report came out, sending pictures of your body parts is “the new flirting”.
‘What is the cause of all this? We need more research, the experts say. But to a dismayed parent, it seems like the horrific result of a massive experiment. Thanks to the internet, our boys and girls are the first children to grow up
with free, round-the-clock access to hardcore pornography. Porn has become part of the adult mainstream, colouring everything from advertising to best-selling books like Fifty Shades of Grey. Of course our children are affected.
‘The ubiquity of such material has shifted the understanding of what is normal. Three-quarters of teachers surveyed for the TES last year said they believed access to porn was having a “damaging effect” on pupils. One said girls were dressing like “inflatable plastic dolls” while another said some pupils “couldn’t get to sleep without watching porn”.
‘However, there is also disturbing evidence that hardcore pornography has become so commonplace that some children see it as “mundane”. The pioneering NSPCC study in 2010 found that watching professional porn was seen by boys as a sign of desperation. They would rather watch – and circulate – home-made porn shots on phones with girls they knew.’
This doesn’t make for easy reading, but it’s also important to note that only an estimated 15-40% of school students are familiar with sexting. The question of how these behaviours need to be addressed still needs to be asked, especially if controlling technology has a limited impact. The answer it would seem is education. Put very simply, boys need to be taught to respect girls and not treat them as sexual objects. Girls need to have the confidence to resist pressure they may face to perform in some way and both sexes need to understand the emotional consequences of sexual behaviour and exposure to pornography. However, the problem with saying that we need to educate children better to respect themselves and others in a sexual context is that it requires a change of direction that is counter cultural.
The vast majority of messages children hear as they grow up is that sex is fun and if it feels right then that makes it ok. That’s the message that gets promoted again and again through magazines, television, films and music. In schools and secular youth work the message is, ‘Don’t get a sexually transmitted infection and use contraception effectively.’ When Nadine Dorries MP put forward a bill last January to have schools provide abstinence education, it was met by protests outside parliament by secular organisations who didn’t believe this was something that should be promoted in schools.
The only place I’ve seen discussion of the need for young people to respect their bodies and treat sex with care is in the context of Christian youth work. Christians and those of other faiths have often stood apart and warned of the dangers of an overly sexualised society. Initiatives such as the Romance Academy attempt to give young people the tools they need to get through the minefield of sex and relationships in one piece. Orthodox Christian views on sex may still be seen as being out of touch and irrelevant in the way Mary Whitehouse was several decades ago, but as pornification becomes part of our vocabulary and we begin to understand the damage being done to our children through it, it becomes more apparent that in order to address the on-going sexualisation of our culture, sex needs to be seen in a moral context.
Until we are able to teach children about sex from a relational perspective before the physical aspects of it, young people will continue to be let down by the education system. Until the sexualisation of society is addressed in the media, many children will grow up thinking sexting and porn are perfectly acceptable. Until those who advocate that sex is to be valued are listened to with more respect and taken seriously, there will be very little change in young people’s attitudes to being sexually active.
These are big demands, but we’ve come so far down the line in our society’s openness to sex that tinkering at the edges will change very little. The best hope parents have for their children is to give them the education they need at home, teaching them how to value sex, treat others with respect and learn to use technology responsibly. If we rely on schools to do the job, without major changes, we can only hope for limited success.
If Claire Perry and Diane Abbott really want to see change in the culture of our young people, then relying on them to sort themselves out isn’t going to work, especially as it isn’t their fault that we got ourselves into this situation in the first place. Instead might I suggest that the best place to start is to listen to those who have been talking about this the longest and have real alternatives to offer? Mary Whitehouse was a Christian and understood almost prophetically the direction society was heading. Her methods may have drawn ridicule, but she still had the courage to challenge the attitudes of those around her. There’s a good reason why the Church believes that sex is a gift but not one to be messed with. If ever we all needed to listen to that message and talk through its implications, then surely for the sake of all of us and especially our children, that time is now.
Categories: Children & families, Parliament, Sex & pornography
Wow this makes for sobering reading – but it’s a huge issue that us parents ignore at our peril. Thanks for flagging this up. I’ll certainly be looking into it further. I knew that children were much more aware of sexuality at a younger age these days – but I thought I had a good few years before it could become an issue with my kids and their peers. But now it appears preparation and awareness as early as possible is the best route (for parents) – oh yes and an awful lot of prayer!
