ZOMG! (teens! Internet! Sexualisation! STI rates!)
An increasingly visible sexual society has led to a great may concerns about young people. Media headlines focus on the biological and social consequences of risky sexual behaviours such as; early sexual initiation! unprotected sex! teenage pregnancy! Abortion! STIs! , internet exposure! and sexting on a daily basis. Increasingly, these, along with a whole range of other ‘goods’ such as clothing, toys and music are clumped together under the unhelpful umbrella term ‘sexualisation’.
The belief that sexualization is a new problem ignores a long history of well-documented anxieties that have existed in relationship to childhood, sex and culture including rock and roll and, even, at the turn of the last century, the Waltz! Similarly, the idea that children are ‘asexual’ is founded on developmental models that are now considered unhelpful and simplistic. It is also highly classed (Primark rather than Boden is the problem) and gendered (see boys are predators, girls are victims). The range of educational resources aimed at informing young people of the risks of sexual media for example CEOP reinforce these messages that girls are passive and boys are latent predators, which does a great disservice to young people.
Unfortunately media reporting has a tendency to set the ‘for and against arguments against each other which limits any opportunities to place young people’s voices and experiences at the heart of debate. Too often adults ‘assume’ knowledge and experience on young peoples behalf, or, when they conduct surveys or interviews construct this in a way which makes it virtually impossible for any dissent. We know for example that if you ask a young person if they think pornography is a ‘problem’, they are likely to offer a public account that talks of the impact on a generalised other, or on someone they know – reinforcing socially conventional and acceptable perceptions. Once they begin to talk of their own experiences a much more nuanaced picture emerges – one that can often be difficult to capture in a media sound bite. When we reduce sexualisation to the poles of a) being obvious for any right thinking adult or, b) its all a moral panic, we risk loosing sight of the diversity of children and young people as a social group, also the fluid responses, behaviours, roles that any one child may have at any given time. It also simplifies the huge range of cultural products that are supposedly having an impact (or not).
Rather than taking sexualisation as given, or jumping to polarised positions such as its all a moral panic, it would be helpful for those in the media to ask a few simple questions to inform reporting:
- What are the assumptions I am making here before I start my enquiry?
- What evidence exists and how if at all does this show correlation?
- Have I considered young peoples perspectives and have I used an appropriate method to do so?
- How can nuance add interest to this story?