Earlier this year, the BBC documentary series Panorama ran a program titled “Too Much Too Young.” The program explored the way Britain’s children, particularly her girls, are being prematurely sexualized.
Although the program tended to downplay the seriousness of the issue, there has been a string of reports in UK newspapers this year highlighting the urgency of the matter. Music videos, displays in High Street shops, lap-dancing kits, padded bras for grade-school girls, pencil cases with the Playboy logo, and features in teen magazines are merely some of the tools being used to sexualize Britain’s youth at alarmingly young ages. There have even been reports about a pajama set aimed at ten-year-olds with “Porn Star” written on it.
But it is not just parents who have been concerned. The UK government has weighed in, introducing five initiatives in three years aimed at responding to the issue. The latest plan, according to a BBC news report, is “to explore whether rules should prevent the marketing of items such as ‘Porn star’ T-shirts or padded bras. . . . A code of conduct on ‘age appropriate’ marketing and a new watchdog are among plans being considered by the review.”1
Prime Minister David Cameron, himself a father of three, made this issue a personal concern after discovering that beds with a “Lolita” theme were being marketed toward six-year-olds2 (Lolita is a novel about a girl and a pedophile).
So far, the debate over the sexualization of children has centered on quantitative questions. Are our young people being exposed to too much sex at too young an age?
This is certainly a relevant question—as is the related one of who profits from the sexualization of 13- or 14-year-olds. Few would doubt that the beneficiaries include the growing network of pedophiles in Britain.
But there is also a crucial qualitative dimension to the problem that is being ignored.
Certainly we should be concerned that the marketing and entertainment industries are influencing children to think about sex when they ought to be thinking about dolls and trains. But shouldn’t we be even more concerned that they are subtly influencing children to think about sex in the wrong way? We need to ask not just whether children are being sexualized too early, but how they are being sexualized. Indeed, it is not just a matter of the ideas being presented too soon—the ideas themselves are wrong.
The stimuli children are bombarded with orient them towards an illusory understanding of their sexuality. Embedded in the products now available to children—especially children’s TV and music videos—is a false narrative about what it means to be a man or a woman.
The narrative is one in which sex is disengaged from the secure relationship of a man and woman in marriage. It is a narrative in which sex is emptied of any emotional, let alone ethical, underpinning, thus reducing it to something purely animalistic. It is also a narrative that associates the “good life” (which is now also a “sexy” life) with what is fashionable, cool, and up to date.
Of course, manufacturers have an economic incentive for perpetuating this last illusion, since whatever is fashionable, cool, and up to date can be manipulated to correlate with their new products. The marketing of the good life beguiles many consumers, bypassing their critical faculties and penetrating directly to the level of the subconscious.
The Normalization of Sex
Another subversive feature of the sexualized environment in which children are growing up is desensitization. When sex is used to sell everything from shoes to vegetables, children become so used to it that they cease to recognize the difference between genuinely sexual and non-sexual things.
Take, for example, 13-year-old Chloe, featured in the Panorama episode. Her dream is to travel all over world as a dancer. In the program, she is seen in skimpy dress, imitating the erotic dancers she has viewed on television. When reporter Sophie Raworth asks Chloe if she was trying to be sexual, the girl avows that there was nothing sexual in her mind while she was dancing. Moreover, she asserts that, as long as she keeps her clothes on, there is nothing inappropriate about her moves.
Of course, the self-evaluation of a 13-year-old girl is not objective. But it is clear that Chloe failed to recognize the overt eroticism of her behavior—and this despite the fact that, when she was eleven, a stranger who had seen some of the dance moves she posted online contacted her to tell her how sexy she was. At that time, Chloe panicked and immediately removed all the videos.
As children are bombarded with more and more sexual stimuli, they cease to see certain things as sexual in nature, with the consequence that normal sexual barriers disappear. Chloe encountered this situation when she was eleven.
The question remains: How have young people like Chloe managed to convince themselves that all but the most explicit displays (in Chloe’s case, taking her clothes off) are non-sexual and benign? Do the products and media that young girls have such easily access to have anything to do with this desensitization?
The Naked Beach
In his book The Sexual Revolution, Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), an early pioneer of the sex-education movement, described the means for achieving a society that would not put any obstacles in the path of sexual gratification.
For all his moral anarchism, Reich was perceptive. He realized that in order to arrive at the sexual utopia he advocated, people would first have to learn to dispense with their natural shyness and embarrassment concerning sexual matters. They would have to lose their reluctance to expose erotically important parts of their bodies. Reich attempted to facilitate this by conducting psychotherapy sessions in which he would require his clients to, well, remove all their clothes.
Reich would be pleased to see a European beach today, which is often more in keeping with his ideal than what is found in brothels. In a brothel, the women have had to overcome the natural shyness surrounding erotically important parts of their bodies in order to sell sex. On a sunny European beach, women in various states of undress can be seen to have overcome this natural shyness—with no thought of sex at all. By refusing to acknowledge the erotic implications of revealing attire or nudity, they have so nearly achieved Reich’s goal of overcoming shyness that, for them, sex is flattened of its inherent potency. “Profane” may be the best word to describe Reich’s ideal and its realization, given that the term originally meant “to treat as common,” or as just the latest fashion.
