Friday, April 22, 2011

Belle de Jour on the Imapct of Sexualization

Are there profound negative effects on children due to increased sexualization, or is that an assumption based on deep-seated fears by parents and others?

That is the provocative question addressed in today's post by Dr. Brooke L. Magnanti, the real woman behind the award-winning British erotic author Belle de Jour.

Magnanti, who is also a respected scientist, discusses the evidence on her new blog, Sexonomics.

"Various claims have been made around this issue. But are we being given evidence and solid policy, or assumptions and sloppy analysis? More worryingly, is the outcome being decided without even consulting parents about what’s best for their children?" she asks.

In the thought-provoking post, Brooke urges readers to approach the topic in a more rational, less emotional fashion.

"What the people making claims about the harmful effects of ‘hypersexualisation’ need to do is demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship. Then they need to show that early exposure to sexualised imagery causes the outcomes they are claiming, such as violence against women," she writes.

"Unfortunately, broad conclusions and limited data are just about all that's been offered up to this point," Brooke writes, after offering an analysis of the possibility of just such a relationship.

"The main problem with the sexualisation "debate" is that when it comes to solid proof that sexualised media and products cause harmful effects to children, the only honest response is we don't know," she concludes.

I admit that I have assumed such a relationship existed for a very long time. I am frankly dumbfounded that the actual evidence fails to back up what my gut has been telling me. I believe that Brooke's careful, thoughtful and knowledgeable post is a must-read analysis for every adult interested in this important topic.

I believe that it is time to put aside assumptions based on emotion — including mine — and consider that those of us who have held onto this belief might just be wrong.

I have reprinted her post in its entirety below, or read it directly at her blog.

Sexualisation Reports: Same Old, Same Old?

At first glance, the worries about children and sexualisation seem to have reached consensus. Pretty much everyone believes it causes harm – everything from low self-esteem and early sexual activity to sexual and gender-related violence. Government, news media, and an array of non-profits agree. The research evidence, they claim, is staggering. Are they correct? Or does examining the issue from another perspective give us a different picture entirely?

Probably the hardest part of being a parent these days is negotiating what is appropriate in world where much has changed.

Parents, and people in general, are rightly concerned about the effects of an increasingly consumerist society on their kids. I fully support the rights of parents to enforce their own standards – deciding what is and isn’t appropriate is a complex balancing act. Age of the child, cultural background, and all kinds of variables can only really be appreciated on a family-by-family basis. And importantly, there need to be better support systems to educate and inform concerned parents, so they can make the appropriate decisions.

What rarely gets reported, however, is that the data around the supposed trend are very shaky. When you look at the problems most people fear – such as increased sexual activity – the evidence just isn't there. And in the few instances when people bother to talk to children, most of them actually have a more balanced and mature approach approach to modern culture than commentators give them credit for.

Various claims have been made around this issue. But are we being given evidence and solid policy, or assumptions and sloppy analysis? More worryingly, is the outcome being decided without even consulting parents about what’s best for their children?

What the people making claims about the harmful effects of ‘hypersexualisation’ need to do is demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship. Then they need to show that early exposure to sexualised imagery causes the outcomes they are claiming, such as violence against women.

One saying you hear over and over in the research world is “correlation is not causation.” It’s a good rule to remember, particularly when looking at human health and behaviours.

What’s the difference between a cause and a correlation? Put simply, when you say one action causes a result, you are saying there is a direct line between that action and the result. Cause implies that an action results in a predictable reaction. Correlation, on the other hand, means that the action and the result both occur, but may not be related. Here’s an example. The amount of reality television programming has risen dramatically since 2000; so have the fees for UK universities. Neither one caused the other. Reality TV correlates with high fees – it doesn’tcause them. Happening at the same time does always imply a relationship.

Correlations can be useful. They can be a first step in investigating whether there could be a causal role. After all, it takes someone noticing that lots of smokers get lung cancer in the first place. But the investigation can’t – and shouldn’t – stop there. Not least because a lot of the things we think we know can turn out to be wrong. Careful analysis requires looking past the small scale. It resists making broad conclusions from limited data.

Unfortunately, broad conclusions and limited data are just about all that's been offered up to this point. Consider the infographic below:

Over and again, what parents get instead of good information, is sensationalistic headlines designed to attract media coverage. That's not the same thing as reliable data; never has been.

