Passive, Heterosexual and Female: Constructing Appropriate Childhoods in the 'Sexualisation of Childhood' Debate

by Jessica Clark
University Campus Suffolk

Sociological Research Online, 18 (2) 13

Received: 31 Aug 2012     Accepted: 8 May 2013    Published: 31 May 2013


The proliferation of debates surrounding the sexualisation of childhood in the late 20th and early 21st century has led to the commission of a range of investigations into the role of sex and consumer culture in the lives of children and young people. This paper sets out to analyse the dominant 'sexual scripts' embedded within four international examples of such reports. It finds that a broad-brush approach to sexualisation appears to render all fashion, consumption, nudity and seemingly embodiment itself, as 'sexualised' and therefore inherently problematic. In what is overwhelmingly a negative reading of contemporary media and consumer cultures, the concepts of gender and sexuality remain un-problematised. Within these official discourses girls are constructed as vulnerable and passive whilst boys are ignored, presumably viewed as either unaffected or unimportant. Sexuality as an issue is palpable by its absence and throughout there is a lack of attention to the voices of children in an international debate which should place them at the centre of enquiry. The paper concludes by urging more in-depth consideration of value positions, lacunae and definitions of key concepts in such reports and consultation processes since such critiques have the potential to inform policy making and the gendered and embodied worlds we seek to explore.

Keywords: Sexualisation, Childhood, Gender, Heteronormativity


1.1 Contemporary minority world societies can be characterised as perverse cultural landscapes, saturated with sexual imagery (Jackson & Scott 2010) yet framing the sexual as risky, rife with cautions and prohibitions. Sexuality in contemporary cultures occupies a similar position to childhood itself, presumed to be natural yet requiring constant vigilance. It is argued that modern societies are characterised by risk anxiety (Giddens 1990; Beck 1992) and this is never more present than in conversations which consider the relationship between childhood and sexuality. Sexual knowledge is considered an important boundary marker between the worlds of adults and children (Jackson 1982) but the location of this boundary is a source of debate – often manifest in discussions of sex education (see Pilcher 2005). Sexuality is frequently conceptualised as inimical to childhood itself – the two domains as mutually exclusive. As such, discussions surrounding the sexualisation of childhood are indicative of a more general social fear regarding the loss or erosion of childhood itself (Postman 1994); emotionally charged with high degrees of moral concern.

1.2 This paper adopts an alternative position locating children as neither inherently sexual nor asexual; sexuality as neither intrinsically good nor bad for children's wellbeing. Instead it considers individual 'sexuality' to be imbued with symbolic meaning and social significance (Hawkes & Scott 2005:8) and as possessing a corporeal materiality that is simultaneously culturally constructed; accessed and understood through discourse. Individuals exercise agency in their negotiations of dominant sexual scripts (cultural scenarios individuals are provided with of 'doing' sex (Gagnon & Simon 2004)) but such discourses are influential in making available particular kinds of sexual subjecthoods. The critiques raised in this paper attempt to emphasise appreciation of biology, structure, culture and agency and move past moral absolutes.

1.3 This paper intends to explore the dominant discourses manifest in four international reports from the UK, North America and Australia, including: the Australia Institute's (AI) Corporate Paedophilia Report by Rush and La Nauze (2006), the American Psychological Association's (APA) (2007) Report of the Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls, the Australian Senate's Standing Committee on Environment, Communication and the Arts (SCECA) Report (2008) on the Sexualisation of Children in the Contemporary Media and Reg Bailey's (2011) Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood commissioned by the Department of Education for England and Wales. By highlighting the prevailing discourses embedded and reproduced within such documents it is possible to critically evaluate the dominant images of childhood, sex, gender and sexuality in contemporary minority world cultures and therefore international policy making.

