Fears grow over the sexualisation of young people

Should we worry that young girls are offered beauty treatments and wear T-shirts with teasing slogans? The government believes we should but experts are split

Pink pencil cases bearing the Playboy logo and sexye_SDRq underwear aimed at the pre-teen market are in the government’s sights: last month, home secretary Jacqui Smith announced a “fact-finding” review into the increasing sexualisation of teenage girls.

In a five-month review, TV psychologist Linda Papadopoulos will talk to young people, parents and the media to assess whether there is a link between sexualisation and violence against women. The evidence will feed into the government’s broader violence against women strategy, which will be launched this year. The concern is that these sexualised images objectify women, give girls the idea that looks are paramount and send worrying messages to boys and young men.

Sexualisation of young people is an issue that is increasingly worrying parents and people who work with children. They cite salons offering under-10s beauty treatments, five-year-old girls demanding sexy Bratz dolls, T-shirts printed with teasing slogans.

John Harris, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ families, communities and young people policy committee, agrees this is an area of concern – and one that social workers working with children need to be aware of.

“Unfortunately, the young people most vulnerable to influences from the media are those who have less support in the home, a lack of other role models and low self-esteem,” he says. “Professionals who work with children – not just social workers, but teachers of personal, social and health education and youth workers too – must address the issue of sexualised images of young people to mitigate their impact.”

He says it requires building self-esteem, discussion about the use of such images and their effects, and explaining the risks involved in imitating such behaviour.

“This can be done through formal sex and relationship education in schools or in less formal settings, as well as by a social worker in the most extreme cases of inappropriate sexual behaviour,” he says.

Harris is not alone in being concerned about the impact of these images on young people’s sexual activity and teenage pregnancy rates. The Scottish parliament agreed to commission its own research on sexualised goods marketed to children after a discussion on its equal opportunities committee.

“We cannot shield our young people from being exposed to these images,” Harris says. “But we can help them to build the resilience and self-esteem that will allow them to resist their influence and make their own choices about their appearance, behaviour and attitudes.”

Defining sexualisation

Research by the American Psychological Association defines sexualisation as when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, when a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness with being sexy, when a person is sexually objectified and when sexuality is imposed on a person.

The research finds that early sexualisation affects girls’ sexual development and their physical and mental health. In particular, it links sexualisation with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. Sexualisation also damages a girl’s cognitive and emotional development by affecting her confidence in, and comfort with, her own body, leading to self-image problems. Other effects on society may include an increase in sexism, increased rates of sexual violence and sexual harassment, and an increased demand for child pornography. The research finds evidence of sexualisation in every form of media, as well as in goods marketed to children.

Tom Narducci, senior consultant at children’s charity the NSPCC, believes that the issue is one of child protection. “The NSPCC’s position on this is that by normalising sexualised clothing, and by normalising sexualised behaviour, it opens up young girls to being exploited,” he says.

“There are documented court cases where the defence of the perpetrator was that the victim was wearing provocative clothing and behaving in a provocative way,” he adds. “They were blaming the child and using that as a defence. The perpetrator was saying ‘I couldn’t help myself’ and using that as some sort of justification for what they were doing.”

The NSPCC is talking to retailers about the kinds of goods they are selling, and Narducci believes they are beginning to respond. “The retail world is beginning to hear some of the messages and realise that, if they produce something, they need to consider the implications in terms of the development of girls, and other people’s attitudes towards children,” he says.

Dissenting voices

Not everyone agrees. Sue Scott, professor of sociology at Glasgow Caledonian University, says the issue is more one of commercialisation than sexualisation, and that it is wrong to assume children understand sex in the way that adults do.

“I used to spend an awful lot of time dressing up as a kid, but the dressing-up box was more likely to have my mum’s old clothes in it,” says Scott. “Now, it’s become more commercialised and you have Disney shops that sell the princess outfits. But if you’re talking about seven- or eight-year-olds, they don’t see it in a sexualised way. They just see it as dressing up.

“I also don’t think it encourages paedophiles – research suggests that someone who has these tendencies is interested in children, not adults. They like the vulnerability of children.”

In fact, Scott dismisses society’s concerns about the sexualisation of children altogether as part of a romantic view of childhood that never existed. “In life we have very little control of anything, but we believe we can have control over our children,” she argues. “We are trying to keep children safe and don’t want anything terrible to happen to them. We have a fantasy of a safe world. But that’s what it is – a fantasy.”

It seems unlikely the government’s review into sexualisation, and its possible link to violence against women, will dismiss these concerns quite so easily.

Too much too young?

Examples of what campaigners claim to be sexualised merchandise marketed to young girls

Playboy pencil cases

WH Smith’s withdrew its range of Playboy-themed pencil cases, pens and notepaper after complaints from parents and children. However, the range is still available elsewhere and, when asked by the Scottish parliament to comment on how its logo was used on products, the Playboy company declined to comment.

BHS girls underwear

In 2003, clothing retailer BHS withdrew a range of padded bras aimed at girls as young as seven after being deluged by complaints from children’s charities and customers. A spokesperson for the company told the BBC the underwear was “just a bit of fun”. But Michelle Elliott, director of charity Kidscape, says: “You have to wonder why a girl of under 10 would have need for a padded bra, and it is silly for a high-street company like BHS to be selling products like this.”

Beauty parlours for girls

Last June, The Observer featured a beauty salon for young girls called Tantrum on the King’s Road, London. The salon started offering haircuts but now offers manicures and pedicures to budding ladies who lunch. The youngest customer was six, the salon owner told the newspaper.

Barbie make-up

In 2007, Barbie manufacturer Mattel announced a partnership with US cosmetics company Bonne Belle to produce “innovative, fun and girl-savvy” products. According to the company, the deal represented both brands’ “positive relationship with girls”. US websites ridiculed the make-up it did not appear.

Bratz dolls

These dolls have pouting lips, glossy manes of hair and fishnet tights. Bratz are four friends with different personalities who like reading “cool celeb autobiographies”, are “glamorous” and want to be “superstars”. They may be aimed at an older market but they are popular among girls as young as four. The UK Bratz website has a feature called The Lovemeter where devotees can find out whether they and their “special someone” are a perfect match.

This article is published in the 23 April edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Sexualisation: Myth or reality?

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