In my Salvo article ‘Sex an the Kiddies‘ I pointed out that one of the subversive features of the over-sexualized environment our children are growing up in is that they are becoming desensitized. In a society where sex is used to sell everything from shoes to vegetables, the danger is that children become so used to it that they cease to consider things to be sexual which clearly are.
This struck me when the BBC did a documentary on the sexualization of children and Sophie Raworth visited 13-year old Chloe. Dressed skimpily and imitating the erotic dancers she had seen on television, Chloe’s dream was to go all over world as a dancer. Raworth asked Chloe if she was trying to be sexual. Chloe confessed that there was nothing sexual in her mind when she was dancing. Moreover, she said, as long as she kept her clothes on, there was nothing inappropriate about her moves.
Certainly the self-evaluation of a 13-year old girl should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt. Yet as I point out in my Salvo article ‘Sex & the Kiddies: The Sexualization of Children & How Advertising & Entertainment Change Their Brains‘, I think there is an important lesson to be learned from the fact that Chloe failed to acknowledge the obvious eroticism of her behavior. As our children are bombarded with more and more sexual stimuli, one effect is that they cease to even see certain things as sexual, with the consequence that important barriers are lowered. Chloe found this out in a rather disturbing way when she was eleven. A stranger who had seen some of the dance moves Chloe posted online contacted her to tell her how sexy she was. Chloe panicked and immediately removed all the videos.
Yet the question remains: how have young people like Chloe managed to convince themselves that all but the most explicit displays (in Chloe’s case, taking off her clothes) are benign and evacuated of erotic meaning? And do the products and media that girls like her are able to so easily access have anything to do with this?
The answer to this question may lay in the thought of one of the early pioneers of the sex education movement. In his book The Sexual Revolution, Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) described the means for achieving a society that would not put any obstacles in the path of sexual gratification. I have discussed Reich in my Salvo article, in which I point out that
For all his moral anarchism, Reich was perceptive. He realized that in order to achieve the type of sexual utopia he desired, he must first move society away from the shyness and embarrassment surrounding sex. In particular, he argued, people must lose their reluctance to expose erotically important parts of their bodies. Reich attempted to facilitate this by having psychotherapy sessions in which he would require his clients to remove all their clothes.
Reich would be pleased if he could see a European summer today, which is more in keeping with his ideal than what we find in brothels. In a brothel, women have overcome the natural shyness surrounding erotically important parts of their bodies in order to advertise sex; on a sunny beach, scores of women can be seen who have overcome this natural shyness with no thought of sex at all. Indeed, by refusing to explicitly acknowledge the erotic implications of minimalistic attire, we are fast approaching Reich’s goal of a society in which shyness has been overcome and sex is flattened of its inherent potency. “Profane” best describes Reich’s ideal and its realization in the contemporary situation, given that the term originally meant “to treat as common.”
The current debate about the sexualization of children needs to be charted within this same rubric. Certainly when low-cut blouses are marketed for 13-year olds, when music videos for children are saturated with sexual imagery and when sex is constantly used to sell products to young teens, the result is going to be that many girls will become hyper-sexualized. However, such saturation can equally have a desensitizing effect since it unconsciously orients youth to treat their sexuality as something trivial, benign and commonplace. Either way, it primes girls for perverts like Reich: the former because hyper-sexualized girls will want to have sex; the latter because girls are less likely to guard and protect that which they have been oriented to treat as being merely common.