What Does “Sexualizing” Children Really Mean?

Last year, when I wrote about Netflix’s pedophilia movie, Cuties, one of the things I and many others objected to was the way it “sexualized” children. Now, the film certainly had its droves of defenders. And while most of the defenses they offered were wholly worthless, there was a piece by pornography advocate Jerry Barnett at Quillette that was well-worth pondering.

The main thrust of his critique has to do with that same term I used–sexualization–which Barnett argues is a nebulous rhetorical term meant to incite moral panic rather than to communicate a meaningful concept. He writes:

The idea that young people might have sexual feelings, desires, and even experiences, before reaching the state-mandated age of consent has triggered countless moral panics in recent years. I have closely followed and documented some of these panics, and encountered their proponents in TV studios, parliamentary inquiries, and university debating chambers. The instigators of sexualisation panics always claim to have evidence of harm, but they are never able to produce it. Beyond the obvious fact that non-consensual sex is certainly harmful, moral entrepreneurs tend to be driven either by deep moral (sometimes religious) outrage, or vested self-interest. When they talk about the sexualisation of children, they are almost always referring to teenagers who have passed puberty but are below the age of consent. And when pressed, they almost always mean girls. The word “sexualisation” is itself slippery and hard to define, and was in fact deliberately popularised by morality campaigners to paper over their lack of strong arguments for censorship.

He is indeed correct in certain respects. The age of consent is not a magic line which, upon crossing, humans suddenly become sexual creatures. We are all either male or female from birth, and are, at least in that sense, sexual. And those differing natures do inform our childhoods in certain respects. Boys and girls tend to have different interests, different behavior patterns, and so forth.

Boys and girls also relate to one-another differently. I can remember having crushes on girls as far back as 1st grade, which is about as far back as I can remember anything at all. Such childhood feelings are certainly very different than those experienced later on in life, but they’re also very different than what boys normally feel for other boys.

But apart from a handful of woke-scolds, nobody has a problem with these kinds of expressions of sexuality in children. Crushes, playing with different toys, wearing dresses vs suits at Easter, or other early expressions of masculinity and femininity are all part-and-parcel of a normal and healthy childhood. So that particular line has little to do with what anybody means by complaining about sexualization.

No, when we talk about sexualization of children or adolescents, we’re clearly talking about something different–something specifically to do with sexual maturity. And Barnett does have a point about the term being nebulous.

Part of the sexualization we object to is the prospect of imposing mature sexuality on immature people. The moral intuition of normal humans informs them for an absolute fact that there are some sexual behaviors in which children and young adolescents absolutely should not be engaging. There are acts their bodies are not designed or prepared for. They are weaker and more vulnerable in virtually every respect than adults who may prey on them. There are intricacies and consequences of sexuality which they are not yet psychologically or emotionally equipped to understand.

This aspect of sexualization is “nebulous” only in the way that any intuition is nebulous. It’s difficult for many people to articulate, and because it belongs to common sense and natural law, most people don’t really need to try. Instead, they can throw out a word like “sexualization” and normal people will immediately get the gist of what they mean. Intuition isn’t precise, which is why the so-called age of consent is always going to be somewhat arbitrary–it differs even from state to state, let alone from culture to culture. But it is still accurate in that we all know there is a line, even if we don’t always know where exactly to draw it.

But there is another aspect to what we mean by sexualization, and it’s nebulous by our own fault rather than by the nature of intuition. When we condemn the sexualization of children, we’re also condemning a kind of interference in “normal” sexual maturation. Sexualization doesn’t merely thrust them in before they’re ready, but actively damages their ability to properly become ready.

Now here’s what I mean by that:  Any healthy and moral society is going to direct the sexuality of its members towards marriage and family because that’s what genuine sexual maturity looks like. The virtue of chastity doesn’t hide sexuality per se or attempt to pretend that children aren’t sexual beings. After all, even telling your son or daughter, “you’ll understand when you have kids of your own someday” overtly recognizes their inherent sexuality. However, it does so in a an appropriate way because rather than forcing them into details which they aren’t ready to process, it merely sets before them a glimpse of the fruits of sexual maturity. It nurtures rather than undermines.

In contrast, pornography interferes with that kind of maturity. Fornication interferes with that kind of maturity. So does pedophilia. So does the behavior depicted in Cuties. So do many of the things that young teenagers typically do these days. Such behavior might come “naturally” to them in the sense that they do it because they feel like doing it. But that doesn’t make it healthy or mature anymore than eating whatever food you feel like makes for a healthy and mature diet. Feeding children a steady diet of unhealthy sexuality through mass-media makes stable marriages and families a whole lot harder and a whole lot rarer.

