Britain's young people - sexualised, radicalised or patronised?

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
8 Jun 2011

Judging from the news this week, ministers and corporations seem very concerned about protecting the nation's youth. Their initiatives have served to temporarily distract attention from economic policies that are set to devastate the lives and opportunities of uncountable thousands of young people.

The first thing that I heard as my radio alarm clock went off on Monday was a discussion on the Today programme about children being 'sexualised' by inappropriate clothing. A number of retailers have signed up to an agreement under which they will avoid 'sexualised' clothes, such as push-up bras, for children. This marks a campaign success for Mumsnet and the Mothers' Union, who have long campaigned on the issue. David Cameron has personally expressed his sympathy for their concern.

I am not against the agreement. I hope it does some good in tempering the excesses of sexual consumerism and the sort of manipulative sales tactics that are based on targeting children. I respect Mumsnet and the Mothers' Union and I can understand why they are worried about this issue. But I am disappointed that they have failed to link the issue of sexually focused clothing with wider questions of money and power.

Sex sells. Corporations leap at the opportunity to profit from it. The sexual imagery used to promote children's clothes and a vast array of other products imposes a narrow idea of what sexuality is. Young people could be allowed to discover their sexuality for themselves as they grow up, ideally with gentle guidance from teachers and parents about ethics, emotions and practicalities. Instead, consumerism promotes a narrow idea of what sexuality is all about. This is an image of sexuality that says a lot about money and little about love. Assumptions about what is acceptable have more to do with social convention than with compassion, consent or mutuality.

The problem is not the sexualisation of childhood, but the commercialisation of sexuality.

Sexuality and relationships are damaged so heavily by capitalism because they are key targets for this sort of profiteering. The same profit motive that drives the distasteful reality of push-up bras for children also leads to the vastly profitable wedding industry, which pressurises couples to spend so extravagantly that the average cost of a wedding in the UK is now higher than the average annual income. Other couples choose not to get married because they "can't afford" it.

Consumerism undermines marriage and other loving relationships, although "family values" campaigners rarely if ever mention it.

If we ignore economics and speak only of "sexualisation", we risk promoting fear of young people's sexuality in itself. The word implies that sexuality has to be imposed on people from outside, rather than developed naturally from within. As the feminist commentator Laurie Penny puts it, this sort of language implies that young people may never be sexual, only sexualised.

They can also, it seems, be "radicalised". This was another word that has appeared frequently this week, following Theresa May's claim that universities are not doing enough to guard against the dangers of Muslim extremists "radicalising" students.

This sort of claim comes around every few years. On each occasion, there is a brief flurry of media interest that manages to generate little or no evidence of a significant problem posed by Muslim extremists on campus.

One such occasion was in 2005, when I was working at the University of London Union (ULU). There was a media story about a college in London that allegedly harboured an extremist group. When I investigated, I discovered that only one member of the group was ever known to have visited the college. On the one occasion on which he turned up, he was asked to leave by a students' union officer and calmly did so.

Just as young people may be sexual only if they are 'sexualised', it seems that (slightly older) young people may be radical only if they are 'radicalised'. Once again, the '-isation' language denies their responsibility for making their own decisions about what to believe in and how to live.

The government's cuts agenda and tuition fees hike will cause far more harm to students and potential students than small groups of fundamentalists trying to 'radicalise' them. Cameron's all-out assault on the welfare state will leave many more parents unable to afford sufficient clothes for their children - whether 'sexualised' or not.

Talk of 'sexualisation' and 'radicalisation' allows discussions of young people's welfare that avoids the realities of money and power. In both cases, the suffix '-ation' suggests that young people cannot grow up, develop and make decisions for themselves, but can only have ideas or desires imposed on them from outside.

The language portrays the arrogance of a government which does not trust people - particularly young people - to make their own choices. As last autumn's student demonstrations showed, this is something which many of them are no longer prepared to accept.

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(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. This summer, he is walking from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for his former homophobia, giving talks along the way. See http://www.repenting.wordpress.com.

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