I’ve been following the current debates about sexualization with a lot of interest, both because I want to live in a sexually healthy world and because these sorts of discussions often have a direct impact on my work as a sex educator. And while I’ve been sitting with the question of what a sex-positive response to the topic might be, especially after reading Renee Randazzo’s post on the Good Vibrations magazine and Peggy Orenstein’s post on mommyish.com, it wasn’t until I received a link to Onscenity that it came together for me.
My understanding of sex-positivity rests on the notion that the only relevant criteria for assessing a sexual act or practice is the pleasure, consent, and well-being of the people who choose it or who are affected by it. Of course, that’s easy to say and hard to practice, since it requires setting aside one’s internalized sex-negativity as well as one’s personal preferences and squicks. It’s also difficult to do because it’s a principle that must be applied in each unique situation, rather than an easy-to-implement rule.
So with that in mind, I want to take a look at the definition used by the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls:
Sexualization occurs when
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
All four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualization. The fourth condition (the inappropriate imposition of sexuality) is especially relevant to children. Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualized. But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.
From a sex-positive perspective, I can get behind much of this. When someone’s value is reduced to their sexual attractiveness, when sexy is defined in ways that exclude so many people, when people are treated as sexual objects (outside of the context of a specifically negotiated and consensual exchange), and when sex is imposed on others, we reinforce sex-negativity, sexual violence, and shame. And while I’d prefer if they’d phrased it as “any one can be an indication of sexualization, ” I do think it’s important to recognize the multiple directions that this can come from.
At the same time, given that sexual exploration is often motivated by both internal and external factors, I think it’s an oversimplification to make it seem as if it’s easy to determine that a particular person’s actions are self-motivated, especially if we don’t ask them. And we don’t actually know what “age-appropriate” means when talking about sex education, both because different children develop at different rates and because simply asking the question of what childhood sexual development looks like means risking being labeled a pedophile.
Unfortunately, in the quest to protect children from anything having to do with sex, people often create the circumstances that put them at more risk. In fact, so many of the ways that we respond to the challenges that we face around sexuality end up reinforcing the very problems that we’re trying to address that I can’t help but wonder if many of the anti-sexualization folks are doing it again. I’d really like to see more people critiquing and taking a stand against the narrow and limited views of sexuality that reinforce sexualization without resorting to shaming tactics that also reinforce sex-negativity. I’d like to see them advocating for a wider definition of what sexy is instead of attacking the one that dominates the discourse. I’d like to see them celebrating all bodies and advocating for sexuality education that teaches about consent, decision-making, and discovering about one’s authentic desires. I’d like to see them promote media literacy projects and help parents gain the language to talk with their children. I’d like to see them acknowledging that young people are active participants, even as their ability to make choices is shaped by their developmental stages. And I’d like to see more people advocating for both the freedom to be sexual in whatever way they choose AND the freedom from having any version of sexy imposed on them. It’s only freedom if you can say no as well as yes. Those are the kinds of things that help young people resist limited and limiting examples of how to be.
Other folks have pointed out the many flaws in the anti-sexualization movement’s rhetoric (see Onscenity for a great overview). It’s hard to get good information about this phenomenon when we each have a different set of experiences, and when we can’t really agree on what sex is (much less what “sexual” means). There’s also the issue of confirmation bias– how can a researcher code images as sexual or not without their individual sexuality influencing them? And then, there’s the question of whether they’re projecting a squick reaction instead of identifying something more general. I have to wonder how much of their concerns are because of discomfort with young people’s sexual expressions.
Yet, I still can’t discount everything that they say because I see some of the same patterns. I see how we’ve distilled “sex” into this one form that has no room for so many of the pleasure and joys that we can experience. I see how some young people try to make themselves fit a mold instead of celebrating their individualities. For that matter, I talk with plenty of adults who face the same struggles. Yes, I know lots of people also resist these representations, but the fact that they have to resist them worries me. These are hardly new dynamics. But as our culture has shifted into an attention economy, we’re inundated with more images that demand that we notice them. That changes the playing field in ways that we won’t understand for a while.
I don’t have any answers to many of these questions. All I know is that I’d like to see more people approaching with more sex-positivity and less shaming. I don’t think we’ll see any real answers until that happens.