Childhood has long been associated with sexual ignorance, creating a false image of youthful innocence that is not borne out by reality, new research reveals.
In a new book, Sara Bragg of the University of Brighton and Mary Jane Kehily of The Open University review existing research studies to examine notions of childhood innocence and sexual knowledge.
"Discussing children's sexuality is fraught with difficulties and ambivalence," they say. "This is most visible in analyses of teenage girls' sexuality, which problematise ideas about sexual purity and challenge the precarious boundary between a charming, flirtatious and innocent child, and a sexualised, alluring adolescent."
On the one hand, the researchers point out, adults are simply looking out for children's interests when they try to protect their innocence. "There are, and always have been, a small number of adults who are sexually attracted to children, and children may not have the power or knowledge to resist them," they say.
However, this has led to an assumption that childhood and sexuality are polar opposites. This relies on the perception of childhood, current since the 19th century, as "a state of fragile purity, ever-susceptible to contamination".
In fact, the academics suggest, becoming sexual is a process rather than a leap across a chasm. Children, they believe, are often more curious and knowing about sex than adults are prepared to admit.
To support this claim, the academics quote from a 2004 study in which children and teenagers were asked to describe how they reacted to sex scenes on television. One 10-year-old girl pointed out that her parents "kept being stupid" whenever couples began kissing on TV. "I'm like ... get a grip. It's not that rude," she said.
Others colluded with their parents in maintaining an illusion of their own innocence. A 14-year-old boy talked about watching a TV quiz show with his parents. "Sometimes I watch it upstairs with my brother," he said. "I laugh then. But when I'm downstairs, I try not to laugh at some of the things that I shouldn't really know."
Nonetheless, the researchers say, fears about the sexualisation of childhood have been particularly strong in recent years. "Retailers, television, magazines and the internet have all been cited as guilty parties in the proliferation of sexual material and its presence in the everyday experience of the child," they say.
Girls are felt to be at particular risk, especially in the eyes of the media. The Daily Telegraph, for example, headlined an article: "The generation of 'damaged' girls". The piece went on to bemoan the fact that "old-fashioned frilly frocks" had been replaced by "mini-skirts, plunging necklines and sequinned crop-tops". Meanwhile, the 2007 book Toxic Childhood, written by education consultant Sue Palmer, discusses "children dressed like dockside tarts".
But, the academics add, research has shown that parents are less concerned about the sexualisation of their children than the media suggest. A 2010 study showed that some parents allowed their children to make purchases that may be deemed inappropriate. Some claimed that this was a response to nagging. Others cited peer pressure, or talked about allowing their children to "get it out of their system".
Many parents argued that adolescents needed to take on increased personal responsibility to prepare themselves for adult life. "There are worse things they could be doing," many said.
"Parents had consciously opted to allow children to make their own decisions about precisely the kinds of items often cited as agents of sexualisation," the researchers say.
"Innocence is a complex and controversial notion, with different meanings and different values placed on particular kinds of innocence."
Bragg, S. and Kehily, M.J. (2013) Children and Young People's Cultural Worlds (The Policy Press).
Sara Bragg, senior research fellow, School of Education, University of Brighton.
Mary Jane Kehily, senior lecturer in childhood and youth studies, The Open University.
WHAT CHILDREN SAY ABOUT SEX ON TELEVISION
"They (my parents) keep being stupid about things like (kissing on television). I'm like, mum and dad, it's not that rude. I mean, get a grip. It's not that rude." 10-year-old girl
"Some of the things that you'd laugh at, your parents go: 'Why do you know about that?' I would rather leave them with a nice little mental image of me being 12, if that is what they want." 17-year-old girl
"Sometimes when I watch it upstairs with my brother, I laugh then. But when I'm downstairs I try not to laugh at some of the things that I shouldn't really know." 14-year-old boy
"Sometimes I'll be watching something downstairs on the TV with my mum, and it might have a bit of sex in it, and my mum and me just have a giggle about it. But ... when it's just me and my dad, we're like - no way. I can't laugh at anything." 12-year-old girl.