Now, one certainly might not agree with that understanding of sexualization, but the one thing it’s not is nebulous. But that’s only what I was writing about.  I’d wager that most of the people who condemned Cuties don’t actually share that understanding, and that’s where the problem that Barnett is picking up on comes in.

By natural law, we all know on some level that marriage is where sex exclusively belongs. But very few contemporary Westerners will actually recognize that knowledge despite the numerous clues scattered throughout our shattered culture and psyches. Fewer still will actually try to live according to that knowledge. Fewer still will actually succeed. After all, our entire culture constantly screams the opposite of what our malnourished consciences tell us.

The result is that most of us are at war with our own moral intuition, and so our behavior makes often little sense. Parents see their pubescent children behaving in ways that they know are wrong–ways that often horrify them–and they cannot remain silent. But they’ve hamstrung their own ability to discern and describe the “why.” So they complain about the youth not being “ready” without ever defining what “ready” means. They complain about how their kids are too immature without having any clear vision of what “maturity” looks like. They complain about a lack of emotional intimacy without realizing they have no business telling anyone how to feel. They try to reduce everything to consent and then flounder when trying to point out the problems with consensual harm. In that context, most of Barnett’s criticisms hit home.

The solution, however, is incredibly simple: Repent. When we’re willing to repent of our own sexual immorality and immaturity–when we’re willing to depart from our culture’s faulty understanding and embrace chastity–then we also become able to talk about sexual maturity in a way that’s not at all nebulous. From the perspective of chastity, Barnett’s criticisms quickly fall apart.

For example, he says there’s no evidence of harm resulting from sexualizing children. But if you define harm entirely in terms of missing consent, it’s not terribly meaningful to go on and say that consensual sex is harmless. When we take a broader view of sexual morality, however, the evidence of harm abounds: abortion, divorce, single motherhood & fatherlessness, STD’s, repeated heartbreak, hookup culture, hatred of children… It’s not a short list, and most of the facts aren’t particularly contentious. The list is controversial only to the extent that we ourselves have been sexualized to pretend that these banes are actually blessings.

Barnett also argues,

The problem for believers in sexualisation is the fact that, notwithstanding the growing prevalence and availability of sexually explicit material, sex appears to be going out of fashion. In an unprecedented cultural shift, young people are giving up sex in record numbers. This is hardly the outcome anyone would expect if they believed that insidious sexualising, pornifying influences are bombarding our youth.

But from the perspective of chastity, the problem with porn is not that it turns non-sexual humans into sexual humans. The problem is that it consumes our sexuality without giving us anything in return. Barnett’s observation about sex going out of fashion is itself part of the problem, not a sign that everything is swell. A lack of sex is by no means the aim of orienting sexual morality around marriage and family.

He even correctly observes that we treat the sexualization of girls differently than the sexualization of boys in order to imply hypocrisy. And from our wider culture’s perspective, it is hypocritical. But when we accept marriage and family as the picture of sexual maturity, then we get to say, “Of course we treat the sexuality of girls differently than that of boys!” The fact that boys and girls are different is the warp and woof of human sexuality in the first place! A sexually mature man is going to be very different from a sexually mature woman, and therefore so will the ways we nurture those two different kinds of maturity.

It’s good that so many people were outraged over Cuties–we were right to have been. But we also have to grapple with the reality that Barnett was correct about how much of it was nebulous. It shouldn’t have been. But as long as it is, pornographers are only going to be marginally inhibited. And eventually, another trial balloon like Cuties is going to succeed, and the P in LGBTP will no longer be overlooked. Our culture is an unequivocal sexual failure. For our children’s sake, it’s time for fathers and mothers to be truly counter-cultural and rediscover chastity.

And the only thing standing in our way is an unwillingness to repent of our own unchastity.

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3 Responses to What Does “Sexualizing” Children Really Mean?

  1. Malcolm Smith says:

    Since teenage girls are always arguing with their parents about clothes, let me point out that there is a reason why a girl of 15 should not dress like a woman of 25. At 15 she is still learning the rules of signaling, and has not yet got them right. Equally importantly, the 15-year-old boys have not developed full skills in interpreting them. Give them ten years, and both will have worked it out.
    Of course, the same thing could be said for teenage boys’ clothing, but that is hardly relevant now. Unless female taste has changed radically since I was young, the sort of sloppy outfits which are de rigueur with modern male teenagers can hardly be called sexy.

  2. B. Gordon says:

    Great article Matt.

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