IN JAPAN it is hard to avoid the disturbing spectacle of young girls being treated as sex objects. Rorikon, an abbreviation of “Lolita complex”, is ubiquitous. In M’s Pop Life, a sex shop in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, known for its pop subculture, life-size models of girls, their breasts at various stages of puberty, are openly on sale. Elsewhere big-bosomed cartoon girls are splashed across posters; children (or grown-ups made to look like children) pose in magazines in bikinis.
Rorikon is a peculiarly Japanese phenomenon. But across the world there are growing concerns about children being portrayed sexually, and the effects on the children themselves. This comes in two forms. The first, “direct” sexualisation, includes advertising, television programmes and magazine content that portray children, especially girls, as sexually aware or active. It also includes goods aimed at children who are seen as trying to make themselves “sexier”—such as padded bras or hot-pants, make-up or pole-dancing toys. The second is “indirect”—the worry that, thanks to the internet, children witness ever more depictions of sexual activity. They are likely to see far more pornography than earlier generations, and at a younger age. In Britain, for instance, around half of 11- to 16-year-olds have seen pornography online, mostly by accident, according to a 2016 study by the NSPCC, a British children’s charity.
Japan has belatedly been reining in some excesses. In 2014 it banned the possession of child pornography—although it is still a hub for making and selling the illegal stuff. Last year the Tokyo metropolitan government banned under-18s from working in the JK (joshi kosei, schoolgirl) industry, where men pay, for example, to go for a walk with a schoolgirl or to lie down next to one (or, under the new rules, a woman pretending to be one). This year, after a few customer complaints, Aeon, a big retail chain, said it would stop stocking pornographic magazines in some of its shops. But they remain widely on sale in convenience stores. Keiji Goto, a police officer turned children’s-rights lawyer, says “Japan remains behind other countries.”
Don’t grow up
Indeed, across the rich world, countries are grappling with how to deal with the over-sexualisation of children. The assumption—often unspoken—is that exposure to sexualised images is linked to a growing number of sexual incidents involving children. Amanda Hulme, the head of a primary school in north-western England, says it is seeing more peer-on-peer abuse. Across Britain, the police received almost 30,000 reports of sexual assaults by children on other children over the past four years, including 2,625 allegedly on school grounds. And “sexting”—sending explicit images—is widespread. It can ruin young lives. A boy who opens a forwarded sext might find himself on a sex-offenders’ register. A girl whose intimate photo ends up widely shared online may be driven to despair or even suicide.
But it is not known whether all this is really linked to the sexual content children are exposed to. Their youth precludes most research. And Deevia Bhana, a South African academic, says that some of the concern stems from moral attitudes about the way children—almost always girls—should act, rather than from actual evidence of harm. In fact, in some ways risky behaviour is decreasing. Surveys show that in much of the rich world young people are waiting longer to lose their virginity. Teenage pregnancies are falling.
Precocious sexualisation, however, is recognised as causing some forms of harm. One is to mental health. Sharon Lamb, a child psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, says she sees children, mainly girls, losing self-esteem when they feel that the only way they are valued is if they act sexually. This feeds into problems such as eating disorders, and can affect future relationships. Boys suffer, too. Ms Lamb says stereotypes portraying them as always wanting sex put them under pressure to act in a certain way.
A second possible type of harm is that a sexualised, pornographic culture may give children damaging ideas about sex. Ms Hulme reckons that the increase in children inappropriately touching each other is linked to pornography. No one has ever proved how pornography relates to action, but children (more boys than girls) have told pollsters from the NSPCC that it gave them ideas about what to try. This highlights the need for good sex education, if only to inform children about real life.
A third sort would be if such material encouraged paedophilia. Risa Yasojima of M’s Pop Life says, without citing evidence, that she reckons its products can help paedophiles refrain from touching actual children. But others fear that ubiquitous images of sexualised children and child pornography foster the paedophile delusion that sees ordinary, spontaneous and tactile children as flirtatious.
Not in front of the children
Efforts to tackle these dangers need to accept that in the internet age it may be possible to limit children’s exposure to sexual images, but not to eliminate it. Better to prepare them to be able to cope, and to recognise that the images themselves are a symptom of a broader problem: how society turns women into sexual objects.
In the past decade countries have started to act on worries about the over-sexualisation of children. The turning-point in Britain was a 2010 report on the issue that the government commissioned from Reg Bailey, then at Mothers’ Union, a British Christian charity, and now a council member at the Advertising Standards Authority, the industry’s self-regulatory body.
