Tom Sutcliffe: We'd all benefit from a bit of desexualisation

Social Studies: I can think of plenty of 42-year-olds who still aren't "emotionally-equipped" to deal with pornography

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When you think about it Reg Bailey was given a rather peculiar task by the Secretary of State for Education when he was appointed to lead an independent review of "the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood". The review, after all, was prompted by the concerns of parents "about the pressures their children are under to grow up quicker than they think is right". So, looked at from one angle, Mr Bailey's job was to examine the desirability of retarding the development of the nation's children and investigate the means by which this might be achieved. He sensibly seems to have concluded that it won't be very easy, but he does have some suggestions, among them a reinforcement of the broadcasting watershed, yashmaks for lad mags and the restriction of sexualised advertising in "locations where children are likely to see it". Initial knee-jerk reactions have not been very flattering – with sexual libertarians, in particular, responding as if the Taliban are at the gates of the city (it isn't only social conservatives who are capable of getting themselves into a moral panic).

I'm inclined to think his problems began the moment the word childhood was mentioned in his terms of reference. Because if you read his report it's clear that our sentimental and often muddled notion of children gives rise to many of the contradictions he's wrestled with.

Take the idea that "the world is a nasty place and children should be unsullied by it until they are mature enough to deal with it", for instance (not Mr Bailey's opinion, incidentally, but his characterisation of one widespread attitude among parents). The Catch-22 here is that it's tricky to acquire the maturity without a bit of sullying. Innocence is ignorance by another name – and education is, to some degree, the knowing destruction of innocence. Or take the almost comical submission from the Department of Education's Children and Youth Board on sexualised clothing – made in good faith I'm sure, but still inadvertently highlighting how difficult it is to keep the serpent of sex out of the pre-lapsarian garden: "The board felt that bikinis for children wasn't the problem, but that bikinis have become sexualised by the media, eg models posing in newspapers in bikinis." Well, good luck with de-sexualising the bikini so that we can stop worrying. I'm sure the Daily Mail will get right behind that project.

If there is a problem here, it's one we all share whatever age we are. The Bailey report sensibly acknowledges as much at one point, noting that "a truly family-friendly society would not need to erect barriers between age groups to shield the young: it would instead uphold and reinforce healthy norms for adults and children alike". Unfortunately they spoil it by using that ominous term "family-friendly", with its intimations of pasteurised universal blandness.

It shouldn't be about making public space more "family-friendly". It should be about making it human friendly, since the corrosions and coarseness of over-sexualisation affect everyone – and often affect adults more directly than children. Which is more likely to have his view of women distorted by a lad mag? The seven-year-old who isn't very interested in it anyway – or the 24-year-old who will be tall enough to reach up and pull it off the top shelf?

And I can think of plenty of 42-year-olds who still aren't "emotionally-equipped" (the cliché of choice when it comes to maturity) to deal with pornography or violent images or any of the other shortcomings of contemporary society which are believed to be so threatening to childhood alone. This isn't an argument for rolling back our notions of what's acceptable to sometime in the early Fifties, incidentally. But it is to suggest that we shouldn't fantasise about children as an endangered species to distract ourselves from shortcomings that concern us too. If "over-sexualisation" really is a problem the best solution may be less about obliging children to stay childlike for longer, than in persuading some adults to grow up.





The Speaker who craves publicity



I once wrote what I fondly believed was a crushingly derisive paragraph about John Bercow's house-style in a parliamentary sketch, only to receive a cheerful letter of thanks from him a few days later. I decided then to give up comment of any kind about him, in order not to feed the beast. But I couldn't resist peeking online to see why the House of Commons bookshop had taken offence at the cover of a recent biography of him, going so far as to refuse to stock it (they've since rescinded). I'm guessing it must have had something to do with that cherished Parliamentary oxymoron – the dignity of the House – because the cover consists of a caricature of Sally Bercow, sitting in the Speaker's chair with a tiny version of her husband perched on her knee in his ceremonial robes. It is not, it has to be conceded, a flattering representation of either man or office.

Mr Speaker looks like an exotic sort of pet, rather than Guardian of Our Parliamentary Liberties. In fact he looks like a rare parrot that has spent 36 hours in a smuggler's carry-on bag and emerged considerably the worse for wear. What surprises isn't that the in-House bookshop took offence but that Mr Bercow didn't as well – and encourage the bookshop to keep this lampoon of his manhood out of the precincts of the House. Until, that is, one remembers that for him a combat between pride and publicity can only ever have one winner.



t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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