Dr. Brooke Magnanti has posted a rather interesting commentary on the problems of defining ‘sexualisation’ over at her Sexonomics blog in response to the the publication, last week, of the Bailey Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood. Unfortunately, so far as the Government are concerned, I fear that Brooke’s efforts will result only in a one-sided conversation for reasons that will become apparent very shortly.
Last week, on Twitter, I mistakenly referred to the Bailey Review as an exercise in ‘evidence-free policy making’, a statement I’d like to formally retract as its actually much worse than that, even if the government insists on sticking with the fictional position that Bailey actually bothered to consider the research evidence that should have informed his findings:
Mr Bailey has made a full and comprehensive report and fulfilled the remit he was given. He has built on the important work of other reviewers in this area, notably those of Professor David Buckingham and colleagues, and others by Professor Tanya Byron and Dr Linda Papadopoulos, and drawn on a review of more recent literature on the topic carried out by Dr Ann Phoenix of the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre.
What Bailey actually did with the evidence, including Dr. Ann Phoenix’s excellent literature review – by far the best thing to come out of this whole exercise – is revealed on page 8 of the main report, at which point Bailey is still recounting the background to the review:
10. This Review was asked to consider outlining some principles and definitions of excessive commercialisation and premature sexualisation, which could be used to help shape practice and regulation. We discussed this in detail with contributors, and considered the work already done by academics and experts to develop such definitions. The previous reviews of this area (Byron, 2008 and 2010; Papadopoulos, 2010; DCSF/DCMS, 2009) provide a comprehensive exposition of this work. The conclusion of this Review is that parents are the experts in deciding whether something is appropriate for their child and in discussing this with their children as they grow up. The most effective way to ensure that broadcasting, advertising, goods and services are appropriate for children is to pay closer attention to parents’ views rather than develop complicated, and contested, definitions of commercialisation and sexualisation.
So, Bailey approach to the evidence base can be summarised as ‘if it looks complicated and it doesn’t offer unequivocal support for any of my recommendations, then I’ll just dismiss it out of hand and claim that parents are the ‘experts’.
One of the more striking examples of the banality of this approach is to be found when one compares what Bailey has to say on the subject of ‘pester power’ when compared with the contents of the literature review. In the literature review, the discussion of ‘Families and Pester Power’ begins on page 24 and runs to almost 1,500 words covering, in the process, more than a dozen reports and peer-reviewed papers. If this section of the literature can be readily summarised in a single sentence then it would be this:
The research evidence available on ‘pester power’ suggests that parents are influenced by a range of issues in buying products for their children, including value for money, educational qualities, and the longer-term potential for enjoyment and use of particular products, as well as the persistence with which children make requests.
Arguably, even this falls short of capturing the nuances of the Phoenix’s discussion of the research evidence, particularly in regards to the research evidence relating to low-income families:
Since 2004, Ridge (2007 ) has been conducting a qualitative, longitudinal study of low-income working family life that involves interviews with 50 low-income lone mothers and 61 of their children who were initially aged between eight and fourteen years. Ridge (2002; 2007) found that children in such families showed a complex understanding of their parents’ financial constraints. They were, therefore, often reluctant to ask their parents to buy things they thought their parents could not afford. This fits with findings from other literature. For example, Elizabeth Chin’s (2001) ethnographic research showed that black 10-year olds in an impoverished neighbourhood also tried to protect their parents by moderating their demands in order to avoid causing additional stress. This thoughtfulness was particularly observed in the girls in the study. In a review of qualitative studies on children living in poverty, Ridge (2011) conducted a review of qualitative research exploring the lives and experiences of low-income children in the UK. She found that children often felt that family needs were in tension with their own social and material needs and desires and with the advantages and opportunities enjoyed by their more affluent peers. Children were sensitive to the possibility that lone parents might feel lonely and ashamed by their poverty and that mothers and fathers might argue about money. There were thus everyday social and emotional costs to living in poverty.
