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Sexualisation of young people

Although very few people agree with children wearing sexually provocative clothing or behaving in a sexualised manner, there has been a disproportionate increase in coverage about what is seen by the media to be almost an epidemic, the sexualisation of young people.

This is an emotive subject where much reasearch has been ignored or badly used by policy makers and media alike to assert that young people are in danger of losing their childhoods. When asked themselves, young people appear far more capable of deconstructing the media's sexual images than adults appreciate and without the media's focus it would be easy never or at least rarely to see an example of a Playboy pencil case or a five year old's thong.  These articles may well exist, but it is certain that the moral panic surrounding them is far larger than the consumption of these (working-class marketed!) objects.  It is also worth bearing in mind that Playboy is one of the companies whose copywritten logo is stolen most often and any object with its logo may not originate from them as the copyright owner.

It is no coincidence that this moral panic has arisen alongside an increase of availability of pornography and it is worth bearing in mind the history of anti-porn arguments. Originally thought only to subjugate women pornography was blamed for everything from rape to thwarted promotion at work. When many women said they supported the use of pornography (for instance in 1988 Feminists Against Censorship was formed in the UK), the argument moved to one of the effect of young people viewing pornography. Now that we have had a couple fo decades of relatively easy access to pornography in the home (Dad's magazines, VHS or DVD) and the rates of rape, child abuse and teenage sexual deviance has not been observed in proportion to the increase in porn use. It is worth also noting that the age of initial access to pornography has not reduced as predicted and remains at an average of age 14. WeConsent believes this is one major reason why the debate has moved onto the newest phase, that of porn addiction.

Onscenity asks: What’s the evidence about young people’s sexual behaviour?

This article was written by Gail Hawkes and Prof R. Danielle Egan and was taken from www.onscenity.org see here for similar articles:

For sexualization activists, the negative consequences of sexualization – depression, eating disorders, precocious sexual activity and even sex work – are assumed to be self-evident, while scholarship that has complicated these facile claims are ignored. Research involving women that did not examine sexualization as a phenomenon at all have been used, after the fact,  as ‘proof’ of sexualization (Egan and Hawkes 2009, 2007). The use of emotive terms like ‘objectification’ and ‘passive victims’ evokes oppressive patriarchal structures from the mid-twentieth century and encourages assumptions fed by unconscious fears. Legitimation is ensured by rhetoric and common sense replaces scholarly argument and empirical research.

But have we actually found ourselves in a world where tweens armed in their bralettes are ready and waiting to jump at the first chance for oral sex with an older man? Are they really just a hop, skip and a thong away from the sex industry? Are they watching, buying and listening their way to a future of depressive self-destructive behavior?

The insistent claims for the inevitable damage associated with sexualization centre round the distortion of young women’s ‘normal’ sexual development, where increasing promiscuity and declining self-worth and harm are presented as inevitable. Yet recent studies of young people’s sexual behavior in all three Anglophone countries, present evidence for responsible and thoughtful sexual behaviour in both young men and young women.

The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior in the US (Herbenick et. al., 2010) found that in 62 % of boys and 40% of girls (aged 14-16) masturbation was the most common sexual practice. 9% of boys and 11% of girls had vaginal intercourse in the last twelve months while 79.1% of males and 58.1% of females used a condom in their last ten acts of heterosexual intercourse. In 2011 a Scottish study of 1800 14-16 year olds revealed that 32% had sexual intercourse at a median age of 14, and that 51% of these had used condoms. A 2008 study of 16-18 year students in Australia reveals a strikingly similar set of figures. Of 5000 young people interviewed, 78% had some form of sexual activity in the past year.  Sexual intercourse contributed to 40% of this figure with 30% having 3 or more sexual partners. 50% of the sample used birth control pills and 69% used condoms for the last sexual intercourse (Smith et al., 2009).

It appears that 60 and 70% of young people in the age group under discussion are not engaged in intercourse.  The most common method for seeking sexual pleasure is solo masturbation and, for partners, safe sex is a priority. That sexualization activists, who claim their  priority is the protection of young girls, apparently ignore such evidence is inexplicable.

We suggest that this anomaly goes unremarked within the wider community because despite protestations of ‘what about the children’, academic and social commentators are deeply uncomfortable with the reality of the active sexual lives of young people, and (as we have illustrated elsewhere) this cultural discomfort has a long history (Egan and Hawkes, 2010).


UK Consultation into Sexualisation of Young People. How useful are the findings?

