Friday, 26 February 2010

Sex with Dr Linda

Society - like the politicians who slavishly follow every trend and leap aboard every passing bandwagon - is conflicted both about children and about sex. Put the two together and you have a potent stew of issues. Children losing their childhoods. Adolescent promiscuity and sexual violence. Pole-dancing kits aimed at seven-year-olds. Body issues. Internet porn cascading into the bedrooms of the young. Sexting. Its a subject that unites radical feminists with religious reactionaries, the Guardian with the Daily Mail. Everyone seems to agree it's a problem, but there's less agreement about what the problem actually consists of, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

David Cameron was complaining last week about "padded bras and Lolita beds" and the sexually overt lyrics of Lily Allen, which he deemed inappropriate for his six year old daughter. Today we have a new government report, written not by the usual committee of greybeard civil servants but by some woman off the telly.

The photogenic Dr Linda Papadopoulos used to be a fixture on the those celebrity documentaries with intellectual pretensions. Perhaps she still is. Her job was to psychoanalyse Michael Jackson, or Britney Spears, or the public's fascination with Michael Jackson or Britney Spears, or their shoes, or whatever. Her "scientific" insights were presumably meant to confer legitimacy on what was to all intents and purposes cheap gossip. You may also have seen her on Big Brother. As demand for such gossip became ever more insatiable over the course of the past decade, so her own star rose, until now she is trusted by the government (which well knows the power of celebrity culture) to advise it, and the rest of us, on the contemporary paranoia about children and sex.

Dr Papadop makes an exhausting 36 recommendations, most of which involve bureaucratic intervention of one sort or another. There's more paperwork for already harassed teachers: statutory guidance to schools to enforce something called a "whole-school" approach to gender inequality and sexualisation; sexualisation targets in PSE lessons (which are expanding so much lately, schools will soon have no time to teach anything else); all school staff to receive gender-equality training.

She proposes nannying restrictions on advertising (including the absurd and unworkable proposal, beloved of the Liberal Democrats, to signpost airbrushing in adverts via a "ratings system"), magazine publishers and the manufacturers of games consoles. She wants computers to be sold with filtering software pre-installed. There are several proposals for working-groups, leaflets, government campaigns and targets for public bodies. There would for example be "a working group of high profile women in media together with academics should be set up to monitor and address gender inequality in the media." Another job for Linda, presumably. Also miscellania like these:

  • A new academic periodical to be established and an annual conference series should be held focusing solely on the topic of sexualisation.

  • A schools campaign to be developed which promotes positive role models for young men and young women and challenges gender stereotypes.

  • The establishment of a media award that promotes diverse, aspirational and non-sexualised portrayals of young people.

Perhaps that's because she loves attending award ceremonies. Another of her ideas is that "funding be made available for research that will strengthen the evidence base." That sounds fairly uncontroversial - who could be against more research, even if the tone of the sentence implies that she already knows the answer. In fact, it points to a fundamental problem with the report. Papadopoulos takes as given the sexualisation of culture - fair enough, you only need walk down the street or turn on the TV to see that - and assumes that the impact of a sex-soaked culture on the young will be negative in various ways. There's no rigour in the assessment of evidence - indeed, there's very little of what can be called evidence at all. Instead, suppositions are piled upon assertions - all wrapped up in a mixture of sociological jargon and psychobabble.

Of several basic flaws in the report, the major one is a distorting emphasis on "sexualisation" as an explanation of sexual violence. She asserts that "evidence... suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm." Yet there's nothing new about sexual violence. Domestic abuse used to be considerably more prevalent than it is now. Whether it was ever actually true that English common law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb - and it's probably a myth - physical chastisement of women was (and in many parts of the world still is) alarmingly common.

Papadopoulos insists that sexualisation, if not entirely new, has exploded in an unprecedented fashion in the past two decades. Few would disagree. Where, then, is the "clear link" between sexualisation and violence? The closer you look for it, the harder it is to find:

Researchers suggest that, by encouraging male viewers to internalise the notion of women as sexual beings, adverts create a hierarchy within which women are viewed as subordinate and, therefore, as appropriate targets for sexual violence. The repeated depiction of men as dominant and aggressive and females as subordinate and demeaned is arguably perpetuating violence against women.

This isn't evidence (in fact, for all her claims of being "evidence-based", almost all the studies quoted in her report are tentative, ambiguous and filled with caveats). It's political rhetoric. It draws a direct line between "male viewers" who - encouraged by adverts - "internalise the notion of women as sexual beings" and sexual violence, with "subordination" providing the point of linkage. Yet this is purest nonsense. For one thing, women (like men) are sexual beings. Being sexual does not imply subordination, unless one subscribes to a schematic view of sex by which penetration of the female by the male is inherently an act of domination. And then there's that "arguably". We're talking feminist theory, here, not scientific evidence.