The sexualization of the young can be viewed in this same framework. When low-cut blouses are marketed to 13-year-olds, when children’s music videos are saturated with sexual imagery, and when sex is constantly used to sell all kinds of products to young teens, one can expect many girls to become hyper-sexualized. However, such saturation can equally have a desensitizing effect, since it subtly encourages youth to treat their sexuality as something trivial, benign, and commonplace.
Either way, it primes girls for perverts like Reich: hyper-sexualized girls will want to have sex, and desensitized girls will be less likely to guard and protect what they have been conditioned to treat as nothing special.
Changing Children’s Brains?
The latest findings in neuroscience should also heighten our concerns, though these findings have yet to be factored into the British government’s investigation of the issue. Recent discoveries have shown that the human brain is in a constant state of flux, a characteristic that brain scientists call neuroplasticity. Put simply, the human brain is remarkably adaptable, constantly adjusting itself to the demands of the environment in which it finds itself.
This neurological fluidity is a good thing because, among other things, it enables people to learn new skills, makes it possible for stroke victims to recover some motor functions, and helps blind people compensate for the loss of sight by strengthening parts of the brain associated with the other senses.
But neuroplasticity also has a downside. In his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge shows that certain types of sexual stimuli have the power to reshape how the brain thinks about both sex in general and people of the opposite sex in particular.
Because our brains are so adaptable, the dominant assumptions that a collective culture has about sex can exercise a formative influence on the brains of those growing up within that culture, training them to think about sex in a certain way. We see this in the way people in different cultures have adhered to different, and sometimes opposing, paradigms regarding such things as female beauty and pleasing smells. In her book, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, Helen Fisher notes that, during Elizabethan times, it was the custom for a woman to keep a peeled apple under her arm long enough for it to absorb her scent. If the woman had to go away, she would offer the “love apple” as a gift to her boyfriend for him to sniff during her absence.
In societies where distinctive body odors were normative (as they were before deodorant was invented), the brain adjusted itself to the smell. Similarly, Norman Doidge tells how members of the Masai tribe in East Africa use cow urine as a pleasing lotion for their hair. “Many tastes we think ‘natural,’” remarks Doidge, “are acquired through learning and become ‘second nature’ to us. We are unable to distinguish our ‘second nature’ from our ‘original nature’ because our neuroplastic brains, once rewired, develop a new nature, every bit as biological as our original.”
Our society has dispensed with love-apples, but we are not immune to other fetishes. For example, a society that thinks high-heeled shoes on a woman are sexy but body hair is not, has already undergone considerable neuroplastic changes.
Many such biases are relatively harmless. But there is much harm done by the advertising and entertainment industries that literally train children’s minds to think of sex in trivial, reductionist, and mechanistic ways. Unfortunately, this point was ignored in the recent debate over the sexualization of children. Yet consider: just as the proliferation of body odor or cow urine in a culture can cause people’s brains to associate those smells with something pleasing, so the proliferation of certain attitudes about sex, through the marketing of products our youth have access to, can cause children’s brains to associate these paradigms with the good life, especially when they are saturated with such things from an early age (during which time the plasticity of the brain is most acute).
Nowhere do we see these types of brain changes outworked more clearly than in the sex-education curricula used in schools—curricula that have avowedly been designed to change the way children think about sex.
When a sex-ed curriculum was first introduced into primary schools in Britain, the teachers experienced discomfort when talking about the subject. That was hardly surprising, since many of the textbooks contained highly inappropriate graphical representations. In time, however, these same teachers started to say that talking about sex organs was no different than talking about elbows. Sex became trivialized and commonplace, rather than something set apart from the ordinary for important use. Teachers as well as students became effectively desensitized.
Wilhelm Reich would have been delighted by the pictures in contemporary sex-education manuals. In his book Lessons in Depravity, E. S. Williams commented that “Reich made the point that nakedness and exposure of the sexual organs was a crucial element of sex education’s attack on conventional morality. He believed that society could only become ‘sex-affirming’ when people lost the shyness to expose their genitals.” This goal has been realized in the contemporary sex-education project, and it is also becoming a reality through the vast array of products targeted at children.
The result is that our brains are being changed to think of sexuality in completely disenchanted terms. In earlier generations, when this area of life was considered “holy ground,” the veil of shyness that properly attended sexual things preserved the sense that our sexuality, though on one level purely functional, is also a matter of great significance, calling for reverence, respect, and privacy.
In treating sexuality as common, we neutralize its potency, turning it into something tame, benign, and trivial. But in doing that, we put children at risk. When Camille Paglia argued that if rape is a devastating psychological experience for a woman, then that woman doesn’t have a proper attitude about sex (because rape is just like getting beaten up, and “men get beat up all the time”),3 she was merely following the path of desensitization to its final destination.
This is the path the British government has set its country on. For all David Cameron’s lip service against the sexualization of children, both his Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats have openly supported the sex-education program in Britain’s schools. Since this program is one of the primary conduits for the early sexualization of youth, Cameron’s declaration that he stands with concerned parents seems more than a little disingenuous.
If the Prime Minister is really serious about helping Britain’s youth, perhaps he needs to look beyond the issue of children being exposed to too much too soon and instead take a long, hard look at what they are being exposed to. The sexual narrative they are being taught is a lie that is objectionable in itself, for anyone of any age. In Britain and elsewhere, it is time that public discourse began addressing that narrative, instead of merely complaining about the symptoms. •
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