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Sexy is as sexy does: UK.gov struggles with sexualisation

From Apple's baps to Papadopoulos' sop

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Comment Last week saw a series of announcements from the government and others on sexual matters. These were intended as usual to protect children, but have mostly served only to highlight the eagerness of politicians to buy into the infantilisation of adult culture, rather than do anything that shifts responsibility for child behaviour back on to parents.

First off the blocks was Apple, with its policy of "no tits, please: it scares the kiddies". This could have been one giant leap forward for junior mankind, were it not for a glaring loophole – which the Reg is still trying to make sense of – that the policy only applies if you’re not a big respectable developer of apps.

Or to put it another way: big jugs with clout, good; wobbly jugs on shaky foundations, bad.

Next came the somewhat glamorous Linda Papadopoulos, with an "independent" review, commissioned by the Home Office as part of the government’s strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, looking at how sexualised images and messages may be affecting the development of children and young people and influencing cultural norms. The review also examines the evidence for a link between sexualisation and violence.

Key recommendations of this report include:

- a government-backed online "one-stop-shop" which would allow the public to voice their concerns regarding irresponsible marketing which sexualises children, with an onus on regulatory authorities to take action

- an extension of the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) remit to include commercial websites

- broadcasters ensuring that music videos featuring sexual posing or sexually suggestive lyrics are broadcast only after the watershed

- government guidelines for retailers to encourage corporate responsibility with regard to sexualised merchandise

- games consoles to be sold with parental controls already switched on.

Of course, the recommendation that grabbed the headlines was the suggestion that age restrictions should be introduced on "lads mags", and these should henceforth be placed on top shelves and not sold to anyone under the age of 15.

It was also a week when politicians were eagerly jumping on the bandwagon of "child sexualisation". First we had David Cameron revealing how he would "protect" his daughter from Lily Allen lyrics.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson had kind words for Dr P’s report, stating: "Changing attitudes will take time but it is essential if we are going to stop the sexualisation which contributes to violence against women and girls."

Meanwhile, Lib Dem MPs Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone were meeting with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to argue the point, now endorsed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, that airbrushing plays a harmful role when it comes to negative body image and to press the ASA to institute controls on air-brushing.

What then is the problem?

Possibly it is about politicians – and media personalities – reaching for the easy, headline-grabbing solution and in doing so, quite failing to grasp either the unintended consequences of their actions, or the fact that they are missing the point entirely.

According to Dr Papadopoulos, there is a "drip drip effect" where the "previously unthinkable becomes widely acceptable" in modern society. "Children and young people today are not only exposed to increasing amounts of hyper-sexualised images, they are also sold the idea that they have to look 'sexy' and 'hot'", she said.

These comments might be less ironic were it not for the fact that her own website is adorned with studio-shot - and possibly even Photoshopped - photos of the good doctor (we’ve asked her agents about this, and await a response).

In between dispensing serious advice to government and seeking to answer questions that have divided a generation of psychologists – such as the links between media and violence – Dr Linda can be found advising readers on how to "sex up" their bedroom and whether satin sheets are ever OK.

Such criticism may be a little unfair, as this report is just the latest in a line of reports produced "independently" for government by celebrity experts: the Byron Review also springs to mind. What it possibly represents is a dumbing down of serious debate, and government opting for (sexy) presentation over evidence-based research.

There is argument to support the central thesis of the Papadopoulos report - although critics have countered that it falls into the same trap as many politicians, in harking back to a golden age of innocent childhood. However, it is in its prescription for government imposed, state-backed solutions that it fails to measure up.

Even if there is a problem of the sort described, will state intervention and even more guidelines - designed to reduce adult viewing habits to the level of the lowest and youngest common denominator - actually help? Or will it have the perverse and pernicious result, already noted in respect of legislation around extreme pornography, of making the world a safer place for big business to publish smut – while loading risk of prosecution on to adults who only wish to do perfectly legal things for themselves but cannot pay for the legal advice to ensure they are doing so "safely".

All of which brings us back to Apple, which appears to typify the world being prepared for us by politicians and pop psychologists. If you want to publish smut – or develop a sexy app – make sure you are already one of the big and respected players. Otherwise, Apple will have little to do with you: and where Apple fears to tread, few of the smaller software development companies will dare to follow.

We're looking at a future in which children may be slightly less sexualised, but in which adult sex is increasingly commercialised. ®

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