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Catherine Page JEFFERY
"Too sexy too soon, or just another moral panic - Sexualization Australian media 2004–2015"
Feminist Media Studies, 2018, VOL. 18, NO. 3, 366–380

"“Too much, Too Young,” “The End of Innocents,” “Childhood Stolen.” These are just some of the headlines that appeared in the Australian media between 2004 and the end of 2009, when the alleged sexualization of children issue harnessed the collective attention of the Australian public. Ignited by the publication of a report by The Australia Institute (AI) provocatively titled “Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of Children in Australia” (Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze 2006), and resulting in a Senate inquiry into the issue, the Australian mass media enthusiastically engaged with the debate. Well-known journalists and opinion leaders jumped on the bandwagon and contributed op-eds condemning the commodification of childhood and lamenting a “loss of innocence.” Dissenting voices in the debate were curiously scarce and, when they were heard, the snippets of quotes — often taken from the broader context of a much more complex interrogation of the issue — did little to sway the overwhelming tide of both public and “expert” opinion to the contrary." [mijn nadruk] (366)

"In labeling these debates as moral panics, I suggest that both the scale and content of media coverage constitute a response that is somewhat irrational and disproportionate to the purported problem. As I argue later, the assertions and understandings upon which these panic discourses are based are not supported empirically. These moral panics emerged and are sustained, however, because they appeal to and mobilize broader underlying cultural anxieties (Cohen 2002; Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda 2009)." [mijn nadruk] (367)

"Analyzing the mass media discourse of both the earlier “sexualization” panic, and the technopanic around sexting that emerged a few years later highlights both similarities and differences in how the issue of child sexualization has been constructed during the past decade. Earlier concerns about sexualized representations and corporate targeting of children—characterized by an identifiable external locus where sexualization is allegedly imposed upon or “done to” children — have been largely superseded by concerns about the sexualized practices of children, where children are engaging in these practices themselves. But what does this tell us about the underlying anxieties that are feeding these panics?"(367)

"The AI report and the media attention that it received in Australia was just one iteration of a much broader anti-sexualization discourse throughout the Anglophone West (R. Danielle Egan 2013). The last decade has seen a range of popular discourse, government reports, and media coverage on the topic not only in Australia, but in the UK and US as well. Books such as “Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls” (Melinda Tankard-Reist 2010) (Australia); “So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids” (Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne 2008) (US); “What’s Happening to our Girls? Too much, Too Soon, How our Kids are Overstimulated, Oversold and Oversexed” (Maggie Hamilton 2008) (Australia); “Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualization of Girls in American Culture” (Patrice A. Oppliger 2008) (US); “The Sexualization of Childhood: Growing Older Younger/Growing Younger Older” (Sharna Olfman 2009) (US); and “The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Girls and What We Can Do About It” (M. Gigi Durham 2009) (US) are just some of the popular texts that have been published over the last few years. Common to many of these titles, as well as the media discourse, is a call to action, a suggestion that something must be done. Governments responded with enquir- ies, reports and policy initiatives both in Australia and abroad. Government enquires were conducted in the US (E. L. Zurbriggen, R. L. Collins, S. Lamb, T. Roberts, D. L. Tolman, L. M. Ward and J. Blake 2007), and the UK (Linda Papadopoulos 2010; Reg Bailey 2011).(...)
A substantial body of academic and feminist critique of government reports and anti- sexualization discourses more generally also emerged around this time, and continued for several years after (Sara Bragg, David Buckingham, Rachel Russell and Rebekah Willett 2011, Alan McKee 2010; Kath Albury and Catharine Lumby 2010, Linda Duits and Liesbet Van Zoonen 2011; Sara Bragg and David Buckingham 2013, R. Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes 2008, Joanne Faulkner 2010; Affrica Taylor 2010). Critical scholarly accounts typically pre- sented a more nuanced analysis of the issue, and criticized the AI Report for its methodolog- ical flaws and lack of evidence, among many other things (Bragg et al. 2011; Egan and Hawkes 2008; Faulkner 2010; Catharine Lumby and Kath Albury 2010; Taylor 2010). The anti-sexual- ization discourses that appeared during this time were critiqued for their fetishization of childhood “innocence” (Faulkner 2010); their “hypodermic” cause and effect view of the media (Bragg et al. 2011; Duits and Van Zoonen 2011; Egan 2013); pathologization of childhood sexuality (Egan 2013; Egan and Hawkes 2008); portrayal of girls as “victims” in need of pro- tection (Duits and Van Zoonen 2011; Lumby and Albury 2010); reductive binaries of innocent/ good and sexualized/bad children (Jessica Ringrose 2011); the apparent “moral” framework of the debate (Egan and Hawkes 2008; R. Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes 2010); the way in which sexualization debates potentially create “blind spots” for many other feminist concerns (Duits and Van Zoonen 2011); the tendency for debates about the issue to collapse a number of distinct issues together (McKee 2010); and treatment of children as being passive, non- sexual and lacking any kind of agency or desire (Egan 2013; Faulkner 2010; Ringrose 2011)." [mijn nadruk] (367-368)