This article was written by Dr Petra Boynton and was taken from www.onscenity.org see here for similar articles:

The UK has seen the launch of an anticipated Consultation into Sexualisation of Young People. The work has been widely reported and generally accepted by the media both in the UK and Internationally. Perhaps due to the sensitive topic focusing on the wellbeing of young people, it seems there has been little attention paid to the content and quality of the Consultation or how actionable its recommendations may be.

Given the Consultation may well inform policy and practice and will certainly influence educators, healthcare providers and journalists, it is important the work is carefully assessed.

If you have not already read the report in full (and my hunch is most of the media outlets covering the Consultation have not) I would recommend you do so and form your own conclusions. This is particularly worthwhile if you work within education, health or social care, or if you are a parent or teenager.

To help you do this I’ll use this blog to provide you a backplot to this Consultation, including links to previous similar investigations into Sexualisation carried out in other countries, and resources to help you evaluate the Consultation process from inception to report.

What is Sexualisation?
You might not be familiar with this term which suddenly seems to have become a buzzword. It has, in fact, been used extensively within research and education on sexual behaviour for some time, but has only recently entered into mainstream public language. It’s actually not an easy term to define, but generally refers to either making an individual or group of people seem sexual, or to encourage someone to become sexually aware. This alone isn’t problematic, but the term is usually negative as it draws attention to an individual or group being sexualised without their consent or in an inappropriate manner, or someone being made aware of sex or sexual practices at an inappropriate time.

Most commonly, then, we see this applied to children who we may view as being encouraged to act in a sexual manner or become aware of sex while still very young. Sexualisation here is constructed as potentially abusive, something that objectifies and is forced onto people, who have little or no agency to resist/understand/be aware of it.

While intuitively we may agree such sexualisation is a bad thing, particularly if it involves the potential exploitation or abuse of children, there is a problem with the term and who it applies to. It is easy to state what sexualisation might involve, but more difficult to truly define and measure (particularly in any causal way). This has been something that has caused numerous problems for those trying to research it, not least because it may be difficult to transparently research something that seems so important and emotive. It is very difficult to undertake critical and thoughtful work in this area without appearing to dismiss issues young people are facing, or be criticised for ignoring or perhaps even appearing to advocate the abuse of children.

What work already exists on this topic?
There have been several large scale investigations into Sexualisation carried out in different countries. The majority of the work has focused attention on girls as being most at risk from a sexualised culture (sometimes also referred to as a ‘pornified’ culture), although most work also draws attention to the impact on boys.

The first Consultation, launched in 2007 was conducted by the American Psychological Association by their Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. This report also included a range of materials to support parents and young people. Australia also commissioned a Consultation into the Sexualisation of Children in Contemporary Media which was released in the summer of 2008 (all documentation related to the process here). While in January 2010 the Scottish Parliament reported back on their inquiry into Sexualised Goods Aimed at Children led by researchers from the Institute of Education, London.

Outside of these large scale reports there have also been numerous pieces of research addressing either the concept of Sexualisation directly, or using the concept of Sexualisation to underpin investigations, or looking at related topics of sexual behaviour (and the use of pornography in particular) in young people.

The APA report was welcomed on its launch for picking up on an issue many teachers, parents and healthcare providers felt was important and believed was a problem. However over time the report attracted some criticism (as did its Australian counterpart) for not truly critically appraising the evidence used to support claims of Sexualisation’s existence and impact. There was also some concern that in trying to tackle problems facing young women the reports constructed them as having no understanding of the wider media or no agency to act or make decisions about their own sexual behaviours or beliefs. Critics argued the reports characterised young women as passive beings, objectified by wider culture but having little or no understanding or control over it.

The Scottish investigation, by contrast (and perhaps learning from the pitfalls encountered by its predecessors) took a different approach. It worked to identify what worried young people and parents, to see whether Sexualisation was an issue for them, and if so how that might be manifested. Given the increasing concern about commercialised sexual products for young people (for example Playboy bunny pencil cases or t shirts) they also sought to find said products to see how available/accessible they were and in what context they were sold to young people. Their findings also indicated there were issues about consumerist culture and young people’s developing sexuality.

However they also suggested that ‘Sexualisation’ is not an issue that immediately worries parents or teens, but when prompted it seems parents are far more worried about it than young people, and are often more concerned about the sexualised behaviour of other children rather than their own child. Indeed their work suggested a lot of parental anxiety over Sexualisation manifested itself in parents talking about how girls should behave and act in appropriate and modest fashions. Young people, meanwhile, seemed more aware of the media and potential sexualising influences than expected, although the authors acknowledge there are still issues about sexuality needing addressing. In short they concluded sexualisation is a complex issue that can’t be fixed with simplistic suggestions for policy change.

