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.