Skip to content

Sexualisation of Young People report released. How useful are the findings? Here’s your chance to find out

March 1st, 2010

Dr Petra

The UK has just seen the launch of an anticipated Consultation into Sexualisation of Young People. The work has been widely reported and generally accepted by the media both in the UK and Internationally. Perhaps due to the sensitive topic focusing on the wellbeing of young people, it seems there has been little attention paid to the content and quality of the Consultation or how actionable its recommendations may be.

Given the Consultation may well inform policy and practice and will certainly influence educators, healthcare providers and journalists, it is important the work is carefully assessed.

If you have not already read the report in full (and my hunch is most of the media outlets covering the Consultation have not) I would recommend you do so and form your own conclusions. This is particularly worthwhile if you work within education, health or social care, or if you are a parent or teenager.

To help you do this I’ll use this post to provide you a backplot to this Consultation, including links to previous similar investigations into Sexualisation carried out in other countries, and resources to help you evaluate the Consultation process from inception to report.

What is Sexualisation?
You might not be familiar with this term which suddenly seems to have become a buzzword. It has, in fact, been used extensively within research and education on sexual behaviour for some time, but has only recently entered into mainstream public language. It’s actually not an easy term to define, but generally refers to either making an individual or group of people seem sexual, or to encourage someone to become sexually aware. This alone isn’t problematic, but the term is usually negative as it draws attention to an individual or group being sexualised without their consent or in an inappropriate manner, or someone being made aware of sex or sexual practices at an inappropriate time.

Most commonly, then, we see this applied to children who we may view as being encouraged to act in a sexual manner or become aware of sex while still very young. Sexualisation here is constructed as potentially abusive, something that objectifies and is forced onto people, who have little or no agency to resist/understand/be aware of it.

While intuitively we may agree such sexualisation is a bad thing, particularly if it involves the potential exploitation or abuse of children, there is a problem with the term and who it applies to. It is easy to state what sexualisation might involve, but more difficult to truly define and measure (particularly in any causal way). This has been something that has caused numerous problems for those trying to research it, not least because it may be difficult to transparently research something that seems so important and emotive. It is very difficult to undertake critical and thoughtful work in this area without appearing to dismiss issues young people are facing, or be criticised for ignoring or perhaps even appearing to advocate the abuse of children.

What work already exists on this topic?
There have been several large scale investigations into Sexualisation carried out in different countries. The majority of the work has focused attention on girls as being most at risk from a sexualised culture (sometimes also referred to as a ‘pornified’ culture), although most work also draws attention to the impact on boys. Critics have argued the focus of many of the reviews constructs girls as victims, boys as potential abusers. While allowing (even encouraging) white, middle class parents to fret over the behaviour and appearance of working class, ethnic minority youth (and their parents).

The first Consultation, launched in 2007 was conducted by the American Psychological Association by their Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. This report also included a range of materials to support parents and young people. Australia also commissioned a Consultation into the Sexualisation of Children in Contemporary Media which was released in the summer of 2008 (all documentation related to the process here). In the same year the ‘Byron Review’ (led by child and adolescent psychologist Professor Tanya Byron) was launched by the UK government with a focus on Safer children in a digital world’). While in January 2010 the Scottish Parliament reported back on their inquiry into Sexualised Goods Aimed at Children led by researchers from the Institute of Education, London.

Outside of these large scale reports there have also been numerous pieces of research addressing either the concept of Sexualisation directly, or using the concept of Sexualisation to underpin investigations, or looking at related topics of sexual behaviour (and the use of pornography in particular) in young people.

The APA report was welcomed on its launch for picking up on an issue many teachers, parents and healthcare providers felt was important and believed was a problem. However over time the report attracted some criticism (as did its Australian counterpart) for not truly critically appraising the evidence used to support claims of Sexualisation’s existence and impact. There was also some concern that in trying to tackle problems facing young women the reports constructed them as having no understanding of the wider media or no agency to act or make decisions about their own sexual behaviours or beliefs. Critics argued the reports characterised young women as passive beings, objectified by wider culture but having little or no understanding or control over it. Concerns were also raised over the cherry picking of data to fit a particular narrative around young people, ‘risk’ and ‘harm’; not including young people directly in the consultation process; and ignoring evidence from cultural, gender and media studies.

The Scottish investigation, by contrast (and perhaps learning from the pitfalls encountered by its predecessors) took a different approach. It worked to identify what worried young people and parents, to see whether Sexualisation was an issue for them, and if so how that might be manifested. Given the increasing concern about commercialised sexual products for young people (for example Playboy bunny pencil cases or t shirts) they also sought to find said products to see how available/accessible they were and in what context they were sold to young people. Their findings also indicated there were issues about consumerist culture and young people’s developing sexuality.

