No, not sexualisation. Objectification. Say it with me.
Mainstream media conversations about the “sexualisation” of children/girls (such as the video above) tend to raise my blood pressure, which is weird, because I really don’t subscribe to that false dichotomy of “progressive = sexually liberal”, ”conservative = sexually circumspect”.
Sure, part of what gets to me about this stuff is the not-so-subtle implication that sexuality (and especially female sexuality) is bad. That in the words of Katy Perry, “it’s not what good girls do”. It implies that without these social and cultural influences, teenage girls wouldn’t be sexual at all.
But my real bugbear with the discussion is that it’s intellectually dishonest. It’s not sexuality that most of these people (social conservatives aside, at least) are worried about. It’s not about teenage girls having sex* - and as I wrote in New Matilda last year, it’s certainly not about children having sex (because, uh, they don’t).
When you really dig down to what lies at the root of these fears, it’s stuff like girls being confronted with scantily clad, gyrating images of their gender. It’s about girls growing up to believe that their main value lies in their appearance. It’s about things like make-up, fashion and eating disorders (very different phenomena, I know, but all connected to beauty culture).
But these things aren’t new, nor at their heart are they about sex (and nor, for that matter, do they impact only children and teenage girls). In fact, there’s a very handy old-fashioned word to describe just this process. It’s called objectification.
Of course, “objectification” faces a few barriers to being used more popularly. For one, it sounds resolutely feminist and political (which equals “oo, scary”), where as “sexualisation” sounds at once horribly alarming and unthreateningly apolitical. Sexualisation also contains the word “sex”, which means that people are more likely to read articles containing it in their titles. And talking about the sexualisation of (often teenaged) girls positions it as part of a debate about protecting children. We might assume that the sexual objectification of women as a gender is far less interesting to a broad audience.
* In progressive circles, at least. In more conservative circles, the sexualisation of girls is deeply tied to the moral issue of teenagers and young adults engaging in casual sex. And I think there is some truth to the idea that sexual images and narratives can contribute to a perceived link between sex and status, although this isn’t something that is often directly touched upon in these discussions.