One winter's evening in 1992, my wife and I were at Melbourne airport awaiting a flight. An older couple came and sat nearby. They had a small girl with them, aged about four, who seemed restless and a little odd, though it was hard to pin down just why. Suddenly, the girl went and stood in front of a man sitting among the many in the rows of seats. Hitching up her dress, she placed one hand in her knickers, and did a kind of dance, gyrating her hips while keeping her eyes locked on his. The man blushed, the old couple looked studiously in the other direction.
Years of working around child abuse makes you watchful, if not paranoid, and I immediately wondered if this child had been exposed to pornography. Since that is often how paedophiles groom children for sex - showing them things that make it appear fun or normal - there was some ground for that concern. Right then the flight was called. I was racked for days with what I have should done. You can't call airport security and say "that girl was dancing strangely". Twenty years later, we live in different times. Today it's likely the child would have merely watched too much MTV.
The term sexualisation originated in child protection work. It refers to sexual behaviour imposed on someone, as opposed to arising from their own yearnings or desires. Government reports have been carried out worldwide into the phenomenon, and concern has grown that it is a serious problem for the development of girls and boys. Most people think it simply means girls acting too sexy too young.
The trend for cheap clothing shops to sell tacky knickers and push-up bras for eight-year-olds probably epitomises that, along with child beauty quests, and a lack of boundaries around what children see in the media landscape. This concern is not insignificant - Latrobe University's regular surveys of teen sexuality over the past decade show a significant rise in girls starting their sex lives at 14, and having multiple partners while still at school (approaching one in five girls). School counsellors in Britain tell me that 11 or 12 is not uncommon for first sexual experiences. A disturbing proportion are with much older boys. But it's in normal homes that the most pervasive effects are felt - with eight-year-olds dieting and millions of girls declaring that "they hate their bodies".
I believe sexualisation is a deeper and more lifelong issue, perhaps even endemic - and harmful - to gender relations throughout history. Objectification of women was at the core of the feminist struggle. But today, from a completely different quarter, the nature of sexuality for all of us is being modified. For example, boys are being admitted to London's Tavistock Clinic for sexual abuse of sisters or girls at school and found to have been addicted to online porn for years. Some of these boys are only 12 or 13. But it's not just children who are affected. Our whole environment is overtly sexual now and it is changing a once-private activity, with considerable emotional intensity, into a consumer activity with no meaning at all.
In normal development, young people acquire their sexual feelings through hormonal promptings, beginning in the early teens, and most experience considerable shyness and reserve about this. Mid-teen girls are often attracted to very asexual boys (think boy bands) perhaps because this creates a level of safety. Boys too experience strong romantic feelings that may surprise those who believe they "only think of one thing". Young couples find holding hands so delicious on its own that it takes months before they would want to go further. Trust and respect are established over time. This is important since the release of oxytocin in sexual activity ties our hearts into bonds which can leave us wounded if they are broken.
Today this is all changing. Many boys learn their sexuality from porn, and fixate not on deep connection, or tender passion, but instead on treating girls like sacks of meat. Distressed girls tell counsellors of gentle boys suddenly becoming callous and hurting them because they think that's how sex is done.
There is something special being lost here. For many young people, sex has become a performance, overlaid with worry about "How do I look? What tricks do they expect me to perform? How do I compare with others?" Separating sex from personhood is what sexualisation does. It's robbing us of closeness. Little wonder we have one of the most depressed and lonely generations of young people ever.
It's not just the young. Porn use is very high among adult men, including married men. It's possible that porn is filling a gap in our closeness and lovingness generally. We live in a society that is often too rushed for affection, for attunement between husband and wife, or parent and child. We are a cold culture. Consumer goods and food, have replaced intimacy in our lives.
Our earn-and-spend culture edges us towards seeing ourselves as a product. We modify our bodies to compete better in the marketplace. Advertising teaches our young to evaluate themselves merely by their looks.
Unless we redirect ourselves to inner value - kindness, creativity, patience, loyalty, and passion - then we will have nothing to offer our young apart from our credit cards.
Steve Biddulph is the author of Raising Girls, and The New Manhood.
- Sydney Morning Herald