Don’t get in bed with the Mothers’ Union

On 'sexualisation' & choosing our allies

15 February 2011


I don’t like the term ‘sexualisation’, and I don’t think feminists should use it. It’s too ambiguous. Applied to culture – as in ‘culture is becoming more sexual’ – it’s complicated. There are aspects of such ‘sexualisation’, if it’s occurring, that feminists might have complex positions on; Page 3, pornography, sex on TV and in film. But there are surely many facets we approve of, like greater acceptance of sex outside marriage, recognition that women have sexualities and desires and better access to contraception. Neither the complexity required of our critiques nor a full description of our partial victories can be sufficiently captured by the language of ‘sexualisation’. It’s too often used by the Right to mean permissiveness, relaxing of strict moral codes; the Tories now jumping on the sexualisation bandwagon might easily be imagined using the same term to complain about the rise in promiscuity, contraceptive use and miniskirts in the Sixties.

It’s equally problematic when applied to individuals. Growing up is a process of sexualisation. Adults are sexual beings, and so are teens – they’re beginning to experience and articulate sexual desire and, for many, enter sexual relationships. So when our esteemed government start talking about the ‘sexualisation of children’, feminists need to be wary that they’re not promoting conservative and ultimately repressive ideas of the innocence of childhood to the detriment of free and open discussion about sex with young people.

Enter the Mothers’ Union and its successful businessman chief executive, Reg Bailey. Reg is carrying out the Government’s new review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. He got this gig after the MU published a report opposing both. Those with longer memories might recall the Labour government carrying out a similarly titled review in 2010 (no longer on Home Office site, but available here). For all the many, many problems with that work – policy-based evidence gathering, unsubstantiated claims of the ‘porn is the theory, rape is the practice’ kind, a view of ‘healthy sex’ that only included sex inside relationships – it was an attempt at a literature review by an (albeit celebrity) psychologist.* This is worse. Much worse.

The Mothers’ Union is a Christian charity that “seeks to support families worldwide”. Its policy documents demand that “the welfare of families must be at the heart of all policy-making”. While it’s difficult to find hard evidence of this lot belonging to the Daily Mail-style evangelical family values brigade they’re hardly likely to be feminist allies (the family? as the central unit of society? no thanks) or interested in an informed study of sex and sexuality, in all its forms. Other Christians have criticised the problematising of homosexuality and exclusion of LGBT Christians from their works on these issues. Reg Bailey himself has been quoted supporting tax breaks for (hetero) married couples and opposing equal rights for cohabiting, non-married couples. The MU is not exactly progressive and it appears pretty ambivalent on LGBT issues, which would surely have to form part of any review into sexualisation and growing up (some kids are, y’know, queer).

It’s hardly feminist, or particularly smart on our issues either. Cheap shot maybe, but check out this frankly laughable quote from Reg on the occasion of Fathers’ Day, 2010:

Our members, we hope, will provide children with a “party bag” to give their dad, including a dad’s only treat – perhaps a Not for girls Yorkie bar, for example, together with information and supportive material dads can use by themselves, or with their children to nurture the special part they can play in supporting the spiritual life of their children.

Crack out that sexist chocolate kids! Show your dad what being a man means (being able to handle really chunky chocolate)! Aside from the jokes this rather suggests Mr. Bailey is pretty incapable of feminist cultural critique. Let’s turn to what he’s handily already stated about sexualisation and commercialisation:

Lastly, national and regional governments of the UK and Ireland can keep the issue on the agenda, promote awareness, act as mediator where necessary and ensure that regulations are sufficiently robust. In particular, governments can take further action to prohibit the “sex sells” approach being aimed at children under 16, and prevent children from being exposed to sexualised media, goods and services.

Imagining, for a minute, that it’s actually possible for any non-totalitarian government to prevent under-16s from being exposed to anything sexualised – and ‘media’ presumably includes TV, film, books, magazines and so on. It’s not, obviously, but imagine. What happens when the ‘child’ hits 17? Removed from this special protective shield around childhood and launched into commercialism proper? That’s gonna hurt.

Anti-capitalists are obviously against commercialisation of sex, and of everything else, because we’re against the capitalist system of production and exchange it stems from. That probably doesn’t need restating, but just in case. But we shouldn’t support this kind of critique just because it takes a swing at commercialism. There’s a debate around the best way to counter the effects of commercialisation on children now, in this society, that needs careful analysis – and keeping an eye on perhaps radical-sounding reports like this one. For feminists surely the best way to combat the things we find problematic about ‘sexualised’ media – the pressure to conform to body standards, to be constantly sexually available and so on – is to teach kids and teens more about sex. They need the tools to mediate the conflicting and demanding ideas of sex and sexuality being thrown at them from all angles, through their teenage years and beyond. They don’t need the protective veil of ‘childhood’ being drawn down over these questions by the family, the government or anyone else.

If my child, younger sibling or friend hit upon something, maybe in porn but also just in mainstream film, TV or magazines, that made them feel uncomfortable, confused or simply questioning, I’d want them to be able to talk to me and other adults about it. As feminists, this should be the kind of attitude and culture around sex that we strive to create; with less embarrassment, more talk. That’s not going to happen if we create this artificial innocent childhood age for under-16s, desexualised and ‘protected’ from feelings, thoughts and behaviours they’re already starting to work through.

The MU report appears to think that under 16s – ‘children’ – need to be protected from the outside influence of nasty, corrupting sex. That’s a recipe for more repression, more fucked-up anxious attitudes, not less. Sexual desire, fantasy, masturbation, relationships: these don’t magically occur at 18 alongside a new and spontaneous ability to cope with them. Becoming a sexual being and working out your sexuality are ongoing processes throughout life, but particularly in teenage years. Sex is something about us, as humans, not something outside of us, imposed by culture. Feminists must oppose ‘sexualisation’ being used by conservatives (small or big ‘c’) to bolster ideas of the innocence (read: non-sexuality) of teenagers, frequently used to deny them sex education and sexualities.

This ‘report’ is nothing more than an attempt by the Tories to draw together two of their favourite constituencies, family values campaigners and industry ‘stakeholders’, tackling the tension inherent in being socially conservative while favouring free rein for commerce. As the consultation page states, it’ll be “taking into account particularly the views of parents and the business community” – socialists and feminists should have no part in helping the Tories to resolve this internal strife, given we agree with them on neither the family nor attitudes to industry. This, alongside the obvious reaction of a family-first, childhood-protection stance and the pre-stated views of the report’s chair, means there’s nothing for feminists here.

Perhaps this doesn’t need stating. But feminism has a long and inglorious history of collaborating with the conservative Right when it comes to sex and the state, from Dworkin and MacKinnon celebrating the Meese Report to British radical feminists supporting 2009′s Policing and Crime Bill with all the strengthening of anti-sex worker laws it entailed. I hope in this instance the stark and obvious fact of these people not being on our side at all will make us all think long and hard before participating uncritically.

* I wrote about the Labour sexualisation review at the time, but didn’t manage to publish before it became irrelevant. Excellent, concise takedown of it by Clarissa Smith here (PDF).