1. Sexualized images of children encourage men to see children as sexually available.
This is the big fear.
The first issue here is the definition of a sexualized image. As I have argued, this is often highly subjective. A conservative Christian is likely to see certain images as problematic that others may not.
However, even with images that most people would accept are deliberately sexual, such as child pornography, there is no clear evidence that viewing such images causes otherwise normal men to offend against children.
In 2009 Frank Urbaniok from the Canton of Zurich Department of Justice reported in the BMC Psychiatry Journal that:
For people without a prior conviction for a hands-on sex offense, the consumption of child pornography alone does not, in itself, seem to represent a risk factor for committing such an offense.
When investigating the prevalence of internet child pornography consumption, an important practical question is whether consumers of child pornography pose a risk for hands-on sex offenses. Our results support the assumption that these consumers, in fact, form a distinct group of sex offenders.
As with adult pornography, offenders seem to need a prior disposition to offend. A major study by Michael C Seto concluded that:
…men predisposed toward violence are most likely to show effects from viewing pornography and that men not predisposed are unlikely to show effects.
The issue of predisposition is critical here because men with a predisposition to be sexually aroused by children are just as likely to be aroused by ordinary, non-sexualized images of children.
Conversely, men who do not have this predisposition will not be aroused by sexualized images of children. Indeed, one of the most common ways of testing for paedophiliac tendencies is to show the suspect sexualized images of children and then measure their sexual response.
This myth is based on an error of simplistic causation common to the conventional level of moral reasoning. It was used to justify the censorship of the adult nude in art where it was believed that the depiction of nudity would lead to a general moral collapse of social order. No such thing ever happened. Rather people learned to appreciate the nude in the appropriate context, from an aesthetic perspective.
So, if there is no clear evidence that deliberately sexual images of children inspire men to abuse children, what evidence can there be that images that may or may not be interpreted as sexual would do the same?
The irony here is that if the research shows that the person must have a predisposition to see children as sexual, it might suggest that those who see sexualization where others do not may have a similar predisposition.
2. Sexualisation is worse than it has ever been.
Women have always been pressured to conform to idealized notions of beauty and sexual availability. However, these ideals change over time and this seems to be a complaint about a certain type of modern ‘overt’ sexiness, namely ‘sluttiness’.
Might we argue that the type of fashion that conservatives now consider acceptable was once considered risqué and too sexual? Can we deny that some of the Hollywood stars of the past, despite dressing conservatively by today’s standards, nonetheless oozed sexuality? How many young girls grew up wanting to be just like Rita Hayworth?
Sexualization is really the sexual socialization of girls. They have always faced pressure to conform to externally imposed standards of idealized sexuality: especially to be sexually desirable in a pure and virginal way to attract the right husband and then to please him in the home and the marital bed.
In the past girls had very few options. Today they can choose a wide variety of ways of being feminine and sexual. Some of those ways are a rejection of the earlier forms of sexualization; some deliberately reference the past. For example, some women reference the fashion of the sexually conservative 50’s.
And if the sexual socialization of girls has long been a constant, isn’t one of its major manifestations a constant moral panic over the morals of ‘the modern young woman’?
Indeed, isn’t the conservative ideal itself a form of sexual socialization?
The original APA Report made a very important distinction: self-directed sexual exploration was NOT sexualization. Sexualization was all about externally imposed ideals, whether from the media, advertising, or society in general. It is the pressure to try and live up to these imposed ideals that causes the problem.
I would argue that whilst external pressures remain, modern girls actually have greater freedom to experiment with a greater variety of ways of being a woman. It would seem that this is what actually concerns moral conservatives and that when they complain about the sexualization of girls they are really complaining about girls choosing to express their sexuality in ways that they do not approve of.
3. Sexualisation leads to body image issues and eating disorders.
This is perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of all. It is based on the conflation of two separate yet related ideas: those of beauty and sexual desirability. The ideal of beauty pushed by the fashion industry is actually quite different to that pushed by the male driven porn industry. Study after study demonstrates that men do not find thin models attractive and much prefer curves.
Furthermore, even conservatives who complain about sexualization accept non-sexual ideals of beauty, which may also be unrealistic and based on ‘thinness’.
