Child sexualisation is no game

Online Opinion Australia 26 September 2007
It’s time to correct the single most common misunderstanding about the sexualisation of children. Recently, Pamela Bone became the latest in a long line of commentators to suggest that those concerned about premature sexualisation are tilting at windmills. She wrote: & little girls have been tottering around in their mothers’ high heels, smearing on lipstick and nagging to have their ears pierced ever since these things were invented. Most don’t know the meaning of the word sex. They are merely playing at being grown up. (“Sexploitation campaign masks forum’s agenda”, The Canberra Times, August 27, 2007) This kind of creative “dressing up” play has nothing to do with the concerns articulated by the many people speaking out against the increasing sexualisation of children. They are worried about the major shift in marketing to children in the last decade and the impacts that shift may have on children’s healthy development.

The sexualisation of children stems from the fact that many of the same corporations that create and sell popular culture and fashions to teenage girls and adult women are now competing to capture girl-children’s allegiance to their brands. In doing so, they aim to build both an immediate and a future market for their products. But premature sexualisation has risks for children. The broadest risk is that a premature interest in “sexy” appearance and behaviour may distract children’s attention from more traditional childhood activities that lay a stronger and more balanced foundation for their later development as teenagers and adults.

The second risk is related to body image. Studies show that girls as young as six and seven are now concerned about their physical appearance, particularly their weight, and that some are beginning to develop “disordered eating behaviours”. This is not clearly related to childhood obesity. In one recent study of girls aged nine to 12, half wanted to be thinner but only 15 per cent were in any way overweight by medical criteria. There is also some evidence that children are developing severe eating disorders – usually anorexia – at earlier ages. Eating disorders are difficult to treat, and can be fatal. Medical experts and psychologists are extremely concerned and this apparent trend is now being carefully monitored.

The third risk of premature sexualisation is that it may encourage sexual predation on children. Those who sexually abuse children remain wholly responsible for their abhorrent actions. But there is a risk that publicly displaying sexualised images of children undermines the existing social prohibition against seeing children as sexually interesting.
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