When it comes to the public discussion of sex there’s a lot that’s wrong. The main problem is misinformation, with biased sources spreading information that is at best poorly researched and at worst completely incorrect.
The main themes in this loosely-united area of public disapproval include pornography and adult entertainment, sex trafficking, the rights of people in sex work, and the possible ‘sexualisation’ of children by exposure to all of the above.
It’s known that there is no credible research tying adult entertainment to crime and violence against women. It’s clear that the numbers surrounding the trafficking claims don’t add up. The fact that sex workers deserve protection, not persecution, is self-evident. And to the critical reader, it’s apparent that the people pushing an anti-sex agenda are ignoring vast swathes of ethical and commendable research into sexuality.
Sexualisation of children, in particular, is a lightning rod for many of the public anxieties surrounding sex. I’m particularly interested in this topic for a few reasons. First, because the claims surrounding it bear little relationship to demonstrable reality; second, because both the right and the left appear to have reached consensus on the topic. Last, because so many people are parents, it’s an issue that has more power to influence the voting population than, say, what a few misguided feminists think about pornography they never watch anyway. Now maybe I read The Handmaid’s Tale just a few times too often as a girl, but when the feminists and the bible-bashers agree on something, my bullshit meter goes into the red.
The notion that exposure to sexualised imagery is a) different now than it has been in the past, and b) causes damage to children as a result, is widely assumed but not proven. Most of the reviews on the topic rely on data from adults viewing pornography, which is clearly not the same thing as children seeing a Bratz doll. In any case the results from adult studies are mixed, with a tendency to indicate that pornography may somewhat exacerbate, but does not itself cause, negative effects. The hype about sexualisation seems to assume a slippery slope that might not even have a fulcrum in the first place.
It’s worth pointing out that with so little ethical and credible research on children in this area, the case is far from closed. See, for instance, the recent Scottish Executive report on the topic, with indications that both children’s and parents’ understanding of sexualised imagery is rather more nuanced than the media and government give them credit for. [i] However, as far as the public are concerned, there is no debate to be had. And so the endless ‘childhood in crisis’ nonsense is trotted out again and again.
In spite of the skewed and laughably poor Home Office review on children and sexualisation published in 2010, the coalition government has commissioned a new review to be released later this year. Already the signs are clear that the depressingly simplistic view and reliance on unproven conjecture of the last review will probably be repeated. While it is disheartening to see the same irrational anti-sex arguments trotted out under the new government, it is perhaps inevitable.
However, there is an option. They say the definition of insanity is to try the same thing over again and expect different results. Well, we have an enormous problem with trying to counter people’s emotional arguments with rational facts.
After all, if facts were enough, we wouldn’t need scare warnings on cigarettes, since the connection between smoking and lung cancer is well and widely known.
From my point of view, while the evidence is clear, there’s a problem with trying to gain support from people who don’t already subscribe to this view. We definitely need to keep pushing the research, but also, try to tap into the emotional argument in a way so people can understand why the facts matter. Bottom line, when it comes down to Facts vs. Fear Related To Your Kids, most people will choose the fear option “just to be on the safe side”.
The current government know this, which is why they subscribe to the ‘nudge’ theory of changing public opinion, and why ‘Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values’ is required reading for anyone who wants to engage with Westminster these days. [ii]
More fool us if we don’t do the same.
So what are the options? Basically, to find the trigger issues that will help people understand why restricting adult access to adult materials is in no-one’s interest, why it is important to support the rights of sex workers to work, and why deciding what children are and are not exposed to is a job for families and communities, not governments.
What are the movements that already successfully do this, and what can we learn from them? As an emigrant to the UK, I’m loath to reference anti-immigration rhetoric, but must grudgingly admire the way Migration Watch et al. seemingly unite people behind a feeling, regardless of what the data say. In the US, where I grew up, anti-abortion campaigners effectively exploit the universal inbuilt instinct to protect children. Branding is everything: “pro-life” and “pro-choice” both send distinctive messages, and indicate the general politics of the people involved, far beyond any one issue.
Regardless of whether you agree with the approach, these tools are almost obscenely powerful. Combine them with facts and you have the ability to change minds. There must be ways we can unite what is objectively true with what is also emotionally true. Studies show that people reject evidence that does not jibe with their beliefs. So let’s nudge their beliefs.
Where I grew up, the notion of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” was a cultural cliché used and abused by just about anyone to defend just about anything. But it was undeniably strong: even folks with only the most basic understanding of American history had some impression of that phrase and a belief that it was relevant to them.
So what are Britain’s values? What are its core beliefs? What can the Dunkirk evacuation, Blitz Spirit, modesty, stiff-upper-lip, and Be Calm And Carry On teach us about how to approach the public in a more accessible way when it comes to the complex issues surrounding sex?
Will appealing to the sense of adult rights being taken away help? Or pointing out that the government think they know better than you do what’s right for your kids? That was a strategy already effectively used by the Tories to oppose compulsory sex education in schools. I’m sure there are far more routes to be considered than just these.
We need to start thinking about how to make the truth appealing, not inaccessible. We need to tap into cultural values as much as we already rely on intellectual honesty. Let’s start the discussion.