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Academics challenge moral consensus on sex and the net

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A moral panic around childhood sexualisation and the dangers of the internet is closing down important channels of debate and making the internet a more dangerous place for adults and young people alike.

That was the consensus view taken by Onscenity, an international network launched this week, which draws together experts to respond to the new visibility or 'onscenity' of sex in commerce, culture and everyday life.

In the very first full session of this network, academics and researchers heard presentations from four opinion leaders in this field.

Susanna Paasonen spoke of how the fragmentation of pornography caused problems for the authorities, who had problems nowadays determining what was sexual and what was not. She observed: "If you can imagine a fetish, there probably exists a group out there that is in to it – and if there isn’t, there soon will be." As example she cited "the ultimate snow bondage and shivering website" - she is from Finland after all.

David Buckingham, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, London University, and Director of the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media, complained about the current media panic over the "sexualisation" of childhood. While some issues went away with the last government, David Cameron also appears to believe this is a problem.

The real problem, though, is that no one knows what "sexualisation" is: it is a convenient label used to position the child as always the victim, and then to pile every problem imaginable on top, including paedophilia, body image, sex trafficking and self-esteem. Once that particular juggernaut gets rolling, it is almost impossible to have a sensible debate about what's really going on.

Too many so-called experts – most famously, Dr Linda Papadopoulos - were speaking well outside their field of expertise. Eating disorders get ascribed to "sexualisation", despite the fact that most dietary experts would question that conclusion. Worse is the way in which this debate is almost always framed in moralising terms, and a key question must be what political motive lies behind such framing.

Equally of concern was the way in which "healthy sexuality" is so often equated to "non-commercial" – as though sex alone can be an activity free from all commercial influence.

Buckingham’s contribution was echoed closely by Professor Catharine Lumby, Director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. She warned that a key driver to debate in this area is a parental view that "it must be possible to stop information getting out". The current panic in Australia has its roots in a report – Corporate Paedophilia – which set the ball rolling in terms of claiming that children were being "sexualised".

However, the report lacked all scholarship, being based on an inadequate sample, and contained no definition of sexualisation – or even what was meant by "child". It was dominated by vox pop submissions from the Christian right, feminists and high-profile social commentators.

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