That is the reaction of Australian retailers to a think-tank report which argues that the way they advertise and stock inappropriately sexualised clothing for young children amounts to corporate paedophilia. The report focussed on the growing “tween” market segment for girls 8-12, which is all about lip-gloss and “hot” hair and clothes, with magazines that encourage girls to develop crushes on adult male celebrities. This segment has become so important that now “pre-tween” fashions such as bralette tops are being marketed for toddlers, because heavens forfend that people look at a small child and not immediately know, from a distance, that it is a female being trained to the proper display of hawtness.
The concentration of leisure time on pursuing fashion and beauty from such an early age interferes with other childhood pursuits, but the wasting of time that could be better spent playing sport or enjoying an intellectually-stimulating hobby is only one aspect of the problem of increasingly sexualised child fashions. When the world keeps on presenting young preteen and early teen girls as sexy since infancy, it makes it very difficult for teenage girls to resist sexual pressures when they arbitrarily become “legal”.
The focus on the sexual misbehaviour of Congressman Foley in the USA flirting inappropriately with male teens has become a homophobic free-for-all, but hardly anyone is noting that older men being sexually flirtatious with female teenagers before the age of consent is situation-normal, as anyone who has ever been a teenage girl can attest. The sexual grooming of pre-consent-aged teens is not a behaviour peculiar to predatory homosexual males, it is a common behaviour of all sexually predatory “casanovas”.
Dr Emma Rush of the Australia Institute is the author of the report Corporate Paedophilia, and writes an op-ed in today’s SMH, Adult world must let girls be girls:
If children perceive being “sexy” as important and their play times revolve around this theme (shopping, makeovers, imitating pop stars and so on) then they will miss out on other activities that better foster physical and cognitive development, such as sports, problem-solving games and imaginative play. As a result, aspects of their physical and cognitive development are likely to suffer.
Some seek to dismiss these risks as a “moral panic”, arguing that children benefit from sexualisation because their sexuality gives them a source of power in a world in which most of the power is held by adults. In fact, this very power imbalance means that any sexual engagement children might have with adults is more than likely to end in the further disempowerment of children.
Rather than being empowered, children are being exploited by the process of sexualisation. For children seeking to become empowered in an adult world, a more promising route is to focus on developing cognitive and emotional capacities that enable them to negotiate power relations more maturely and with less risk to themselves.
Such capacities also enable young people to choose to use their sexuality in a respectful way, rather than for seeking to gain an advantage over others.
The counter-argument is always that it’s “natural” for young girls want to look good, and play a bit of dress-up, but how do they decide what “looking good” entails? From what they see around them on TV and magazines. As a recent neurological study shows, we perceive as most beautiful that to which our brains are most accustomed by experience: the less cortical processing power required to identify and contextualise an image, the more attractive we find it. This implies that as images bombarding us with sexualised children make that the normal daily visual stimulus, eventually children dressed simply as children will start to look odd, and even unattractive simply because they aren’t wearing the trendy sexualised fashions.
No child wants to look unattractive, and no parent wants their child to look unattractive. But no parent wants their child sexually exploited either, to be subtly coerced into sexual activity before they really want to, simply because everything they are wearing tells the world that they are “up for it”. But how to find clothing that doesn’t objectify your child?
Sadly, what the trend means is that the most affordable clothing for children is the raunch-for-kids fashion which is all that is available at the cheapest chain stores. It is almost impossible to find clothing for girls aged 8-12 in downmarket chain stores which is not sexualised. For people on low incomes, this means that if you want your daughter to have new clothes for that schoolmate’s birthday party, to fit in so that they won’t be ostracised as too poor to afford nice new clothes, there is no option other than to dress like a raunchy pop-star.
People on higher incomes can afford to go to more upmarket chain stores which offer more traditionally tailored and durable child fashion, so they can choose to have their daughters dress less raunchily for more of the crucial tween years. This difference has implications for which socioeconomic class of teenagers is most likely to be groomed by sexual predators from an earlier age, and thus which group is most likely to end up with an unplanned teen pregnancy, bringing up further children in poverty at the mercy of the only fashion they can afford.
There’s a big difference between disapproving of modesty-fetishes in clothing for adult women and disapproving of sexualised fashions for pre-teen girls, although no doubt the “feminists are hypocrites” card will be waved. Wave away.
Crossposted at Larvatus Prodeo