When I was little the Benny Hill show was all the rage. Much to my sister’s amusement and my parents’ embarrassment, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up the answer was always a Hill’s Angel. I also fancied being a member of Legs 11, Bucks Fizz (didn’t we all want one of those rippy off swishy skirts) or one of the dancers on the Kenny Everett show
I don’t look back on that with any sense of shame, I actually think it’s rather amusing and quite ironic all things considered. I haven’t grown up with a skewed sense of women as objects or being man-pleasers, nor did it adversely affect my body image. To quote the cliche, it’s not done me any harm, nor I suspect countless others of my generation.
The women I saw prancing about on TV seemed exotic, glamourous and beautiful, a world away from a mundane existence in an Essex village. They exuded excitement, much more fun to be a Hill’s Angel than a school-teacher, you get to wear sparkly costumes and make-up, be on TV and more to the point everyone would think you were really cool. I spent hours in a make-believe world of being a fabulous dancer for an admiring audience.
I’m sure had Nadine Dorries or Mary Whitehouse seen me practicing my various dance routines they would have exploded in apoplexy, little knowing that this over-sexualised youngster would one day marry a vicar, advocate abstinence and get the odd feature writing about the poetry of John Paul 2 in the Catholic Herald!
The Benny Hill show was seen as clean family viewing as were the Carry On Films. Every time I watch a Carry On film I spot a new double-entendre and from an adult perspective they are almost eye wateringly rude, but with the eyes of a child, it was the characterisation, plots and slapstick humour that were amusing. The sexual nature of the humour went over our heads. The iconic scene whereby Babs Windsor lost her bra provided the source of much entertainment for my sister and I for years, as we acted it out; pretending to be grown up ladies with breasts was hilarious: “And Fling, And In, And Fling, And In, And FLING – ooooh Matron, hee hee hee hee”.
The TV shows that were on exposed children of the 70s and 80s to every bit of sexualisation as they do today, only in today’s post feminist world the portrayal of sex is very different, but it is still nonetheless there. We needn’t panic about this unduly. All children will want to copy adult behaviour that they see on television. It’s how they explore and learn. Over the years the games that I’ve seen my daughter play have made me wonder whether or not I need to bring in a psychologist, but concepts such as illness, death, being kind to others, nurturing, playing at being mummy or daddy are all explored through play.
Sexuality is no different. Children don’t just arrive at the magical age of 16 and suddenly they are fully sexual beings with mature adult feelings. They experiment and play at being adult, at being sexy and one of the ways that they do this is by copying adults who embody cool or those qualities that they would like to have as adults. Sexuality is always encompassed, but almost always on a subconscious level. So next time you see a teenybopper bumping and grinding, before cringing and blaming an overly-sexualised society, think of me, pretending to be a Hill’s Angel at the tender age of 7 or 8, with absolutely no idea that I was being “sexy” simply copying the attractive ladies on TV. When and if my children do it, I’ll simply laugh and realise that it’s exploration. Though the sight of a mini-Britney may send shivers through the spine, the discomfort is the perception of the sexually-aware adult, confronted with the uncomfortable juxtaposition of childhood and sexuality. The notion that children may be “sexualised”, that they are somehow sexual creatures or are attempting to buy into the adult world of sexuality is the defence of the pedophile.
I write this in response to today’s news that the government are now wishing to pass measures to counter the over-commercialisation of children to protect them from over-sexualisation. There is some merit in a few of their proposals; anyone who saw last Tuesday’s Holby City with its depiction of homo-erotic violent sex, with two men stripped to the waist fighting then kissing, followed by a similarly graphic heterosexual scene, to emphasise the character’s alleged sexual confusion, will agree that this was too adult a scene pre-watershed. I would not have wished to be sat there watching it with a 10/11-year-old and having to explain the very adult nature of the themes involved, to be honest I’m not sure that I would understand them myself. The BBC and other broadcasters have a duty to ensure that their content is suitable for younger viewers, although Holby City is rated as a 12 show and given the adult nature of many of their themes, I would not be allowing a child any younger to watch it.
Whilst we need to make sure that TV and internet content can be appropriately filtered in order that parents may discern what is suitable for their children to watch, I am extremely wary about the government acting as the nanny state in this respect. I am flabbergasted that a Conservative prime minister is mooting the idea that the state needs to control what may be supplied in the shops, in terms of appropriate children’s clothing. I am well aware of the ubiquitous padded bra and other inappropriate material for children, but it seems to me that if you don’t like a certain item of clothing, then don’t buy it for your child. You have the money, you are the adult paying either a mortgage or rent, you are the one in control here, therefore rather than complain about the availability of such items, let your wallet do the talking. It’s the same principle whilst in the supermarket, we all get subject to pester-power, but ultimately the key is not to give in to the demands for chocolate breakfast cereal or whatever.
But what about those people who do buy chocolate cereal for their children, don’t we need to legislate for them? No, in a free country, our children are OUR responsibility, not that of the state and thus though wanting to save them from the perils of a sugary breakfast is a laudable objective, in the same way that it is wanting to save them from the horrors of a tracksuit with “juicy” written across the rear, we have to let parents make these choices for themselves. We cannot be legislating or letting the state determine every aspect of our children’s lives. Besides, the chocolate cereal might be a one-off holiday treat, or do we ban it for those parents who can’t be responsible? Do we ban turkey twizzlers and fast-food? It’s the same with abstinence actually. Legally children must be given sex education, the state determining what is appropriate. I don’t want the state to decide what my children must be taught in terms of sexual behaviour, I think that is entirely down to the parents, which is why schools shouldn’t just present one option that is politically acceptable or motivated, which is currently the case.
