‘Corruption’ of the innocent

A report on ‘sexualisation’ is part of the latest moral panic and a prime example of the government’s use of academics to pursue its own agenda while claiming to be objective, writes Clarissa Smith

March 20, 2010

This government likes reports that make big claims. Its latest inglorious publication – Sexualisation of Young People – claims to uncover links between sexualisation and violence against women.

The response to the report by Linda Papadopoulos, media psychologist and honorary visiting reader at London Metropolitan University, has been surprisingly muted, but despite that, it is likely to impress: with recommendations for age restrictions on “lads’ mags” and a watershed for music videos, it will be easily assimilated by a moralist and superficially proactive agenda. Its shallow delineation of the issues and easy solutions will translate into initiatives to promote “media literacy” and target young people’s “inappropriate attitudes” for delivery by cash-strapped youth teams. Moreover, the report will become a touchstone for future research, not because it is any good – it isn’t – but because it meets the latest gold standard for research: “impact”.

This review, its intentions, evidence base, conclusions and recommendations are seriously flawed, leaving untouched and unexplained its relevance and importance for the undeniably pressing issue of violence against women. Like the execrable Rapid Evidence Assessment on Extreme Pornography (used to shore up the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008’s illiberal provisions), the review provides evidence that “proves” a case already decided by the commissioning department. It is another instance of the government utilising academics to pursue an agenda while pretending the reverse – that policy is underpinned by independent and objective evidence.

Undoubtedly, Papadopoulos has concerns, citing her own worries as a mother and a professional, and acknowledging the emotive linking of children, sex and violence. However, the review is, she insists, objective. But despite consulting “hundreds of articles”, she seems to have no reservations in accepting the formulation of “sexualisation” as a driver of violence against women. Papadopoulos fails to question the conceptual basis of such claims. The report appears appetising but is a reheated melange of assertion, repetition and unfocused concern.

Sexualisation, a term with increasing currency in popular and academic writing, has no agreed definition. Even so, Papadopoulos chooses not to engage with the debates, proposing a definition conveniently devised to establish the necessity for her own report: “Sexualisation is the imposition of adult sexuality on to children and young people before they are capable of dealing with it, mentally, emotionally or physically.”

She also writes: “Healthy sexuality is an important component of both physical and mental health. When based on mutual respect between consenting partners, sex fosters intimacy, bonding and shared pleasure.”

Who would disagree with the intuitive good sense of those sentences? But closer examination reveals a number of problematic constructions: “healthy sexuality” is intensely normative, ruling out many pleasurable, non-coercive practices including, at the very least, casual sexual encounters.

More worrying is the report’s separation of “adult” and “child” sexual interests. Apparently, there is an appropriate age to know about sex, but only if we accept the report’s one-dimensional understanding of an absolute division between innocence (not knowing and childlike) and experience (knowing and adult). There isn’t space to debate this here, but in viewing sexy, sexual, sexually explicit or even pornographic materials, children’s “learning” isn’t limited to how to have sex or currently “fashionable” sexual practices: they also understand how representations of sex are defined, demarcated, discussed and debated – fundamental components of the ways children make sense of sexuality. Censorship and prohibition aren’t solutions.

But the report’s most problematic element is the repeated claim that, increasingly, media depictions portray children “in ‘adultified’ ways while women are ‘infantilised”’. What this means or how this is achieved is not explained. Only one example is offered – a Playboy cover featuring a model with pigtails and a teddy bear – the reading of which is so literal that it is clear that Papadopoulos lacks understanding of the ways in which fantasy and role play are key components of many forms of sexual representation, and that, in establishing a strict delineation between innocence and experience, we have effectively eroticised that moment of change.

Despite the evident concern about the role of the media in fostering expectations and narrowing choices, Papadopoulos’ bibliography is remarkably thin on research produced within media and cultural studies. This isn’t simply a media academic’s sour grapes; it is criticism of the report’s failure to engage with the considerable body of work examining the meanings and importance of myriad media forms to those who actively choose to engage with them.

Research in gender and sexuality, childhood studies, visual culture and sociology is also sidelined. Any research must make choices about its evidence base, but here they are uninformed and opportune: for instance, research by Neil Malamuth, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, is repeatedly cited as demonstrating links between pornography, sexist attitudes and propensities to violence, without any reference to the many criticisms of his findings and their wider research tradition.

Papadopoulos has managed to produce a report emerging out of a framework of concern that remains resolutely adhered to a politics of alarm. Rather than an “independent” exploration, the report perfectly embodies the commonsense rhetoric of distress for the “lost innocence of childhood” and the scary futurology of increasing sexualisation.

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