Psychological studies are mentioned in the report, but they simply do not justify the conclusions Papadopoulos attempts to draw from them. For example,

researchers identified a possible link between exposure to popular music and early initiation of sexual activity, pointing to the prevalence of sexual themes... given this, it is perhaps not too much of a leap to posit a link between the messages being sent out to boys and the normalisation of aggressive – or even violent behaviour – towards girls and women

"Possible link... perhaps not too much of a leap to posit a link" - caveats hidden in the body of the report, that few people will bother to read - become a "clear link" when highlighted in the conclusions and the accompanying press release. On the other hand, results tending to cast doubt on the assumption that all or most behaviour is determined by the media are skirted over or explained away. For example, one study found that "there was no statistical relationship between long-term exposure to thin images, the internalisation of the thin ideal and body dissatisfaction, dieting and bulimic symptoms". Another concluded that "high pornography use is not in itself an indicator of high risk for sexual aggression" - a fairly important finding, one would think. Or how about this for bizarre:

There was a clear link between the use and acceptance of pornography and risky sexual attitudes and behaviours, substance abuse and non‑marital cohabitation values.

Non-marital cohabitation values? I mean, is Dr Pap seriously advocating a return to no sex before marriage?

As so often, we have the problem backward. It's not the sexualisation of children that is the root trouble here, disturbing as that is to parents especially. It is, rather, the infantilisation of sex. Take that much demonised symbol of objectified womanhood, the Playboy Bunny. When Hugh Hefner's empire decided to exploit the Bunny symbol for marketing purposes, branding everything from cheap perfume to mobile phone cases to lunchboxes, it wasn't long before the logo's appeal to very young girls became notorious. Teachers began banning Bunny products from classrooms, worrying about the implied sexualisation of their innocent charges. To them, the Bunny Girl was not only a sexualised symbol, it part and parcel of the wrong sort of sexuality: stereotypical, compliant, man-pleasing sexuality.

Yet it was the very innocence of the girls, not their premature sexualisation, that made the Playboy products so appealing to them. They were pink and bright and fluffy. They were babyish. It was the concerned adults who saw sex where the little girls saw merely a cute bunny-rabbit. It probably does much more psychological damage to the child to confiscate her Playboy-branded toy and then have to explain to her about sex and the porn industry. That really is destroying innocence.

Playboy - along with much of the commercial sex industry - took adult sexuality and juvenilised it. The Playboy Bunny is a cutesy-girly pastiche, a sexualised and raunched-up child's party costume. "Bunny girl", shorn the more obviously sexy elements, could be a character in a children's cartoon having adventures in a make-believe country. (And, of course, Hef's mansion is a make-belive country, of a sort.) So of course it appeals to little girls. That's not the puzzle. The puzzle is that it appeals so much to adults.

It isn't just sex that is infantilised these days, of course. Most aspects of life are. We have a government that treats us all like children, passing ridiculous laws for our "safety" and possessing ministers who sound like schoolteachers addressing the mixed infants. Consumerism, in large part, is about getting people to behave like small kids, with immediate desires that must be satisfied RIGHT NOW. Children are the easiest target for consumerism, because their experience of the world is very much in tune with it. It's not so much a case of getting them young, as getting them to stay young.

As St Paul didn't say, When I was a child I thought as a child, I acted as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became an adult, it was exactly the same, except with added sex.

The other part of it is commodification - not just of sex, but of everything. Feminists and sociological theorists tend to put the objectification of women - which is really the objectification of sex - down to externally-imposed constructions of gender, socialisation and the like. It's basically a conspiracy theory, though no-one's quite sure who the conspirators are. But what if it's more basic than that? According a piece of psychological research which featured in (where else?) the Telegraph the other day, the female body is to the male of the species a sort of drug. "According to the study, men looking at a curvaceous figure activate the part of the brain associated with feelings of reward." The research was based on a tiny sample of 14 men - the inevitable student volunteers - but it might help make sense of the sex-saturation of modern society. Basically, we're dealing with a pervasive drug epidemic. Advertisers harness sex to sell their products because it works.

Marshall McLuhan saw it coming almost sixty years ago:

Sex weariness and sex sluggishness are, in measure at least, both the cause and increasingly the outcome of these campaigns. No sensitivity of response could long survive such a barrage. What does survive is the view of the human body as a sort of love-machine capable merely of specific thrills.

The idea that this is a problem mainly, or even significantly, about children completely misses the point.