1.4 Arguments surrounding the democratisation of desire within Western cultures suggest that there are more expansive ways than ever of being a sexual subject. However the contemporary policy terrain has been labelled by some as 'schizoid' (Renold & Epstein 2010), where, for example, prevention of homophobia and promotion of heterosexuality can exist within the same document. This paper attempts to examine some of the assumptions made about gender and sexuality in childhood and interrogate some of the images of 'the child' drawn upon and reinforced in the reports under analysis. The approach of Foucauldian Discourse Analysis (FDA) employed within this paper, discussed further in the next section, is particularly useful in this regard, identifying dominant discourses inside the four reports. This is not a new endeavour and many critiques have been levied at the reports selected here individually (see Bray 2008, Egan and Hawkes 2008, Bragg et al 2011, Barker and Duchinsky 2012). However, by bringing together reports from across international terrains and highlighting the similarities in how they construct and reify a number of important parts of the sexualisation debate, it will be possible to discern an overall landscape on which pertinent issues can be taken forward on an international scale. Just as Epstein et al. (2012) argue that there is a disconnect between how sexuality is lived by boys and girls everyday and the contemporary political terrain in which it is discussed; this paper argues that the same disconnect exists between academic interrogation of hegemonic images of the child in the sexualisation debates and their, often unchallenged perpetuation in reports and reviews by governments and think-tanks.

1.5 The aim of this piece is to draw attention to areas of the reports that, on analysis, are viewed as in need of more in-depth critical discussion and further questioning regarding assumptions about children, childhood and sex. Of the potential themes the three examined and developed in this paper are firstly, broad definitions of 'sexualised' media content or commercial goods which appear to render consumption and embodiment as implicitly 'sexualised'. Secondly, the limited attention paid to the role of agency in the lives of children and the resulting lack of attention to children's voices within the debate and finally, the unproblematised constructions of gender and sexuality.

The study

2.1 This analysis seeks to unpack the dominant discursive constructs and conceptual structures surrounding children, childhood and sex in contemporary consumer cultures across international terrains. The reports under analysis had the broad remit of investigating sexualised commodities and media content in the lives of children and were conducted by or on behalf of national governments or institutions in Australia, North America and the United Kingdom. Other reports could have been chosen but there was a desire to keep a balance across international terrains and to avoid reports which explored sexualisation but which were part of wider or alternative agendas (for example Papadopolous's 'Sexualisation of Young People Review' conducted as part of the UK Governments' Together We Can End Violence Against Women and Girls Consultation' launched in 2009). These reports and the discourses that they embody, promote, or indeed resist, form part of academic, professional and children's understandings of sexualisation and childhood and can and do underpin subsequent policy-making.

2.2 The method employed within this project is Foucauldian Discourse Analysis (FDA) (as defined by Carrabine 2001). The concept of discourse can be defined as 'sets of statements that construct objects and an array of subject positions' (Parker 1994:245). Within this research, identification and evaluation of dominant discourses embedded within the reports analysed was the aim. FDA is particularly useful in this regard due to its specific focus on the role of discourse in wider social processes of legitimation and power. As the ways of speaking about a topic cohere they establish the truth or truths of a particular moment. Particular subject positions ('a location for persons within the structure of rights and duties for those who use that repertoire' (Davies & Harre 1999: 35) are made available from which individuals speak or act. In a constant state of flux, these are contested and negotiated, and operate by offering or restricting opportunities for action. This approach is somewhat akin to critical frame analysis where official documents are studied to determine the voices that are present and silent and how power is employed to regulate what can be said and by who (Ackerly & True 2010: 212). It is not possible from this kind of research to comment upon adults' or children's experiences of these discursive figures and associated talk, the implications of such ways of being in the world. Rather the aim here is to uncover the kinds of subjecthoods that are made available to children and young people, as well as the political concerns and policy responses made possible.

2.3 The processes of FDA employed were informed by the six stages laid down in the introductory text by Willig (2008: 114–117) and Carrabine's (2001) eleven step guide. Discursive objects constructed within the text were identified by extensive reading and re-reading of the data itself and surrounding contextual sources. By identifying the dominant constructions of childhood, sexualisation, gender and sexuality, by analysing how these concepts are defined, understood and talked about within international responses to the issue of the sexualisation of childhood, light can be shed upon the sanctioned ways made available to 'do' sex, gender and sexuality and to 'be' a child, an adult, a boy, a girl, a 'sexual' or a 'sexualised' being.

2.4 It is important to acknowledge my own positionality as the researcher: a white, middle class, female, feminist, sociologist interested in embodiment, gender and sexuality in childhood. This unique set of interrelated attributes impact upon interpretations of data, and recognition that this analysis is partial and framed by my own subjecthood is essential. Others may see different issues and level alternative critiques; so this analysis should be recognised as one potential reading of many. Nonetheless the three themes identified here are: definitions of childhood and sexualisation, children's agency and voices and the unproblematised constructions of gender and sexuality.

Sexualisation and childhood: Do we know what we mean?

