Disservice to young people

June 30, 2011

Earlier this month the government published Letting Children be Children, the report of an independent review led by Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Christian charity Mothers' Union, that aimed to explore the commercialisation and premature sexualisation of young people.

We are a group of experts in this field, including health professionals, psychologists, educators, researchers and therapists. We feel strongly that the review does a disservice to the young people and concerned parents that it claims to speak for, and risks exacerbating the problems it seeks to address.

The review claims to be concerned with parents' views, yet the major concerns that parents raised - body image, celebrity culture and the gender stereotyping of clothes and products - have been played down or dismissed. In contrast, other issues, such as the public display of "lads' mags", which very few expressed concern about, have been made the focus of discussion and recommendation.

The review also does a disservice to parents by not presenting them with existing evidence about commercialisation and sexualisation that shows that young people are generally critical and thoughtful in their responses to the commercial world and in making responsible choices about sex.

The review is in danger of exacerbating the problems it seeks to address by contributing to an environment where it is difficult to speak about sex. We know that when there is poor communication about sex - between parents and young people, among educators and healthcare professionals, and in public debates - there is actually a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and unwanted sex.

The review's presentation of girls as victims and its focus on female modesty is problematic. While it purports to be focused on gender, in fact it concentrates on a limited range of issues affecting girls and has little or nothing to say about boys. By placing the emphasis on regulation and control, the review undermines the necessity for young people to learn through the choices they make and the role of parents in supporting the transition from healthy childhood to adolescence to healthy adult sexuality.

The Bailey Review appears to have learned little from previous work and overlooks existing evidence. The costs of this and preceding reports have not been made transparent, and it is unclear, when there are additional risks to young people related to health, housing, poverty and education, why there has been such a focus on repeated investigations into sexualisation while other services and issues are sidelined.

The social and cultural changes that young people face are a matter of concern for us all, especially in the current economic climate. The Bailey Review has missed the opportunity to address those concerns, to develop policy based on evidence, and to represent the views of parents and young people.

Many professionals, researchers and academics in the UK offered their expertise to support policy development in this area, drawing on evidence and opening up a space for a genuine discussion in which the voices of young people and parents could be heard. Although we find the recommendations of this review problematic, the opening up of this area provides an opportunity to move forward in more positive directions. We hope that the future consultations recommended in the review will take up this expertise.

Feona Attwood, Sheffield Hallam University

Jane Arthurs, University of the West of England

Clare Bale, Clare Bale Consultancy

Meg Barker, The Open University

Martin Barker, Aberystwyth University

Petra Boynton, University College London

Belinda Brooks Gordon, Birkbeck, University of London

Jane Fae, author and sexual rights activist

Roger Ingham, University of Southampton

Alice Hoyle, Sex and Relationship Education advisory teacher

Justin Hancock, Bish Training

Ben Light, University of Salford

Julian Petley, Brunel University

Emma Renold, Cardiff University

Jessica Ringrose, Institute of Education

Rachel Russell, Glasgow Caledonian University

Lynne Segal, Birkbeck, University of London

Daithi Mac Sithigh, University of East Anglia

Steve Slack, Centre for HIV and Sexual Health, Sheffield

Clarissa Smith, University of Sunderland

Rebekah Willett, Institute of Education

Liesbet van Zoonen, Loughborough University

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