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

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Noddy Holder must be glad he wrote 'Merry Xmas Everybody' as he'll earn £800,000 this year from royalties.  

Noddy Holder: A true rock ’n’ roll hero, and a role model for sensible people everywhere

Rosie Millard
Ian Paisley used to pick out journalists in his congregation  

The Only Way is Ethics: Ian Paisley is rightly remembered for his intransigence

Will Gore
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam