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Children and the Politics of SexualityReview - Children and the Politics of Sexuality
The Sexualization of Children Debate Revisited
by Liza Tsaliki
Palgrave Macmillan, 2016
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
Apr 25th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 17)

Liza Tsaliki's Children and the Politics of Sexuality provides a much needed counter-voice to the widely held beliefs current in the Western World that children are 'naturally' sexually innocent, and that they should remain that way at least until later adolescence or early adulthood. I see three major influences on Tsaliki's book, and I will shape my review around those (related) sources: the French historian, Phillippe Aries, the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, and third wave feminism.

Aries' book, Centuries of Childhood (1962) was the first serious historical analysis of childhood, and an early or proto social constructionist account, arguing that the notion of childhood was drastically different in earlier historical periods. Perhaps most radically, Aries claimed that adolescence, that stretch of childhood associated with the teenage years, is a fairly recent social construction. Tsaliki uses this social constructionist paradigm to examine the ways in which notions of childhood, and particularly of different conceptions of what the proper position regarding children and sexuality ought to be, have changed. In Chapter 2 (11-32), Tsaliki describes the current situation "by following the academic, policy and media discourses" regarding the debate about the sexualization of childhood" (5). The mainstream view, she argues, is that we are in a crisis where children, and especially young girls, are sexualized far too early. Indicative of this mainstream view is the American Psychological Association's claims that early sexualization of girls negatively affects their physical and mental well-being; in particular, such sexualization can lead to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression (13). This is the view that the media and parents have largely accepted and which has given rise to concern and indeed almost to hysteria in the media. In the U.S., one can certainly see the rise of the 'abstinence only until marriage' campaign in school sex education programs in the context of this frenzy.

Tsaliki is not convinced that this view is adequately supported. For one, this view "ignores the extent of young people's actual engagement with media and technology in contemporary Western societies, and the challenge to myths of childhood and sexuality they present, [and] ignores the increasing importance of media and leisure in constructing sexual identities and lifestyles" (23). Second, this mainstream view of the problematic nature of childhood sexuality assumes an essentialist and unchanging view of the nature of childhood sexuality. It thereby misses the point made by Aries about the ways in which childhood sexuality is socially constructed and changes over time. Tsaliki picks up this latter point in Chapter 3 (33-64) where she traces these changing views of childhood sexuality from the 17th century to today. Very briefly, Tsaliki argues that these varying historical views have given us a bifurcated view of children as both innocent and inherently sinful. Children are thus currently "interpellated simultaneously as being innocent … – actually, at risk of losing this inherent innocence – as well as in need of (expert) adult guidance and training in order to later evolve into responsible and mature selves…" (53: Tsaliki's emphasis).    

The notion of a problematic expertise of childhood sexuality can be traced to Foucault and his beliefs regarding the advent of various sources of scientific knowledge and power of and over individuals and groups. In Chapters 4 (65-98) and 5 (65-98) especially, Tsaliki discusses the ways in which children's sexuality has become a locus of Foucauldian "biopower." We see this, for example, in the ways in which pornography has been seen as a serious threat to the innocence of children. "Children," she says, "become increasingly sheltered, 'chaperoned' and 'infantilized' with this drive for a 'zero-risk' society…. [T]he end result of this culture of protectionism is that no-one is immune from its governmentalizing effects…. Risk assessment – and the coping strategies for risky endeavors and experiences – becomes a value system in itself… (87-88).

Although Tsaliki doesn't refer to him, her claims about children reminds me of the Foucault influenced philosopher, Ian Hacking (see especially, Rewriting the Soul (1995) and The Social Construction of What? (1999)) and his concept of "interactive kinds."  People, including children, are quintessentially interactive kinds, according to Hacking. Like labelling theory, the concept of interactive kinds maintains that people are in part constructed by and adhere to the labels they are given – by parents, teachers, experts, peers, and the media. However, unlike labelling theory, the concept of interactive kinds denies that people are simply passive recipients of their label/classification: they actively respond to and at times come to reject at least part of their labels, which can sometimes force changes to the classification itself. We see this type of notion employed by Tsaliki in her claims that while children are quite aware of the label of them as sexually innocent, they do not fully accept that label. For example, in Ch. 7 (165-207), Tsaliki uses a study she conducted on young girls' and tweens' use of interactive gaming internet sites such as Stardoll and Monster High where children are able to create virtual, online dolls and accessorize them. In doing so, she argues, children sometimes follow "stereotypical perceptions of young children" picked up in part from "the popular culture they consume and practise" accepting partially the view that they are "at risk of losing their innate innocence," and especially their innate sexual innocence (165). But in addition, and against this acceptance, these young girls also display an ability to "locate themselves within particular narratives of identity and produce fluid, flexible, and quite often, contradictory cultural meanings and spaces through their consumption of dress-up and make-over sites (165).  Hence, Tsaliki argues, our concerns about the over sexualization of children is overblown.

The influence of third-wave feminism on Tsaliki's work is, I would argue, less direct. But she shares with third wave feminism a rejection of what the third wave sees as the essentialism and anti-sexuality of second-wave feminism (and, oddly, conservativism).  As a social constructionist, Tsaliki is committed to the view that the identities of people and groups are flexible and subject to a wide variety of influences. And she is also committed, like most third wave feminists, to a sex positive position open to a variety of sexual identities and practices, even those found problematic by many radical feminists of the second wave. We can consider Ch. 6 (135-163) in this context, Here, Tsaliki rejects the current moral panic over girls' sexualization by examining "young girls' consumption of popular culture" to illustrate "how the entertainment media, rather than being construed as risk laden, … can be used [as a self-directed leisure activity that helps develop] the management of an ethical self, and as part of a broader identity work where issues of self-governance, appropriateness, taste and aesthetics are raised" (135).

Children and the Politics of Sexuality is a complex discussion of a deep and, for many in our society, troublesome subject. Tsaliki explores this material with academic rigor and extensive research to support her views. Perhaps the only issue I have with this book is that it really doesn't discuss the sexualization of boys: Tsaliki's focus, like that of society in general, is on girl's sexualization. I think, however, that if we are going to understand fully the sexualization of children, we must consider both boys and girls. Despite this issue, however, I believe this is a terrific book and deserves a wide audience.


© 2017 Robert Scott Stewart


Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Cape Breton University (Canada). His most recent work has mostly been in the area of the philosophy of sex including two books: R.S. Stewart, ed., Talk About Sex: A Multidisciplinary Discussion (CBU Press, 2013) and Laurie Shrage & R.S. Stewart, Philosophizing About Sex (Broadview Press, 2015).


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