However, they also suggested that ‘Sexualisation’ is not an issue that immediately worries parents or teens, but when prompted it seems parents are far more worried about it than young people, and are often more concerned about the sexualised behaviour of other children rather than their own child. Indeed their work suggested a lot of parental anxiety over Sexualisation manifested itself in parents talking about how girls should behave and act in appropriate and modest fashions. Young people, meanwhile, seemed more aware of the media and potential sexualising influences than expected, although the authors acknowledge there are still issues about sexuality needing addressing. In short they concluded sexualisation is a complex issue that can’t be fixed with simplistic suggestions for policy change.

These reports are important as they help put the UK Consultation into context, and the Scottish investigation in particular serves as an excellent example of good practice because it:
- critically evaluated the existing reports on Sexualisation
- included a thorough search of additional evidence on sexualisation and related issues
- tested the idea of what Sexualisation might be using innovative participatory methods
- investigated what Sexualisation was, how it manifested itself and how it was interpreted and experienced by parents and young people
- did not set out with the assumption Sexualisation was prevalent, nor looked for confirmation of its existence. Instead it questioned the concept and looked to see what issues were problematic and positive for young people and their parents

I would recommend you read through all of these reports before considering the UK version.

Background to the UK Consultation

The UK Consultation was launched in March 2009 by then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, psychologist Linda Papadopoulos and model Danielle Lloyd as part of a the ‘Together we can end violence against women and girls strategy’. Respondents were asked to submit evidence and several roadshows/public events were held where people could talk about their experiences of/views about Sexualisation. A survey was also launched to identify people’s views about other issues relating to violence and abuse (including prostitution, rape, domestic violence, forced marriage and Female Genital Mutilation).

Dr Linda Papadopoulos
was appointed to lead the Consultation. A counselling and health psychologist with a background in dermatology and author of several self help books she was also well known to the public after appearing on television programmes like Big Brother and other regular media appearances. Being a well known figure at the head of a Consultation clearly attracts media attention and public interest and can be important to reach a wide range of respondents.

However, critics questioned the appropriateness of appointing someone to lead a Consultation evaluating how sexualised/commercialised media impacts on young people who also had their own line of beauty products (the Psy Derma range) and an established career as a consultant/spokesperson for numerous commercial companies but not a track record of actively researching the area of sexual behaviour/sexualisation and young people.

Putting those criticisms to one side, the issue at hand is the quality of the UK Consultation. From the way it was commissioned and conducted to the final report and recommendations. Any Consultation report at this level has the capacity to influence policy, practice and public opinion. So it is important we assess any report of this kind to ensure it is robust enough to have this influence.

The Sexualisation of Young People Review can be found here and tackles a number of topics relating to Sexualisation while making recommendations about what to do to address the issue in the UK.

Resources to help you evaluate these Consultation documents
Consultations are not always accessible and critically appraising them is more than simply reading them through. It is easy to look at a lengthy report that contains numerous references and recommendations and take this as a sign of a thorough and evidenced approach. However, this may not be the case, so below are a number of tools to help you evaluate all the Sexualisation reports listed above. (If you are very busy I’d suggest you simply focus on a detailed appraisal of the UK report for now, but I would still urge you to read all three preceding reports too).

Trish Greenhalgh’s How to read a paper includes this chapter Papers that summarise other papers (systematic reviews and meta analysis) which can help you assess the appropriateness of the reviewed literature in the UK consultation. Her chapter Assessing the methodological quality of published papers also provides a checklist to assessing individual papers, so you may wish to track down papers listed in the references to the UK Consultation and evaluate those in terms of methodological quality and relevance to the overall report. Although this is time consuming, it is important since it is one of the key areas both the APA and Australian Consultations were criticised for not doing.

You may also find this Checklist for Evaluating Consultations I’ve designed helpful (bear with the rather wappy layout btw, am working on fixing this!). This guide applies to any Consultation, not just the Sexualisation report, and helps you focus your critical appraisal of the Consultation process and reporting. It also invites you to consider your own baggage in relation to a Consultation, so you don’t accept or dismiss something just because it fits or challenges your world view. Instead you should allow the quality of the work undertaken to decide (easier said than done, I know!).

As you can see this represents a lot of work, so you can appreciate that while the media have been quick to respond to (and largely support) the Sexualisation study, the academic community will probably take a while longer as an appraisal of a Consultation is not a quick process.

You may work within healthcare or education and might like to set this as an activity for yourself or for your colleagues/students. If you are a journalist I would encourage you also to do this, even though it is time consuming, as it may help you with future stories you are writing – particularly if you intend to continue discussing the issue of Sexualisation.

I will post at a later stage my appraisal of the report, but not until I have thoroughly assessed it and followed up key issues and questions.

Comments are closed.