Who could have predicted even a decade ago that one of the pressing issues facing parents and psychologists in this century would be the marketing of adult sexuality to young children? Some optimists might dispute that producing little ballroom shoes with heels for two-year-olds amounts to any such thing; but thongs, bralettes and pole dancing kits for seven-year-olds are unambiguous signs of a trend that has forced professional groups and governments into action.

In 2007 the American Psychological Association issued a report on the sexualisation of girls, noting that this form of self-objectification is linked with “three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood”.

Soon after, an Australian Senate committee held a public inquiry and reported in 2008 that “the inappropriate sexualisation of children in Australia is of increasing concern” and a “significant cultural challenge”.

Earlier this year a report commissioned by the British Home Office confirmed that the sexualisation of young people (not just girls) is a serious issue.

And yet, the sexualisation of children says more about our attitudes to sex than our attitudes to children.

The heart of the problem is that children – people who are culturally, physically, and mentally too young to engage sexually as adults – are being moulded and modelled to match an eroticised adult culture.

Although this problem is epitomized by products and marketing directed at children, anti-sexualisation campaigners are just as likely to criticize sexualized material aimed more commonly at an older audience. Lingerie ads, “men’s magazines”, and the general “sex sells” principle evident in much advertising — these are all fair targets of the anti-sexualisation campaign. Campaigners recognise that the objectionable concepts and material being promoted to young children are an extension of what is commonly available in the adult realm.

Even critics of the campaign implicitly confirm that this is an issue of children being socialized into adult culture:

“Trying to hold girls back from the natural desire to put on mum’s lipstick, read big sister’s magazines, play with Barbie – who after all looks like a grown woman – I can’t see how that’s going to have any more detrimental effect than [it did] on me and my generation back in the ’50s and ’60s.”

There is some truth in this defence, as there is in the marketers’ refrain that they do not determine the values of the culture, but merely employ the most effective means to sell a product. Media and marketing constitute the vanguard of a sexualized culture, hence they are legitimate targets of concerned parents. But even the most egregious examples of sexualized marketing to children have not emerged from a cultural vacuum.

The sexualisation of media and marketing is informed by the growing sexualisation of society and its culture, which can in turn be linked to changes in sexual behavior. In the past few decades, adult life has undergone significant changes in the context of sexuality. Three important factors are the increase in the age of first marriage, the increase in the age of parents, and the decrease in the age of first sexual intercourse.

The median age at first marriage in Australia has increased from 23.8 years for men and 21.2 years for women in 1966, to 29.6 years for men and 27.7 years for women in 2008.

The median age of parents has likewise increased: from 29.7 years for men and 26.9 years for women in 1983, to 33.1 years for men and 30.7 years for women in 2008.

Reliable data for age at first sexual intercourse is harder to find, but a 2003 study titled Sex in Australia found that the median age for men had declined from 18 years among men born between 1941 and 1950, to 16 years among men born between 1981 and 1986. For women in the same age-groups, median age at first sexual intercourse declined from 19 years to 16 years.

The pattern is very similar in the US and Britain.

What these figures reveal is a growing rift between sexual experience and its traditional context within rites of passage such as marriage and having children. If young people can expect to have their “sexual debut” at age 16, but marry and have children anywhere from 11 to 17 years later, then sex is clearly no longer limited to the context of marriage and procreation. So what context does sex belong to now?

When sex is part of the package of getting married and having children, it is subject to a tighter set of conditions and responsibilities. Practical considerations such as income, accommodation, and general stability necessarily apply. Sex becomes just one aspect of a lifelong commitment to another person.

But if sex is divorced from all such conditions, then we are left with a merely natural and enjoyable act that is limited only by one’s choices and opportunities in life. This is the idealized form of sex in the modern world. All that remains is to maximize one’s sexual potential, by cultivating the sexual attributes considered most desirable in the present society.

In the greater context of these opposing views of sex, the sexualisation of children has emerged as a point of conflict. The conflict arises because the vision of sex promoted by our culture is so free of constraints and responsibilities, that there is nothing in principle to dissuade or prevent children from being socialized into it. What, after all, are the requirements for sex in this idealized form? Consent, and opportunity. How can children prepare to take part in this aspect of the adult culture? By maximizing their sexual potential, in accordance with the sexual attributes considered desirable in our society.

The disturbing truth is that our culture is doing what it is meant to do: prepare children for their future roles as adults. The problem is that in the context of sex, these roles require nothing more than achieving some semblance of the sexual ideals promoted within our culture – the fashion, the physique, and the attitude. Individuals do not need the long-term planning necessary to make life-changing commitments. They do not need the financial independence to support a family. They do not need to consider how they will relate to their sexual partner in ten, twenty, or thirty years time. Our culture does not require them to be adults, merely to look like them.

If the sexualisation of children is a logical extension of our present sexual culture, then the rallying cry in defense of childhood innocence is at heart a truly counter-cultural movement. As a grassroots campaign, it holds great promise for highlighting both “corporate paedophilia” and the hyper-sexualisation of the surrounding culture.

This groundswell may not have the power to resolve underlying cultural problems, but it gives parents the opportunity, and hopefully the courage, to take on the culture in defense of their children.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide,
South Australia.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...