3.1 The reports in question have very different approaches to defining 'sexualisation'. It is essential to recognise that the term sexualisation is highly contested and has significant critiques. Duchinsky (2012) evaluates the linguistic construction of the term, noting that its use as an action noun means it simultaneously designates both process and its consequence. '''-ation" follows after the suffix "-ise" which serves to make the word a process through which the noun "sexual" is endowed...signifying a passive process' (Duchinsky 2012). This linguistic definition of sexualisation as the endowment of the sexual (a range of phenomena which broadly means pertaining in some way to sex) onto a person, object or space for example, is useful. However, this is itself an imprecise definition and the term endowment signifies that for what is being sexualised the process of sexualisation is a passive one.

3.2 There is a simultaneous reliance within reports on dominant understandings of childhood as a developmental stage during the passive process of biological unidirectional maturation (Clark 2013). Rush and La Nauze (2006: 3) argue that sexualising forces result in a 'precocious and unhealthy leap towards the end of…developmental process'. Further reliance on these models is evidenced within other reports, for example the description of female (but not male) pubertal development in the Bailey Review (2011: 44), come at the expense of acknowledging the potential agentic and interdependent nature of children's everyday lives and the role of culture in how this is understood. The gendered implications of this are discussed in the final section of this paper but this issue is problematic in its reliance on homogenising developmental models that are a 'one dimensional response to the diversity of girlhood experience' (Kehily 2012: 266). This problem is further exacerbated by the lack of attention paid to children's experiences within the report consultation and research processes and this issue is addressed in the subsequent section. However, this is not just pertinent for understanding how research or consultation with children was approached within these reports but also for how childhood itself is constructed. It appears to be viewed throughout all the reports predominantly as a period of sacred innocence (Faulkner 2010), evidenced in statements such as 'children are especially vulnerable and need to be given special consideration' (Bailey 2011: 9) and which conceptualise 'the tween market as consisting of the most vulnerable in our society' (SCECA 2008: 9). Sexualisation is constructed as an insidious threat comprised of outside adult influences and children as significantly demarcated from their adult counterparts. They are articulated as not able to act as 'responsible' subjects within contemporary individualising political discourses. Contemporary neoliberal agendas, while all too often denying agency to children (as explored in the subsequent section) reaffirms the focus on the family as the rightful place within which children become responsible citizens. Bailey is explicit throughout his report about giving power back to parents to decide what their children see or experience, this is up front in the report introduction 'parents...should be the ones to set the standards that their children live by' (2011: 3). This is combined with a view that all adults should be responsible citizens but that state intervention (not favoured by a Conservative led Coalition UK Government and shrinking welfare system) in family life will disempower parents (Bailey 2011: 3). Moral governance is positioned as ensuring the social conditions within which adult subjects are responsible for their fates and decisions and those of their family (Turner 2008). As Cameron has stated, in a statement which addressed the sexualisation of childhood debate, 'we've got to stop treating children like adults and adults like children...the more that we as a society do, the less we will need government to do' (2009). The discursive image of the child, which is mobilised within these debates, not only reinforces individualising notions of private family life (Duchinsky 2012), but also the responsible, active adult subject, constructed in direct contrast with the passive becoming child. Children's wellbeing as future citizens is to be protected by an adherence to dominant sexual norms that are understood through the window of stage-based developmental discourses which promise to ensure correct and normal biological sexual development (Alldred & David 2007). And, as Bailey (2011: 3) states, it is responsible adults who must 'create the sort of environment that allows our nation's children to be children', thus 'creating and owning a better society' – whatever it is that that means.

3.3 Just as it emphasises that children should be 'children' but doesn't address what this actually means or acknowledge how it may be culturally or historically specific, the Bailey Review (2011: 8) argues that the sexualisation debate is not served well by developing 'complicated and contested, definitions of commercialisation and sexualisation'. The report makes no explicit attempt for readers, within the executive summary or main body, to define the sexualisation of childhood, no concept which can be operationalised in existing or future debates. Thus readers continue for a subsequent 100 pages unsure of exactly what it is that we're all supposed to be discussing.

