Before we keep panicking about child sexualisation? Read this.



I must have missed the memo.

You know, the one everyone else seems to have received about how we are all now living in a world so shocking and depraved that our kids are hopelessly sexualized, our culture is a swill of pornography and paedophiles openly groom children for sex.

That banned Pasolini movie – Salo? Next to us, a freakin’ Sunday School picnic.

Because that appears to be the world according to any number of psychologists and authors like Steve Biddulph and Melinda Tankhard Reist, who have made a career out of making perfectly good decent parents panicked about their perfectly good decent kids.

These people form a very long line of modern commentators who have mastered the art of simultaneously wringing their hands and wagging their fingers at how our culture has devolved into sex and chaos.

And what triggers all this angst? Let’s see. Take your pick from girls dancing around to Beyonce and Rhianna videos in their bedroom, Kmart selling a line of underwear for teenaged girls with the words, “I (heart) rich boys” and “Call Me” written on them. the work of Bill Henson, Kylie Minogue videos on TV, a member of Hi-5 appearing in a men’s magazine in lingerie, and pole dancing lessons for kids.

It’s hard to argue for calm in this debate because the emotive script about kids and sex has been so thoroughly written and seems so widespread. But some plain talking and some rational thinking are overdue. So here goes.

The Kmart undies that got people talking

We are in the middle of a terrible moral panic about kids and their sexuality. And it’s being fuelled by both liberals and conservatives.

So on the one hand, Tankard Reist of the religious right, constantly calls for a “crackdown on degrading and objectified images of women in the public domain” in our “culture that is becoming increasingly pornographic.”


Meanwhile, Phillip Adams years ago coined the hyperbolic term “corporate paedophilia” which became the title of the left wing Australia Institute’s report on how corporations were making a dollar on the back of allegedly sexual images of children in clothing catalogues. Clive Hamilton, then head of the Institute, warned that, “corporations, retailers are sexualising children in their advertising … selling bras for 6-year-old girls.”

Now… deep breath… for the facts.

First, there is no evidence whatsoever that images in the media cause physical or psychological problems or a heightened and inappropriate sexual curiosity in children. Indeed, the experience of the Scandanavian countries and Japan, with liberal attitudes to porn, says the opposite.

Further, it’s in countries where there is widespread, explicit sexual education that we find the very lowest levels of teen sex, pregnancy and abortion.

Secondly, your young son or daughter should be allowed to dance in the underwear or run around stark naked if they wish without any fear of any grown-up molesting them or even thinking about it. Children cannot provoke child abuse. And anyway, child abusers don’t care what their victims are wearing.

So let’s get this straight. Children are not appropriate objects of sexual desire for adults. The idea of “sexually provocative” children’s clothing or sexually provocative children’s activities makes no sense.

The claim that paedophiles will be turned on by girls walking down a catwalk or prancing around in bikinis is extraordinarily naïve.

Paedophiles have a sick fixation with children looking like children – not like adults. And, horrifically, the vast majority of child sexual abuse cases take place inside families. Or the Church. The victims do not provoke this horror by wearing lip gloss or skimpy shorts or by dancing like Beyonce – they cannot provoke anything. They are children.


Thirdly, one of the great dangers in constantly claiming that children are being sexualised is that people are becoming incapable of seeing images of children in any normal way. We all begin to look at innocent images through the eyes of the paedophile. So a school concert becomes a pornographic display; a kids’ swimming carnival is a paedophile’s delight.

And before people start tut-tutting like stern Victorian schoolma’ams about a lost golden age of childhood innocence, they ought to read a little history. In Victorian England the age of consent was 12. London was awash with childhood slavery and prostitution. Australian cities and towns were teeming with runaways and neglected children to such a degree that the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children was formed in 1852 with the aim of creating a home for Sydney’s ‘waifs and strays.’

A bra range from the UK

We have thankfully come a long way. So rather than fretting over kids from stable homes playing with Bratz dolls or admiring a photo shoot of Kate Moss (depending on their age) we should be focused on kids today who live with the very real – and not imagined – fear of abuse. That means finding solutions for kids growing up in homes where there’s social dysfunction, poverty and drug abuse. And it means finding some effective solutions to the third world conditions that exist in some Indigenous communities.

So it’s easy to whip up a moral panic about teenage models, music videos and internet porn. It’s easy to blame the advertising industry. What’s incredibly difficult is to find ways of solving child abuse in our communities.

Sententious nonsense, pseudo science and moral panic are simply not the answer.

Duncan Fine is a writer and commentator who has worked extensively in theatre and in children’s television and is co-author of the book, Why TV Is Good For Kids.