I tottered around in my stiletto heels, lips pouting in blood red lipstick, dangling earnings, plunging silk blouse over lacy bra.

I tottered around in my stiletto heels, lips pouting in blood red lipstick, dangling earnings, plunging silk blouse over lacy bra.

Was I about to join the Slutwalk demo? No, I was seven and dressed up in my mummy’s clothes. Which just goes to show trying to look grown-up is something little girls have done long before contemporary outrage over retailers selling T-shirts bearing Playboy bunny logos and lacy lingerie for kids.

The contemporary anxiety that childhood innocence is being destroyed by a “hyper-sexualised” society, and that sex is being “sold” to ever younger consumers, has led to three government reviews in less than a decade.

Two were commissioned by Labour when in power (from Professor David Buckingham and Dr Linda Papadopoulos), and David Cameron set up a third as soon as he became prime minister.

This latest review into the “commercialisation and sexualisation” of childhood, Letting Children Be Children, by Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mother’s Union, has ignited the debate once more. The acres of news coverage it has received illustrates that sexualisation seems to be a worry without end or resolution, no matter how many official inquiries are set up.

While some commentators have expressed reservations about the Bailey Review -- not least due to suspicions that an association with the Christian Mother’s Union might signal a return to a moralistic, Conservative, anti-sex agenda -- there seems almost unanimity across the political and social spectrum that “something” must be done.

Everyone from web group Mumsnet, with its Let Girls be Girls campaign, to bishops, psychologists and feminists are expressing concern about the growing prevalence of sexualised images in magazines and on TV.

The explicit dance routines by Rihanna and Christina Aguilera on the X Factor and the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger on Britain’s Got Talent before the watershed, met a chorus of disapproval in tabloids and broadsheets alike. Exposing children to all those grinding hips, gyrations and suggestive lyrics has got adults in a panic. Cameron has revealed that he had banned his six-year-old daughter Nancy from listening to Lily Allen because of the sexual nature of some of her lyrics.

Even those who enjoyed the liberation of the permissive society are uneasy. Natasha Walter, one of the original architects of “lipstick feminism”, now argues that feminists should be concerned about “raunch culture” and the increasingly blatant sexualisation of women and girls. In her latest book, Living Dolls, The Return Of Sexism, she writes: “The language of empowerment has been harnessed to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification.” Of course, it is difficult not to feel disturbed by a world in which five-year-olds are wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Future Porn Star” slogans or frilly pink pants reading “Dive In”.

Every parent I know dislikes the fact that most pre-teens are regularly exposed to explicitly raunchy music videos. Yet I can’t help feel this obsession with sexualisation whiffs of panic and overreaction. It hides behind the shield of children to argue for the usual illiberal litany of bans, censorship and regulations. It finds easy scapegoats, exaggerates evidence and sensationalises reality.

For example, while Reg Bailey admits the absence of any evidence of harm, he calls for a “precautionary approach” to the subject. While the Bailey Review reveals that parents do not feel any more than “irritated” by the pressure on children to consume and are only “uncomfortable” with the availability of sexual images in shops, the media and the internet, the mantra of “concerned parents” is still used to justify action.

Parental anxiety is cited as the reason for disproportionate official interference into everything from what appears on billboards near schools to covering up magazines with a “modesty sleeve”. Policy pundits focus on how to help allegedly desperate and ill-equipped parents resist malign advertising and guide their children through the minefield of 21st-century sexualised culture.


More broadly, it seems that the issue of sexualisation has become a cipher for expressing a range of contemporary anxieties about everything from consumerism to poor parenting, a filter for a crusade against irresponsible business and broadcasters, and the arena for rehearsing modern fears about paedophilia. Tragically, there is a danger that the very focus on sexualisation really does sexualise children.

Arguably what turns a seven-year-old into a sex object, far more than any crop-top or pair of sparkly hot pants, is the eye of the beholder. David Cameron has pledged to put a stop to “creepy” attempts to sell “sexy clothes” to young girls. But I find it more creepy that little girls’ bodies and how they dress has become the official object of government concern and public scrutiny.

When Mike Stock of the legendary Stock, Aitken and Waterman songwriting team writes that we are “faced with a growing army of 10-year-old girls who move and dress like hookers”, I fear we are imposing an adult pornographic imagination on to children who have little understanding of the mores of prostitution. They really do wear these clothes as innocents. Surely what perverts this into something more sinister is the interpretation of adult campaigners.

The debate about the dangers of padded bras for young girls, and the withdrawal of size 28AA from Asda after a Mumsnet campaign, assumes children will wear this underwear in the spirit of Victoria’s Secret.

But when Tesco claims “there have been training bras of this type sold in every clothes retailer on the high street for years”, they have a point. I had one such bra that I physically didn’t need, many decades ago, and very pretty and lacy it was too, but the last thing on my mind was sex. My pride in wearing it was a childish but important part of an aspiration to grow up.

Of course, there may be some bad faith when the retailer claims that “far from enhancing breasts or sexualising young girls, this product is designed to protect and cover girls’ modesty at the sensitive time when they are developing”. However, accusing retailers of encouraging prepubescents to show their cleavage imposes adult preoccupations and imagination on to children with no actual physical curves and even less sexual precociousness.


If anything is likely to make children overly sexually aware, it’s the prurient panic of adults. The giggling little girl who wiggles her bottom when dancing to Beyoncé is just play acting, not booty-shaking. She will surely become confused, frightened and overly self-conscious and body aware by relentless attempts to warn her that this is sexually provocative. Singing along to “sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it” will merely be repeating words, the full implication lost, with as little meaning as Baa Baa Black Sheep -- unless, that is, we keep drawing attention to it.

