When bunny takes on a new meaning

Playboy raised temperatures in parliament this week, but it was the sexual imagery aimed at children that was the hot topic

Henry Hepburn

It was surely the first time the Scottish Parliament had simultaneously considered the merits of Playboy and A Curriculum for Excellence.

The equal opportunities committee was debating the prevalence of sexual imagery aimed at children, and the focus of their ire was the bunny-shaped branding of Hugh Hefner's empire, an increasingly common sight on children's clothes, jewellery and stationery.

It invited Playboy to attend its meeting on Tuesday. The company - whose magazine is as renowned for searching interviews with the likes of Martin Luther King and former United States president Jimmy Carter as its centrefolds - declined.

It did, however, send a detailed letter from chief executive Christie Hefner, Hugh's daughter and the 84th most powerful woman in the world in 2007, according to Forbes magazine. Playboy had "never knowingly" marketed its products to children, a dim view would be taken of licensees who did so, and the company had set up a website to help parents control children's access to electronic media.

She "would have no expertise or experience to share with the committee", but suggested that its members would find kindred spirits at Playboy. The magazine, at the vanguard of post-war libertarianism after its launch in 1953, had started a brand whose "popularity rests on our consistent advocacy of freedom of expression".

Ms Hefner hoped the committee would "seek effective and thoughtful means to balance the protection of children and the rights of adults to make choices about what they say, see, read, write and hear".

Assembled experts were, however, only concerned with children's interests. It was Ann Henderson, of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, who feared the spread of sexual imagery among young people would create attitudes at odds with ACfE: respect for others would be undermined if women were sexual objects, and children would be less likely to emerge as "confident individuals" if their self-esteem took a battering from unrealistic depictions of womanhood.

Agnes Nairn, a marketing expert at leading business schools in France and the Netherlands, said there was "no question" that "the ubiquity of the internet and the media inside children's own private spheres" had increased. She believes exposure to sexual imagery makes young people more vulnerable to paedophiles. A young girl, for example, could look sexually precocious by innocently mimicking provocative dancing on music videos.

Tom Narducci, senior consultant for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, added that young girls in push-up bras and T-shirts with lascivious messages gave "paedophiles a greater ability to justify the abuse of girls because they can say: 'This is a sexualised girl'."

The committee heard about the sale, often in well-known stores, of high heels for babies and pole-dancing kits. Members were unimpressed with the non-attendance of the Scottish Retail Consortium, whose director Fiona Moriarty wrote that education was "the key to preventing inappropriate imagery from selling well to children".

Dr Nairn had photos of a shop in Bath with Playboy products next to Kello Kitty items - a child-friendly brand Playboy says should be no-where near its wares.

MSPs appeared to remain convinced that the Playboy brand symbolises the insidious incursion of sex into children's lives.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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