Published in 2011, his report made 14 recommendations, such as keeping explicit magazines out of children’s sight. It also advocated raising parents’ awareness of sales techniques, and developing codes of practice among retailers covering goods marketed to children. Since 2011 guidelines about what can be shown on street billboards and magazine displays have been tightened. Internet-service providers offer parental filters to limit what their children may see. A new law, coming into force this year, obliges pornography sites to require evidence that users are over 18.
Other countries are following suit. In 2014, France outlawed beauty contests for under-13s. La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, has moved to do the same. Some Cubans are fretting about a craze among girls as young as five for quinceañeras, coming-of-age parties intended for 15-year-old girls, in which the girls often pose for photos, dolled up and looking sultry. Pressure groups and individual complaints also have an impact. In 2006 Tesco, a British supermarket chain, removed a children’s pole-dancing kit from the toys section of its website. In 2010 Primark, an Irish clothing company, withdrew children’s bikinis with padded tops.
If driven by online vigilantism alone, however, measures to prevent premature sexualisation may infringe freedom of expression—or simply go too far. In May, after a storm of online condemnation, Sweaty Betty, a boutique British fitness-wear brand, withdrew from its website an image of three girls around 15 or 16 clad in tropical-patterned leggings and crop-tops, which, in hindsight, looks fairly inoffensive.
Criticism is almost always directed at girls, not at boys or the culture around them. Girls are told not to wear short skirts to school so as not to distract boys, or even teachers—yet not enough is done to teach boys about consent. “I am a bit sick of the simplistic ‘sexy-so-soon’ discourse out there,” says Ms Lamb, the child psychologist. “A girl playing at being Beyoncé isn’t harmful. But a society that only values her for being Beyoncé is a problem.”
Research from places such as South Africa and Sweden suggests children can be better at dealing with sexualised advertising than adults realise. Ms Bhana, the South African academic, says her research suggests children are “highly sophisticated consumers”. But children need help to navigate the culture they grow up in. Mr Bailey says too little is done to develop children’s resilience to the stuff they inevitably stumble across, especially pornography.
If parents and teachers were matter-of-fact and honest about sex, young people would find it easier to talk about their worries and less likely to let what they see bother them. Research by the NSPCC suggests parents tend not to be too concerned by some things their children do—wearing “sexy” clothes or make-up, for example—seeing children as wanting to grow up quicker than they do. But they do worry about them seeing hard-core pornography.
Britain’s Department for Education is in the process of updating its sex-and-relationships guidance for the first time since 2000. Martha Kirby of the NSPCC says this is long overdue. The government is to hold consultations on new approaches, such as teaching primary-school children about the idea of consent, and those in secondary school about the laws on sexual abuse and the dangers of online grooming by paedophiles.
In many places even basic sex education is lacking. Ms Bhana sees a danger in the extreme positions of some lobbies, especially religious ones, and countries such as Saudi Arabia that resist teaching children about sex at all, in the hope of keeping them “pure”. Religious groups in America, such as the Abstinence Clearinghouse, also argue that sex education encourages children to have sex. In Myanmar similar concerns mean schools barely cover the birds and the bees.
Better to accept that children will naturally want to explore their desires and feelings, and equip them to do so safely with factual information, awareness of online dangers, access to contraception—and the power to know what they want and to say no to what they don’t want.
Don’t worry, be happy
Countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark are closer to this healthier approach. They expect children to be well informed about their bodies, and see the purpose of sex education as not just to warn of the risks, but to help prepare for a happy sex life. This may be one reason why, according to Anna Sparrman, a professor of child studies at Linkoping University in Sweden, Scandinavian countries have not really seen premature-sexualisation panics. It is not because of an anything-goes attitude; Sweden, for example, bans all broadcast advertising aimed at children under 12.
Just as important, countries need to face up to the cultural backdrop behind over-sexualisation, says Michelle Jongenelis, a researcher at Australia’s Curtin University. That images of girls looking sexy are so much more prevalent than those of boys reflects sexism and the sexual objectification of women; so does the way much pornography shows women being treated in a degrading manner. Children assimilate these norms through the images of their peers and the products pushed at them—including, at the extreme, pornography.
Happily, this broader cultural context does seem to be under scrutiny in some parts of the world, though the process is at a very early stage. Basic ideas about gender—such as shops labelling baby clothes as “boys’” and “girls’”—are being challenged, and more nuanced understanding of the meaning of “consent” are gaining ground. The #MeToo debate, which has pushed sexual assault to the fore, leads Ms Jongenelis to conclude that there is a shift in norms about what is acceptable. If so, then children should be among the greatest beneficiaries.