The sexualisation of boys and girls


'Sexualisation of Girls' by Chris Johnston

The models gracing the pages of a recent issue of Vogue Bambini, an Italian magazine sold in Australia, couldn't have been more than nine or 10 years old. But in their revealing bikinis and cherry lip gloss they seemed anything but childlike or 'cherubic', as columnist and blogger Mia Freedman writes.

'[The] pre-pubescent girls in this ad ... are portrayed as music video skanks,' the mother of three writes scathingly at

Freedman quickly explained why her blood boiled so quickly at the sight of the ad. She was in the midst of reading Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist. It is a sombre new look at 'how we are eroding what was once the sacred space of childhood with a bombardment of appalling imagery and sexually suggestive ideas'.

The effects of such advertising on girls is well documented. In addition to Tankard Reist's book, recent books on the subject include The Lolita Effect by M. Gigi Durham, So Sexy So Soon by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne and What's Happening to Our Girls? Too Much, Too Soon — How Our Kids are Overstimulated, Oversold and Oversexed by Australian researcher Maggie Hamilton.

Hamilton's exhaustive research found that girls as young as nine are worrying whether or not they look sexy or considering having their first Brazilian wax, that at the age of 13 girls were 'sexting' X-rated images of themselves and, by 14, many had already had a staggering number of sexual partners.

As a mother of a toddler son you'd think I'd be breathing a sigh of relief. That by sheer virtue of giving birth to a boy our little family has escaped the advertisers' predatory influences. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although such ads are aimed squarely at girls of all ages (not to mention their cashed-up parents), the advertising net is designed to catch all the pretty children.

'Thong panties, padded bras ... T-shirts that boast 'Chick Magnet' for toddler boys,' write Levin and Kilbourne. 'Hot young female pop stars wearing provocative clothing and dancing suggestively while singing songs with sexual lyrics ... These stars are held up for our young daughters to emulate — and for our sons to see as objects of desire.'

Thankfully, my two-and-a-half-year-old son is yet to fall under the spell of MTV and Rage, but in wanting to steer him through the confusion of his own emotions, as well as make sense of the world around him, time is one luxury my husband and I can ill afford, according to the AMA.

'Evidence suggests that self-awareness starts to emerge around the age of 18 months, though this remains an area of research and debate. The age or stage of development when a child begins to evaluate their body for acceptability is still being investigated.'

It's not just the female ideal that's being peddled, either. 'Entertainment marketed to boys promotes the ideal of being handsome, muscly and aggressive,' says the Australian Council on Children and the Media.

Half-naked ingenues and pumped-up bully boys — no wonder we're seeing an unprecedented number of children with 'a lack self esteem and confidence', Dr Joe Tucci, the CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation warned recently.

Perhaps more worryingly, according to well-known family therapist and parenting author Steve Biddulph, is that this kind of graphic sexuality is often devoid of emotion, attachment, consequences and 'heart' — a precarious visual cocktail for an audience with neither the maturity nor the understanding to discriminate.

Case in point. While it's easy enough to turn a deaf ear to a group of schoolboys no older than nine describing a female classmate as 'hot' (a conversation recently overheard by yours truly), it's not so easy to ignore reports of an alleged sexual assault at a Brisbane primary school on a group of prep-aged girls by boys roughly the same age. Speaking last month on the incident, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg said that in all his 20 years as a child psychologist he'd never come across sexual assault among children so young.

That the road should lead to one of Sydney University's oldest and most prestigious residential colleges can come as no surprise. The all-male St Paul's College came under fire earlier this week after it was revealed that past and present residents were involved in setting up a pro-rape website on Facebook.

In speaking on the incident, as well as on the university college system's perceived 'culture of ingrained misogyny and an acceptance of rape', the New South Wales Minister for Women, Linda Burney, hit the bullseye: 'I am sure that the families are horrified that their sons would have these sorts of attitudes and be involved in this sort of action,' she said.

Horrified doesn't cover the half of it.

Do I feel fortunate bringing a boy into this world? Absolutely. I feel blessed being a parent full-stop and revel in each moment of his development. But my role is naturally precarious. While it's near-impossible — and blatantly craven — to be blind to the pervasive sexualisation, I have no desire to turn into a helicopter parent (after all, one parent's risk aversion is another's paranoia).

Thankfully, my husband and I still have a few years up our sleeves before we're required to sit our son down for the 'birds and the bees' talk, but that doesn't mean we take our roles as co-custodians of our son's childhood any less seriously. Each day as he grows more aware of the messages around him, we hope to reveal a few home truths of our own; i.e. beauty is subjective, but aggression is not and when a young girl's body is stripped of its innocence then somehow we all lose out.

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend.

Topic tags: pro-rape face book page, st paul's college, melinda tankard reist, sexualisation of young girls



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Existing comments

Thank you for your thought provoking article on a currently socially relevant and depressing topic Jen Vuk. One suggestion if I may : NO television in the house. None at all. Never ever.
I know families where the total absence of a TV has done the children no detectable harm at all. Certainly they are a wee bit 'old-fashioned' by modern 'standards' : they talk to each other, they eat together usually/often, they demonstrate love caring respect for each other and the world outside. They are usually very artistically creative & engaged. No, they are not members of any religious grouping . ( Heaven forbid!) They are TV free households. Scary scary scary stuff for parents raised themselves on TV I grant you.

You write : " I have no desire to turn into a helicopter parent..." And why not? If there were cluster bombs on the ground outside would you say the same thing. I suggest that these are not 'normal' times we live in. My personal world view- albeit TV free from birth- tells me that we live in a society in collapse, morally ethically and spiritually. And then of course there is the concurrent collapse of Planet Earth's environment & ecosystems.