Bailey, on the other hand, reduces this entire complex discussion to a couple of rather bald statements, neither of which adequately reflect the content of Phoenix’s discussion:
10. However, some of this pressure is felt by children and parents more indirectly in the form of social pressure to conform to certain norms. Alongside factors such as value for money,educational qualities, and the longer-term potential for enjoyment and use of particular products, previous research (Phoenix, 2011)…
11. It is also clear that the persistence with which children ask for things is another influence (Phoenix, 2011)…
On both occasions, Bailey moves swiftly on to present the findings of the limited research that specifically undertaken from his review with an almost indecent degree of haste which rather suggests that he’d prefer readers not to dwell on the contents of the literature review let alone cross-reference its findings with his own. For example, he quickly supplements his extremely limited exposition of Phoenix’s discussion of ‘pester power’ at point 11 with data derived from survey responses to a single question put to a sample of 520 children aged 7-16 in the TNS Omnibus survey:
Q4 If you really want something and you know your parents don’t want you to buy it, do you ever keep on asking for it until they let you have it?
The response options given were ‘never’, ‘sometimes’, ‘always’ and ‘don’t know’ and this, together with Bailey’s use of the survey data, falls some considerable distance short of capturing the complex dynamics of the parent-child negotiations explored in the literature review.
What we have, then, is not evidence-free policy making but rather an exercise in prejudice-based policy making driven by perhaps the flimsiest of all premises, an appeal to parental ‘expertise’. Bailey’s position is simply ‘mother knows best’ and never mind that he cannot produce any evidence to support that assertion nor even that the literature review that should have informed his work provides, in places, evidence which tends to contradict that view:
The Family and Parenting Institute (FPI) has consistently been concerned with commercial pressure on parents and their children, publishing a report Hard Sell, Soft Targets? in 2004, that drew on a MORI poll they commissioned. They documented enormous concern expressed by parents about the amount of television advertising their children saw. More than four fifths of the parents polled said they considered that companies targeted their children too much. Since then, Compass, The Children’s Society, Care for the Family, Which and the Mothers Union amongst others have highlighted parents’ anxiety about the effects of commercialisation on their children. This included advertising leading to arguments between parents and children and children ‘pestering’ their parents to buy material goods for them. There is some research evidence, however, that parents often feel more sanguine that their own children have not been commercialised or sexualised than about other children in general (Buckingham, 2011).
What we have there is a variation on the Lake Wobegone Effect and it resurfaces, again, when the literature review turns to the issue of ‘sexualisation’:
Parents expressed gendered anxieties about sexualised goods. They were concerned about their daughters’ psychological well-being, but none felt that their own daughters were becoming ‘too sexual too soon’ and they did not feel that goods alone could sexualise them. However, girls were thought to put themselves at risk if they appeared older than they were or dressed in ways likely to be read as sexual. Boys’ consumption and developing sexual identities were generally viewed in a far more relaxed way. This finding reiterates those of a larger-scale study of consumption in 12-18-year olds done in Birmingham, Milton Keynes and Oxford, where young people and parents said that parents attempted to exert more control over the appropriateness of clothes bought by girls than by boys (Croghan et al., 2006; Phoenix et al., 2009).
Aside from noting the double standard in regards to boys, it is once again the case that parents were considerably less concerned about their own children than they were about children in general – its always other people’s kids that are easily led by media influences but never their own.
It follows, logically, that appeals to parental expertise can be used to justify only those policy measures that directly facilitate individual parental choice, such as age-rating systems for films, music videos and video games. It is not, however, a rational or reliable basis on which to impose censorious industry-wide regulation of consumer markets, not least as young people’s own perceptions of their relationship with the marketplace seems rather at odds with the perception of many parents:
In the Scottish study, Buckingham and his colleagues conducted a series of classroom activities and focus groups with young people in their early teens in order to explore their perceptions of potentially ‘sexualised’ products (Buckingham et al., 2010). They found that the young people rejected the idea that they were passive victims of the marketing of sexualised goods. In keeping with the findings of studies on children’s economic socialisation, they displayed extensive knowledge of marketing techniques and gave examples that showed that they were well able carefully to understand what products were designed to do and to make active choices about which products to buy. They indicated that their knowledge about how to ‘read’ products such as clothing and accessories developed as they grew older and they were aware of the risks of appearing older, particularly for girls. The perceived risks ranged from paedophilia to general risks about loss of reputation and misjudgments. Their choices in relation to sexualised goods reflected peer group norms, to do with inclusion and exclusion, and with feelings of comfort and confidence and so was influenced by social settings such as high school.
