The Sexualisation of Young People Review commissioned by the Home Office is confused, simplistic and fails to situate sexual representation within a historical and social understanding of power and inequality.
Sex is everywhere. I did an actual double-take when I saw an arched and airbrushed woman on the back of a Manchester bus promoting their new environmental fuel, with the tagline 'Green is the new Black'.
So you would assume that I'd been jumping for joy at the recent independent Sexualisation of Young People Review commissioned by the Home Office.
Psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos led the year-long consultation for the review, which included a literature review of the field, focus groups and evidence sessions with practitioners, academics and activists.
I had to think quite hard before writing this piece, as I am troubled by the overwhelmingly homogeneous notions of sex, sexuality and gender that confront me every day. The kind of images that present the goal of femininity as white, heterosexual, slim, pubescent, rich, hairless, and up-for-it (but not too up for it).
But the Sexualisation of Young People Review also troubles me. The review may well have implications for policy - David Cameron and Gordon Brown have both weighed into recent moral panics about childhood innocence, and the report carries nine pages of policy recommendations for education, media, business and research. Yet it is confused, simplistic and fails to situate sexual representation within a historical and social understanding of power and inequality.
What is 'sexualisation' anyway?
The term 'sexualisation' has been flying around the research world for a few years, but academic Feona Attwood has argued that it is more of an umbrella term than a straightforward definition. Broadly, it tends to be used to describe the process of something becoming sexual - whether that be the increased mainstreaming of sexualised images and texts, or the 'imposition' of sexuality onto a group of people, for example children and young people. As with many broad terms, the word is often used in different ways by different people, which has important implications for any claims being made by researchers, or attempts to compare research in this broad area.
The term is central to an often polarised debate about the 'pornification' of culture, in which feminists are divided over whether an increase in sexual representation is about empowerment and choice, a form of 'retro-sexism' or something more complicated.
What was the purpose of the review?
The review is situated within the Home Office's Together We Can End Violence Against Women consultation. As such, it sets out its scope as “how sexualised images and messages may be affecting the development of children and young people and influencing cultural norms, and examines the evidence for a link between sexualisation and violence”.
This is an ambitious goal. Researchers across disciplines have been divided over the possibility of determining the impact of representation on attitudes and behaviour. The review is part of a heavily contested debate about the relationship between our development as human beings and the world around us.
While Papadopoulos is clearly aware of the theoretical debate about what sexualisation means, she decides not to engage with complexity and uncertainty, presenting instead a dazzling 'review' of literature that leaps across the subjects of body image, objectification, child sexual development, pornography, media consumption, eating disorders, the sex industry, bullying, adult sexual violence and child abuse.
Unlike the recent research on Sexualised Goods Aimed at Children conducted for the Scottish Parliament, the Sexualisation of Young People Review rarely critically evaluates the existing research, but rather combines the findings of work from different national and historical contexts, amalgamating research on adults and children as transparent 'facts' to illustrate the growing menace of sexualisation for the monolithic group of 'young people' in the UK. Most noticeably, the review presents a range of statistics about music videos that spans over 20 years as a reflection of current media culture.
Dr Linda's underlying premise is one that I identify with: the constant reproduction of sexual, racial and gender stereotypes must surely be related to how we can make sense of the world: it can open up or limit who we can be, and how we can behave.
But this research feels like the journalism that I get so fed up with in the news - where a premise is decided upon and research is found to 'back it up'. Although the review engaged with qualitative research with focus groups, including with young people, we don't get to evaluate the methodology, the kinds of questions asked or how the sample was devised. All research is necessarily partial and involves decisions about what is included, so this process should be out in the open.
The questions posed for the fact finding review (which are not published in the final review) illustrate why it is important for methodology to be transparent. For example, contributors were asked to consider 'how young people's exposure to overtly sexual and other media content negatively affects them' (2009, Invitation to evidence sessions). In contrast, Sara Bragg and David Buckingham, who worked on the Scottish review, have done some great work with young people that examines the often multiple and complicated readings that young people have of media representations.
The flaws in the way this review was conducted and presented reflect a much bigger problem in this debate, which was articulated brilliantly by Nina Power at the launch of the Feminist Manifesto for the 21st Century. When we take the debate on sexualisation in isolation from a structural analysis of power, as feminists we end up as uneasy bedfellows with the moralistic arguments of the right. This leads us to categorise and police 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' sex, which is particularly evident in the review regarding sex outside of a long-term monogamous relationship.
We cannot examine the impact of sexual representation, whether that be consumed by children, young people or adults, without contextualising it within the changing structure of identity in late capitalism. In a society increasingly characterised by the requirement to improve ourselves and find identity through our consumption, the commodification of sexuality is intertwined with unequal power relations.
This has an impact on the kinds of recommendations we can make for change. As the authors of the Scottish review argue, the limited framing of the debate “may distract attention from other, more fundamental - and perhaps more intractable - social problems”. In that sense, the Sexualisation of Young People Review is a classic New Labour product - it gives the impression of 'seeming to' make change, without having to deal with the inherent inequalities of a hyper capitalist society.
Finally, the review raises questions about the role of the academy in policy. The Government has begun to slash the budgets of our universities. This destruction takes place within a much longer-running managerialisation of the Higher Education sector, in which research is only deemed useful if its 'impact' on society can be measured. We must fight back against this simplistic view of research and education, or we will increasingly find that universities will be called upon to use their research to provide simplistic buzzwords and justifications for the decisions made by government.
I was lucky to have on hand the excellent guidelines put together by Dr Petra Boynton for reading and assessing consultation papers. I recommend that you read the report yourself, and post your conclusions here.