There have been two major reports in England on sexualization – the first overseen by Linda Papadopoulos, a popular psychologist, and the second by Reg Bailey, the leader of the Mother’s Union. Both have been heavily criticized. The evidence that has been drawn on in these kinds of reports to make a case for sexualization is often not robust, some of it is not relevant, and it is often discussed in inaccurate or muddled ways. Many of the studies were carried out with adults rather than children, and most of them were carried out before the period during which the ‘sexualization of culture’ is thought to have accelerated. A report for the Scottish Parliament, led by David Buckingham – an expert on children, young people and media – was received more positively by researchers in the field.
Research which focuses on young people’s engagement with sexual representations in media suggests that young people often begin their discussions with researchers by reproducing a ‘public account’ of sex and media as risky and harmful. Usually these focus on the dangers for other – particularly younger – children. But their accounts of their own experiences, feelings and practices are different. Young people say that they encounter a diverse range of non-explicit sexual material in mainstream media. They also say that media contain very mixed messages about sex. Sex is presented as desirable and dangerous and finding out about sex is ‘surrounded by shame, embarrassment and ambivalence’. While they may be aware of the pressures and influences on them, they are not completely free to express themselves in whatever way they wish.
Despite this, young people value media as a source of sexual information, and what they say about it suggests that they are literate and critical consumers of media. They focus their attention on media that relates to the preoccupations they already have. They can be sceptical, moralistic or indifferent about the way sex is represented in media. They use media as a resource as part of the way they develop their sexual identities, looking to media for languages to speak with and a ‘place to speak from’. This can provide them with adult-free zones in which they can ‘collectively negotiate what is acceptable, desirable and what is “too much”.
One of the key things that is suggested by research is that young people’s experiences with sexual media are very much dependent on their family life and sociocultural environment. The place of media in their lives depends on their ‘age, individual preferences, peer networks, parental guidance and restrictions, familial relations, access to particular technologies and texts … hobbies and sporting activities’. Their responses to media are also diverse. Those young people who struggle with aspects of popular media and culture tend to be in vulnerable positions already because of social or family problems.
Yet both girls and boys are much more accepting of sexualized images of women than they are of sexualized images of men. Young people’s accounts also often ‘conform…to a powerfully heterosexual “logic”. What is central here is the presence of a double standard around sexual behaviour. For girls the key pressure is not to be sexy, but to be sexy and take responsibility in sexual encounters with boys and maintain much more respectability than boys do. Girls are concerned about being labeled as slags and wish they were more confident about their bodies and appearance. Pre-teen girls are especially concerned with ideas about ‘appropriate sexuality’ for their age group. For example, while they may see dressing in fashionable clothing as a way of moving towards adulthood, they also disapprove of clothes that are too ‘revealing’. Being their peers and distant enough from ‘others’ who are understood socially as ‘undesirable’.
There is no convincing evidence of young people’s lives becoming harder either because of sexualization, or for other reasons. Between 2000 and 2009/10, there has been widespread improvement in most indicators of children’s wellbeing. For example, an overview of child wellbeing in 29 of the world’s most advanced economies shows that:
- 99% of girls do not get pregnant while still a teenager
- 92% do not smoke cigarettes
- 85% are not overweight
- 86% do not use cannabis
- 85% do not get drunk
- About two thirds are neither bullied nor involved in fighting.
However there are wide national and regional variations in these figures, with poverty being the key factor for the wellbeing of young people. In 2007, the UK came bottom of the child wellbeing league table but has since moved up the league table in overall wellbeing. 86% of UK children report a high level of life satisfaction. There have been improvements in some outcomes such as teenage pregnancy and suicide rates in young men, smoking and cannabis use, but declines in others including long term conditions, obesity, some STIs and certain forms of alcohol abuse. The UK also has high numbers of young people out of education, employment and training, and one of the highest alcohol abuse rates among 11-15 year olds. It is in the bottom third of the infant mortality league table. UNICEF suggests the downgrading of youth policy and cuts to local government services are also having a profound negative effect on young people aged 15-19.
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