3.4 It is questionable, however, whether the explicit attempts to define sexualisation actually place us in a better position than the uncertainty of the Bailey Review. The APA (2007) provides perhaps the most explicit definition (utilised also by SCECA 2008) of 'sexualisation' as occurring when one or more of four processes takes place, the final one being sexuality inappropriately imposed upon a person. This definition is so wide ranging that it offers nothing concrete for academics to operationalise further, for practitioners or parents to utilise or children and young people to discuss. This solely negative definition has been subject to extensive critique as violating an established academic standard by not even considering the possibility of a positive view, some condemning it as unworthy of publication (Verra 2009).

3.5 Focusing on negativity and passivity in definitions is not helpful for furthering the debate and can result in sensationalist claims. Rush and La Nauze (2006: 44) provide an interesting example of this in the name of their report itself 'Corporate Paedophilia'. Although a term which attempts to conceptualise how corporations exploit children within consumptive processes, by making an explicit link between consumerism and sex in popular culture and increased risk of paedophilia for children, a notion of fear is induced. This rather sensational title is not subject to explicit, critical reflexivity (Hawkesworth 2006) to consider the impact of using such a phrase on the debate itself. Without this awareness 'subjective interpretation and value judgements are presented as scientific fact' (Simpson 2011: 295) and such sensationalist statements are not recognised as potentially damaging.

3.6 An event which took place in the same Australian context as the Corporate Paedophilia Report is the investigation into images of naked children used by artist Bill Henson. The then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, described the images, before actually seeing them, as absolutely revolting (Trickey et al. 2008) with other politicians following suit, effectively sexualising the image. The recognition that images of child nudity have been present in art for centuries was not considered. In fact in the unfolding of this situation and in all the international reports analysed here historical perspectives are virtually absent (Wouters 2010). Henson's photographs are not necessarily sexual. Their construction as such instead rests upon the interpretation brought by the viewer and subsequent value judgements. Such absolutist political discourse serves to render the discussion of childhood sexuality as illegitimate in itself (Simpson 2011: 292). Such conversations will remain shrouded in veils of morality if no attempt is made to define imperative concepts, and adopting more encompassing historical and theoretical perspectives (Wouters 2010). 'Clichés such as "let children be children" are unhelpful and say nothing…the nature of childhood is not self-evident' (Simpson 2011:2 95).

3.7 As Goode (2010) states, moral panics result in a state of hysteria which appears to prevent the capacity to think clearly. Statements from the reports such as Rush and La Nauze's (2006: 2) view that 'sexualisation of children risks…encouraging paedophilic sexual desire for children' can potentially contribute to these kinds of sensationalising discussions. The view that adults will be uncontrollably attracted to the pre-pubescent girl solely as a result of her being endowed with a form of adult sexual availability by the playboy bunny on her pencil case does not reflect the complexity of issues surrounding adult sexual attraction to children or child sexual abuse. Abhorrence of child sexual abuse should not blind us to investigating sexual non-abusive aspects in children's lives. As in the Bill Henson case, the question should be asked 'were those who wished to classify Henson's photography as child pornography in fact…rendering those particular images of the child even more sexually desirable to the very people they feared?' (Simpson 2011: 299). Inadequate consideration of the context of clothing, nakedness and images of children in consumer culture results in a struggle of signification (Cover 2003) where the rituals that constrain both gazer and performer become unstable. All-encompassing definitions, such as that provided by Rush and La Nauze (2006: 15) where 'material related to beauty, fashion, celebrities or romance…as sexualising content' are so unbounded that all imagery of children or commodities aimed at children can in theory be defined as sexualised or sexualising. If all embodied commodities or images of children's bodies are defined in official discourse as 'sexualised' this has the potential to render such imagery as sexual even if that was not its intention or how it is understood, by adults or children. As Archard (2004: 105) argues 'talk of children's essential innocence is in danger both of being mythic and ironically, of being sexualised'.