However, once children understand that their dress and behaviour, dancing and playing, is being judged according to adult sexual norms, they could indeed start to internalise this grown-up interpretation of the world. Campaigners who argue that youngsters need earlier and more explicit sex education to help them deal with sexual culture and teach them to avoid “kidsploitation” may well end up making sex more central to children’s lives than it should, or need, be.

Inadvertently, adults -- including many child experts and policy makers -- may themselves be sexualising children by interpreting their behaviour through the prism of adult motives. So it is alleged in child protection and educational circles (although with little evidence) that sexualised society has led to a rise in the incidence of “inappropriate sexual behaviour” and sexual bullying by young children. Birmingham City Council has even set up an Inappropriate Sexual Behaviour Unit to tackle this supposed problem.

This seems driven by seeing the dark side of adult sexuality in the most innocent activities. One Scottish Public Health website cites “forcing another child to play doctor (inspecting others’ bodies) and take off their clothes” as an example of inappropriate sexual conduct in the playground. Hence the age-old, harmless game of doctors and nurses becomes interpreted through the prism of concerns about adult sexual crimes.

University of Kent researcher Dr Jan MacVarish says: “We constantly misread childish experimentation and fantasy roleplay as emerging from a sexualised culture rather than being intrinsic to, and necessary for, children’s development.”


Contemporary society’s overblown fears about child abuse can also have some dangerous consequences when it affects the debate on sexualisation. Attempts by Australian academics some years ago to characterise sexualised advertising as “corporate paedophilia” may have been extreme, but they were a precursor to child protection campaigners in the UK who talk about the “paedophile pound” being spent in high street stores by misguided parents.

Linda Papadopoulos talks about sexualisation as “the normalisation of paedophilia”. But surely this reinforces the idea that what children wear somehow makes them more attractive to sexual predators. Are we really saying that if you dress your child “provocatively” the parent is “asking for it”?

We can see how this plays out in practice from an incident at King’s Park Secondary School in Glasgow in May. The school’s headteacher wrote to parents advising them that their children should not wear short skirts and tight trousers amid fears that sexual predators may have been taking pictures of them.

As Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, commented at the time: “Creating a link between school uniform and paedophilia … implies that young people are in some way responsible for the activities of paedophiles … an extremely dangerous argument and one which has echoes of the comments sometimes made around rapists.”

Other adult obsessions have also attached themselves to a debate that purports merely to be about protecting childhood innocence. One popular theme in the anti-sexualisation literature is the supposed unscrupulous evils of corporations selling morally tainted goods to innocent kiddies and guileless parents. Childhood has become a marketing opportunity worth £99 billion in the UK.


The sexualisation issue has opened the doors to holier-than-thou sermons about the evils of consumerism per se. The Mothers’ Union’s Bye Buy Britain campaign complains that “commercial pressures encourage materialism which negatively affects children’s wellbeing, family life and peer relationships”. It concludes that now is the time to “challenge children, parents or guardians and wider family to think about their consumer habits”. Sex and shopping are interchangeably seen as corrupting. Parents are told one solution to challenging sexualisation is to teach their offspring not to buy into today’s obsession with having more and more things.

What’s more, this fashionable anti-corporate narrative not only attacks businesses for being irresponsible, but also ends up rehearsing the familiar parent-bashing so beloved by politicians and “parenting experts” alike. On the one hand, parents are presented as rather pathetic in the face of their own children’s nagging. They are assumed incapable of saying no to certain clothing and products because advertisers use pester power to influence kids. Other parents are traduced for being irresponsible in buying their children the “wrong” kind of products.

In her recent book, Where Has My Little Girl Gone?, Tanith Carey says parents “can’t put all at the feet of marketing men” and asks “is it time we parents accept our fair share of the blame?”. Dr Papadopoulos says “corporations should have more responsibility … if you put dolls in fishnet tights, you can’t pretend you don’t know what you’re doing”. But then parents are warned to think more before they indulge their children. This can only add to the list of things that make parents feel guilty, and can easily label those who don’t as complacent or culpable.

Commentators ask what type of parents would allow their daughters to attend birthday parties wearing sling-backs and slinky mini-skirts at eight? There is an uncomfortably snobbish sneer to some of these criticisms of “other” parents. The controversy over the Trendy Monkeys beauty parlour in Brentwood, Essex, offers Princess Pamper parties, fruit smoothie facials, manicures, make-up and spray tans for children. With thinly disguised hints of “white trash” demonisation, we are constantly told the salon’s owner, Michelle Devine, is a single mum and that the salon is in the same area as ITV’s reality show, The Only Way Is Essex. Child psychologist Professor Judy Hutchings warns local parents that the salon represents “not just the sexualisation but the commercialisation of children”.

We should not be indifferent to current trends. As it happens, I have a growing unease about aspects of an over-sexualised society, a tendency to alienate sex from relationships and the estranged and fetishised objectification of physical relations on display throughout everyday life, dubbed “the pornification of culture”. But these worries are about the problems of adult society and their solutions cannot be found by projecting our anxieties on to children. Hiding behind a campaign against the corruption of childhood merely mystifies the issue. At the same time we risk creating a climate of fear, scapegoats and censorship while avoiding grown-up conversation about sex.

Claire Fox is the founder and director of think-tank the Institute of Ideas