Sexualisation fears are nothing new

29th June 2012 at 01:00
Concerns over the corrupting influence of popular culture on children go back more than 100 years, academics say

Society, and urban culture in particular, is responsible for corrupting the purity of schoolchildren, sexualising them at an early age and distorting their perceptions of right and wrong. These were the beliefs of campaigners eager to prevent the sexualisation of children - in the late 19th century.

And similar beliefs were espoused by campaigners against the popular spread of comic books in the 1950s.

Academics from St Lawrence University in the US and the University of New England in Australia have conducted research into fears about the sexualisation of schoolchildren. They found that many of the concerns expressed today are not dissimilar from those voiced a century ago.

"Narratives on the risks associated with dangerous novels in the 1890s, comic books in the 1950s, television in the 1980s and the internet in our contemporary culture share a similar plot line - fears about the corruption of innocence and the concomitant need for protection," they say, in an article in the journal Gender and Education.

Turn-of-the-century activist Ella Eaton Kellogg recounted the many perils faced by children to the US National Purity Congress in 1895. She argued that disreputable influences could induce masturbation in children. This would jeopardise not only individual children but the very future of society.

Cities were considered particularly dangerous, as there was believed to be no fixed standard of right or wrong there. As a result, urban children became sexualised two or three years earlier than their counterparts in the country.

Indeed, in 1877 a purity advocate suggested that, if adults were to ask "any discreet, watchful and observing ... teacher of any one of the primary schools in town or country", they would find that masturbation "is next to universal in children".

"Bad girls" were believed to be as commonplace as "bad boys". And a bad child was considered incurable and contagious. An 1896 writer claimed that such a child could "corrupt a whole school of boys ... by teaching them sexual stories and sexual acts he knows". And once such seeds of vice were sown, their effects would persist throughout the child's lifetime.

Similar fears continued throughout the 20th century. In 1953, Dr Fredric Wertham published a text entitled Seduction of the Innocent. In it, he highlighted the perils children faced, as a result of a new corrupting influence: the comic book industry.

Dr Wertham argued that children - from good and bad homes alike - were consuming comics filled with "vast amounts of waywardness, infidelity, cheating, lying and assorted kinds of trickery".

Girls were reading love comics, with dangerous messages that would hamper their success in marriage and motherhood. Boys, meanwhile, were being unnecessarily stimulated by drawings of "protruding breasts" and ample hips. And both sexes were reading comics at such a feverish pace that they found it difficult to redirect their minds to other pursuits.

Dr Wertham therefore believed that society should rid children's environment of such pernicious risks.

The academics draw parallels between such historic fears and concerns expressed about the sexual corruption and erosion of innocence of today's children. For example, in a 2010 report to the Home Office, psychologist Linda Papadopoulos said: "It's a drip, drip effect. Look at porn stars and look how an average girl now looks. It has seeped into everyday: fake breasts, fuck-me shoes ... We are hypersexualising girls."

Today, sexualisation is said to cause promiscuity, mental health problems and self- destructive behaviour. Children are assumed to be powerless to resist the alluring messages to which they are exposed, automatically believing what they see.

But awareness of similar fears in the past, the academics argue, allows for a more thought-out reaction to the challenges of contemporary society. Such responses, they believe, will then be "less reactionary in their construction of sexual problems, and in their political responses".


Egan, R.D. and Hawkes, G.L. "Sexuality, Youth and the Perils of Endangered Innocence: how history can help us get past the panic" (2012).

Gender and Education, 24 (3), 269-84.


R. Danielle Egan, St Lawrence University


Gail Hawkes, University of New England


For more than 100 years, there has been a widespread assumption that the sexualisation of working-class children corrupts the middle classes. And such beliefs still prevail, according to academics from St Lawrence University and the University of New England.

In the early 20th century, the poor were believed to be dangerous, and even infectious, because their behaviour violated "the boundaries of the civilised body ... which separated the human from the animal", one activist wrote.

Without intervention, such activists assumed that middle-class children would also succumb to sexualisation, and would be drawn into a life of masturbation and later degeneracy.

Today, similar classist assumptions emerge in terms such as "skank", "kinderwhore" and "prostitot". The academics cite the Urban Dictionary entry for the last term: "A child resembling or working as a prostitute. Usually the result of admiring Britney, Xtina or their skanky-ass mother."

Such descriptions, the academics say, contain clear class assumptions, and "prefigure the sexualised girl as damaged, insatiable and dangerous".

Thus, the purity and innocence of some girls is reaffirmed at the expense of others. Sexualisation is shown as a crisis of specific behaviours, rather than a consequence of a broader sexist culture.

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