There can be no doubt that girls are increasingly concerned about body image, but body image messages can just as readily be sent via non-sexualised notions of beauty and physical fitness. They can develop body image issues by pursuing an active life through sport, dance or gymnastics. In fact we could argue that the greatest pressure comes from the diet industry, which focuses more on physical fitness than sexual desirability.
Furthermore, there are notions of sexual desirability based on a woman being ‘curvy’ or carrying a degree of body fat. The singer Nicki Minaj proudly breaks the mold of the thin girl.
4. Sexualised images will stay on the internet forever.
The cave paintings of Lascaux are around 17,000 years old. Not bad, but the truth is that all forms of data storage face the danger of degradation. Hard copy storage can last thousands of years. We can still read some papyrus documents from before the time of Christ and the illustrated manuscripts of the Middle Ages still hold their colour.
But when it comes to electronic data, archivists are becoming increasingly concerned. There are two areas of concern.
The first is the constantly changing recording and storage formats, as anyone who has recorded home movies on VHS tape knows. When it comes to digital storage we have seen the transition from floppy disks to CD’s to USB devices and now the Cloud. The new Apple computers no longer include a CD-ROM device.
The second is the volatile nature of electronics. Computers crash and electronic devices fail. For this reason they must be constantly backed-up, upgraded, reformatted and monitored for corruption from viruses and random glitches.
For any image to survive in the digital domain, it must be constantly copied and reformatted.
It is not only the data that is vulnerable, but the publishing medium as well. Websites and social media do not last. If the website owner fails to maintain the site, the host will delete it. Hackers can attack a site and government agencies can close them down. Any images posted on My Space and not transferred are now likely forgotten as people turn to Facebook.
But the new digital reality has created another issue – the rapid turnaround of images and memes. Any given image/meme is unlikely to last simply because it has been replaced by a newer image/meme.
So rather than lasting forever, a digital image might last just a few years – if that.
5. Music videos are a major source of sexualized imagery.
There has long been a moral panic over the sexual content of music and dance. As I have discussed extensively elsewhere on this blog, even the most conservative of dances, the waltz, was once considered too sexual.
A more objective look at the modern music industry reveals that popular music has always been about sex. Even when the moral conservatives controlled what we could see and hear through strict censorship, musicians and image-makers simply used barely disguised lyrical double entendres. The term ‘rock and roll’ is understood to also refer to the sexual act, as well as to a musical style.
We are now at the beginning of the year 2013, a full 60 years since the British invasion ended the golden era of American rock and roll. A mere 5 years after the Beatles went to America, Led Zeppelin were imitating the sounds of orgasm in Whole Lotta Love. It was the era of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Sex was explicit. The cat was out of the bag.
Since that time the music industry has become more conservative. The new crop of musicians do not take anywhere near the same amount of drugs or have anywhere near the same number of groupies on tap for casual sex. They are just as likely to be married and to be vegans.
The music industry has also diversified enormously into a large number of genres and sub-genres, with only a few of these being responsible for the controversial material (ie, rap and hip hop).
The industry has changed in another, very important way. In the 60’s women played a very limited role. It was a very male driven industry. Now women participate at all levels and in all sub-genres. Playing lead guitar used to be a male privilege, but today Orianthi is one of the top 10 shredders in the world: the same with the bass with Tal Wilkenfeld, also amongst the very best. There simply are no barriers.
What this revolution has meant is that where male stars once strutted the stage in an overtly sexual manner, women are now free to do the same. This seems to be the real complaint – that women dare to be openly sexual like the men.
However, a closer look at the music industry reveals that this is actually not as common as some would argue. Of the women voted the most popular female artist in the ARIA awards since its inception in 1987, only one, Kylie Minogue (2001), could be said to have used an overtly sexualized image as part of her act. This means that over the 25 years of the ARIAS, the most popular female artist award has gone to women who do not have a sexualized image (this includes names such as Kasey Chambers – 3 times, Delta Goodrem, Missy Higgins, Clare Bowditch, Sarah Blasko, Washington, and for the last 2 years, Kimbra).
If sexualization is so rife in the music industry how do you explain all the talented female singer/songwriters who seem so unaffected?