Sexualisation of Childhood: Should the Backlash be Stopped?
Regular readers of this blog will know I am often confused about the apparent contradictions between news stories. Here is another one.
Headline 1: One in 10 children ‘have watched pornography by time they are nine’ Report by children’s commissioner for England finds worrying amount of content involves violence [the Guardian, 31 Jan 2023]
Headline 2: Sam Smith: What's behind I'm Not Here to Make Friends backlash? [BBC Newsbeat, 21 Jan 2023]
I heard about the first of these stories on the radio and was distressed to think of how many children are being damaged by free and easy access to pornography, including scenes depicting violence against women. I have some limited experience of how harmful this can be to young people from my days in youth ministry, but these statistics highlight a huge problem for society. The headline about nine year olds is distressing enough, but the article continues to say that, “Four out of five (79%) of those surveyed have seen pornography involving violence by the age of 18, while one in three young people have actively sought out depictions of sexual violence such as physical aggression, coercion and degradation.” How can we hope to have a society where women are treated with respect if this shocking problem is not checked? How many adults of the future will be drawn into sexual crime or end up in dysfunctional relationships or on their own because they have no vision for sex that is loving, mutual and positive?
Later that same day, I stumbled on the second headline as I browsed the news pages of the BBC website. I know who Sam Smith is. I think he is a talented singer. I also knew that, since 2019, Smith has identified as non-binary and asks people to use the pronouns “they/them” when referring to Smith. I confess, however, that I had not followed Smith's singing career since then. I had no idea that “Their new album, Gloria, fully embraces LGBT culture”. I did not know Smith had a song entitled ‘I'm Not Here to Make Friends’, still less that it has been met with a "backlash". I forayed onto YouTube to watch the video (WARNING: I do not recommend you do the same). I was disgusted by what I saw: a highly sexualised display, including many costumes that suggest ‘bondage’. The singer even throws a bottle in the face of a female dancer (an act that more than one comment on the video pointed out would constitute assault!)
With the story about childhood pornography exposure ringing fresh in my mind, I returned from YouTube to the BBC website to finish reading the article that introduced me to Smith's video. I expected to find a balanced analysis expressing at least some concerns about the sexualisation of music videos and their appeal to young people. Instead, I found an article containing comment from only two sources – a “drag queen” arguing that the reaction to the video is transphobic and a “trans advocate” claiming that the video shows Smith “embracing their queerness” and adding that Smith is “doing God’s work essentially, just allowing everybody to be represented and feel good in their body”. Their basic, which the BBC journalists who wrote the article do nothing to counter-balance, is that Smith’s video is no more provocative than earlier releases by female artists and people just don’t like it because the video depicts non-binary people.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised that the BBC would carry such a biased article, but it is supposed to be committed to impartial reporting. In the Corporation's own words: "We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring that the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected". This article is certainly not consistent with that standard. I find this bias all the more troubling when I consider that the article is from Newsbeat, the arm of BBC news that Wikipedia describes as “tailored for a specifically younger audience of teenagers and early twenties”. Should our young people be encouraged to think nothing other than that people who don’t like sexualised videos are just seeking to oppress sexual minorities?
I should have noticed that the article's headline asks what is behind the backlash. The journalists' unequivocal answer is: “transphobia”. People who think it is irresponsible to depict assault or bondage outfits in a music video likely to be seen by many teenagers are unjustified. Those who are concerned about a video that glories in the prospect of going to a party with the attitude reflected in the song title, I’m Not Here to Make Friends (meaning "I am just here to find a sexual hook up with anyone who is available, without all the entanglement of relationship") are wrong. These supposed concerns are just a cover for transphobia!
What a contradictory situation we find ourselves in! On one hand, we can see the harm that depictions of sex are doing to children. On the other hand, it is unacceptable to criticise a music video for simulated depictions of similar things and the national broadcaster jumps to the defence of artists who do so (at least when they are non-binary).
In this post I am not seeking to comment on transgender issues or sexuality. But I take serious issue with the claim of the drag queen quoted by the BBC that, “If a female artist had done that exact same video, worn the exact same outfits, no one would bat an eyelid”. That is simply not true in my case or for many people I know. Our eyelids have been batted many times at previous sexualised music videos (albeit that I try to avoid them if I can). I would be just as disgusted and concerned about a female singer throwing a bottle at a dancer (male or female), dancing suggestively and pumping out a message that casual sex is healthy as I am when Sam Smith does it.
Why does all this bother me enough for me to blog about it? Because, as a Christian, I believe sexual intimacy is precious and purposeful. Far from "doing God's work", Smith is leading young people and adults towards a self-centred and cheap view of sex that is the exact opposite of the purpose its Inventor had for it. Based on the Bible, I believe sex is a good gift of a loving God given to human beings for three purposes. Perhaps the most obvious one is procreation, but that is not the primary one. First and foremost, sex was given as a physical expression of a deeper reality – the marriage dynamic of two people becoming one flesh. God made it intimate to express the closeness of relationship between the couple. He designed it such that the act that expresses true intimacy is, if all is well, mutually pleasurable and is also the normal way through which babies are conceived. The gift of a new life is intended to be given in the context of a physical union of pleasure and mutual self-giving that expresses a soul union that can also be a source of delight and strength through mutual self-giving under God.
Still less do I expect non-Christians to accept the Christian convictions that the gift of sex is given for married couples, that marriage is for one man and one woman, and that the sexes are distinct and based in biological realities. These convictions are important to Christians not merely because the Bible teaches that departure from them as sinful, but because marriage as a covenant relationship of faithfulness between one man and one woman is a sign of an even greater reality. This is the third purpose of sex. It points to the love of God for his people. It echoes the desire of our Creator to be united intimately and in faithfulness to us.
With the exception of my point about the unchangeable nature of biological sex - a fact that is obvious from science (as I have written recently) - I do not expect non-Christians (or non-religious people) to accept my claim that sex has a God-given purpose (although I hope my explanation might help them to understand why Christians care about sex). I do hope, however, that people who do not share my faith in Jesus Christ might find some common ground with me. I think the majority will agree that violence in sex is bad. I suspect most will also have some sense that 'good sex' is mutual (in consent and the intention to bring pleasure to both) and self-giving. I hope, too, that some can agree with me that sex is safest and best when it happens in the context of a loving, committed relationship. I suggest that it may be good to teach this to our children or at least to encourage them to think about it. If we dismiss concerns about sexualised content as 'phobic' (of any group of people), how can we have a serious debate about sexualisation of childhood?
Even if people cannot agree with any of my convictions about sex, I am glad that our society at least recognises that children (including teenagers) deserve to be protected from exposure to pornography and especially from depictions of sex that demeans women. I hope this remains so and that we might take bold actions that will actually protect them. But, if we are agreed on this, then why do we tolerate videos like Sam Smith’s? Surely such messages, that glorify casual sex and make fun of sexual violence, are not good for us whatever the sexuality or gender identity of those who make them? Why would anyone want to stop the backlash against that?