It’s the duty of all of us to call out sexualisation of children
Stories about pedophilia are filling news bulletins and none more so than the sordid tale of UK celebrity DJ and charity worker, Jimmy Savile. “Sir Jim”, as he became after his knighthood, was ubiquitous on TV when I was growing up in England in the seventies.
Top of the Pops was the forerunner of Countdown in Australia and the favourite show of most adolescents. Savile was born in Leeds and his broad Yorkshire accent was similar to mine. It was a time when it was rare to hear anyone from regional areas on prime-time television.
As part of a publicity drive for his new TV show, Jim’ll Fix It, Savile visited my school in 1975. I didn’t speak to him, but he reminded me of the Pied Piper that day, strutting around with hundreds of followers falling in behind. What I remember most about seeing him on TV is a strange sense of guilty betrayal that I didn’t like him.
Because of that shared tribal background I felt we should have a connection but Jim was never going to fix it for me. He was inexplicably inappropriate with words and gestures and unrelentingly made me feel uncomfortable.
It is the same unease I had recently looking at albums by famous British photographer David Hamilton.
Three volumes by Hamilton have sat virtually unopened on our bookshelves for 30 years and, knowing they are considered classics, my wife and I thought them a good bet to sell.
When I flicked through the pages I didn’t know if we should sell them, or shred them.
They are exclusively of adolescent girls who are never named and never smile. They are objects.
Most of the children have on only a few flimsy clothes and there is a strong sexual element to the content.
Interestingly, the most highly provocative and sexual poses are of girls fully clothed, so it not necessarily the nudity I find offensive, but the evident sexualisation of these kids.
My wife was given the volumes by a boyfriend 35 years ago when they were widely considered sensitive portrayals of innocent, young beauties.
I certainly didn’t object when I first saw them but now, 30 years on and as a father, I find them exploitative and degrading.
When the controversy over the photos of teenagers by Bill Henson erupted a few years back I instinctively sided with the artist.
The hoi polloi don’t necessarily appreciate some forms of artistic expression, I told myself assuredly, and surely this was just another instance.
As soon as I saw at the photos I felt differently. I can’t categorically reject them but I have considered doubts as to their merit and justification.
The argument is that the parents of those juveniles who posed for Henson approved of the artist’s work but that doesn’t take in to account how they or their children might feel 20 years on.
Teenagers flaunting their budding sexuality is a healthy part of adolescent development but any adult taking advantage of their vulnerability is a predator.
There is no situation where a child and an adult have the same or shared responsibilities and the differences are amplified when the adult has guardianship or authority over the child.
One of the greatest works of twentieth century literature tells the story of a middle-aged literature professor and his obsession with a 12-year-old girl.
Humbert Humbert becomes sexually involved with Dolores Haze soon after becoming her stepfather.
His nickname for her is Lolita, which is the name of Vladimir Nabakov’s novel.
Humbert is the narrator and the story is told sympathetically and exclusively from his perspective. There is little insight into how Dolores feels about her situation.
Lolita has been described as “sheer unrestrained pornography” but for me it is nothing of the sort and lacks any sense of eroticism.
It is the memoir of a paedophile gradually awakening to the horrors his actions have inflicted on another human being made even more pertinent that the person is a child in his care.
This is a different interpretation to the critic who wrote Lolita is “not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child”.
It is a highly dangerous attitude to hold that children are imitators of sexual advances but it is far more commonplace than we might consider.
What the stories behind the recent headlines tell us is that there are adults mainly men, but not exclusively who will sexually exploit children given unmonitored access.
These people work in government, the church, as teachers, police officers and scout leaders.
They are our neighbours, family members and, yes, even TV stars.
There are no guarantees for a parent to safeguard a child but being thoroughly involved in their lives is an important step.
Our children will inevitably interact with a number of institutions during their journey to adulthood, and we can’t just drop them off at the door.
But we need to go further.
Wherever we encounter it, we need to be more active and vocal about denouncing the sexualisation of children still prevalent across our society.
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