Are young people becoming more sexual?

A key concern for many over the last decade has been the extent to which media negatively impact on children and young people. For example, a common assumption is that media produce a compulsion in young girls to mimic the attitudes, beliefs, and sexual actions of celebrities.

It has been argued that ‘sexualization’ has produced a rise in risky or undesirable sexual behaviours ranging from exhibitionist games and lap dancing to increases in teenage pregnancy and sexual exchanges such as sexting[265]. It has also been claimed that sexualization fosters an inability to engage in loving relationships and restricts girls’ aspirations. Fears have been expressed about a range of issues – from addiction to online porn, the presence of paedophiles on social networking sites, and the influence of ‘extreme’ images.

A range of media texts – notably pornography but also music videos, lad mags and celebrity magazines, goods such as toys, clothes and accessories, and leisure practices such as pole exercise and ‘sexy’ dancing have come under scrutiny. It has been argued that children are becoming too sexy too soon and that this places them at risk of sexual abuse. These concerns are often gathered together as examples of ‘sexualization’, but there is widespread agreement that sexualization is an imprecise and unhelpful term[266].

Ideas about normal childhood have changed dramatically over time and the idea that children are naturally innocent is a modern one[267]. The age of consent for heterosexual acts in England was 12 in the 13th century, becoming 13 and then 16 in the 19th century. Ages of consent also vary dramatically even within contemporary Europe; they are 13 in Spain and 14 in Germany for example. It is also well documented that concerns about media influence on children are far from a modern phenomenon. These have historically focused on everything from popular songs, novels, and Shakespeare’s plays, to comic books, popular music, television and video, and more recently the internet and social media[268].

Whilst sexualization is presented as a force ‘unlike anything faced by children in the past’[269], most public discussions about childhood sexuality since the late eighteenth century have taken this concerned form, stressing the corruption of childhood innocence and the need to protect young people by regulating their access to sex and to media[270]. What is particularly notable about the current set of concerns about children and young people is that these focus almost entirely on girls.

What do we know about children’s sexuality?

265. See Rush, E. & LaNauze, A. (2006). Corporate Paedophilia. Discussion Paper 90. The Australia Institute; American Psychological Association (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls. Washington: American Psychological Association; M.T. Reist (Ed.) Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls. Melbourne: Spinifex Press; Papadopoulos, L. (2010). Sexualisation of Young People Review; Bailey, R. (2011). Letting Children be Children: Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood. London: The Stationery Office.
266. see Phoenix, A. (2011). Review of recent literature for the Bailey Review of commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, http://www.cwrc.ac.uk/projects/documents/CWRC_commercialisationsexualisation_review_final_WP_No_2.pdf
267. Jenks, C. (1996). Childhood. London: Routledge; Higonnet, A. (1998). Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. New York: Thames & Hudson; Kincaid, J.R. (1998). Erotic innocence: The culture of child molesting. Durham: Duke University Press; Jackson, S. & Scott, S. (2010). Theorizing Sexuality. Maidenhead: Open University Press; Egan, R. D. & Hawkes, G. (2010). Theorizing the Sexual Child in Modernity. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
268. Barker, M. & Petley, J. (Eds.). (1997, 2005). Ill Effects: The Media Violence Debate. London: Routledge; McNair, B. (2002). Striptease Culture: Sex, Media and the Democratisation of Desire. London: Routledge.
269. Rush, E. (2009). What are the risks of premature sexualization for children? in Reist, M.T. (Ed). Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
270. Egan, R.D. & Hawkes, G. ( 2007). Producing the Prurient through the Pedagogy of Purity: Childhood Sexuality and the Social Purity Movement. Journal of Historical Sociology, 20(4), 443-61; Egan, R.D. & Hawkes, G. (2008). Endangered Girls and Incendiary Objects: Unpicking the Discourse on Sexualisation. Sexuality and Culture, 12, 291-311; Egan, R.D. & Hawkes, G. (2010). Theorizing the Sexual Child in Modernity. London: Palgrave Macmillan; Egan, R.D. & Hawkes, G. (2012). Sexuality, Youth and the Perils of Endangered Innocence: How History Can Help us Get Past the Panic. Gender and Education, 24(3), 269-84; Dyhouse, C. (2013). Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women. London: Zed Books.

What do we know about children’s sexuality?