Let evidence be your guide

March 17, 2011

Responses to the Bailey Review on the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood led by Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers' Union, are due this week.

The report promises to address parents' concerns about the pressures on children to grow up too quickly. It follows a spate of reports in the US, Australia and the UK concerned with childhood "sexualisation", especially in relation to girls.

These reports have been widely criticised by academics for their tendency to focus on simplistic ideas about "innocence" and "harm", for viewing sex and media culture as inherently dangerous for young people, and for their inadequate basis in evidence. While asserting the need to protect young people, they present them in negative, polarised ways, casting boys as "naturally" porn-obsessed and/or sexual aggressors, and girls as "pornified" victims.

Their proposed solutions are often conservative, emphasising parental control, in particular policing the dress and behaviour of girls.

They ignore extensive academic work that takes an analytical approach to studying media culture, commerce and sexuality, as well as research that listens to young people. Such work considers how social norms and cultural practices have changed over time and how media technologies have developed. As a result, this research presents a more nuanced picture of young people's lives and shows them as active and critical participants in the world.

We regard this kind of research as the starting point for further discussion, so it is disappointing to see that this "review of reviews" appears to take a step back from this approach. We are concerned that the Bailey Review assumes that there is widespread concern among parents and young people about sexualisation, although in fact there is very little evidence of this.

The review also accepts the "obvious" nature of sexualisation, although this is far from obvious. It needs to ensure that its team has the knowledge, background and skills needed to adequately critique the evidence.

The review claims to be independent and wide-ranging, but it has neither revealed who is on its team nor what has happened since it commenced in December. This process needs to be made transparent.

In addition, the review has involved young people only marginally and has not clarified what methodology is being used; this is absolutely crucial to avoid setting the agenda. It also focuses entirely on complaints and concerns, with no acknowledgement of the very positive role that the media play in young people's lives.

We therefore urge the Bailey Review to commit to an approach to the study of sexualisation and commercialisation that prioritises evidence and the rights and well-being of young people.

Feona Attwood, Sheffield Hallam University; Eric Anderson, University of Winchester; Clare Bale, University of Sheffield; Martin Barker, Aberystwyth University; Meg Barker, The Open University; Petra Boynton, University College London; Debbie Epstein, Cardiff University; Mark McCormack, Brunel University; Iain Morland, Cardiff University; Julian Petley, Brunel University; Emma Renold, Cardiff University; Jessica Ringrose, Institute of Education; Lynne Segal, Birkbeck, University of London; Clarissa Smith, University of Sunderland; Liesbet van Zoonen, Loughborough University

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