"Moral panic theory is now more than 40 years old, and the utility of the theory has been questioned in recent years. Additionally, the generation and manifestation of moral panics have undoubtedly changed in an era of participatory media (Glen Fuller 2017). Nonetheless, many scholars and cultural critics have embraced the concept in their critiques of child sexualization (as well as child sex abuse) moral panics (Bray 2008). While Bray (2008) is critical of applying the label of moral panic to child sexualization debates, as doing so, she argues, serves to shut down legitimate discussion of the topic, it remains a useful diagnostic tool for understanding normative assumptions and social values (Fuller 2017). As such, the framework continues to provide a useful lens through which to view the sexualization of children panics in that it enables us to consider the broader suite of anxieties both mobilized by and fuelling the panics." [mijn nadruk] (369)

"The ambiguity of the term “sexualization” is worth noting here. The AI Report defines it as “the act of giving someone or something a sexual character” (Rush and La Nauze 2006,), but scholars highlight the conceptual confusion and inadequate evidence surrounding the processes denoted by the term (see, for example, Sara Bragg 2012).
The mass media and moral entrepreneurs utilized several rhetorical strategies in the service of their message. These included the use of affect — which, according to Egan, highlights the emotional work of anti-sexualization narratives and makes a rational response more challenging (2013, 20); apparent value-laden language (including pejorative terms); a propensity for alarm, and the conflation of a range of issues relating to children and sexuality — a strategy known as convergence (Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, Brian Roberts 2013)." [mijn nadruk] (371)

"It is important to note that both panics were inherently gendered (Albury, Funnell, and Noonan 2010, Jessica Ringrose, Laura Harvey, Rosalind Gill and Sonia Livingstone 2013, Jessica Ringrose and Katarina Eriksson Barajas 2011, Amy Adele Hasinoff 2013), with girls conceptualized as the locus of concern and commonly portrayed as vulnerable, victims, and potentially endangered. This is clearly demonstrated by the media excerpts above, as well as by the focus of much of the popular literature on the topic (see, for example, “Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls” (Tankard-Reist 2010) “What’s Happening to our Girls? (Hamilton 2008), and “The Lolita Effect” (Durham 2009)). The gendered dimension evident in the discourse from both panics suggests the resuscitation of anxieties about girls’ sexuality more generally. Many media articles, especially those in relation to sexting, implicitly pathologize girls for sexual self-expression and verge on slut-shaming."(376)

"I suggest that panics around sexting and the practices of teenage girls highlight growing anxiety in relation to the increasing agency of girls in particular. Agentic female sexual expression has long been condemned, criticized and pathologized (Egan and Hawkes 2010), and, as demonstrated, has spurned a vocabulary of pejorative terms to describe such behaviors. The practice of sexting provides girls with an additional avenue through which they can express themselves sexually."(376)

Modern technologies afford young people not only new ways to express themselves, but also greater independence, and the potential for both privacy and publicity in their self-expression. Increasingly, these panics and inevitable future ones are likely to legitimize various forms of intervention with the cumulative effect of curtailing the agency and freedom of young people through increased government and police intervention, surveillance, restraint, and prohibition. To be clear, young people do need protection, education, and guidance in exploring, navigating, and expressing their developing sexual identities; however, treating them as passive receptacles of popular media texts, lacking agency, sexuality, and critical-thinking skills, does very little to protect and guide them through puberty, adolescence, and into adulthood. No doubt, the moral entrepreneurs and media commentators on this issue have the best interests of children at heart. But until we produce more nuanced narratives and discourses which acknowledge that young people have agency and a right to sexual expression and citizenship, and importantly, which take into account the opinions, experiences, and practices of children, we may be doing them more harm than good." [mijn nadruk] (377)

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