Agency, appropriation and voice

4.1 Throughout all the reports childhood is conceptualised as a period of becoming, a phase of the biological life course which, despite its apparent certainty and naturalness, is at risk from outside threats. This construction of children, and childhood itself as at risk is further reinforced by understandings of children as recipients of outside content lacking the ability to understand what they experience without adult guidance or intervention (Jenks 1996). The language employed within the reports is implicitly passive with regards to children's media literacy. Throughout references are made to children's vulnerability, susceptibility to marketing exploitation and limited capabilities to interact in mediatised consumer societies. The Bailey Review (2011: 9) goes so far as to state that to assume children are not passive receivers of media content somehow means those with such views seek to adultify children. As such, there is a lack of recognition of the negotiation of gender, consumer culture and sexuality by children whereby consumptive practices are subject to appropriation, used as both part of collective social practices and in the construction of identity (Konig 2008). The analytical concept of bricolage (Levi-Strauss 1966), whereby consumer goods can be subject to a range of uses and meanings (Hebdige 1979), is not employed. Rush and La Nauze (2006) consider this as failing to acknowledge the vulnerability and limited capacity of young people to process information, and yes, it would be irresponsible to disregard the potential of media messages to impact, potentially negatively, on children's everyday experiences. However, Angelides (2004: 52) argues that 'notions of children's powerlessness…stand as unsubstantiated assumptions, begging the question of their political and performative function'. This paper mirrors these concerns highlighting the double-edged sword of contemporary culture's desire to protect and simultaneously to control children (Lumby 1998), taking issue with the suggestion that children and young people are entirely powerless and passive as they negotiate their cultural worlds.

4.2 This is not to say that children's agency is entirely ignored within the reports. Paradoxically, despite the dominant constructions of passivity highlighted above, children in the Bailey Review appear to be conceptualised as powerfully agentic in their role as 'pesterers', citing both parents and children's identification of the role of pester power. Operationalised here are popular motifs of the Apollonian and Dionysian child which exist in parallel and have been identified as underpinning diverse policy orientations towards children (Stainton Rogers 2001). The Apollonian child is conceptualised as 'angelic, innocent and untainted by the world' (Jenks 1996: 73) and can be seen throughout all the reports which make consistent references to innocent, free children whose childhood is in need of protection. In contrast, the Dionysian child is considered to enter the world with a bias towards evil 'drawn to self-gratification and pleasure, lacking sensitivity and social control' (Murphy nd: 6). This image of the child is simultaneously mobilised alongside the Apollonian in Bailey's 'pester power' discussion. While being passive recipients of media and consumer messages children are also considered as powerful pleasure seeking individuals able to manipulate parental consumption for their own ends.

4.3 Existing research puts forward the view that both children and parents adopt a range of strategies in their consumptive negotiations, few of which are a source of conflict or resemble pestering (see Gram 2010 in Phoenix 2011; Nash 2009). There is potential in this discussion for the Bailey Review to further extend our understandings of how children and families negotiate consumption, media use and sexual content. Further discussion of children as interdependent beings – agentic individuals in their own right yet embedded in familial and peer relations from which they negotiate their worlds. However, instead we are presented with a kind of double fear – children as innocent marketing dupes in need of protection who, when captured by such practices, themselves become a threat to family life. In these discussions of pestering the individual child is not heard but rather functions as a symbol of 'a more disturbing and widespread phenomenon' (Hendrick 2003:11). In fact, for a debate which, on the face of it one would assume children are a central part of, their voices are peculiarly quiet.

4.4 SCECA (2008), Rush and La Nauze (2006) and APA (2007) did not actively conduct any direct primary research with children as part of their investigations. APA (2007) set out to conduct a form of literature review which explored the theoretical arguments, research evidence and clinical experience surrounding the sexualisation of girls. The issue of how adults and children may differ in their interpretation of 'sexualised' imagery is a fundamental part of exploring how children negotiate and understand sexual media content and commodities and their impact on children's everyday lives and wellbeing, yet much research cited within these debates including that selected within APA (2007) has been based on adults rather than children (Buckingham et al 2010).

4.5 Rush and La Nauze (2006) conducted their own research in the form of content analysis of selected media, a useful tool for examining the cultural scripts which children negotiate. However, there are critiques of the sample size and the process of selection of sample material has been questioned (Phoenix 2011: 7). No parameters for defining an image as 'sexualised' are laid out and as a result there is no distinction between sexual and sexualising imagery (Buckingham et al. 2010).

4.6 SCECA (2008) advertised a consultation for individuals and organisations, the number of responses to which they identify as evidence of significant public interest in this issue, none of the responses however, came directly from children. As a result children's voices are mediated by third, fourth even fifth parties, for example, submitted in the form of reports constructed by adults on behalf of children following some brief consultation. An example of this, discussed below, is the submission of conclusions from a session held by the Children and Youth Board of the Department of Education to gather children and young people's views for the Bailey Review. When not left out entirely, this is often how children's views are often represented in such consultations. A reason for this can be derived from the discursive conception of children within these reports as Apollonian innocents and/or Dionysian wickeds (discussed in the previous section). Through such discourses children's voices are rendered questionable, either inadequate by their vulnerability or unreliable by their trustworthiness. When children's voices are absent from such discussions they are disempowered, suffering the indignity of 'being unable to present themselves as they would want to be seen' (Holland 2004: 21).

