Debasement of sexual curiosity is the problem
A BBC documentary, Am I Normal?, explored the changing nature of modern sexual behaviour and raised the question of the sexualisation of childhood.
In the documentary, the bizarre example of pole-dancing kits for children was raised, which I at first thought must be another urban myth, but it was apparently real. Tesco had been selling these kits but has withdrawn them, at least from the toy section, after concerns were raised about the inappropriateness of these "toys".
Alongside this, the example of beauty pageants in America for small children was explored, through interviews with a parent and her child who was taking part in these competitions.
At one level the concern about the pageants seems somewhat sneering, a rather snobbish politically correct disdain about beauty competitions per se, coupled with a cynicism about "white trash" and "middle America". After all, despite stories in the Sun about the "UK's first kids' beauty pageant", which apparently took place in 2006, pretty girl-type competitions have been taking place in towns and villages for a long time.
The idea of the sexualisation of children is itself confusing, as children are sexual, they are constantly mimicking adults or watching the older boys and girls around them to pick up on what it means to be older. Dressing up, wearing make up, and having an interest or curiosity about sex or sexuality is normal.
The film Little Miss Sunshine (pictured,) which follows the road trip of a family en route to one of these pageants, ends with a scene where the young girl does her dance for the judges who are horrified by the overly graphic, almost striptease nature of the performance. The comical but also critical point the film is making is that these competitions are sexualised and the hypocritical judges simply don't like it when this is so blatantly exposed.
Little Miss Sunshine had a point, but was wrong, I think, to target beauty pageants in and of themselves, as children dressing up and trying to act like adults is not necessarily a problem. Where the film is, however, quite insightful is in raising the awkward question of boundaries, not only between adulthood and childhood, but of sexuality displayed in private and in public.
Rather than condemning the "sexualisation" of children, sociologist Frank Furedi has usefully coined the term the "pornographication" of childhood - which is new and is a problem. A problem exemplified by pole-dancing kits for kids.
Rather than being concerned about children becoming sexual, using "naughty" words, or playing at being grown up, concern should perhaps be targeted at a culture that is confused about what both adults and children should let "hang out" in public. The sexual curiosity of children is healthy, the debasement of it and the confusion of sex with pornography is not.
Stuart Waiton is director of Generation Youth Issues.