These reports are important as they help put the UK Consultation into context, and the Scottish investigation in particular serves as an excellent example of good practice because it:
- critically evaluated the existing reports on Sexualisation
- included a thorough search of additional evidence on sexualisation and related issues
- tested the idea of what Sexualisation might be using innovative participatory methods
- investigated what Sexualisation was, how it manifested itself and how it was interpreted and experienced by parents and young people
- did not set out with the assumption Sexualisation was prevalent, nor looked for confirmation of its existence. Instead it questioned the concept and looked to see what issues were problematic and positive for young people and their parents

I would recommend you read through all three reports before considering the UK version.

Background to the UK Consultation

The UK Consultation was launched in March 2009 by then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, psychologist Linda Papadopoulos and model Danielle Lloyd as part of a the ‘Together we can end violence against women and girls strategy’. Respondents were asked to submit evidence and several roadshows/public events were held where people could talk about their experiences of/views about Sexualisation. A survey was also launched to identify people’s views about other issues relating to violence and abuse (including prostitution, rape, domestic violence, forced marriage and Female Genital Mutilation).

Dr Linda Papadopoulos
was appointed to lead the Consultation. A counselling and health psychologist with a background in dermatology and author of several self help books she was also well known to the public after appearing on television programmes like Big Brother and other regular media appearances. Being a well known figure at the head of a Consultation clearly attracts media attention and public interest and can be important to reach a wide range of respondents.

However, critics questioned the appropriateness of appointing someone to lead a Consultation evaluating how sexualised/commercialised media impacts on young people who also had their own line of beauty products (the Psy Derma range) and an established career as a consultant/spokesperson for numerous commercial companies but not a track record of actively researching the area of sexual behaviour/sexualisation and young people.

Putting those criticisms to one side, the issue at hand is the quality of the UK Consultation. From the way it was commissioned and conducted to the final report and recommendations. Any Consultation report at this level has the capacity to influence policy, practice and public opinion. So it is important we assess any report of this kind to ensure it is robust enough to have this influence.

The Sexualisation of Young People Review can be found here and tackles a number of topics relating to Sexualisation while making recommendations about what to do to address the issue in the UK.

Resources to help you evaluate these Consultation documents
Consultations are not always accessible and critically appraising them is more than simply reading them through. It is easy to look at a lengthy report that contains numerous references and recommendations and take this as a sign of a thorough and evidenced approach. However, this may not be the case, so below are a number of tools to help you evaluate all the Sexualisation reports listed above. (If you are very busy I’d suggest you simply focus on a detailed appraisal of the UK report for now, but I would still urge you to read all three preceding reports too).

Trish Greenhalgh’s How to read a paper includes this chapter Papers that summarise other papers (systematic reviews and meta analysis) which can help you assess the appropriateness of the reviewed literature in the UK consultation. Her chapter Assessing the methodological quality of published papers also provides a checklist to assessing individual papers, so you may wish to track down papers listed in the references to the UK Consultation and evaluate those in terms of methodological quality and relevance to the overall report. Although this is time consuming, it is important since it is one of the key areas both the APA and Australian Consultations were criticised for not doing.

You may also find this Checklist for evaluating Consultations I’ve designed helpful. It applies to any Consultation, not just the Sexualisation report, and helps you focus your critical appraisal of the Consultation process and reporting. It also invites you to consider your own baggage in relation to a Consultation, so you don’t accept or dismiss something just because it fits or challenges your world view. Instead you should allow the quality of the work undertaken to decide (easier said than done, I know!).

There is also this guide from the UK government that covers Good practice in consultations which sets out what should happen in a public Consultation activity (scroll down to the middle of this page to find the links to the resources). You may wish to compare this with the published report or use it to inform further questions you may have about the work undertaken.

As you can see this represents a lot of work, so you can appreciate that while the media have been quick to respond to (and largely support) the Sexualisation study, the academic community will probably take a while longer as an appraisal of a Consultation is not a quick process.

You may work within healthcare or education and might like to set this as an activity for yourself or for your colleagues/students. If you are a journalist I would encourage you also to do this, even though it is time consuming, as it may help you with future stories you are writing – particularly if you intend to continue discussing the issue of Sexualisation.