4.7 The Bailey Report did make explicit attempts to engage with children as part of its review. 520 children and young people aged 7–16 took part in the TNS Omnibus Survey, a further 552 participated in a survey organised by the Children's Commissioner for England, and the Children and Youth Board of the Department of Education, with the National Children's Bureau, held a session to discuss the review and submitted their conclusions (2011: 8).

4.8 This demonstrates a significant attempt, beyond the other reports considered here, to listen to the voices of children however,the significance given to these views remains questionable. Bailey (2011) devotes an entire section in his review to the views of parents but this is not mirrored by a section devoted to children/young people so that the voices of children can be afforded equal status. Frequent quotations from parents in large font decorate the pages throughout this report, and only two such quotations are the words of a child, both girls. The primacy of parents' voices over children's reinforces the dominant neoliberal UK Conservative-led Government agenda, despite significant developments in children's rights discourses in recent decades. As discussed previously, the private sphere of the family is represented as the rightful place of the child and in this domain, parents (adults) hold the power, and the role of Government and its associated institutions is merely to support them in this endeavour. As a result, the child's voice is subsumed into that of the family; this is done in a highly visible manner in the Bailey Review. The final section of the report is devoted to the views of parents, but this is not however mirrored with a section devoted to hearing children's views.

4.9 A graphical representation of results from the TNS Omnibus Survey (Bailey 2011: 58) shows that 'cost', 'peers' and 'parents' are reportedly significant influences on children's consumptive choices, with 42%, 39% and 23% identifying these factors respectively. In contrast, the brand, advert or role of celebrities is somewhat less [insert], identified as influential factors by 32%, 20% and 10% of children respectively. Despite these results from children themselves, the surrounding discussions and parental quotations place significant power in the hands of advertising and celebrity/brands. This is not to say that these are not powerful discursive forces but it appears that the initial views of children would encourage a more nuanced and contextual analysis. Since this does not take place, adult, parental views are given greater space, in effect deemed of greater significance. Children's voices even when explicitly sought out are not given the primacy that they deserve in a debate which ought to place them at the centre of enquiry.

Calling all straight girls...boys and LGBTQ need not apply!

5.1 It is only APA (2007) that sets out to explicitly explore only the lives of young girls in relation to the sexualisation debate, however the lacuna which sexualisation for boys appears to fall into in the other reports is cause for concern. The role of boys occupies a kind of absent presence, characterised by a lack of attention. Rush and La Nauze (2006: 7) provide an extensive list of clothing and accessories that 'sexualise' girls yet the list for boys contains simply one item and of the range of images provided in the report from magazines and catalogues only three contain boys.
'For girls, examples include: bolero cross over tops…crop tops…dangling jewellery from the necks, ears or wrists, dangling belts from the hips or waist, and rings on the fingers…some styles of dress or skirt, most particularly short skirts, and dresses held up by thin straps. For boys, examples include suit jackets…In addition sexualised girl models almost always have long hair…in contrast sexualised boys have short hair…'
The Bailey Review (2011) takes this further by providing a description of the pubertal development of females, as discussed previously, but failing to do so for boys. A form of biological essentialism failing to acknowledge how narrow stereotypes can make life a misery for many children (Barker & Duchinsky 2012) who Bailey would presume fall outside of healthy gender development (Bailey 2011:49). The justification for doing the above, that girls are more targeted by such sexualising forces, fails to recognise the role of the report itself in making this the case by reinforcing such views.

5.2 Boys' sexuality appears to be constructed as so fixed and so natural as to not be at risk. The sexualising forces that are constructed as so dangerous and insidious in conversations about girls are rarely considered in relation to boys. This absence in the reports leaves us to presume that they consider processes of sexualisation as posing limited, if any, threat to the lives or development of boys. This fails to acknowledge the ways in which boys must negotiate dominant sexual scripts or discursive constructions of what it means to be a child. There is no consideration of the potential of the concept of hegemonic masculinity (Connell 1987) or a mask of masculinity policed by peers, social institutions and wider discourses as part of the male gaze (Pollack 2001). By seeming to represent boys' sexuality as unchanging and natural, rather than offering up critique or even recognition of this position, the reports themselves form part of dominant discourses of masculinity. Skimming over boys in consultations whose objective would appear to be exploring the role of sexualisation in the lives of all children fails to consider half of all young people. What message are we sending to boys by seeming to place so little value on their experiences? Even if the argument that girls are the most affected by this issue (Bailey 2011) is considered as a good reason for their restricted focus (which is in itself significantly questionable), by failing to consider the place of boys in the experiences of young women, these reports fall far short of providing a complete picture of the lives of girls.

