2016 marks ten years since the publication of the Corporate Paedophilia discussion paper. Corporate Paedophilia was authored by Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze, and was published by left-leaning, independent think tank the Australia Institute. The paper’s title was ‘a metaphor used to describe advertising and marketing that sexualises children’. According to Rush and La Nauze, such advertising and marketing was proliferating, and was ‘potentially harmful to children’s mental and physical health’ and they argued for a ‘public debate’ in Australia about the disturbing trend they had diagnosed.
A decade on, it’s clear that Corporate Paedophilia helped kickstart such a debate. In the years following the paper’s publication, the ‘sexualisation of childhood’ became the subject of activist campaigns, books, and media articles. This issue caught the attention of politicians (who can forget Kevin Rudd describing Bill Henson’s photographs of semi-naked adolescents as ‘absolutely revolting’?) and law enforcement (refer again to the Henson case). In 2008, the same year as Henson was generating controversy, the Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts launched the findings of an inquiry into the ‘sexualisation of children in the contemporary media.’
Moreover, Corporate Paedophilia helped incorporate the term ‘sexualisation’ into common parlance. According to Rush and La Nauze, ‘sexualisation is the act of giving someone or something a sexual character’. They make the following, useful clarification: ‘Childhood development includes a distinct sexual dimension prior to puberty, so the acknowledgement that children have a sexual dimension is not in itself of concern.’ The authors were mostly concerned with scantily-clad, seductively posed children (usually girls) being used to sell products.
Readers will notice that I used the term ‘mostly’ in the last sentence. Interestingly, not all of the images referenced in Corporate Paedophilia have obviously ‘sexual’ connotations. For example, early in the paper, there’s a reproduction of a Myer catalogue shot featuring a (pre-pubescent?) boy and girl. The girl is seated, while the boy is standing; she is facing the camera, smiling, while he is facing the ground, smiling. Both are modestly dressed. The question is: where is the ‘sexualisation’ here?
In some subsequent articles, the term ‘sexualisation’ is even vaguer. In these articles, ‘sexualisation’ is a synonym for anything vaguely sexual, and it’s odious because it threatens childhood innocence. For example, Bradford G. Schleifer writes: ‘Nearly all facets of children’s lives are in some way influenced by sex. The more you learn what society is teaching your children, the more you will want to protect them from its pernicious influence.’ Here, ‘sex’ is portrayed as a ‘pernicious influence’ on children. Sex becomes something that parents need to ‘protect’ their offspring from.
The title of Schleifer’s article is ‘Innocence Lost – The sexualisation of youth’. If this title sounds familiar, there’s a good reason why. A quick Google search reveals headlines such as ‘The death of innocence: How the crude sexualisation of pop music, TV and fashion is destroying childhood’ and ‘The Grinch who stole innocence’.
The stereotype of the innocent, asexual child is crude, antiquated – and dangerous. As Steven Angelides has persuasively argued, linking childhood with asexuality ‘misrepresents and simplifies child sexuality, sending children the message that sexual behaviour, for them, is dangerous and wrong’. This link makes it more difficult for children to discuss sex and sexuality, and to report sexual abuse.
Finally, framing ‘sexualisation’ as a threat to ‘childhood innocence’ has become music to conservative ears. Exhibit A: the Safe Schools Coalition. This program has become a punching bag for the Right, as Overland readers will be aware. Critics have described Safe Schools as a ‘Marxist sexualisation program’ that encourages children to ‘discuss transgenderism and anal sex’, and that exposes them to ‘sex industry shops, chest-binding and penis-tucking’. Worse still, according to Cory Bernardi, the program ‘bullies heterosexual children’.
For critics of Safe Schools, then, children are supposed to be asexual, though there’s the assumption that they will (or should) develop into a heterosexual, cisgender adults. Through its emphasis on sexual and gender diversity, Safe Schools is ‘sexualising’ these innocent youngsters and steering off the safe (read: heteronormative) path. Once again, parents need to ‘protect’ their sons and daughters before damage is done.
(As an aside, it’s fascinating to note how sexual and gender diversity has entered public discourse in the ten years since Corporate Paedophilia, albeit as the topics of occasional – and deplorable – derision. The 2006 paper mentioned only ‘boys’ and ‘girls’; there were no references to gender variance or same sex-attraction).
As Corporate Paedophilia hits double digits, it’s time for a new approach to child sexuality. This approach should be attentive to the sexual exploitation of children. This approach should also acknowledge the existence of sexual and gender diversity amongst children, and acknowledge the importance of sex education (as opposed to mindlessly calling for adult ‘protection’). Some researchers and activists have started working towards such an approach, so watch this space.