That said, the most egregious example of blatant cherry-picking and naked bias in the review is to be found in Bailey’s use of the heavily criticised and seriously flawed Papadopolous review, which was commissioned by the previous Government to suit its own political agenda:
43. Opinions are divided about the robustness of existing academic evidence that exposure of children to pornography directly causes harm, although Papadopoulos is strongly of the view that it is detrimental to young people’s development (Papadopoulos, 2010; see also Flood, 2009). However, many contributors to the Review, including child protection organisations, schools, local authorities, child psychologists, youth workers, agony aunts, women’s organisations and internet safety organisations amongst others, provided compelling examples to illustrate their concern that pornography has a negative impact on children and young people. For example, children became convinced that they had to behave and look like the on-screen participants in order to have ‘proper’ sex; which generally meant sex without any basis in love or display of affection or equality; and to conform physically to some very narrow gender stereotypes. And since research does show that people convicted of serious crimes of violence and sexual violence often have a history of using pornography (Papadopoulos, 2010), many respondents advocate a common sense approach to accept the potential for real harm to be caused to children by the ready access to such material. We accept this as a persuasive argument for strong measures to be taken.
If the plural of anecdote isn’t data then neither is a combination of the Papdopolous review and a bunch of anecdotes from organisations and individuals many of which are pursuing their own censorious moral and/or ideological agendas. Bailey noticeably disregards Phoenix’s review of the academic reaction to Papadopolous and, instead tries to present it as an authoritative study by bolstering its findings with references to opinion and anecdote.
There has been a rather different response to the Papadopoulous report, which included a broad range of research traditions in its review of the sexualisation of young people for the Home Office. Australian researchers Vares and Jackson (2010) consider that it takes an internally contradictory approach to the understanding of children and their abilities and skills, as both questioning images and storylines based on sex on TV, but as typically lacking the ability for cultural critiques of sexism. For Vares and Jackson, her conclusion that sexualisation of children and young people exists and is harmful has not been adequately demonstrated. They question her equation of frequent internet access with exposure to pornography, the risk of being sexually solicited, and increased pressure to present themselves in sexualised ways, which treats extreme cases as routine. Furthermore, they argue that she frequently equates sexualisation with sexual bullying and violence and, as a result, overstates the certainty of her conclusions on sexualisation. In a similar way, Caitlin Murch (2010) considers that the report lacks critical evaluation in its focus on the sexualisation of young people in the UK as a growing menace.
Bragg and her colleagues (2010, including David Buckingham) suggest that the Papadopoulous report demonstrates similar limitations to the American Psychological Association (APA) report on the sexualisation of girls (2007), which they suggest is unsystematic and partial. More damning criticisms were produced by Clarissa Smith in an academic review of the Papadopoulos report.
I had no great hopes for Linda Papadopoulos’ Sexualisation of Young People Review and it didn’t disappoint. Commissioned by the Home Office as part of its drive to incorporate research into the policy agenda and, in this instance, to contribute to its formulation of initiatives to combat the problem of violence against women, the review was intended to uncover the ways in which ‘sexualisation’ has contributed to a climate in which violence against women is condoned. … (p. 175)
The above criticisms of Papadopoulos’ report should not be read as a diminution of the real social evil that is domestic or more generalized violence against women, but this review contributes nothing to our understandings of those problems. Moreover it fails to illuminate anything substantive about the ways in which sexual themes are components of myriad media forms which young people are encountering and seeking out. It has nothing useful to say about the ways in which children and young people might engage or participate in the contemporary media landscape, sexual or not. It was unlikely that Papadopoulos would engage in any form of research that would be recognizable as ‘audience research’ but young people deserve a better accounting than this. (p. 178)
Nonetheless, despite such criticisms, the Papadopoulos report, the APA report and the report for the Australian parliament (Rush and La Nauze, 2006) are widely popularly cited.
