The Trend of Sexualizing Children
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The germ of this post came many weeks ago when my aunt sent me a link to an article on PJMedia. Before I go on, my sense is, that PJMedia is one of those places that a certain category of people are going to dismiss out of hand, because of its conservative bias. Though, if you haven’t noticed, I go out of my way to acknowledge that most places and people are biased, especially me. As my small way of counteracting that, I try my best to point out where I think my biases lie and where I think the biases of those I quote from lie.
In that spirit, as I said, PJMedia is obviously a conservative website, and the article has the sort of biases you would expect from conservative media. But in saying this, I should also hasten to point out that another underlying theme of this blog is that not all biases are bad. This is particularly the case in situations where an unbiased view is impossible, like predicting the future. You have to be biased, because being accurate isn’t possible given, that the future hasn’t happened yet. Consequently you only know whether you were too optimistic or too conservative in retrospect. Given that, you can only choose the bias with the lowest aggregate downside. To sum up, I want to make it clear upfront that the article is biased, but also that that may not be a bad thing.
With that caveat out of the way let’s finally move to a discussion of the actual article. The article was drawing attention to and commenting on a video, trending at the time on YouTube, which featured parents teaching their pre-teen kids about masturbation. From the article:
The YouTube video flits backs and forth, showing five different parent-child groupings, with parents telling children about masturbation, including how-tos, discussions of how many times they masturbate, and sex toys. Many times, the parents mime the actions of sexual intercourse and masturbation to illustrate how dildos and other sex toys are used.
From the reactions of the children it seems clear that these were not kids who came to their parents with a question. This is not an example of children who wanted to know about the subject and this is just their parent’s genuine attempt to honestly answer those questions (which was then coincidently taped for the benefit of posterity.) These are pre-teen children who were sat down in front of a coffee table loaded with assorted paraphernalia including, as was mentioned, a dildo. And, who, also, as far as I can tell, had very little concept of what masturbation is, before being given an in-depth, and frankly excruciating explanation. Which the children react to as expected, with nervous giggling, discomfort and in the case of one girl, who looks like she’s 9 years old, if that, repeatedly putting her head into her hands in disbelief.
Upon first having your attention drawn to the video you may have any number of reactions. One of which might be to wonder what the point is. It doesn’t appear to be done for comedy, it’s not like that “children react” video series where kids encounter things like rotary phones and VCRs, no, from what I can tell these people seem to genuinely believe that pre-teens need to be educated on this subject and that this education should be filmed for the benefit of society at large.
The PJMedia article mentions that this is not an isolated example. And they link to a previous article of theirs which outlined all of the graphic articles which had been recently published by Teen Vogue, drawing particular attention to one that explained the RIGHT way to have Anal Sex (emphasis in the original.) They also draw their readers attention to a decision by National Geographic to feature a 9 year old transgender girl on their cover. I can see where some people might feel that this last point is different than the previous examples, and I’ll get to that, but let’s return to the video, as I said my first thought was to wonder what the point was.
There are obviously some people, the makers of the video at a minimum, who thought it was a good idea. Based on the number of likes the video got, the video makers are not alone in this, though they are in the minority. At the time of this writing the video had 90,000 dislikes to 20,000 likes. So while the people who dislike the video are clearly in the majority, there are still some people who think this is a good idea, perhaps even something that people should be doing more of.
On the other hand there are 90,000 people who disliked the video. And out of those I assume that most of them, like myself, found a video featuring squirming pre-teens being taught about masturbation to be appalling. But just as we earlier wondered why the 20,000 people who liked the video thought it was a good idea, we might wonder exactly why the 90,000 people who disliked the video thought it was a bad idea.
At the extreme end we have people who fall into the PJMedia camp, who disliked the video not merely because it was appalling on it’s face but also because it was one more piece of evidence supporting the decline of society as a whole. Other people may have found the video to be appalling, but don’t think it says anything special about the state of the world. Finally, some might have disliked it just for the discomfort it caused the child actors, or because they thought phrases like “choking the chicken” were lame, or because of its production values.
I’d like to focus on the second group for a moment, because I encounter them all the time. I know many people of my generation (and younger) who, if told about this video, would be quick to agree that it was a bad idea, and who might even go so far as to agree that it’s appalling, even loathsome, but who will then quickly assure me that there’s nothing to worry about because the video is an outlier. It doesn’t represent some larger societal trend, all it represents is that there are a few idiots out there with access to a camera and a computer.
This attitude fits in well with the attitudes of groups and people I’ve described in previous posts. The people who think that, while the road is bumpy, technology and progress just keep making things better. On this particular subject they might point out that the teen birth rate is at an historic low, and use this as evidence that even if tasteless videos of the kind we’ve been talking about are getting made that they don’t appear to have had any effect on this most important metric of teen sexuality.
