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There are two main claims in Getting Real. First, western culture is increasingly sexualizing young girls -- on TV, in billboards, in magazines, and in toys and games. Second, this is having bad effects on the lives of girls -- their mental wellness, their risky behavior, and their relationships with others. The 14 chapters address these issues using anecdote, analysis and social science. The publisher is Australian and most of the book addresses the situation in Australia, but the ideas are applicable at least to most English-speaking countries in the West, and much of the research the book refers to comes from the USA and the UK; especially important is the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.
The evidence for the changes in society that the authors site comes from a variety of sources: newspapers, magazines and TV shows have long focused on the ways in which children are growing up faster these days, and many of the authors site them. They refer to girls getting cosmetic surgery, shaving their pubic hair, dressing in sexually provocative clothes, getting involved in sexual relationships, portraying themselves as sexually sophisticated in their interactions with others on the Internet and on their social media profile pages, and using pornography as a guide to what is sexually expected. There have been corresponding rises in mental health problems for girls, with disorders such as eating disorders, self-injury, low self-esteem, depression, and body-image disorders. There is also indication that sexual abuse of girls is on the rise.
A critical reader will have three main questions in mind when reading this collection:
· Is our culture really sexualizing children and teens more than it did in the past?
· Are the mental disorders of children and teens really on the rise?
· If the answers to these two questions are affirmative, then have the cultural changes caused the rise in mental health and abuse problems, or is there some other explanation for the correlation?
There are secondary questions that are also important in thinking about these issues:
· What level of proof do we require for these claims before we judge it necessary to take action?
· What sorts of personal and political actions will be most effective in dealing with the problems arising from the sexualization of girls?
The collection of essays in Getting Real will help readers address these questions. The best papers survey the current literature and give a fair assessment of the state of knowledge. Emma Rush explains that there is no conclusive evidence for the harms resulting in the premature sexualization of children. Yet she argues that there is some evidence available, and she cites studies showing increased body dissatisfaction, development of eating disorders at younger ages, increased self-objectification, and other health problems. She refers frequently to the Australian government report "Sexualisation of children in the contemporary media" and she endorses the words of Elizabeth Handsley in the report that more regulation needs to be done as a precautionary measure, without waiting for more proof of harm. The argument is that it is too dangerous to wait because children may suffer immeasurable harm before the proof of the cause is available.
Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, contributes one of the other more interesting papers to the collection, where he traces the growing sexual freedom of society since the 1960s, and links it to free market libertarianism. He expresses alarm at the growth of sex without love, and is very suspicious of the so-called freedom we have in a western consumerist society. He holds that the aim of consumerism is to make us a slave to our passions. He argues we should aim for more genuine self-determination. He wants "freedom from the tyranny of expectations imposed on baby boomers' children by the commercial co-option of the aspirations of the sexual revolution." (93). So teenagers should resist the idea sold by the media that 'bad girls' are powerful. He praises self-restraint as a way of resisting the commercial pressures put on teens and achieving true freedom.
Other contributions tend to be a bit more personal, with authors describing their own work against the sexualization of girls or their reaction to it. Selena Ewing discusses her creation of the book "Faking It", which discusses the problematic ideas in magazines aimed at young women. Julie Gale, founder of Kids Free 2B Kids, writes about her work against sexual billboards and "barely legal" pornography in Australia. Parenting author Steve Biddulph sets out his personal views about the problems of a sexualized culture for parents. Feminist Betty McLellan discusses the importance of the sexualization of girls from her political point of view, emphasizing how it makes equality impossible.
Renate Klein presents a puzzling argument about the medicalization of sexualized girls. She starts off with a fictional story, of 14-year-old Emma who gets Gardasil injections to prevent cervical cancer from sex. This leads to a rash, unprotected sex, pregnancy, abortion, and depression, for which she gets medication. Klein's main preoccupation seems to be that medication is problematic and dangerous. This is of course a minority view, and the paper is not very convincing -- it reads more like a cautionary tale.
Another weak paper is by Abigail Bray. She discusses the controversy over the Australian photographer Bill Henson's photographs of nude young girls. [Henson's book Lux et Nox is reviewed here.] Henson was charged with child pornography, but then the art establishment rose to defend him and charges were dropped. Bray says that Henson's work reminds her of the "shocking impact of sexual objectification on a child's body" but she provides no argument for her reaction at all. She calls for the unmasking of the innocence of artists like Henson, without ever make a case for their guilt. It would have been an worthwhile paper if Bray had given a careful argument for her condemnation of Henson's work, but she didn't.
Getting Real as a whole does make a strong case that we need to be concerned about the sexualization of children. It does provide evidence that harm results from the more sexualized culture we now have. It is a valuable resource for those wanting to examine the issue more thoroughly: most of the chapters have lists of works cited, and there is a good range of information included in the book. The writing styles of all authors are accessible, not too laden with jargon.
This is an issue that does need more investigation. It is surprising that the feminist authors are not more concerned that their cause is so close to that of far more conservative activists. In the USA, conservatives have advocated censorship of sexually explicit material, and federal promotion of abstinence-only sex education. There are similar conservative political forces in Australia. The debates over pornography in the 1970s and 1980s led to an uncomfortable alliance between conservatives and feminists at that time, yet the battle was largely lost, and it is hard to see how it benefitted the feminist movement. If we are concerned about the pressures on children and teens to be sexual, we also need to be concerned about preserving the information and choices that are available to young people. Censorship and regulation of information are certainly not enough to promote the well-being of children, and so progressive approaches need to do more to address how we should be promoting the well-being of children.
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York