As for Rush and La Nauze (2006), a review of which begins on page 11 of the literature review, I’ll present only Phoenix’s concluding remarks from page 13 and leave you to enjoy the demolition of a poorly realised and tendentious piece of ‘research’ for yourself:
However, the scholarly critiques presented above make a compelling case that Rush and La Nauze’s reports do not provide evidence of excellent scholarship.
Getting back to Bailey, you’ll note that he cites Flood (2009) as evidence which supports Papadopolous’ contention that pornography is detrimental to young people’s development. By way of contrast – and as further evidence of tendentious cherry-picking on Bailey’s part – the literature review provides this discussion of Flood’s actual findings.
The issue of pornification of children and young people was explored in a review done at La Trobe University, Australia, by Michael Flood (2009). He found that there is relatively little research material available that documents the impact of ‘pornography consumption’ on children and young people and that more is needed since children and young people are routinely exposed to pornography on the internet, in X-rated videos and in sexualised representations in the culture. Flood cautions that protecting children from sexual harm does not mean protecting them from age-appropriate materials on sex and sexuality since to maintain them in ignorance can foster sexual abuse and poor sexual and emotional health. In addition, pornography by itself is unlikely to influence an individual’s entire sexual expression and is moderated by parental involvement, including discussions, and by their sexual, emotional and cognitive responses as well as the type of material and the duration and intensity of viewing. Flood cites US and Australian surveys that found that ten percent of 10-17 year olds described themselves as very upset by unwanted exposure to pornography and that more than half of 11-17 year olds had experienced something on the internet they found offensive or disgusting. Some of these children and young people were upset by how their parents might react to knowledge of their exposure to such material, rather than by the content itself. Both age and sex mediated children’s responses. Younger children were least likely to find pornographic images remarkable or memorable, older children were more likely to be upset or disturbed and teenagers only annoyed. Boys have been found to be more likely than girls to report feelings of sexual excitement on viewing pornography and 14-17 year old boys in one study were more likely to be positive about sexually explicit websites, while young women found them ‘dumb’, gross’ or ‘demeaning’ to females. Correlations have been found between greater exposure to sexual content and young people’s: beliefs that their peers are sexually active; more liberal sexual attitudes and sexual activity with perhaps decreased sexual intimacy; more infidelity and sexual ‘addiction’. Flood argues that pornography is a poor sex educator since most ‘is too explicit for younger children; most shows sex in unrealistic ways and neglects intimacy and romance; most pornography is sexist; and some is based on and eroticises violence’ (p.395).
There are a number of critically important arguments here which Bailey completely ignores, not least in regards to the wider debate on sex and relationships education spawned by Nadine Dorries’ absurd attempts to promote abstinence education:
1. Protecting children from sexual harm does not mean protecting them from age-appropriate materials on sex and sexuality since to maintain them in ignorance can foster sexual abuse and poor sexual and emotional health.
Hence the importance of good quality, comprehensive sex and relationships education, a fact seemingly lost on far too many policy makers, parents and, of course, religious organisations who wrongly consider good sex education to consist of ignorance plus the great celestial waggy finger of tut-tut.
2. Pornography by itself is unlikely to influence an individual’s entire sexual expression and is moderated by parental involvement, including discussions, and by their sexual, emotional and cognitive responses as well as the type of material and the duration and intensity of viewing.
Porn is neither automatically nor universally harmful such that any effect it might have depends on the nature and content of the material, the context in which its encountered and the individual child/young person’s prior cognitive, sexual and emotional development which, fo course, can vary considerably by age, upbringing, gender and the influence of other environmental factors, as Flood goes on to note:
Flood cites US and Australian surveys that found that ten percent of 10-17 year olds described themselves as very upset by unwanted exposure to pornography and that more than half of 11-17 year olds had experienced something on the internet they found offensive or disgusting. Some of these children and young people were upset by how their parents might react to knowledge of their exposure to such material, rather than by the content itself. Both age and sex mediated children’s responses. Younger children were least likely to find pornographic images remarkable or memorable, older children were more likely to be upset or disturbed and teenagers only annoyed. Boys have been found to be more likely than girls to report feelings of sexual excitement on viewing pornography and 14-17 year old boys in one study were more likely to be positive about sexually explicit websites, while young women found them ‘dumb’, gross’ or ‘demeaning’ to females.