The main problem with the sexualisation "debate" is that when it comes to solid proof that sexualised media and products cause harmful effects to children, the only honest response is we don't know.

Next month, a review of sexualisation and children led by Reg Bailey of the Mothers' Union is set to be released. It's impossible to predict the exact content, but this gives a bit of a clue:

"Of the 1,025 parents of five- to 16-year-olds surveyed, 40% said they had seen things in public places, such as shop window displays and advertising hoardings, that they felt were inappropriate for children to see because of their sexual content."

Sounds like a dire misrepresentation of statistics. You could as easily conclude that the majority — 60% — of those polled have notseen things in shop windows and adverts they thought were inappropriate for children. And of the 40% who did, there was no indication of how often they encountered these things (once in the last year? sixteen times a day?) and whether they felt children took notice of them.

It's important to remember that as adults, sexual content is part of life. It is reasonable to expect that in spaces and entertainment for children, sexualised content will be strictly limited. But in public, in spaces for adults at large? Surely that's where good parents step in and explain to curious children the difference between grown-ups and kids. Infantilising the world is, to me, unacceptable.

With the government set to release their new report on children and sexualisation in May, perhaps it's a good idea to look at the previous government's attempt to address the same issue. And where they went wrong.

In 2009 the UK Consultation on Sexualisation of Young People was launched by then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. It was part of a wider campaign, with an aim to connect sexualisation explicity with violence. The review set its goal as seeing “how sexualised images and messages may be affecting the development of children and young people and influencing cultural norms, and examines the evidence for a link between sexualisation and violence”.

The 2010 Home Office report [pdf] is notable on several counts: it is very slickly produced, it provides loads of policy recommendations, and it is notably lacking in the qualities that would make good research.

Other reviews of sexualisation of children have appeared before. One was by the American Psychological Association Association in 2007. Australia also released a similar report in 2008. These were well received at first, but the expectation was that later reports would take a fuller view of the context in which young people live. After all, any of us can point to a pile of Playboy t-shirts in children’s sizes… the important question is what effect this might be having, if any.

Part of good research practice is allowing readers to see the source material and where the conclusions originated. For most of the report, however, conclusions are made in absence of citations. Consider the following statement:

“Children and young people today are not only exposed to increasing amounts of hyper-sexualised images, they are also sold the idea that they have to look ‘sexy’ and ‘hot’. As such they are facing pressures that children in the past simply did not have to face.”

Frightening, no? And yet, no source is given for this assertion. What are 'increasing amounts', and how are they quantified? What exactly is a 'sexualised image'? Define your terminology and outline your methods, people! And the conclusion that children in the past did not experience this pressure is questionable – just ask any grandmother.

There are a lot of studies quoted – mainly studies of pornography and adults – but the conclusions specifically about children and violence reference no research publications. The Home Office consultation is reluctant to admit that research into putative negative effects of imagery on children does not exist.

There’s a good reason it doesn’t. Experiments on adults (which the consultation relies on heavily) would face significant ethical restrictions if conducted on children. Because they consist of exposing test subjects to pornography, then administering a questionnaire, you can see why the subject is hard to address. But to make conclusions without even addressing this lack of source material is a huge oversight.

In the face of this deficiency, however, the consultation still claims a connection, mainly by relying on spurious polls (as shown in the infographic above). “The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm.”

But if you look at their cited materials closely, it's clear that most of their "evidence" is studies taken out of context, misinterpreted results, or plain irrelevant hypothesising.

Here's an example. One paper cited in the 2010 report is a 2000 publication by Malamuth et al., Pornography and Sexual Aggression: Are there reliable effects and can we understand them? The paper considers whether there is a causal link between adults who view pornography and sexual aggression.

Now, the difference between ‘sexualising’ images aimed at children and actual pornography for adults is a big one. Even using a paper like this in a discussion of childhood issues is problematic.

What the Malamuth study found, though was interesting.

While some people who viewed pornography had violent beliefs towards women, the conclusion did not claim pornography was the cause: “We suggest that the way relatively aggressive men interpret and react to the same pornography may differ from that of nonaggressive men.” In other words, the pump is already primed in some people. But for nonaggressive men, the same imagery did not incite negative thoughts.