5.3 The failure to consider boys in this debate is paralleled by an uneasiness regarding how young girls are constructed. Rush and La Nauze (2006:9) emphatically state that 'adult women use cosmetics to make themselves more attractive to men'. Such assumptions of gendered and heterosexualised behaviour serve to construct women in particular ways that do not recognise the multi-faceted nature of girls' or women's experiences, [that some lesbians wear make-up]? or that 'girl culture' can act as a site for agency and creativity (Cook 2004). They fail to question the potential essentialism of femininity in popular culture (Jackson & Scott 2004) but instead naturalise gender as an issue – leaving little space for critiques of femininity and masculinity as social constructs. As Duchinsky (2012) argues, gender and the issue of sexism are embedded in biology in the Bailey Review. The focus is on ensuring that girls become healthy, sexually developed adults avoiding the perilous influences of sex and consumption, rather than offering a sustained critique of how 'normal' or ideal femininity is constructed in media and consumer cultures. These discourses reinforce naturalised understandings of gender at the expense of acknowledging other factors, for example, by citing how natural gender differences impact toy selection in a positive way (Bailey 2011). This can serve to further reify dominant cultural scripts pertaining to gender and femininity. What is somewhat paradoxical is that all the reports spend some time exploring gender stereotyped commodities and the role they may play in providing girls with narrow images of what it means to be a girl and/or woman, certainly a pertinent issue in the lives of girls, while failing to recognise that they themselves reinforce such understandings.

5.4 Beyond gender, sexuality rather than being openly portrayed in a particular (often unquestioning) manner is notable primarily through its absence. In an example of heteronormativity, all four reports appear to assume that the sexual imagery and relationships children may be exposed to will be heterosexual and that women's make-up use is necessarily seeking heterosexual success. Heteronormativity refers to the organisation and regulation of sexuality as grounded in heterosexuality to the point where it becomes a kind of foundational norm, considered so 'normal' that it requires no explanation, omnipresent yet invisible (Hawkes & Scott 2005: 6). While the contested nature of gender is acknowledged (although not evaluated) across the board in all reports, sexuality is predominantly ignored. This lacuna itself reveals something important, that heterosexuality is the default, assumed sexual subjecthood available to adults and children. Martin and Kazyak (2012) examine heteronormativity in children's films and here heterosexual love is portrayed as simultaneously natural and powerful. In the reports however, heterosexuality is not presented as special, it is simply assumed. The reports should thus be recognised as forming part of dominant discursive constructions of compulsory heterosexuality (Rich 1980).

5.5 Potential spaces are available, within all the reports, for critical discussions surrounding sexuality, children and childhood. For example, Rush and La Nauze's (2006) content analysis revealed overwhelmingly frequent material relating to boyfriends and heterosexual crushes in girls' magazines. They did not use these findings to explore how children see imagery which reinforces compulsory heterosexuality but rather they operationalise this data only to consider the inappropriateness of such material for young readers. The primary concern here is a perceived need to keep sex and relationships, of which the only kind referred to are heterosexual monogamous ones, outside of the realm of childhood; rather than to offer a critique of the kinds of relationships and sexualities which are promoted to children. An opportunity is thus missed to fully utilise the data analysed for an exploration of how discursive images of sexuality both legitimise and prohibit particular sexual subjecthoods for children. Tolman (2012) suggests that through the naturalising forces of compulsory heterosexuality the bodies of girls are policed and their desires silenced. In earlier work West and Zimmerman (1987) explore the implications of the processes of doing gender and the difficulty of separating this from the maintenance of heteronormativity. Not doing gender or sexuality in a way that is compatible with biology is thus conceptualised as a threat to heterosexuality (Schilt & Westbrook 2012). Here in these reports however heterosexuality appears not to be at risk, it is assumed and therefore is overtly, yet insidiously, dominant.