Do we really need to immerse our children, boys as well as girls in this reality.
Maybe I'm being alarmist. Maybe I read too much ;-)

david hicks | 13 November 2009  

I don't think you can blame the fairly recent media driven sexualisation of childhood on the culture of Pauls. The male only Sydney University colleges have nurtured generations of misogyny. The fathers, grandfathers and even great grandfathers of the present lot held the same beliefs as the current crew. The only difference is that now we have Facebook.

The good news is that this Vice-Chancellor has acknowledged that there is a problem.

Joanna Mendelssohn | 13 November 2009  

David, you have given us golden thoughts that ought be preached from the house-tops. When I read the words of the Old Testament Prophet - 'Abomination of abominations', I always think that he was foreseeing the destructive power of TV.

Ray O'Donoghue | 13 November 2009  

Great article by Jen Vuk, setting out the causes, and the consequences very clearly. I also agree with David H's comments that there is PLENTY that parents can do, and not just wait for some words of advice at a later age. No TV, or TV just used sparingly, around toddlers, has an immediate and long term mental health benefit for children. Never have TV in bedrooms. Not buying fashion magazines, especially those aimed at children like Dolly and Girlfriend, and not seeing shopping as a form of recreation.

Parents of Jen Vuk's generation seem wary of stepping outside convention, there is a lot more room to be countercultural. Helicopter parenting is not the right word for it, guerilla parenting might be more like it. There is a war on children
whether the slave children who make the clothes, or the fashion-anxious ones who wear them. It takes concerted action to fight back.

Steve Biddulph | 13 November 2009  

Jen Vuk joins the dots well on the St.Paul's issue. There will be causes of this behavior particular to St. Paul's, then some common to all colleges and then finally a set of influences that are societal.

The only part of this article that does not work for me is the description of childhood as once a 'sacred space'. The concept of 'childhood' as we understand it is only as old the industrial revolution. If it existed in any meaningful way before that it was probably only within the privileged classes. Adolescence is an even more recent social construct.

You only need to look at child labour and child trafficking in countries such as India and China to get some idea of what childhood looked like in pre-industrial times.

As a classroom teacher and school administrator I came to realize that childhood can be a pretty tough time for many, even in our 'enlightened' times.

On top of that anyone with experience of child abuse issues at home or abroad is careful not to romanticize childhood.

Childhood might be 'sacred space' for some within the first world bubble but its not true for the majority. I doubt it ever was.

Michael Elphick | 13 November 2009  

Walk into the toyshop and see the massive sexual apartheid on the shelves from babyhood onwards. Try to find a pair of pyjamas or boxer shorts for boys aged 3 - 12 which doesn't feature large or powerful vehicles, explosions, scary, gory, military or aggressive images.

Helen Tuckey | 13 November 2009  

What a timely, articulate article Jen. I am not a parent myself, but with five young nephews and a precious niece facing a very different world than I grew up in, these issues cannot be ignored. Thank you.

Annette Hill | 13 November 2009  

A lot of damage was done in the 19th century by a latent "manichaeism" expressed in prudery and a contempt for the human body and an acceptance of violence and secret sex abuse in institutions. As a reaction in the 20th century advertizers and fashion designers saw no problem in exploting the body as a 'Sex object' to sell products.

As christians we must recover the concept that the "Body is the temple of the Holy Spirit" I Corinthians 6:19 and respect the whole person and distinguish between 'Touch' that is therapeutic and all forms of manipulation and exploitation that take away self-esteem and personal integrity.

john ozanne | 13 November 2009  

There is plenty, parents and good teachers can do, as Steve Biddulp says.

At Lumen Christi Catholic College, Pambula NSW, this coming Monday, the Yr 9 Commerce class will sift through the data collected by a visit to the local newsagency on how women and girls are used in marketing and just what some of the effects could be, not on sales figures for the products, but on the self esteems of the girls and women who see others being used to market goods.

Fiona Patten, who heads up an erotic industries lobby group in Canberra and has recently begun the Sex Party (political party) accuses opponents of her industry as unleashing a tidal wave of wowserism. It's about time that the tidal wave swamped all levels of government with regards to educating our young people of the effects of media tactics on them.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 14 November 2009  

As a teacher, I am constantly confronted by the sexualisation of children - boys who make sexual comments to and about girls; 10 year girls who are already behaving in a coquettish manner. I am somewhat concerned for my grandchildren ...

Noel Kapernick | 14 November 2009  

Well, we had the Yr 9 Commerce class this morning and the teacher, Mrs Wendy Mockler, allowed the students to begin the discussion by sharing what instances they came across of media exploitation that could amount to the sexualisation of children.

Yr 9, that is 14-15 yr olds, raised many instances, not only about print media, but particularly child fashions for sale, use of make-up by young children and the video-clip mentality abroad in children's play even.

Not one student, young man or young woman, was not alarmed at the effects such advertising etc on children and society's attitude to them.

The students did say it was up to the parents but they recognised the issue of proper legislation needed to support parents.

The discussion ended with the students beginning to investigate ways they can contribute to the wider community discussion on the matter.

They were very alarmed at the 2006 figures presented by Melinda Tankard Reist, that in Western nations, $3 million was spent every second on porography.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 16 November 2009  

I agree with Michael Elphick(2-Nov-2009) when he says: “Childhood might be 'sacred space' for some within the first world bubble but its not true for the majority.…”.
…and the reason for this is the evil intent of developed countries (in their insatiable greed for fast money) to exploit (to the ugliest extreme of social injustice) the labour (even child labour) of developing countries.

They completely ignore one of the main tenets of Christianity which is: “treat others as you yourself wish to be treated” … which in turn arises from the teaching of Jesus “love one another as I love you” … which in turn arises from faithfulness to the Ten Commandments and the daily duty of examination of our own lives.

Mandy | 19 November 2009  

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