Chilling reading, Gillan. But should we be surprised? Mary Whitehouse’s campaigning may well have been out of touch with public opinion, but in retrospect perhaps she had the vision to see where all this would lead. The fact that it is now coming out openly in children is a desperate tragedy of our time. It surely reflects a missing generation of parenthood within the moral slide of our society, seemingly embraced by many politicians, which a compromised church seems unable to stand against. If allowed to carry on unchecked, where will it end? Society going downhill is powerful.
Once the camel gets his head inside the tent, it becomes difficult to reverse the process, but any attempts to curb the slide have to be encouraged. None of us should sit back and do nothing, although, like Gillan, I cannot see any quick fix.
I agree that the church should be the place to look to. We need another Wesley.
“Put very simply, boys need to be taught to respect girls and not treat them as sexual objects. Girls need to have the confidence to resist pressure they may face to perform in some way and both sexes need to understand the emotional consequences of sexual behaviour and exposure to pornography.” I totally agree Gillan. Girls also need to understand the message they are sending out via their dress code and attitude. Respect for oneself, girls especially, and the confidence to say out loud to a nuance of a boy to go away and play with his chums..
It’s crucial that parents realise how porn can inadvertently present itself to their children. Most pre-teens don’t go looking for it, but may stumble upon it, as in the case of a friend’s 10 year old son. Google has also replaced dictionaries for young people; an innocent search for sexual words or expletives heard will no longer return a simple explanation but rather is a gateway to porn sites. Even Wikipedia has quite blatant sexual content, should a young person go looking for it.
To block the worst content on the web may I recommend a free service from OpenDNS? Go to OpenDNS.com and find out how to block various types of content (from gambling to porn) via the router – in this way protecting children on all devices/computers in the home. Unlike filters from years ago, which seemed to block unnecessary sites, this service is far better and is a simple solution. However, most of our children’s friends may have unfiltered computers or smartphones with GPS. Awareness is key.
Girls are also becoming increasingly drawn to porn sites, some too embarrassed to admit it. Check out this sobering article here… http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lauren-dubinsky/porn-addiction_b_1686481.html , written by an American young woman. (Although a few years ahead of us in this area, the UK tends to follow American trends)
Thankfully, organisations like ‘evaluate’ (evaluate.org.uk), for whom I volunteer, are working to provide informative sex and relationships presentations in schools which include a number of issues, including the dangers of sexting and the topic of grooming.
Totally right. Pity I can’t have a block I could use on my television for all the gambling and dating [read sex chat line] advertisements that appear far too often for decency.
Let’s have REAL sex education with ALL the facts. No more of this ‘it’s all fun and feels nice, you’re in complete control’ nonsense. Let’s give them the REAL facts – like the frequency of contraceptive failure and the addictive chemicals released in your brain by porn. That having multiple sex partners is not freeing, but dehumanising. The real, hard, facts. ‘Oh, but that would be scaring them’. The truth can be scary sometimes. If our kids are ready for sex, then they’re ready for the truth.
Too right Liz. But sex educators say that this information affects their [the older children or teenagers] sensibilities – as would be showing them photo’s of how genitalia looks when sexually transmitted diseases strike. Trust me no self respecting male or female would want to run the risk if they saw the photo’s. As you say, if the kids are ready for sex – but not all are that participate in sex, fear of being bullied, peer pressure and wanting to be liked or not seen as odd – they are ready for the truth of what can happen and is happening.
It still boils down to respect of one’s body. To understand why we have morals and ethics. To be able to say no without having to give a reason and not to be subjected to coercion.
Thanks for all the valuable comments. Having taught sex education in schools, most students would probably want to know all the gory details and have a chance to talk about it in the context of reality and real relationships. From my experience this unfortunately this doesn’t happen because it’s not part of the curriculum and teachers often don’t feel comfortable delivering this type of content. Getting people in from outside who are specialists in this area and can be open is very beneficial. However it’s done, it could and should be a lot better.
Even if schools do a good job, it still can’t replace the role parents have in educating their children. This is fine if parents are willing to make the effort, but not all are able or willing to give their children the help they need.
It’s a massive issue with no easy answers, but that doesn’t mean we should give up and ignore it.