Saturday, June 7, 2008

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

The Australian Senate is currently conducting an Inquiry into the sexualisation of children "in the contemporary media environment". Environment seems to be one of those tiresome weasel words. Why not just "contemporary media"?

Beyond any controversial exploration of why we fail to recognise the sexuality of adolescents (and even slightly younger children), it's first interesting to see that the term children has been used. The second term of reference for the inquiry is to:

"review the evidence on the short- and long-term effects of viewing or buying sexualising and objectifying images and products and their influence on cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, attitudes and beliefs."

Surely we would be hard-pressed to find that many sexualising and objectifying images of boys or men in the popular media. What we're really looking at in the main is the premature sexualisation of girls and the prolific use of images of girls and women in the media and resultant effects on both girls and boys.

The Corporate Paedophilia report produced by the Australia Institute in late 2006 has informed much of the debate on this issue. The three sources of sexualisation defined is this report are: images of children dressed and posed in adult clothing; media targeted at children which advertises products and promotes sexual behaviours; and material intended for adults but accessible to children. Professor Catherine Lumby and Dr Kath Albury's submission very convincingly dispels conservative fears regarding the second point.

Most magazines targeted at children, Lumby and Albury argue, are inherently non-sexual, contrary to the Corporate Paedophilia report, which reads sexualisation into everything from girls gazing downward in photographs to being shown holding "adult looking handbags". Much like the controversy over Bill Henson's photographs, not every naked girl or clothed girl reclining on a couch is intended to excite the viewer sexually.

Where things become stickier, however, is with magazines intended for teenagers, such as Dolly and Girlfriend but which are read by younger girls. Newspaper reports suggest that so-called "tweens" are set to be discouraged from reading these magazines: warning stickers will advise that the content is only suitable for over fifteens. I'd be interested to know how other women recall their own teen magazine reading experiences. From my recollection, magazines such as Dolly were key reading material from around the age of 11 to 15.
Beyond that, there was a process of graduation to Cosmopolitan and other women's magazines as ponderings about whether to use pads or tampons--a favourite topic in Dolly--became irrelevant to girls who had been menstruating for five years. I was blessed with my period at the age of ten. I wanted to read about what was happening to me and the other girls around me, not be directed toward a magazine about Barbie or other "tween" magazines. As much as people like to emphasise their nature as children, many ten and eleven year old girls' bodies are technically ready to bear their own children. Why argue they are too young to read about what this means for them?

The function of magazines like Dolly is to satisfy the curiosity of girls confronting puberty and the initial pressure or desire to perform sexual activities. Do we really want such magazines to go the way of formal school sex education? It's a world of cliches: too little too late; closing the gate after the horse has bolted; I could go on. Information, no matter how informally presented, never sexualised those who weren't already sexual.

A Senator was concerned that these magazines cover topics such as whether oral sex can be performed when a girl wears braces. Let us all close our minds and pretend that no teens of braces-wearing age kiss, engage in oral sex or actually have intercourse. Many girls are already engaging in sex by the age of fifteen. If we prevent them from any exposure to information concerning sex (intended for a girl readership) prior to this, are we "protecting" them or rendering them ignorant and even more vulnerable.
Girls who are ready to know will seek these magazines out, while those who are not ready are likely to continue playing with dolls. We need to allow the choice for those girls who are emotionally and developmentally ready to read accessible information about sex without allowing adult prudery about teenage sexuality to intrude.

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