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Unpacking the Bailey Review on Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood

June 6th, 2011

Dr Petra

Today sees the launch of the Bailey Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood. A copy of the report and appendices available here. Background to this review here, with terms of reference here. More information can be found via their Facebook page and these videos.

[If you are interested in evaluating the review – particularly if you’re a journalist on a deadline - you may want to skip to the end of this post and focus on the section ‘Questions you should be asking about the Bailey Review’].

What is ‘sexualisation’?
Over the past few years ‘sexualisation’ has gone from a phrase that nobody had heard of (and nobody was particularly bothered by) to a buzzword beloved by the media and politicians. It has led to several separate reviews being commissioned in a number of Western countries, including those undertaken since 2008 in the UK alone (here’s a review of these preceding reports and tools to evaluate them).

As the term has become part of popular discourse a related problem has emerged where it is used a lot in media, politics, healthcare etc as though it’s an agreed upon and simple concept, and yet it is anything but . Something that becomes more obvious if you read through these critical essays reflecting on the term and the issues it raises courtesy of the Onscenity Network.

Background to this review

The Bailey Review follows in the steps of numerous other investigations and reports on youth/wellbeing. These have been framed within various contexts including: education/development (Byron), violence against women and girls (Papadopoulos), or commercialisation (Buckingham et al). All of these share the common focus of looking at potential areas of ‘harm’ and offering solutions to protect young people. They have differed in their focus with some looking at the impact of the internet, others addressing wider media formats (such as music videos), or commercially available sexual products (e.g. padded bras) aimed at children.

The assumption underpinning these reports, as well as the Bailey Review, is that sexualisation/commercialisation is a major issue affecting children and teens. However, with the exception of the review by Buckingham et al for the Scottish Government these evaluations have not interrogated the concept of sexualisation, nor focused on wider issues that might be facing young people. These may include: poverty, housing, nutrition, road safety, ‘failing’ schools, problems within health/social care that impact on young people, lack of parental support, limited provision of afterschool clubs, or inadequate availability of affordable childcare (to name a few).

Which leaves us with a consistently unanswered question: ‘is ‘sexualisation’ the main problem facing young people/parents?’ And does it warrant all these investigations?

What was Bailey Review tasked with?
The review was designed to address areas of parental concern with a focus on four key issues:
• whether and to what extent sexualised imagery now forms a universal background or ‘wallpaper’ to children’s lives;
• whether some products are inappropriate for children, and others in dubious taste: parents are anxious about what is appropriate;
• whether businesses sometimes treat children too much as consumers and forget that they are children too, with particular concerns about the kinds of marketing techniques associated with digital media;
• how parents can tell advertisers, broadcasters and retailers about the things they are unhappy about and how they can make an effective complaint.

The review was open to consultation and you can read a number of submissions to this process here. Some of these are more reflective and nuanced than others.

Concerns and Criticisms about the Bailey Review
Criticising sexualisation does not mean dismissing young people’s rights or ignoring abuse, exploitation or our changing mediated culture. It does mean thinking critically about the simplistic (and often moralistic) views of sexualisation used by politicians and the media – and how these can actually detract from the rights and needs of children and teens, while frightening and disempowering parents.

From the outset there have been numerous concerns expressed over this particular review and previous ones. These include:
- The number of recent preceding reports on the issue of sexualisation from various Western countries that (presuming sexualisation is a major issue) could have informed current policy and practice – but didn‘t.

- The varied quality of previous reviews. The Buckingham/Scottish Parliament report was innovative and thorough. While the Papadopoulos/Home Office report was problematic see here and here) based on limited and cherry picked data that failed to differentiate between academic research and PR campaigns and lacked rigour in reporting on findings (for example on focus groups used).

- Reg Bailey is the Chief Executive of the Christian organisation the Mother’s Union (MU) (although the MU have distanced themselves from directly being involved with the review). Some have questioned whether a transparent and independent review could be hosted by an individual with links to a faith based, conservative organisation. Not least because at the same time Bailey took on the review for the government the MU launched their Bye Buy Childhood campaign.

- Differing political approaches have led to a haphazard interpretation of ‘evaluation’ so the Scottish Report permitted academics to interrogate and investigate the idea of ‘sexualisation’ while the Australian and UK Home Office reports seemed to follow a remit of identifying a politician-identified problem then looking for evidence to support it (while ignoring any evidence to the contrary).

- With the Bailey Review, as with other recent sexualisation reviews academic concerns over simplistic, moralistic approaches/ignoring evidence/critical thinking have been largely ignored. Indeed many practitioners working in this area who want to inform debates on sexualisation/commercialisation and have concerns about the rights and needs of young people have struggled to have their voices heard.

- While purportedly about young people most of the investigations have not particularly included young people. Where they have been invited to contribute it has been within a very limited and top down framework where adults have set agendas and asked young people to respond to them.

- The reviews have mostly reinforced the theme of girl’s as victims/boys as oppressors (and a built in assumption all teens grow up to be heterosexual). Along with judgements around class (it’s usually working class girls who are seen as ‘the problem’ in this area); and race (black music/artists are frequently used to illustrate declining moral standards in music lyrics/videos).