6.1 The intention here has been to identify and critically evaluate some of the discourses at play within the international sexualisation of childhood debate. This analysis has drawn attention to the ways that are made available for children to do 'sex', 'gender', 'sexuality' and indeed 'childhood' itself, or for political responses to be formulated. The commissioning of these reports on childhood 'sexualisation' has drawn attention to an important issue in the lives of children in contemporary cultures and they have provided valuable discursive space for debates to take place surrounding childhood and sexuality in contemporary media and consumer cultures. However opportunities to further understand gender, sexuality and indeed childhood itself are not taken up. The reports tend to take such a broad approach to the complex issue of child sexuality that this results in a failure to do anything beyond reinforce dominant gendered and heteronormative discourses. As part of a failure to adequately define key concepts the discussions lack historical context, are imbued with value judgements that have not been subject to critical reflexivity and are framed in morally absolutist, gendered and heteronormative terms.

6.2 What is apparent in the reports is a focus on girls, the construction of children as fundamentally passive, reinforced gendered and heteronormative assumptions, and the defining of all media and commodities that relate to young people's bodies as 'sexualised' and therefore intrinsically negative. These have led to a series of inherent failures in the critical debate that these reports are supposed to foster across international boundaries and serve to narrowly represent the complex, gendered and embodied worlds of children and young people. There is a failure to acknowledge within these reports the intricate nature of children's embodied relationships with consumptive practices and indeed their own gender and sexuality. This is not mirrored in the critical academic debates which have been had around these issues (see for example Attwood & Smith 2011; Coy & Garner 2012). A chasm appears to exist between academic engagement with the issues raised throughout this paper and the position and content of the reports themselves. There has been substantial critical discussion by academics across disciplines in responding to these publications and the issues surrounding 'sexualisation' (see, for example, Kehily 2012; Ringrose & Renold 2012) but recognition of the nuanced and complex issues, for example, in relation to how images of children and childhood are constructed and reproduced, are not attended to in the reports as they clearly have been academic circles. By identifying some of the commonalities that exist across these reports some of the more pertinent issues, such as those identified in this paper (definitions of sexualisation, gender and sexuality and the voices of children) can be incorporated into public debate, extending beyond academia into public debate and governmental response. By identifying critiques across national contexts research that foregrounds the diversity and complexity of children's everyday sexual cultures and subjectivities (Epstein et al. 2012) can be given the primacy it deserves. Therefore despite being unsettling and challenging (Renold & Ringrose 2011) it can be used and indeed commissioned by policy makers across national boundaries.

6.3 In summary, the reports as they stand fail to recognise children as social actors (Prout 2000) and do not put value on children's voices in a debate which should place them at the centre of enquiry. Sexuality as an issue is palpable by its absence, characterised by the lack of attention it receives. By using FDA to unpick dominant discourses the reports themselves can be viewed as part of the overriding sexual scripts which promote compulsory heterosexuality as the default sexual subjecthood of citizens. Even where children's views are considered, they remain both heteronormative and gendered. To put this bluntly, to ignore boys in consultations and policy discussions risks ignoring boys and the issues that they feel are important in their everyday lives. It sends a message that boys are unaffected by these issues and that boys' views are unimportant within these conversations, neither of which are true and both of which run the risk of silencing their voices. The conceptualisation of girls as inherently vulnerable within a dominant culture will not serve to help reinforce women's power (Wolf 1994) or rights and, despite the emphasis on young girls within these reports, does not demonstrate the value of their voices either.

6.4 Highlighting here the dominant understandings of gender and sexuality within these reports does not mean that the media and consumer culture do not also circulate standardised images of femininity, masculinity or sexuality or reify dominant cultural standards of beauty and sex (see for example Frost 2001; Lloyd 1996). Indeed, Buckingham et al. (2010) argues that children are not wholly free to make their own choices but equally 'they are not in any sense simply the dupes of marketers' (2010: 4). As explored in the previous section concepts of appropriation and agency are imperative to understanding how children interact with and utilise commodities and media imagery. Young people 'present themselves as media literate and able to make their own decisions about sex' (Attwood 2009: xx). Nonetheless these decisions are mediated by structural forces and dominant cultural scripts. However, if we assume girls are unanimously vulnerable and passive and take the same generalising and unquestioning approach to gender and sexuality evidenced in these reports, then we too are guilty of not supporting the diversification of images of gender, sexuality and what it means to be a child in the 21st century.


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