On sexualisation: a process not a switch

If you were to depend on media reporting of the Internet content debate, you’d be forgiven for misunderstanding how children become sexualised. The way the topic gets over-simplified, it would seem that it is like the rarely visited relative’s view of a child’s growth:

growing up as a step change

In sexualisation terms:

Sexualisation as a step change

But in reality this isn’t what happens. Children become sexualised (and not just sexualised, but that’s another post) by encountering concepts, attitudes etc. new to them, and become prematurely sexualised by having those encounters before they are entirely ready. It’s a process, like all aspects of growing up.

Sexualisation doesn’t start at pornography and neither ends there nor necessarily includes it – nor does viewing sexual acts automatically result in an unhealthy attitude towards sex, nor even prematurely sexualise the viewer.

It’s all about context, maturity, and the pre-existing level of understanding.

The process of sexualisation has many possible steps. At some early point it includes becoming aware of the existence of different genders and then identifying with one of them. The degree of awareness and identification might be amplified by clothing choices made for a child, and the age at which gender identification occurs might be accelerated by the way people act around them, the things that are said to them, about them, or just in their hearing.

Talk of boyfriends/girlfriends, of dating, of kissing; teasing about liking someone, talk of "fancying", offers of "you show me yours and I’ll show you mine"; all these can contribute towards the sexualisation process. And all occur independent of the Internet, and all occurred before there was an Internet.

But it’s not pornography, nor minority views, lies and misinformation that cause premature sexualisation, even if this sort of content might lead a child down a dangerous path. It’s encountering the things too early; if there is talk of boyfriends and girlfriends at 6 or 7, why would you be surprised if those children then explore what that means? If children are supplied clothing that are suggestive of glamour and allure, why would they not think about those subjects? Music lyrics and videos with strong sexual overtones? Playing gender-stereotype targetted games, games about dressing up and kissing? All these can contribute to the sexualisation process. Formal sex education will be a step along the sexualisation way for many; depending on a child’s personal rate of development, sex education will occur before some have been aware of sex as something to do with them.

It’s all about context, maturity, and the pre-existing level of understanding.

Is the Internet contributing to the early sexualisation of children? Yes, but not on its own; images and other content in the traditional mass media play their part. Possibly without the mass media aspects the contribution made by the Internet might not even occur, because content on the Internet is pull, not push. But what the Internet does is act as a magnifying glass, an amplifier; its very power in allowing access to anything from anywhere means that children, if allowed unfettered access, can uncover more information about any subject or concept they have seen, heard, heard rumours about, or indeed mostly imagined. Even though some of this information will be factually incorrect, misleading or representative of behaviours of only a tiny minority of people, the massively interconnected nature of the Internet means they can uncover corroborating instances in a large enough quantity to make the information seem right, true and normal.

Again this is not about explicit content, it’s about acquiring behaviours before your child is ready, before they would have otherwise. So if you want to reduce the Internet as a factor in accelerating sexualisation, you need to not focus on preventing access by teenagers to adult content, but look to prevent access to teen content by younger children. Age appropriate depends on a child’s age and development; Internet safety does not have a one-size fits all solution.