Kids Today

August 25, 2010
By | 7 Comments

By Alan McKee & Emmy-Lou Quirke

Kids are being sexualized these days. And, wouldn’t you know it, popular culture is to blame:

RAUNCHY pop stars, including Kylie Minogue, have been blasted by their own industry for going too far with sexual imagery. Kylie’s former producer, Mike Stock, has slammed saucy film clips as “sexualising” children, saying modern pop stars are going “too far”

You might think this is just another example of knee jerk prejudice against the culture of the masses .… But is it? Research shows that boys as young as two are displaying sexual behaviour such as masturbating, touching their genitals in public, and undressing in front of others. Similar research found alarming results revealing 20% of boys had had intercourse with a prostitute by the age of 18.

These are alarming statistics.  What’s happening to children today? ‘The X-rated generation’, some call them, are out of control and the media MUST be to blame.

Except, of course, that the statistics in question come from 1943. Young people are not suddenly becoming ‘sexualised’. Sexual development is a normal, healthy part of childhood, and for as long as sexology has been examining it, sexual exploration has been a part of children’s development.

Research on the sexual development of children makes for fascinating reading.  A 1928 study of infant boys reports that 55% of the cohort had masturbated before the age of 36 months. In 1933 ‘games involving undressing or sexual exploration (often under the guise of “mothers and fathers” or “doctors” [were] common by age 4 years’. As noted above, in 1943 more than 20% of boys had visited a prostitute by age 18. In 1957 about half of pre-school children exhibited ‘sex play’ or ‘genital handling’.

Not only has this been going on for at least 90 years, the research suggests that it’s perfectly healthy. In a 1993 retrospective study, 85% of women described ‘a childhood sexual game experience … [and] statistical analysis showed that these subjects did not differ from those who did not remember any childhood sexual games’.

A common phrase in the Australian media when discussing this topic is ‘let kids be kids’. ‘Kids Free 2B Kids’ is even the name of a local lobby group protesting about child sexualisation. We agree – kids should be free to be kids. And part of being a kid is sexual development. That is what kids do – what they have always done. It’s normal, and it’s healthy. Some people don’t like it, and would like it to stop. But let’s take it seriously – let kids be kids – and do what kids have always done.


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7 Responses to “ Kids Today ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on August 25, 2010 at 8:54 AM

    Thanks for this Alan and Emmy-Lou. You’re right to point this out, and I agree that a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the issue goes way too quickly to images of children as putti. But surely there’s reason to be concerned about some media outlets’ investment in kids’ sexuality, just as, for instance, feminist scholars have long been concerned in the media’s investment in female sexuality, not to suggest that women aren’t sexual beings but to question why they’re so often presented as sexual beings first, foremost, and only. Maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to continue being shocked by some of what I see, but I’d like to think it’s possible to believe in children’s sexuality while still condemning many instances of the media’s presentation of it as tawdry.

    • Derek Kompare on August 25, 2010 at 9:47 AM

      I agree, Jonathan. Sexuality in American media has been increasingly represented in adolescent terms for years, regardless of peoples’ actual ages. In other words, we’re always supposed to do it like we’re 18, no matter if we’re 7, 29, 41, or 60. This has reduced the richness of sexuality down to a handful of mostly heteronormative, lusty adolescent flavors. The problem is precisely that the prohibitionists have mistaken this narrow shard for sexuality more broadly.

      As for kids, this hits girls about 100x harder than it hits boys, and it starts as soon as they can walk. While boys are rewarded for being into heavily gendered, but not especially sexualized, interests and experiences, girls are overwhelmed with clothing, toys, and accessories that emphasize physical attraction and presentation for men (the princes in all those princess stories).

      I hate to sound like those MEF videos, but sometimes the dominant ideology is pretty damn effective and ubiquitous.

  2. Myles McNutt on August 25, 2010 at 8:56 AM

    Just as an additon to this great piece, see this week’s episode of Mad Men for a (fictional) piece of evidence for the longstanding nature of this connection.

  3. Jennifer Aubrey on August 25, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    Agreeing w/ Jonathan Gray, it is right to point out that the rhetoric surrounding children’s sexuality often falls under the umbrella of moral panic. However, I also think it’s important to recognize the difference in the two points you are making. Kylie Minogue is highlighting the extent to which the media sexualize young people, particularly young women. (Miley Cyrus is a great current example.) Here, the concern is that young women are sexually objectified and presented in ways that *are* developmentally inappropriate. And the other point you make is about children engaging in normal, healthy, developmentally appropriate sexual behaviors. So, yes, I agree that kids should be allowed to explore their sexuality, but I also think the culture unfairly sexualizes young people. I see these two arguments as apples and oranges.

  4. Lindsay H. Garrison on August 25, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    Thanks for this, Alan and Emmy Lou. It’s important to historicize and temper the ways in which children/childhood are used in fear-based discourses of media and moral panics and/or demonization of popular culture. Those are some powerful statistics and findings that serve well in fighting this sort of cultural amnesia.

    At the same time, in doing so, it’s also important to complicate childhood/children and sexuality even further in a way that moves beyond children/childhood as a fixed, universal signifier and interrogate the ways that the discursive construction of childhood works in both challenging and upholding certain forms of cultural power. As Derek mentions, the intersection of media, children, and sexuality often operate in very gendered ways; we also need to interrogate how this interaction can also be raced and classed, not to mention the heteronormativity of it all.

    You make a great point that children are not asexual, and that the media is not to solely to blame for kids’ sexuality. But we can’t say “it’s what kids have always done” without looking more closely at social/historical contexts (that certainly include media in kids’ everyday lives). Instead, perhaps we should take the point that children are sexual and social beings to interrogate the ways in the media (and moral panic discourses) work to define this sexuality, and the ways in which kids themselves – along with parents, families, peers, communities, and other social processes in their lives – are constantly negotiating those tensions.

  5. Lorena on August 25, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    I think you fail to understand that being sexualized does not equal normal sexual development. In that light, I can’t see this article as anything other than redundant.

  6. Alan McKee on August 25, 2010 at 9:40 PM

    Thanks for these comments. You raise an important point – if we accept that children should go through healthy, normal sexual development, the next question is – how do we differentiate that from ‘sexualisation’? We can’t just say that one is good and one is bad without some attempt to differentiate between the two. As a starting point for discussion, have a look at an article that I co-wrote with a psychologist, an early childhood expert, a sexuality educator, a cultural studies expert and a legal expert in children’s rights – ‘Healthy sexual development – a multidisciplinary framework for research’, in the International Journal of Sexual Health –