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Children’s bodies: adult sexuality

By Liz Conor - posted Thursday, 19 October 2006

Being plastered with a wet kiss from your three-year-old is for most parents a familiar contact sport. But when my daughter test-drove a full-romance, Disney-derived pash down my throat, I recoiled in horror before I could gather my mother-wits. For a moment she and I gaped at each other across a very complex cultural divide; the mismatch between a child’s and an adults’ understanding of sex and how we each relate to its pervasive presence in everyday media.

Emma Rush’s report on the sexualisation of children in advertising has struck a chord with parents already angry at retail products that sexualise kids. However, the image analysis which forms a part of Rush’s report seems literal and prematurely conclusive.

This Australia Institute report, rather intemperately entitled Corporate Paedophilia, is to be commended for attempting to hold retailers to account. There is no question their products and imagery are part of the broader malaise of shrinking childhood, and it is high time we surveyed the entire cultural landscape and thought about its impacts on our children.


However, Rush’s approach potentially damages an argument she in fact shares with many parents. Listing off “social indicators of sexual difference” and then hunting for them in the content of images leaves her open to criticism that her reading is literal, out of context and subjective.

She describes one image of a girl as “pouting and her eyes are wide open, with eyebrows arched. The facial expression combined with the pose is suggestive of a sexual challenge or invitation, as is the ‘Hawaiian’ setting of beach, palm tree, and frangipani behind the ear”.

In spite of once convening a campaign ferociously called The Coalition Against Sexual Violence Propaganda, I cannot decipher a pout or arched eyebrow in this image, and it is not because, as Rush argues, such indicators of sexual availability have become so habituated they are now invisible. I see her body is arched in much the same way adult models pose. This is probably a function of displaying the cut of the dress, and yes, it might be careless of the retailers. If you were a pedophile I imagine that arch could play a role in fantisising a sexual “challenge” from a child in a tropical setting. But it is something of a leap to collapse the perception of a pedophile with that of retailers and advertisers.

Rush argues that all the girl models have long hair and because it is a social indicator of sexual difference, it is one of the details of the ads that sexualises children. This begs the question, when is long hair not sexual? Rush finds that “cosmetics emphasise the secondary effects of sexual arousal. Lipstick mimics increased blood flow to the mucous membranes, and blush mimics temperature increase”. It also mimics good health and paradoxically, youth. But should we Mummies store our make-up in childproof medical cabinets?

Can we in fact, deflect pedophiles’ gaze from our utterly beautiful, shiny-faced children? In the same way that the possibility of predators in every park has led to the phenomena of the bubble-wrapped housebound kid, should we let the possibility that children can be sexualised stop us from buying them “bolero crossover tops that draw attention to the breast area”?

If Rush had made the distinction between dress-ups and clothes retailing, between say, kids pulling on their Mummies’ bras and heels, to bralettes and platform shoes being sold as necessary everyday wear for girls, her argument about retailers’ complicity in the sexualisation of children might have had more force.


There is a difference between kids playing at being adults, and retailers targeting that universal yearning as a “reptilian hot spot” to inveigle small children into their ever-expanding markets. Bralettes for 2-years-olds are a classic instance of characterising children’s bodies with adult sexuality, an important point Rush makes.

In a wider culture where sexual abuse of girls is still prevalent, this is reckless and irresponsible of retailers. I think about the room set aside, at the rural sexual assault centre I once worked in, jammed from floor to ceiling with disclosure files and I want to string the manufacturers of those bralettes up with their own shoe-string straps.

Just this week I’ve been scouring the retailers Rush tackles, for cotton bicycle shorts so my eight-year-old can hang off a monkey-bar without attracting comments from her playmates. She is aware that her body is seen in ways which don’t match with her experience of it as a physically irrepressible child. She and her playmates are entitled to a childhood, a time of their life which is distinguished by all sorts of innocent pleasures, including a hazy picture about adult sexuality. The imposition of that knowledge on children is part of what makes pedophilia abusive, and Rush is to be applauded for raising the alarm.

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First published in The Age on October 17, 2006

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About the Author

Liz Conor is a research fellow in the Department of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Read her blog Liz Conor: Comment and Critique here.

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