I’ve had enough of Katy Perry’s cleavage

David Cameron is right that our society is saturated with sexual imagery – but his proposals won’t solve the problem.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

British PM David Cameron has backed proposals to stop retailers selling inappropriate clothes to pre-teens and to shield children from sexualised imagery in the media. For example, it is suggested that lads’ mags should be sold in brown covers and that the media watchdog Ofcom should be more answerable to the views of parents.

The report commissioned by Cameron’s government, titled Let Children Be Children, proposes that retailers be required to sign up to a new code preventing the sale to youngsters of items of clothing with suggestive slogans. The report also says there should be a clampdown on sexualised and violent imagery on TV before the 9pm watershed and a cinema-style age rating for music videos. And it proposes the creation of a single website, to act ‘as an interface between parents and the variety of regulators across the media, communications and retail industries’.

For all the Lib-Con coalition government’s promises that it would lift the dead hand of hyper-regulation and restore our freedoms, Cameron and Co are now behaving in much the same way as the authoritarian New Labour government of 1997-2010. As it happens, Cameron and others have a point when they say that our society has become too ‘sexualised’ – but their measures will do little to address this problem, while chipping away at people’s freedom to make cultural choices. These quick-fix, micro-meddling proposals might prove irresistible to a political class hollowed of political conviction or any vision for how to run society, but they do not address the underlying political problem.

Liberal critics of the coalition government and ancient radical Tory haters have leapt upon Cameron’s proposals with glee: for them, this is yet more evidence that ‘Middle England’ traditionalists are uptight, prudish, repressed and out-of-touch with today’s sexually edgy media. Cameron may once have laughed at Jonathan Ross’s knob gags during an interview on BBC TV, but now that he’s in power, it seems, it’s back to reanimating Victorian Values again. It’s the same old reactionary story, say his critics.

But actually, there is a need for a wider public debate about the saturation of society with sexual imagery and the coarsening of mainstream media. There have been a number of flashpoints in recent years that suggest that there is a growing unease with the increasing amount of racy sexual content on TV and in advertising – and not only amongst traditional religious campaigners. Friends and acquaintances of mine who have children are now vetoing music video channels from their TVs, in case some crotch-thrusting video looms into view mid-afternoon. Patrick West was right to argue on spiked recently that pop music on TV has always pushed the boundaries of what is considered sexually permissible, but that was often done by lone exhibitionists or mavericks. Today, exposing acres of cleavage has become the norm.

A music critic at the Guardian summed up the head-scratching dilemma now faced by many adults: while he doesn’t like to think of himself as a fusty, over-zealous parent, he nonetheless recently found himself wondering whether Katy Perry’s blowjob-simulating video is really suitable viewing for a four-year-old. More recently, R’n’B star Rhianna’s simulated S&M appearance on The X-Factor, shown on ITV1 in the primetime slot on Saturday early evening, drew similar criticisms from normally broadminded parents. It is not necessarily a prudish aversion to sexy singers on TV that motivates people’s discomfort, so much as a niggling question: what is happening to the boundaries betweens adults and children?

And this isn’t just about ‘protecting children’. Many adults are also wondering whether they want to be patronised and mocked by lewd banter on TV and elsewhere. That is why there was a significant backlash against Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand in 2009 after they made an obscene phone call to ageing actor Andrew Sachs. The apparent relaxation of what is permissible on TV and in new media is often referred to as ‘the sexualisation of society’ – but it would be more accurate to label it the ‘pornification of society’. That is, sex is portrayed only as heightened visual arousal or sniggering titillation which, divorced from actual intimacy, isn’t really sex at all.

Alongside the public proliferation of sexually explicit material, there has been a cultural and political shift towards viewing intimate sexual relationships as toxic, abusive and emotionally damaging. European countries such as Denmark and Sweden have for a long time had a more sexually open public culture, but this went hand-in-hand with a climate that viewed intimate relationships as positive and worthwhile. Over the past decade or more in Britain, however, the cultural script has suggested that intimate relationships are dangerous and disease-ridden and sometimes best avoided altogether. That there should be an assault on intimate sexual relationships at the same time as there is a proliferation of saucy media imagery is not contradictory. Indeed, it is the demonisation of emotional intimacy by officialdom that has in part enabled the ‘safer option’ of sexual voyeurism to flourish.

Another factor in the ‘pornification’ of society is the shifting boundary between the public and the private sphere. This means that society is simultaneously relaxed about sex in public yet uptight about what happens in private, lest individuals leave themselves open to abusive behaviour or violence. A free individual, left to his own devices behind closed doors, is increasingly looked upon as furtive, seedy and, above all, unregulated and unaccountable to anybody else. By comparison, sexually explicit material in the public arena is regulated and sanctioned. If Christina Aguilera’s crotch-thrusting pop videos and the output of BBC3 provide enough voyeuristic thrills on TV, who needs to keep sexually explicit material hidden away in private? And if they do, surely they must have something sinister to hide?

Let Children Be Children could potentially have raised important questions about the erosion of the old line between adults and children, and between public and private; about the rise of a voyeuristic culture in tandem with a suspicion of behind-closed-doors relationships. Instead, Cameron’s hamfisted response is to propose further censorship, clampdowns and unnecessary state regulation – all of which will make matters worse, as it avoids having a proper, grown-up debate about why it is important for a civilised society to have civilised boundaries, and why our society currently doesn’t have those boundaries. It would also help if liberal commentators didn’t make the same old screeching accusations of ‘Daily Mail mentality’ against anyone who questions the pornification of society. This isn’t moral squeamishness about sex or sexual content; rather it is about reclaiming intimacy, privacy and maturity.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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