One might even imagine them saying something like, “Only prudes and people who hate pleasure are interested in restricting sex for it’s own sake, if teenagers aren’t bringing unwanted children into the world what do you care how much sex they have?”
We’ll I’ll get to that, but first a brief aside about the teen birth rate. If you actually examine the chart you’ll find that there’s a lot that’s not obvious and that the statistic might not be as clean as you think. For one, as you may or may not have inferred from the name, (I didn’t) the teen birth rate includes 18 and 19 year olds. Given that the teen birth rate spiked after World War II during the baby boom years, which is precisely when the median age of marriage for both sexes was at its lowest. It’s unclear how much the historical teen birth rate was at the upper end of the teen range among “teens” who might have actually been married. It was certainly more common to get married at 18 or even 17 back then and therefore, presumably, any children born to those couples during the first year or so of marriage would be counted as a teen birth.
On the other side of things, despite going all the way up to 19 it only goes down to 15, so in those rare cases when someone younger than that gets pregnant, it’s not tracked. And if we were looking for a statistic to support our hypothesis about increasingly sexualized children and teens having numbers for that age group would be very interesting.
Still it can’t be denied that the birth rate is going down, and that’s good news, and as it turns out it’s not mostly due to abortion, which may be even better news. It appears that it’s mostly due to birth control, though there has also been a significant increase in the number teens who’ve never had sex. But to close out this aside, I will say, that a society of individuals completely uninterested in sex, or who get all the sexual gratification they need through pornography and masturbation, is not necessarily a great situation either. Which brings us back to our original subject.
As I pointed out you can break the reactions down into three groups. You have the people who we just discussed, who think the video is, at best, unnecessary, and, at worst, appalling, but that PJMedia and people like them are over-reacting. Then you have the people who think the video represents some sort of trend. With some portion of those people thinking it’s a good trend and another, probably larger portion, thinking it’s a bad trend.
Of course it’s also possible that you’re on the fence about this. You find the video appalling, but you also don’t want to over-react. Certainly throughout history there have definitely been repeated instances of the older generation overreacting to some perceived trend among the younger generations.
Accordingly, if you’re on the fence, before we determine if it’s a good trend or a bad trend, it might be useful to first determine if it’s a trend at all. And on this point I think the evidence is pretty conclusive.
Obviously if you’re trying to determine if something is a trend you look at where that thing is today, versus where it was in the past. And in this endeavor there is plenty of evidence to be found. Certainly 20 or 30 years ago, it’s impossible to imagine a video being made like the one we’ve been talking about, to say nothing of the ubiquity of hardcore pornography (a subject I’ve touched on before.)
If we want to look beyond the video, there are the other examples from the article: The Teen Vogue piece, for starters. Comparing now with 20 or 30 years ago might be difficult given that Teen Vogue has only been around since 2003, putting it, actually, close to the same age as YouTube (2005). However the parent magazine, Vogue, has been around since 1892. It would be interesting to search through the archives (I considering it, but it’s $1750) to see when the first mention of anal sex appears. I’d be surprised it wasn’t in the last 20 years, and it certainly couldn’t be more recently than the 70s. And based on the reaction, the recent article connecting teens to anal sex had to be the first time that happened.
As another, quicker, aside. I should draw your attention to the Teen Vogue response to those who were concerned by the article. Phillip Picardi, the digital editorial director posted a picture of him kissing another man (he’s gay) while flipping of the camera with his rainbow painted fingernail. That was his response to those who were concerned about the article. Make of that what you will.
In the middle of writing this, I ended up going to breakfast with a friend of mine, a friend who has never been religious, has no children and is otherwise fairly liberal, particularly with respect to morality. Given all that I thought it might be interesting to get his take on this issue, and so I described the video to him and asked him what he thought about it.
His principal objection was the age of the children, pre-teen seemed to young to him, particularly when they weren’t the one’s initiating the discussion. But, beyond that, he said something interesting. He opined that on a certain level it was imperative for the parents to provide this education because otherwise kids would pick it up from their environment, where it very well might be distorted. While some of the other things I’ve mentioned might be great examples of the severity of the trend, for me this statement encapsulates the breadth of the trend. The best argument my friend could come up with for sitting your 8 year old down in front of a coffee table full of sex toys was that if you didn’t do it someone else would.
For most of you I have probably hammered on this point far more than was necessary. Obviously it’s a trend, the only question is whether it’s a good trend or a bad trend. I would venture to say that this answer is obvious as well, but in the interests of being comprehensive, I will address one more objection before I move on to that question, the technological objection. The idea that all of the things I’ve mentioned don’t represent a change of morality so much as a change in technology. The ability of people to get their viewpoint out there, whether it’s through a YouTube video, or a blog, or an instagram post has never been greater, and consequently you are seeing things like the video and the Teen Vogue article both because just the amount of content has led to a far greater diversity of opinion, but also because you have to make things increasingly controversial to stand out.