My seven year old has an entirely innocent Little Miss Naughty nightshirt. She likes Little Miss Naughty, unsurprisingly enough there’s some empathy going on there. If she saw the Little Miss Naughty Bra and asked for it, I would say no, explaining that she doesn’t need a bra yet, but when she does, mummy will help her choose one. But playing devils advocate here, say I did buy her the bra, where is the real harm, particularly if I didn’t let her go out in it? Why would she want a bra? Because she sees mummy wear them and wants to pretend to be a grown-up like mummy. Would she want it to look sexy? She’s got no idea what sexy means, she’d probably want it to look pretty and grown up. She’d want Little Miss Naughty on it, because it would appeal to her. A child would have no idea of the way a beloved character has been exploited for its potential sexual double-entendre by the crossover into the adult market. It is clearly cynical marketing, but adults have the power. We are not helpless or powerless in the face of childhood pleading. By the time child has got home she has probably forgotten all about said bra. But, if I wanted to buy it for her, if I thought it was harmless, then again that would be my choice as the adult consumer. Since when did the state start deciding what should be supplied in the shops? Why can’t I buy my child a bra if she wants one?
I don’t like to see children dressed like sexually aware adults admittedly. Not because I think that they will attract pedophiles, who are unlikely to be swayed by what the child is wearing and very rarely will a pedophile attack a random child simply because s/he happens to be wearing a bikini or whatever, but because there is something that jars and is discordant about a child wearing an item of clothing that has been designed to draw attention and flatter sexual features they are yet to possess. But this idea of children not looking like mini-adults is a relatively new one, which only really began to take off in the twentieth century, up until then, children were always dressed like adults, it was followers of Rousseau who began to copy the idea that children perhaps should be dressed in order to give them more freedom of movement. Most people don’t have a problem with children wearing minature versions of modest adult clothing, it’s the immodesty that causes the issue.
Whilst there might be a case for putting in place certain restrictions to ensure that children are not inadvertently subjected to inappropriate material, whether that be on the TV, in advertising or on the web, there seems to be a fine line between that and the censorship of the Victorian era or an Islamic state. Some adverts have recently crossed the mark, but if an advert is sexually graphic enough not to pass the ASA guidelines, then it shouldn’t be put on a billboard anywhere. Children are likely to see billboards wherever they are posted, so rather than ensuring a poster is not put somewhere that a child might see it, surely the most logical stance would be to ensure all adverts are appropriate for viewing by children. Moving lads mags to the top shelf again seems sensible, but it seems to me to be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
There is something discordant about a society which on the one hand is fretting about the idea that our children might be taught to say no to sex, as many of the members of the Labour party seem to be, and yet on the other are doing everything possible in their power to ensure that children never see a single naked body or any sexual images whatsoever until they wake up one day and discover they are sexually aware. The main issue is not the images, clothes or dance routines in themselves but the morality and messages about sex that underpin them, banishing them from out of sight of the children does nothing to help children contextualise or deal with these images as adults. If anything it contributes to an unhealthy attitude about sex. As we do live in a sex saturated culture, anyone concerned about the impact on their children should use their initiative to filter out inappropriate material and also explain and discuss these images and concepts with their children, but ultimately what is appropriate is dependent on the judgement of the adult.
We seem to be adopting a similar attitude to sex and children as we are to death. It’s clinical, let’s sanitise it, keep it behind closed doors, not mention it in front of the children, its scary, they won’t understand, until suddenly one day they have to deal with it for themselves.
If we are going to keep our children safe, then it is up to us as parents to take responsibility for our children’s upbringing. My 7-year-old has no idea what “sexy” is or how to be sexy. Hannah Montana, High School Musical and Glee are not watched in our house and by the time the X Factor starts she is in bed. Similarly we don’t listen to pop music stations. No television is watched which has not been pre-filtered by us and the computer is not used. Her clothes are entirely age-appropriate and no arguments ensue at this stage. She is not sexualised in any way shape or form, although she knows the different between boys and girls, what naked adults look like and understands that husbands give wives their seed to make babies. I know that sex is everywhere and unavoidable but rather than get squeamish about it, I take ownership and responsibility making sure that she is not watching programmes aimed at teens. When the time comes we will watch programmes together rather than let her passively absorb any messages of dubious value.
She still came home from a party the other day saying that she liked Lady Gaga and might quite like to be a pop singer one day. I laughed. I am confident enough in my parenting and my values not to be reaching for the smelling salts at any perceived sign of sexual precociousness. But then again I see the issue of managing my children’s developing sexual awareness and their path to adulthood as being no-one’s responsibility but mine. If we are serious about keeping children safe and ensuring they reach adulthood minus an unwanted pregnancy then maintaining open communication about sex and relationships is key. Persistent exposure to adult nudity keeps vigilant parents on their toes, not perhaps being the most helpful of images, but unless one isolates children from society, some exposure to images is inevitable. We simply need to ensure that these images are not unduly explicit. The underwear sections of women’s catalogues will continue to provide adolescent titillation for generations in the same way that most children furnished with their first dictionary will immediately proceed to look up the rude words. If you don’t want children to see anything stronger than the Next catalogue, then don’t have that material in your house, no matter how “well hidden”.
Whilst the use of Internet porn has disturbing implications, for adults and children alike, the responsibility needs to be on the parents to prevent their child’s exposure. Society needs to resolve issues of sexuality, far-reaching questions need to be asked about our culture and how sexually healthy we really are, but banning children from playing at being exotic grown ups by putting restrictions on what they may wear or what other people may wear or how they may dance is a superficial answer.
Oh, and I’m pretty sure that I still have my fingerless lace gloves surreptitiously bought from Etam circa 1984 and hidden in a drawer safe from the disapproval of my mother’s eyes aged 9, together with the rows of bangles to go with them so I looked just like Madonna on the front cover of my sister’s Like a Virgin album.