Ever-growing concerns about the sexualisation of our young people are voiced in the home, the media, in public and policy reports as well as a plethora of popular books. Children, teenagers, adults are exposed on a daily basis, overtly and subliminally, to a diversity of sexual messages and behaviour on the internet, in printed media, film, television, in the lyrics and performance of popular music, in the fashion industry, in our exhibitionist celebrity culture.
Last week, new guidelines about the themes and tone of film and video came into force by the British Board of Film Classification. The findings of an extensive public consultation of over 10,000 people, including teenagers, underpinned the need for these guidelines. [i] A major concern expressed by respondents was the early sexualisation of young girls, the sexual and language content of music videos and the ease of accessibility by young people to online pornography. Risks to vulnerable adolescents of self-harm, drug misuse and premature access to sexual content in film were also considered to be a serious issue for a majority of respondents.
The world-wide web has brought about a radical change in the social and cultural environment for all of us and most especially for our children and young people. It can be, for them, a valuable learning, research, communication and fun tool to access and use through various technologies. Yet it is also the means by which they are vulnerable to the aggressive marketing of powerful companies who exploitatively promote and sell sex in different ways. Children and adolescents can fall prey to paedophiles and other criminals who use the internet to pursue their illegal and abusive behaviour.
Research reveals that the average age of a child's first internet exposure to online adult pornography is 11 years old and that the largest consumers of it are 12-17 year old adolescents. Of that group, 27 per cent of boys are accessing it every week with five per cent viewing it every day. [ii] Sexualisation of young people is a complex topic because many of us perceive sexual connotations in different ways. Polarised opinions dominate the debate. There is, however, a broad consensus amongst practitioners, academics and others, that women are being portrayed more and more as embracing an ever ready sexual availability with sex separated from intimacy and love. Whereas research has indicated that young girls have the ability to criticise and deconstruct sexualised images, this also sits alongside very painful accounts of how bad such images can make them feel and the kinds of pressures they feel subject to. [iii]
If young girls imitate examples of sexual expression from role models such as some minor celebrities, reality show contestants, young pop stars, porn stars and surgically enhanced women, most of whom are paid to increase sales and make money, depict instant pleasure, court controversy and shock, then the chances of girls finding true intimacy, connection, genuine love and passion could be diminished.
Similarly, constructions of masculinity are often linked to sexual prowess and conquest. So-called 'Lads' Mags' boast covers with soft porn images of young women. The rough magic of being a bloke is promoted and free gifts of beer and condoms are offered to increase sales. Boys and young men are being sexualised in ways that could be regarded as neither healthy nor esteem building.
Young people need to be encouraged and enabled to find a sense of personal integrity and a relationship with their bodies that is not based on sexualisation. Surely it is desirable for them to gain a knowledge of the wide range of other possibilities and potentials for living life to the full. Isn't this critical for their well-being and in their relationships with themselves and others? There is a deepening belief around that young people would benefit from becoming more media literate so that they are better equipped to critique sexualised and pornified popular culture. Such literacy would be linked to conversations about consent, coercion, violence and exploitation in sexual relationships. [iv]
I have been reminded of a sermon I preached at St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, later published in Theology in Scotland. [v] One of the lectionary readings for the day was from The Song of Songs. Revisiting the text over the last few days, I think there are resonances for us in these present times.
The only surviving example of ancient Hebrew love poetry, the Song of Songs is a tale of extraordinary eroticism, taking human sexuality seriously. Two young people express their love and desire for one another, unashamedly admiring each other's bodies and celebrating their love. It is the only book in the Bible whose principal speaker is an assertive, confident and happy woman in her own skin. She is strong, her partner is sensitive.
Morals, marriage ethics, contractual obligations don't see the light of day. Neither is it an allegory even though there are those who interpret it as such. Over the centuries the Church taught that because of the Adam and Eve story, sex was sinful unless for procreation and women were the lure to that sin, their subjection, the consequence. [vi] The feminine voice was heard quietly, if at all. It is little wonder then that such sensual poetry was and still is, in some quarters, conveniently regarded in allegorical terms.
The blush factor not spared, these young people capture the freshness of new, consensual love, enjoying a bond of mutual sharing and tenderness, expressing a sacred sexuality of joy, intimacy, reciprocal longing, mutual esteem and wholesomeness. Restraints and propriety are present and we are reminded that their sexual expression of love is neither trivial, cheap nor a commodity which can be bought and sold in the marketplace. Their loving grace and gracefulness, beauty and fragility refreshes our awareness.
In all the diversity of our expressions of love and physical love, perhaps we need to be aware of what protects wholeness in our relationships. If this is forgotten all kinds of misuse and abuse can take place. Might we reflect that we may always be on holy ground and that this doesn't invite open license to do anything? Neither though, can such expression in the context of people's lives be confined within narrow prohibition.
Rowan Williams, before he became Archbishop of Canterbury said in a speech about human sexuality,
'…the moral question ought to be one of how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body's capacity to heal and to enlarge the life of other people…' [vii]
What God celebrates in all our expressions of love - physical, sexual, sensual, non-sexual is deep, selfless, uninhibited sharing – mind, body and spirit - in faithful, healthy and enduring relationships that reflect unconditional love and dependable fidelity.
'…vital for human life…love alone can awaken what is divine within…a rhythm of grace and gracefulness…when love awakens in your life, it is like a rebirth, a new beginning.' [viii]
©Hilary Oxford Smith
[i] See www.bbfc.co.uk
for details of the new guidelines and the results of the research
[ii] Sex Education Survey, YouGov (2008); Livingstone, Beber et al (2005) Internet Literacy among children and young people, Go Online Project)
[iii] Gill, Rosalind, Professor of Social and Culture Analysis, Kings College London, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Conference, Premature sexualisation: understanding the risks, 2011
[iv] Coy, Maddy, Dr., Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University, NSPCC Conference 2011
[v] Smith, Hilary, Revd. Dr., A Beautiful and Enriching Love, Theology in Scotland, 2008
[vi] See Holloway, Richard, Godless Morality, (Canongate 1999) page 58
[vii] Williams, Rowan, The Body's Grace, 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address to The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement 1989, pages 4,5
[viii] O'Donohue, John, Anam Cara, Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, (Bantam 1999) page 26