- Critics have argued the preoccupation with sexualisation favours white, middle class parents (usually mothers) whose children are not generally facing particular hardships. It is easy for these parents to be worried about sexualisation because other concerns over family finances, nutrition, housing, safety within their community or their child’s educational needs are not so pressing. Indeed it can be argued that parents who are worried about sexualisation often engage in this debate in ways that judge or look down on other people and their children.

Has the media sexed up ‘sexualisation’?

When the American Psychological Association launched their review on this area in 2008 it was virtually impossible to get media coverage of it and generally it was seen as a sideline issue. However with the launch of the Home Office review in the UK the media has begun to see this as far more of a topical area. It’s become an ironic that the media, while taking a stand *against* sexualised/commercialised culture also use this topic to sell copy/generates viewing figures.

For example Mumsnet has been running their ‘Let girls be girls’ campaign, Psychologies magazine ‘Put porn in its place’ (ironically based on a survey of under 16s where parents weren’t told their kids were being asked about porn), and The Sex Education Show’s ‘Stop pimping our kids’. All may be well intentioned, but ignore much of the current evidence about young people’s lives. Worryingly when journalists want to cover the topic of ‘sexualisation’ they don’t go to academics or practitioners, they turn to these media outlets who often are not sharing a particularly nuanced or accurate perspective, but are getting a plug for their website/magazine/TV show every time they are asked to share their views. Put simply you may genuinely care about children, but you can currently also boost your audience if you talk about sexualisation.

We’re in a current situation where successive governments commission different reviews into sexualisation while various media outlets and charities host their own campaigns on the issue. Which again brings us back to the question: ‘is ‘sexualisation’ the main problem facing young people/parents?’ And given all these overlapping reviews and campaigns why aren’t we seeing any major outcomes from them?

Questions you should be asking about the Bailey Review
Before you ask these questions you may want to read up on previous reviews and utilise the free tools provided to evaluate them
- why the need for yet another review given the glut of them in recent years?
- how much all these reviews have cost so far?
- how much impact have the preceding reviews had? All had lengthy recommendations yet have any been implemented and if so have they ‘worked’?
- how have the various reviews differed from/added to/learned from each other?
- do the outcomes of the Bailey Review adequately match the four key issues (see above) it was initially tasked to evaluate?
- what methods has the Bailey Review used to gain an insight into what’s going on and how transparent is that information? (for example they’ve done a survey but is it any good? Who were the participants, how were they selected, what were they asked, why run this rather than using existing evidence?)
- how have young people been involved in the Bailey Review?
- how realistic are the recommendations from the Bailey Review, and what impact do they foresee them having on the wellbeing of children, teens and parents?
- how easy might the recommendations be to operationalise? (For example if there are to be restrictions on music videos will this be based on the lyrics, visual images or both – and who will decide what constitutes appropriate/inappropriate content?)
- how much will the recommendations from the Bailey Review cost to implement?
- are there any particular groups of children/parents who’ll be enabled or disadvantaged by the findings in the Bailey Review (i.e. is it skewed towards reassuring the middle classes?)
- is there a potential conflict of interest in Reg Bailey leading this review given his links to the Mothers Union and their own anti sexualisation campaign
- how has the Bailey Review approached questioning parents? Have people been presented from the outset with the view that sexualisation exists and is a problem or have parents and other organisations been allowed to talk about other worries they may have around their child’s wellbeing?
- how representative are the individuals and organisations responding to the Bailey Review? Do there seem to be any groups whose voices are heard or silenced?

And finally, let’s return to that most important question ‘is ‘sexualisation’ the main problem facing young people/parents?’

Join in the debate

The Bailey Review’s already being discussed on twitter on the hashtag #baileyreview. Once you’ve read the report you may want to share your thoughts on it there, or via your own blog. If you’ve any specific questions or comments about the review you can also put them to @educationgovuk (start with your question then include @educationgovuk so all your followers can see your question, RT their replies, and use #baileyreview on anything about this topic).

Update 07/06/11

Since the Bailey Review was released yesterday there’s been a lot of interesting discussion about the report, mostly on blogs rather than in the mainstream media. Here’s a lineup of some of the most interesting writing I’ve found on this topic (I’ll try to keep this updated with a range of issues represented):

Heresy_Corner (Nelson Jones) has a thorough and thoughtful reaction to the review with Children Being Children

Dr Brooke Magnanti (who did a grand job live tweeting responses to the data in the Bailey Review yesterday) gives her First Look at the review.

The fantastic Meg Barker tackles the issue of gender and sexualisation in Sexualisation and Gender stereotyping? One response to the Bailey review Similar issues are raised by Steve Greer who picks up on the ‘not said’ aspects of the review, particularly in relation to gender over at Queer Theory Reader. Quiet Riot Girl also discusses the masculinity issues, male objectification and the men’s media market which the Bailey Review overlooked in Nice Tits, Love! while Dan Avenell illustrates how the Bailey Review problematises lad’s mags while ignoring the mainstream older women’s magazine market over at The Bockingford Kid.