I suppose this is possible, But certainly magazines are not a new invention. And as far as YouTube goes, it might be a different argument if I was pointing out a video that only had a few thousand views, I’m guessing that I can find just about anything if I open it up to any video, but this video has 1.9 million views. Also YouTube, has been around long enough, that I bet if such statistics were available, you would find that, as a percentage, the number of videos with an adult theme have been increasing.
In the end I’m not sure it matters. As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. In the end does it matter if declining morality creates a society willing to record appalling videos, or if an increasingly competitive media environment generates appalling videos which then lead to a decline in morality?
With that final objection out of the way, we’re finally ready to tackle the question of whether it’s a good trend or a bad trend. You can’t have come this far without knowing my feelings on the subject and I think most of you are probably already in agreement. It’s a bad trend. But can we be fully confident of that conclusion without having considered the arguments of the other side? Why did 20,000 people like the video? What were they thinking?
Interestingly enough the minute we tackle this problem we arrive at another reason in favor of it being a trend. There’s an overarching ideology to the whole thing. The ideology of choice. This is what they are thinking and this is what will be our primary subject for the remainder of the post.
At first glance you might think that allowing people a choice is great. (I assume that’s what more or less what was going through the minds of the 20,000.) Choice is good, especially, if the alternative is being forced to do something against your will. In fact such an idea is at the core of Mormon Doctrine, but, that said, there’s a large gulf between striving to make the right choice, and using choice merely as means to maximize personal convenience and pleasure.
We see this with the abortion movement, or as they like to call it, the pro-choice movement. I don’t think the ideology of choice started there, but it’s certainly an example of how it plays out. As you might have guessed from the title, within the pro-choice movement, choice is the highest and only moral value. You don’t have choice so you can make the right decision, whatever choice you make is the right decision, by definition. There is no morality beyond the choice. If it would give you pleasure to have the baby than have the baby, if it would be more convenient to have an abortion then by all means have an abortion.
It’s equally obvious how this ideology extends into most of our current societal norms. If you’re happy being married stay married. If you’re not, get a divorce. Sure it’s hard on the kids, but isn’t it harder to have an unhappy parent? (Left unsaid is whether there’s anything you can do to change your happiness.) If you’re a man and you think you’d be happier as a woman then go ahead and make that choice as well. And here is where we return to the 9 year old transgender girl on the cover of National Geographic.
When I mentioned this at the beginning of the post I also mentioned that many people would put the cover in a different category than the video. And in a sense this is true. Since teenagers have been having sex for as long as sex has existed, we have all manner of societal norms and laws around what sort of sex, and more narrowly, what sort of sex education is appropriate, but since children have been choosing their gender only since about October of last year (I understand that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one) that issue doesn’t have much in the way of cultural norms or laws. So in that sense there is a difference. But is there a difference when discussing the trend, or the ideology of choice or, most importantly the sexualizing of children?
To give a nine year old (or in one case, a newborn) the latitude to choose their gender seems so self evidently part of the ideology of choice that no further proof needs to be offered. And I would go on to argue that if it’s part of the same ideology that almost certainly makes it part of the same trend.
I have bounced back and forth between the words convenience and pleasure when describing this ideology. Although I would argue it’s basically the same thing, the only difference being a matter of degree and not of type. Convenience being, merely, longer term and more diffuse pleasure, while pleasure is merely shorter term and more intense convenience. But distilling the entire principle down into “Do what feels good” or even “Act Selfishly” would not be far from the mark, and here we circle back to the video.
It’s obvious that the parents in the video are motivated by a desire to make sure their children are aware of all of their choices. Particularly choices that might give them pleasure. Presumably the parents of the nine year old on the cover of National Geographic have similar motivations. Though perhaps they view it as a choice which will create pleasure through the reduction of suffering. In offering their children these choices, there is no question of whether it’s the right choice, because there is no wrong choice. There’s also no consideration of whether it might lead to bad consequences, or whether they’re mature enough to handle the choice, it’s merely a question of does the choice exist, if so it’s our responsibility to make them aware of the choice, and then, whatever they choose, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to grant that.
News flash! Just because a kid wants something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Maturity is not something made up by the old to oppress the young. It actually exists. And ignoring this fact is a bad thing. Kids want things for a lot of reasons and 99.9% of the time it’s not because they know what will make them the happiest in 20 years, most of the time it’s envy, alienation, boredom, greed or infatuation. Ignoring that, and forcing decisions about gender and sexuality on them from the moment they can understand these decisions (and even that is debatable) is both irresponsible and damaging, and the exact opposite of good parenting.
Whether I’m a good parent or not I’ll let history decide. Though I probably do spend too much time on this blog. Donations help me spend slightly less time. So if you care about children at all, you should definitely donate.