Over the last few days, I have been reading Lipstick Jihad, by Iranian-American Azadeh Moaveni. It is a beautifully written book, and what has struck me recently is how universal, though different in nature, oppression and repression can be. I want to be clear – I AM NOT conflating the kind of oppression and repression that happens in Iran with any repression that happens in the West, that is a ridiculous notion. However, I believe there are some similar effects of repression which can be observed where repression occurs.
Moaveni describes the stifling atmosphere of the Iranian regime’s compulsory Islamic dress for women, and segregation of the sexes. She explains the way no Iranians have social skills for interacting with the opposite sex, and how her American ‘frendliness’ – smiling, engaging men in conversation, is taken as a sign of her sexual availability, because all Iranian women have learnt to be stern to avoid such issues. She paints a clear link between the two things – the banning of interaction between men and women leads directly to her ease of interaction to signal her interest. Moaveni also illustrates the effect of the compulsory covering of women; she describes the way it sexualises everything, suddenly everything is about what people cannot have, that which is forbidden. It is a classic example of why prohibition (of anything) will eventually fail.
All of this was spinning through my mind as I finally watched Kinsey a few nights ago. I’m not sure of the historical accuracy of the film, but what struck me was how we have simultaneously, since Kinsey’s time, found more out about human sexuality, yet also in many ways we are not any more comfortable with it. Our society is paranoid about so many ‘bad’ kinds of sexuality, but most particularly what I was thinking of was how we are so scared about the “sexualisation” of children. As Kinsey saw it, the problems with people’s sexual expression came from the repression of sexuality in general. Perhaps there is a link between what Kinsey saw and our current hysteria about children and sexuality.
The so-called “sexualisation” of children concept starts from an assumption that children are not at all sexual. Let’s unpack that. Children are inherently curious about everything, including their own and other’s bodies. There are a lot of people who have written about child development, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about that, however I think it’s worth noting that maturity is a continuum, and our young people do not suddenly wake up, at 13, turn into adolescents and become aware of their bodies, sensuality and sexuality. There is such a thing as age-appropriate exploring of bodies and sexual expression at all ages, and it’s important to keep this context when we consider children and development of sexuality. It is also very important to keep in mind that diversity exists among all people, including children, and that such diversity will also exist in sexuality itself, as well as the way it is expressed, developed and understood by young people.
With this in mind, let’s now consider the dominant view of children, and “sexualisation of children” within Western societies like Australia. See for example, Melinda Tankard Reist. This view is not only quite hysterical, it’s also denies that children have the right to self-expression. Of course, this should be within an age-appropriate developmental stage, and much of what people like Melinda Tankard Reist are concerned with, essentially, is the way some of this may be rushing development, or imposing a certain kind of expression onto young people. I think this is a concern that many people have, I personally am concerned with age-appropriateness, as well as the accuracy of information we give young people about sex and sexuality. I am also concerned with the messages young people get from society about these things. Being hysterical about any kind of sexual expression from young people though, is completely counterproductive.
Let’s now consider what a denial of all self-expression of curiosity about bodies, sexuality, sensuality, and sexual development means for young people and children. What can Moaveni’s descriptions of the forbidden being all one can think about, and of Kinsey’s linking the taboo nature of sexuality with the lack of understanding and acceptance of sexuality tell us about how our society currently views and understands children?
Sex and sexual expression are generally uncomfortable, taboo topics in Western culture, and many parents still do not feel comfortable to talk with children openly and honestly about sex and sexuality. It’s possible this reflects their own level of comfort with their own sexuality, or that this is a symptom of expectations of parents – it is not considered something that should be discussed openly with children as it’s viewed as inherently damaging and private. Particularly for children. This repression and black-and-white view of children as completely innocent, non-curious beings, completely without sexuality or sensuality – could this be contributing to the current situation where children are being “sexualised” by society? The thing we are supposed to have covered, the thing we are not supposed to talk about, the thing society tells children they are not. Does this lead to it being expressed in the last way possible? And, does this uncomfortableness lead to the expression being in an inappropriate and unsocialised way, similar to the expression of male desire in Iran, as described by Moaveni, or shown in the Kinsey film through a society uncomfortable with sexuality and sexual difference.
What if adults were open, honest, and age-appropriate in their discussions with children about sex and sexuality? What if we could start to break down these taboos in order to allow children’s curiosity about themselves and others’ gradually develop into healthy, well-informed, empowered sexuality as they move through adolescence and towards adulthood? This kind of open-ness would also allow adults to have conversations with children about what is not appropriate – preventing or opening a dialogue to intervene in situations where children are being taken advantage of or abused.
This kind of honesty could also create an opportunity for real sex and health education before people reach the shock of experiencing puberty without knowing what is happening to them, and create a society where adolescence isn’t viewed as a horrible marginalised experience, but one which is embraced as a natural developmental step; of course adolescence poses many difficulties, but does not have to be as difficult as it often is. Who knows the impacts this may have on the way adolescents engage and contribute to the world.