Hegemony and the Desexualisation of Children

This post was written by Jacob on February 27, 2010
Posted Under: Education,Feminism,Gender Politics

The so-called sexualisation of children has been all over the news this week with a report for the home office being published by Dr Linda Papodopoulos. Amongst recommendations are those about softcore men’s mags such as Nuts and Zoo being made to be top-shelf publications, as they are often seen by eight to fifteen year olds. All of this is said in the language of sexual liberation, and a rejection of, as Papodoulos puts it, “fake breasts” and “fuck-me shoes” (incidently I’ve never really been interested in fucking a shoe.) The problem though, is that the agenda here has nothing to do with women’s liberation, or at least if it has tried to be about that then the project is completely misconceived.

The fact is that children are sexual beings. Sex and sexuality is without a doubt one of the strongest forces in our society, and to imagine that innocence is preserved in a society such as this beyond the point at which language and human interaction is developed is to do a massive discredit to all young people, and furthermore can lead to the belief that sex is a bad thing.

Of course there are problems with images in these magazines, with the fact that women in general, and not just children, may feel the need to emulate them, but these are undoubtedly wider societal problems, and one does not cure a disease by treating a single symptom. The attempt to get restrictions on softcore porn changed are mere prudishness, which is why the conservative party are so willing to embrace them.

The fact is, though, that if we are serious about addressing these issues in society, then the last thing we need is prudishness. Some of our readers may remember the issue that surrounded the publication of the children’s book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin in the 1980s, which the Tories kicked up a huge fuss about, finally resulting in section 28. This is the same politics returning. Papadopoulos is a tad more trendy than Mary Whitehouse, but just as wrong and just as dangerous.

Would it not be more concerning to live in a society in which no 15 year-olds wanted to look at breasts? If, upon coming of age young men and women were given the choice of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge regardless of the fact that this very knowledge is there social condition? Of course we must protect children from damage that can be done to them, just as we should protect any person, and in many ways children are a vulnerable group. But it is a mistake to believe that childhood is a special place separate from all other parts of life. The preservation of such a Christian ideal is the preservation of no life at all.

If we are to ever promote plural sexualities, sexual liberation, self-identity, self-control, and radical approaches to gender, then we must open up the sexual sphere for discussion and education. A starved man will eat anything, whilst a man with a plentiful supply of food will be able to develop taste and appreciation of some foods, and distaste at others. In proposing that we keep our children de-sexualised, we run the risk of never allowing them the critical moment in which they can differentiate between sexual practices they like or dislike, approve of or disapprove of.

We must, as socialists, always fight hegemony in the social sphere. The problem here is that Papadopoulos to be fighting the against the social sphere in toto. Just because one particular image of a woman may be highly problematic for those who believe in women’s liberation, we should not take that to mean we should ban all images of women. We must fight for a world which is ours, rather than a world that is no-one’s.

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Reader Comments


Hi Jacob,

This is a great post – I had really been feeling uncomfortable about this debate, and I think reading this has helped me put my finger on the problem.

The point, I feel, is that the images in question are so prolific in society that they perpetuate the idea that all women are fairly slim (but with curves in the ‘right’ places) and, worryingly, completely hairless minus their head. It’s not the fact that thirteen-year-olds can see a pair of breasts that matters, as if the mere sight of a mammary gland is enough to turn teenagers into a foaming mass of sexual frustration (I think most teenagers are like that anyway), but the fact that they are being socialised into thinking that all breasts are perky and symmetrical, that all vaginas are naturally hairless, that all women really enjoy contorting themselves into uncomfortable positions and pouting up at their partners.

On a related tangent, what I think is really worrying is the infantilisation of sexuality; children are clearly sexual beings, but they shouldn’t be objects of sexual desire. I think it’s a huge problem that in all mainstream soft and hardcore porn, women don’t have any body hair. There’s also more obvious aspects like the ‘dumb blonde’ trope that again is fairly childlike – innocent, wondrous, easily led astray. And obviously the hegemony of small and slim as the ideal body type plays into this.

So I guess the critique is twofold; these images don’t just affect children’s sexual behaviour and expectations, and the real issue at stake here, like you said, isn’t whether children and teenagers think about sex but what socially constructed trope of sex they’re thinking about and engaging in.

Elly x

Written By Elly on February 28th, 2010 @ 6:01 pm

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