Over at the Ministry of Truth a somewhat different view is taken, looking at the ‘evidence’ making behind the Bailey review (probably also winning the best title of a post on this topic prize at the same time) Won’t You Fuck Off, Reg Bailey Additional concerns on the quality of the report (and how accessible it is) are raised by Think Base, while Jennie Kermode invites us to think about the core terms and assumptions underpinning the Bailey Review.

The Guardian’s CiF had a (predictable) ‘debate’ feature with different takes on the review. The first part from Holly Dustin might be somewhat more plausible if it didn’t rehearse the dreadful (and completely false) ‘statistic’ ’63% of girls want to be glamour models’. (From a PR survey that allegedly was never really completed: more criticisms of this statistic/survey here and here). Jane Fae Ozimek (whose writing style I covet) really gets to the heart of the problems with the review. Read both takes in Sexualisation and the Bailey Review.

Also at the Guardian their head of Media and Technology Dan Sabbagh writes probably one of the best accounts of this review from a mediated perspective (which makes you wonder why more media/tech expertise wasn’t included within the Bailey Review and preceding ones). His reflections can be found at ‘Sexualised Children’ -Is it always the media’s fault?. Mark Lawson also tackles media issues, this time picking up on how the Bailey Review appears out of touch with new media and youth access and how realistic a fixed watershed is within this context.

Richard Godwin in the Standard focuses around anxieties about childhood adults have in The problem is we’re scared of our children that ends with a quote which ought to focus all our reading and research on this issue ‘Childhood is generally what adults make it’. Meanwhile Libby Brooks returns to the wider concern about whether the Bailey Review addresses the most important issue facing young people, focusing on child poverty as a more pressing problem to tackle.

As you can see most of these posts have focused on the content, evidence and messaging around the Bailey Review. A different but equally interesting perspective from Caroline Farrow, who takes apart the review from a faith based perspective. Reflecting on issues of history, censorship and parenting. Here’s her post on The Bailey Review.

A lot of the discussions of the Bailey Review were rightly serious in tone, so it was good to have some light relief in the form of Andy Toots hilarious post Yippee-ki-yay,Mrs Dorries (which simultaneously also highlights the right wing media’s hypocrisy over the whole ‘sexualisation’ debate).

Update 10/06/2011

There are a number of academic conferences and events coming up between now and the end of the year
that will tackle issues of sexualisation and commercialisation. These include:

Girls, Sexuality and Sexualisation: Beyond Spectacle and Sensationalism. 30 June 2011. Cardiff


BSA Regional Seminar. Sexualisation: A cause for concern? 5 July 2011. Sheffield


BSSN 5th Annual Conference: Hard Science? Sex, Science and Technology. 15 September 2011. Brighton.


Sexualisation of Culture Conference. University of London. 1-2 December 2011. London.

Equally interestingly Westminster Media Forum have scheduled a Keynote Seminar on 18 October 2011 entitled Protecting children from commercial and other adult pressures: next steps for policy and business practice. A draft timetable is available here and a booking form here. The event’s not cheap (I don’t know why WMF always have such inaccessible pricing), but if you can afford to attend I would strongly recommend going and raising the many issues that have now been outlined relating to both the Bailey Review, preceding reports, and wider issues about evidence making, policy and practice.

Meanwhile MP Sarah Teather, Minister of State for Children and Families is asking for feedback on the Bailey Review. If you have any particular comments or questions please submit them here.

Update 13/06/11

The background literature review commissioned to inform the Bailey Review by Professor Ann Phoenix is now available. I’ve a lot of time for Ann and most people who’ve read her review have been impressed with how thorough it is. There is also this DfE Review by Ann and colleagues looking at how different countries attempt to regulate commercialisation/sexualisation. It is certainly worth reading this document and comparing it with the claims made by the Bailey Review. Critics have noted these reports were not made as accessible as the Bailey Review, and the literature review was not made public by the Department for Education until several days after the Bailey Review was released.


Brooke Magnanti
returns to the Bailey Review, this time focusing on terminology and definition.

Suzanne Moore focuses on the issues about capitalism and poverty that the Bailey Review fails to address.

Charlie Brooker is typically cynical but right on the money with his take on gender, media and sexualisation.

Polling company YouGov have run their own research on sexualisation to tie in with the Bailey Review. Check the survey questions asked, there are some major problems with them – can you spot them?

Meanwhile the prize for the most offensive cashing in on the Bailey Review comes courtesy of The People who went undercover to film girls attending a ‘Pole Dancing Class for 3 Year Olds’, only to share images and film of said girls in their class as an example of ‘sexualisation’. This was later picked up by the Mail who also gloated over the photographs of said girls. Both stories ooze class judgement and girl blaming, suggesting an epidemic of pole dance classes for children across the UK (when in fact a possible 8 girls may have been involved in the classes reported on by the People). The comments on the People story are, fortunately, for the most part sensible. Our take home message? ‘Sexualisation’ is very bad. But filming little girls without their knowledge or consent and presenting them in sexually provocative photos in a national newspaper is seemingly fine.

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