There has been a lot of noise in the Australian media of late about the “sexualisation of culture”. In this article, I look at why critics of this “sexualisation” are so hostile towards sexually explicit representations that are displayed in public settings.
Critics of “public” and sexually explicit imagery include parents, feminists, conservatives, journalists and politicians. The images they have criticised have appeared on billboards, magazine covers, music videos, shopping catalogues. These critics have advanced their arguments in media articles, books, TV interviews. These critics have also promoted their cause through websites such as Collective Shout and lobby groups such as Kids Free 2B Kids.
My aim is not to chastise the above-mentioned commentators or hurl around labels such as “pro-censorship”. I want to closely examine some of the assumptions underpinning their responses to sex in public. I do this because these assumptions speak volumes about broader contemporary attitudes towards sex and representation.
The first assumption is that children are exposed to sexually explicit imagery that appears in “public” places. This is true. What is more, today’s pop culture raunch is more explicit than that which I encountered while growing up in Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. In those days, pop culture raunch was limited to Madonna music videos and Channel 9’s “adult’s only” soap opera Chances.
I suggest that the prevalence of sexualised imagery in public is another reason why parents and guardians should talk to their children about sex. This will be difficult in certain conservative and/or religious contexts. And not being a parent myself, I cannot imagine the awkwardness that even open-minded adults would face when trying to explain (say) the subtext of 50 Cent’s Candy Shop to their ten-year-old. Nonetheless, trying to shield children from “what goes on when the lights go out” is naïve, patronising and dangerous.
The second assumption is that the sexually explicit imagery which appears on magazine covers and billboards is degrading, especially to women and children. Demeaning public images of any group are unacceptable. Such imagery creates an air of fear and intimidation for the group/s being represented. I also condemn representations of young people in age-inappropriate scenarios, i.e. tweens in lingerie.
Nevertheless, we need to remember that not every “demeaning” or “inappropriate” image is “sexual”. In 2006, for example, a number of Australian newspapers and blogs exhibited cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad as a terrorist. These cartoons were not raunchy, but they were certainly anti-Muslim.
Similarly, we need to avoid arguing that all sexually explicit representations - or indeed all representations of women or children - are automatically derogatory. Some commentators have fallen into this trap.
For example, in 2007, I attended a conference paper on supposedly provocative media images of young people. The presenter displayed a shot of a pair of bathers-clad children frolicking on a beach. This was the kind of cute, good-natured picture that features in many family photo albums. However, the presenter argued that, because this shot appeared on a clothing advertisement, it was a pedophile’s masturbation aid. One audience member agreed, suggesting that the foam water the children splashed around in symbolised semen.
A third assumption underpinning anti-“sex in public” arguments is that sex should not be so widely exhibited. We don’t care what you do between the sheets, just don’t share it with the whole world! This assumption is not entirely faulty. We don’t all want reality TV cameras in our bedrooms, or to watch what strangers do in their bedrooms. Filming a sexual encounter and posting it on a file-sharing website without one - or more - participants’ consent or knowledge is unethical. This is particularly the case if the encounter involves coercion or force.
Yet it’s unrealistic and unnecessary to remove all sexual references from magazine covers or TV shows. Some of these references are exploitative, some are not. Indeed, I wonder whether the sense of “scandal” attached to some sexualised representations has contributed to the popularity of events such as Sexpo? I somehow doubt that a warehouse full of overpriced kink would seem “exciting” if we lived in a world where there wasn’t an outcry every time Lady Gaga released a new video.
So, arguing against sex in public helps to shroud sex in an air of the taboo. “Privatising” sex also means framing sex as something that is beyond political analysis, public debate, even the law. When sex is regarded as a strictly “private” matter, it becomes something that is carried out between “private” “individuals” in “private” settings. In a world of “privatised” sex, any discussion of sexual matters - even the anti-“sexualisation of culture” diatribes that I have described - would be outlawed.
Bonking in the aisles of the local Safeway won’t bring on the revolution. That sort of thinking was dated 40 years ago. Suggesting that sex is something that should only be performed or discussed behind closed doors is equally unhelpful. We need to think of ways to discuss and represent sex that do not entail exploitation.