So, there is not a direct correlation between porn and violent beliefs in most men. But when the Home Office report cites Malamuth’s work, this message is lost. No mention is made that it’s a study of adults, not children, and of pornography, not sexualised images. It is cited as if it is a conclusive example, but anyone reading the actual paper will see that’s not true.

There are other studies that contradict any connection between porn and violence. The Home Office report doesn’t mention them, though.

In a prospective study Simon Lajeunesse of the University of Montreal found most of the men he studied sought out porn by the age of 10, when they become sexually curious. He also found they quickly discarded what they didn't like and things they find offensive. As adults, they looked for content that was compatible with their sex preferences.

Lajeunesse‘s subjects reported that they supported gender equality, but also that they felt victimized by criticism of pornography. "Pornography hasn't changed their perception of women or their relationship which they all want as harmonious and fulfilling as possible,” says Lajeunesse. “Those who could not live out their fantasy in real life with their partner simply set aside the fantasy. The fantasy is broken in the real world and men don't want their partner to look like a porn star."

His conclusions are similar to Malamuth’s. "Aggressors don't need pornography to be violent and addicts can be addicted to drugs, alcohol, gaming and asocial cases are pathological,” he adds. “If pornography had the impact that many claim it has, you would just have to show heterosexual films to a homosexual to change his sexual orientation."

In many ways, the previous government's Home Office report failed to live up to its own hype. The Con-Dem coalition have made hay on the presumption that their government would if not overturn, at least critically examine questionable policies of the previous Labour government. It remains to be seen whether on this topic they will come out with anything that qualifies as an intellectually honest review. I can't say my hopes are high."

Posted by Belle de Jour at 04:47

Brooke launched her new blog, Sexonomics, this month, and has also promised her fans a new book.

In 2009, Brooke revealed her identity after a newspaper was about to disclose it without her permission. Brooke, formerly of Bristol, England who now lives in Scotland with her husband, was a noted scientist whose specialist areas were developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She has a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science and had worked at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health as part of a team that researched the potential effects on babies of their mothers' exposure to toxic chemicals.

But, from 2003 to late 2004, Brooke worked as a high-class call girl for a London escort service. She has written an award-winning blog and several bestselling books based on her experiences as a sex worker. Her writing also formed the basis of the TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl on Showtime, starring Billie Piper in the title role of "Belle."

If you have any interest in thoughtful discussions about sex-related and scientific topics, I urge you to follow Brooke's blog. She is a unique woman, and an equally unique writer who should NOT be missed.

Brooke's books include: Belle de Jour’s Guide to Men, 2009; Belle’s Best Bits, 2009; The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, September 2005; The Further Adventures of a London Call Girl, May 2007; and Playing the Game, June 2009.

Each one is well-worth reading and re–reading. You can find all of her books at the U.K.’s largest independent bookseller, Waterstones.

Also check out Brooke's op-ed articles on a variety of topics including reforming libel law in the U.K., as well as the importance of ensuring the rights of sex workers.

— The Curator


  1. I get the impression Brooke hasn't seen that Lajeunesse study, just the press release for it. Hey I'd love to ask her but I can't.

    I am finding the way her work gets promoted with no opportunity for discussion/critique really frustrating. Especially as she has promoted 'research' like that by Professor Bailey.

    Her interest in 'rigour' depends on how much she agrees with the conclusions not just the methods of the researchers it seems to me.

    There will always be powerful people in any arena. BM, despite (and in fact because of) her minority position as an ex sex worker, has become quite 'powerful' in this field.

    I find it worrying when sex research should be about sharing information/knowledge.

  2. Dearest Elly;

    As this is my blog and not Brooke's, I would prefer a discussion of the topics she's raised, and NOT a critique of how she has set up her own, ESPECIALLY as Brook has already explained why she does not open up her blog to direct comments.

    I find it patently unfair to criticize her personally, since she has no way to respond, as she may never see this blog at all.

    I appreciate your comments, but please stick to the issues rather than veering into the unpleasant territory of personal criticism.


  3. Hi

    I will write about it on my own blog and thus the cycle continues where nobody actually communicates! It seems like we could all do this whole 'sharing research and knowledge on sex/uality' thing a whole lot better than we do. Me included.

  4. I can see it seems that way. What I had hoped was that you'd write about the research that you know about on my blog, too. I wasn't trying to get you not to comment, merely to keep it on topic. I genuinely welcome your insights and opinions about this issue, just not about personalities.