One winter’s evening in 1992, my wife and I were at Melbourne airport awaiting a flight. An older couple came and sat nearby. They had a small girl with them, aged about four, who seemed restless and a little odd, though it was hard to pin down just why. Suddenly, the girl went and stood in front of a man sitting among the many in the rows of seats. Hitching up her dress, she placed one hand in her knickers, and did a kind of dance, gyrating her hips while keeping her eyes locked on his. The man blushed, the old couple looked studiously in the other direction.
Years of working around child abuse makes you watchful, if not paranoid, and I immediately wondered if this child had been exposed to pornography. Since that is often how paedophiles groom children for sex – showing them things that make it appear fun or normal – there was some ground for that concern. Right then the flight was called. I was racked for days with what I have should done. You can’t call airport security and say “that girl was dancing strangely”. Twenty years later, we live in different times. Today it’s likely the child would have merely watched too much MTV.
The term sexualisation originated in child protection work. It refers to sexual behaviour imposed on someone, as opposed to arising from their own yearnings or desires. Government reports have been carried out worldwide into the phenomenon, and concern has grown that it is a serious problem for the development of girls and boys. Most people think it simply means girls acting too sexy too young.
The trend for cheap clothing shops to sell tacky knickers and push-up bras for eight-year-olds probably epitomises that, along with child beauty quests, and a lack of boundaries around what children see in the media landscape. This concern is not insignificant – Latrobe University’s regular surveys of teen sexuality over the…