Flood, quite correctly goes on to argue that:
3. Pornography is a poor sex educator since most ‘is too explicit for younger children; most shows sex in unrealistic ways and neglects intimacy and romance; most pornography is sexist; and some is based on and eroticises violence’.
This view is well supported by research, not least Bruckner and Bearman’s 2005 study of the impact of virginity pledges which found, amongst other things that:
Because virginity is often culturally linked only to vaginal sex, to preserve virginity, adolescents and young adults may engage in other sexual behaviors that involve exchange of fluid and are thus salient for STD acquisition. Overall, oral sex and anal sex are prevalent behaviors in this population, most commonly in conjunction with vaginal sex.
Contrary to expectations, we found no significant differences in STD infection rates between pledgers and nonpledgers, despite the fact that they transition to first sex later, have less cumulative exposure, fewer partners, and lower levels of nonmonogamous partners…
…Advocates for abstinence-only education assert that premarital abstinence and postmarital sex are necessary and sufficient for avoiding negative consequences of sexual activity, such as STDs. This assertion collides with the realities of adolescents’ and young adults’ lives in several ways. First, although pledgers experience sexual debut later than others, most of them will eventually engage in premarital sex. Those who do report lower frequency of condom use at first intercourse. Those who do not are more likely to substitute oral and/or anal sex for vaginal sex.
Flood’s argument also chimes with anecdotal reports that the ‘cum-shot’, an artifical device created and used exclusively within film pornography as a means of establishing the authenticity of scene, i.e. that what the viewer was seeing was not merely simulated sex – has entered the sexual repertoire of American teenagers over the last 10-15 years, with such reports commonly originating from areas in which access to sex education has been at best patchy and at worst almost entirely dominated by government-funded abstinence-only programmes.
Pornography is a certainly poor sex educator if it’s the only source of information about sex that young people can readily access but that’s not an argument for more censorship, rather its an argument for better and more comprehensive, universally available, sex education, particularly as there is some evidence from both the United States and Japan which shows a correlation between an increase in the availability of pornography and a decrease in the prevalence of sexual assaults and rapes. Porn is not a universal panacea for male sexual violence but there is at least some evidence to suggest that it may deflect some potential offenders away from acting out their sexual fantasies in real life and at the cost of one or more victims. This is also consistent with industry research on the consumption of internet pornography which shows that men are more likely to be passive consumers of pornography than women, in the sense of its being a matter for them and their right (or left) hand while women, who accounted for around 30% of all visitors to commerical porn websites in 2005, were found to be more likely to seek opportunities to act out their fantasies if they were regular consumers of porn*.
*So as not to raise false hopes amongst male readers, the fantasies that research suggests female porn watchers are most likely to act on tend to be the one’s that involve other women in the absence of either male participation or a male audience.
The whole pornography debate is complex, hotly contested and polarised around opposing moral and ideological positions which too often drown out reasoned debate and argument, hence the tendentious treatment it’s received from both the current and previous governments, both of whom have falling over themselves in an effort to capture what they mistakenly believe to be the moral high ground while ignoring both the evidence and the real issues. Fostering ignorance is not a moral act.
I can’t profess to be disappointed in the Bailey Review. Its pretty much what I expected when the government announced that the review was to be handed to Reg Bailey; biased, tendentious, pitiful in its use (and misuse) of evidence and clearly intended to validate a preconceived – and primarily Christian – moral agenda.
What we all should be concerned about here is the fact that Bailey was handed this review precisely because the government knew perfectly well, in advance, that that’s precisely what he would produce. – an exercise in prejudice-based policy making.