The sexualisation debate: which side are you on?

From lads' mags to clothes, to pop stars on the X Factor: the issue of what is appropriate for young eyes has divided Britain. Here, Lisa Markwell and Stephanie Calman dissect the dilemmas facing today's mothers

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LISA MARKWELL: The "sexualisation" of children makes an easy headline if the government promises to clamp down on shops selling thongs and padded bras for little girls, but beyond the grandstanding of David Cameron lies the heart of the matter. What's the mother of a 12-year-old girl to do? I know it's going to make me sound like an insufferable prude, but I don't want my daughter seeing skimpy underwear and suggestive slogan T-shirts when we go shopping and start pestering me for them. We both know that pester power is a factor here. I don't necessarily think it's unreasonable for shops to have at least guidelines on what's suitable for sale to which age groups. Or should I just use my wallet power to protest?

STEPHANIE CALMAN: I don't think it's prudish at all. Just wait till she begs to go her first all-night party. There will always be someone in their peer group with more freedom; you have to stick to your guns.

These guidelines are very laudable, in theory: they look and sound like the answer to all our problems but when you examine the detail, it's unenforceable, and pretty subjective. Do most parents need a law to help them buy the "right" clothes for their children? Hardly. Most of us have sound instincts that serve us perfectly well. The people who do buy sexy clothes for their daughters won't suddenly become better parents because that stuff is taken off the shelves. Whatever attitudes led them to buy it in the first place will still be there – their values won't change.

LISA: Some girls that I would still class as "little", say 11 years old, want to choose their own clothes and some are allowed to the shops by themselves. It may not be enforceable as a blanket ban, but as with food guidance labels or film/DVD/game certificates, there must be a way to steer retailers towards targeting their clothes at certain age groups.

There is, of course, a bigger force at work here and you mention it – it's about parenting and responsibility. I fear that's something that no legislation can affect and I've been at the sharp end of it with some experience of social services and how they try to "teach" good parenting. But isn't it rather miserable to say we shouldn't attempt to keep caring and try to make a change? I felt the same queasiness watching that now infamous Rihanna and Christina Aguilera appearance on X Factor last winter. Girls copy those dance routines. I'll happily discuss sex, love, contraception and relationships with my (just) preteen, but I feel depressed that this stuff cuts across sensible and realistic advice about the world, and their place in it as children.

STEPHANIE: We all just have to show a bit more backbone, and support each other as a peer group. The problem with this kind of "top-down" guidance is that it doesn't change people's underlying motives. Most of us want our kids to love us all the time, which is not possible and not actually part of good parenting I suggest. So sometimes they hate us for setting boundaries: fine.

These British Retail Consortium guidelines [which were released yesterday and urge retailers to sign up to standards supported by George, Next, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's and Tesco, who say clothes aimed at children should be "modest" and slogans should be "age appropriate"] go so far as to suggest that stores label their "first bra" ranges "for support and modesty", as if without that, girls will all just turn into little tarts. Yes, kids do exert huge pressure on parents but have we completely lost the will to resist, and if so, why? I'm horrified by how sheeplike many parents are. Just say "No", people: don't be so feeble!

I too feel queasy when I see some music videos. But individual judgement in the end is all we have. And certification for music videos is a nice thought but also a bit meaningless: anything on TV can be watched at any time, so the horse has well and truly bolted, leaving the stable door hanging off its hinges.

My 12-year-old used to watch Rihanna and co (she has now moved on to Friends), and if you can pick her out as the prematurely sexualised one in the playground, good luck.

LISA: "For support and modesty". I hadn't heard that particular bit of 1950s guidance. Perhaps the real root of the issue is around taste as much as (or more than) safety. As has been pointed out elsewhere, if the worry about provocative clothes is that they make children attractive to paedophiles, the facts don't back it up. They target vulnerable children, not "sexually attractive" ones (ugh these words are hard to write). But what about girls of 11 and 12 entering secondary school with 14- and 15-year-old boys whose hormones are raging? How are those boys (who can easily access hardcore porn online) expected to react to young girls looking faux-seductive?

STEPHANIE: Yes it is very 50s! As for the classroom, well hooray for uniforms is all I can say. In fact, my daughter has gone for trousers in the winter terms. She's one of very few, so I can't help feeling a bit proud of her for not just following the crowd.

And before we generalise too much about teenage boys, they're not all viewing porn day and night. I think we do them a disservice, because my son for one is an incredibly kind, compassionate young man who likes and respects girls – you can see it already. And what I really wonder is, what exactly is the behaviour that's supposedly being provoked by all this sexy clothing and imagery? Has the average age of first sexual intercourse gone down? No. Are 10-year-old girls getting pregnant all over the place? No – except in countries where they're forced to marry at that age. So what are we really dealing with? Fear, mainly. And if your daughter and mine can make discerning choices, then so can others. I feel quite optimistic.

LISA: Sounds like your daughter and my daughter would get along... Trousers a very good idea or, as my daughter prefers, skirt but with leggings underneath.

I am not sure, however, that the teenage boy issue is straightforward. I have a 15-year-old son and he too is kind and compassionate, but he and many of his friends have very confused ideas about sex, relationships and what the signals are. They are – or have been – looking at porn because it is ridiculously available and because of peer pressure. I know of sleepovers where they watch it on laptops (OK, it's with a fnarr, fnarr attitude) but it's vile stuff and who can blame them for getting in a muddle about females being "up for it". Of course I'm not suggesting that we join the dots from girl in lacy bra to boy with porn habit to molestation but it is in our power to let little girls be little girls for as long as they can. Adulthood with the attendant body consciousness and leering blokes lasts a long, long time.

Meanwhile, retailers only really care about money. I suspect that there are enough parents who want an alternative to the prevalence of mini skirts, hot pants, crop tops, etc for some enterprising company to make some noise in this current debate and start selling groovy, sporty, slogan-free clothes for young girls.

STEPHANIE: Schools haven't featured much in the debate, but these days they make strenuous efforts to promote respect for others. Does it work? Yes, I think; my parents' generation was horribly sexist so I'd say we've improved. And surely boys can distinguish between a porn model and the girls sitting next to them in maths?

My concern is still the poverty of so many girls' ambitions. You can take away the T-shirt saying "Future Footballer's Wife" but they'll still want to be one. M&S had a book "for girls" on sale last year that actually listed that on a page entitled "What I want to be when I grow up".

Having said that, if people are as influenced as all that by what they see, then how come only the negative films or videos have an effect? Based on what my children watch most often, they're going to grow up thinking that bullies can be tamed, that both boys and girls frequently burst into song, and that while love doesn't always last, true friends stick together no matter what. I think we should all relax a bit.

Lisa Markwell is Executive Editor of 'The Independent' and 'i'. She is married with a girl aged 12 and a boy of 15

Stephanie Calman is a writer and broadcaster, the author of 'Confessions of a Bad Mother' and founder of www.badmothersclub.com. She is married with two children, a girl aged 12 and a boy of 13

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