Songs Of Innocence And Experience: Review of Gender and Education Journal, Special Edition On ‘Sexualisation Debates’
Gender and education, Volume 4 No.3 May 2012 Special Issue: Making Sense of the Sexualisation Debates: Schools and Beyond. Guest editors: E Renold, M.J. Kehily and D. Epstein
The Bailey Report, subtitled ‘Letting Children Be Children’ was published over a year ago. This UK Government-commissioned ‘review’ of the ‘sexualisation’ of children through consumer culture, media, music and fashion received a mixed reception from parents, teachers, sex educators and academics at the time. The very concept of ‘sexualisation’ which implies an unwanted, premature ‘sexuality’ imposed upon children by various nefarious adult groups did not sit easy with me when I first heard about it. So I was very interested to see a whole edition of Gender and Education journal dedicated to the subject, sometime after the ‘controversy’ over the Bailey Report had died down.
Fragments, Findings, Feelings
The subject of ‘sexualisation’ is made complex, charged and dense, by the fact it relates to sex and sexuality. Thankfully the editors at Gender and Education do not try to produce a comprehensive analysis of the subject. They wisely present their collection as a set of ‘fragments’ of research findings, discussion and analysis, about a very fragmented and wide-ranging topic.
The context and history of ‘sexual cultures’ is neatly introduced in the editors’ introduction (p249-254) with lines from the 1974 Philip Larkin poem Annus Mirabilis:
‘Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty three
(which was rather late for me)-
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.’
Throughout the journal edition there is a careful consideration of tensions between sexual ‘permissiveness’, as Larkin hints at by alluding to the contraceptive pill being made widely available in the 1960s, and sexual ‘conservatism’ which is illustrated in the poem by the reference to the banning of the novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. These tensions are explored in relation to policy, culture, consumerism, and the experiences of young people and children themselves. This edition of GEA provides something which was so blatantly missing from the initial reactions to the Bailey Report – interviews, discussions with and participant observation of children and teenagers in schools and social settings. MJ Kehily (p255-268) and J Ringrose and E Renold (p333-343) ‘fill in the gaps’ in discussions of sexualisation with rich and rigorous data and analysis.
In addition to articles based on empirical research in schools and other settings, and analyses of policy and culture, the editors include some more personal, reflexive pieces by researchers in the field of education, sex and gender. Of these I particularly enjoyed reading ‘What I heard about sexualisation: or conversations with my inner Barbie’ by Sara Bragg (p311-316). The author deftly intertwines an account of her research observing girls who attend ‘pampering parties’ at a hair salon, with her responses to sexualisation discussions in the media and academia, and her moving account of the ‘body image’ crisis she has had since suffering from a brain tumour that left her face sunken and slipped out of shape. Bragg’s writing reminded me that even though feminists often say ‘the personal is political’ it is still relatively rare for academic writers, even feminist ones, to reveal really personal and emotionally challenging experiences and the effects they have on their thinking. As an (important from my point of view) aside, I was also delighted to find this collection of essays very readable. Having been out of academia for a few years now, my tolerance for turgid academic prose is low. This journal edition kept me interested, and turning the pages!
Innocence Spoiled or Lolitas At Large?
One of the key tensions in the issue of ‘sexualisation’, particularly of girls, is between discourses of ‘innocent childhood’ and the idea that (girl) children can actively seek out sexual attention. This tension can turn into a contradiction. As the editors put it:
‘ girls’ heterosexual agency is simultaneously acknowledged, where girls’ sexual knowing, consuming, preforming and servicing is used as evidence of the [sexualisation] phenomenon, and denied, in the production of a passive girl subject whose innocence and experience of being sexual is understood as prematurely induced’.
Making reference to the work of Valerie Walkerdine, MJ Kehily er, teases out some of this contradictory discourse. She writes that ‘Lolita’, the precocious young girl character in Nabokov’s novel is still a pertinent symbol of the conflict between perceptions of girls as sexually knowing and as innocent victims of a predatory adult sexuality. Lolita reminds us of the allure girls possess, particularly for older men. As Kehily observes, the ‘Daddy Girl’ dynamic can be understood from a Freudian perspective as ‘fetishistic, a desire that prompts and stands in for the act of intercourse.’ But also from a Foucauldian point of view, with ‘the regulation of sexuality as an adult domain bound by rules of age and consent creates the conditions for incitement and transgression, ways of talking and acting that proliferate and enlarge the very things they seek to deny. Foucault considers the sexuality of children to be central to educational initiatives, having an impact upon pedagogic practice, the organisation of the student population, and the architecture of school buildings’. Kehily notes that ‘both theorists share a conceptualisation of childhood sexuality as present, active, and consequential in the temporal biography of young lives’ (p262-3).
I agree, but I think all the writers in this journal edition might have paid a little more attention to the ‘Daddy of psychoanalysis’ and his insights into childhood sexuality. Freud argues that ‘infantile sexuality’ expresses itself very early in a child’s life, when it is about two or three years old. The essays in this collection only consider girls as ‘sexual beings’ from school age. And one of the fascinating but also very difficult to explore aspects of Freudian analyses of childhood, is that the period Freud identifies as so crucial to a child’s sexual development, is one when children’s language and social functions are underdevolped.
It is also worth noting that the authors in this journal edition are rightly somewhat critical of the notion, promoted by groups such as Mumsnet and their ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ campaign, and historically, by the ‘purity movement’ (p 269-284) that parents should limit the effects of ‘sexualisation’ on their children by controlling strictly what they watch, buy and think about. However they don’t clearly acknowledge Freud’s observation that actually it is parents who create and develop ‘childhood sexuality’ in the very first place, via the Oedipal Complex (or at least some form of parent/child psychodrama). My readings of Freud have led me to be pretty sure that the ‘family romance’, though, as Larkin has pointed out, it is likely to ‘fuck you up’, is the only route to ‘sexualisation’ in its most basic, and base terms.
Boys In The Shadows
In their introduction the editors tell us: ‘[Cindi] katz writes about the hegemonic figuration of the child ‘at risk’, a luminous discourse in the sexualisation debates that lights up the girl child, but leaves the boy child in the shadows’ (p251). I would have liked this edition of GAE to have ‘illuminated’ boys and their experiences and accounts more than it did, to have taken boys out of the ‘shadows’ that sexualisation debates put them in.
Two linked areas of study covered in this collection that would have benefitted from a much more careful consideration of where boys stand in the ‘discourse’, are ‘objectification’ and ‘sexual violence’. A dominant feminist ‘line’on objectification is that women are the ‘objects’ of a predatory, ‘male’ gaze. This gaze relates to sexual violence, many feminists argue, because the culture in which men are encouraged to see women as ‘sex objects’ justifies and reinforces attitudes and behaviours including sexual harassment and sexual violence by men against women. Though some of the authors here do criticise this feminist ‘line’, and overall the message from this edition of GEA is ‘it’s complicated’, they don’t go far enough for me!
My research and writing on metrosexual masculinity has shown that in contemporary visual culture, (young fit) men are ‘objectified’ just as much as women. As the journal editors write, we now live in ‘a heightened commercial climate in which all age groups are assessed in market terms as ‘segments’ presenting specific retail opportunities’. And the retail opportunities for men, whether it be in sports equipment, ‘grooming’ products and cosmetics, fashion or food, are huge as previously masculinity was an ‘untapped market’ in consumer capitalism. And so, if we acknowledge the objectification of men, we have to question our views about the predatory ‘male gaze’. The ‘gaze’ I have examined is not male or female, but ‘omnisexual’.
One of the ways I think boys and girls are ‘sexualised’differently by outside, adult forces is that even with the contradictory messages about girls’ ‘innocence’ versus ‘sexual knowingness’ there is a sense that girls are children who then become more sexually sophisticated teenagers and adults. The lack of discussion of sexualisation and its effects on boys, coupled with feminist concerns about men’s violence against women (e.g.M Garner p325-331), constructs boys as ‘little men’. It is as if their sexuality arrives fully formed and problematic. This idea is illustrated by the recent (and controversial) UK radfem conference 2012. There, girls and women of any age were allowed to attend but boys over the age of eleven were banned. So in that particular environment boys were treated as ‘men’ with all the baggage and suspicion that entails.
One Direction – teenage metrosexual sex symbols?
The piece in the journal by Jessica Ringrose and Emma Renold (p333-343) produces questions for me about how boys are portrayed in gender and education research. They interviewed and hosted discussions with groups of girls at a secondary school, and one of the points of discussion was the recent Slutwalks. This data is fascinating, but they did not pay so much attention to boys. The authors seemed a little impatient with the school where they conducted the research, who insisted on setting up a boys’ discussion group alongside the girls’ one they were studying. They presented this as a ‘what about the boys?’ discourse that does not acknowledge particular discrimination and sexism that girls face, and treats boys as equally deserving of attention with regards to gender issues. In ‘grown up’ feminism this is translated into the dismissive trope: whatabouttehmenz? Anyone asking questions about issues men face in gender cultures get that retort which often serves to shut them up. The two authors conclude their article saying:
‘we have to continue challenging the re-victimisation and re-shaming of young sexual girlhood and the ways in which the girl body returns again and again as the focal point of a patriarchal, moralising gaze and frequently as the only site of intervention for change. Furthermore, we argue this dynamic ends up making female sexual desires an invisible, discursive silence in school and beyond’.
I disagree with their conclusion. And I think feminist firebrand Camille Paglia would too. She was critical of the ‘victim feminism’ that underpinned the SlutWalks. Other women bloggers, myself included have also examined the SlutWalks from a critical angle and asked Does Slutwalk Shame Men? In the terms of the research conducted in schools, I’d then ask does Slutwalk shame boys? For boys tend not to have entered into the active sexual arena yet, but their reputation, as potential harassers and rapists, seems to go before them.
The articles in the journal could also be seen to be coming from quite a ‘heteronormative’ position, where boys and girls are two distinct groups, and their ‘sexuality’ is in relation to each other. This hides both trans and gender queer identities and same-sex sexuality. Although the editors say homosexuality is now ‘mainstream’ and accepted, I would suggest that for boys especially there are still situations in which masculinity is ‘tested’ using heteronormative ‘rules’.
A Thought-Provoking Starting Point
Overall I found this special edition of Gender and Education well-written, complex and thought-provoking. My criticisms of some of the perspectives and conclusions of the authors are quite strong ones. But I think their research and writing is robust enough to take my challenges. I hope this set of articles and think pieces forms a starting point for more in-depth and diverse debates about ‘sexualisation’ of children and the policy, media and social contexts in which it is produced. And I hope other researchers follow the example of these academics in placing children and their voices at the centre of the conversation.
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You can access the Journal issues here.