SUBMITTED OPINION PIECE
If you aren’t concerned about the photos of grown women wining on infants and children, you aren’t paying attention.
Sexualisation has been a main topic of discussion for well over a decade, and certainly since it was better defined by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Task Force Report on the Sexualisation of Girls in 2010. However few people actually understand what sexualisation entails and how it applies to boys.
To start at the beginning: each of us is born a sexual being. Our sexuality, like our bodies and our minds, evolves over time, but we are all sexual beings from birth.
Healthy sexuality, which is what we should all be striving for-for ourselves and our children-“is an important component of both physical and mental health, fosters intimacy, bonding, and shared pleasure, and involves mutual respect between consenting partners” (Satcher, 2001; Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States [SIECUS], 2004). It also involves age and developmentally appropriate expressions of sexuality.
Sexualisation, by contrast, occurs when:
– “a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics”;
– “a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with ‘being sexy'”;
– “a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making”;
– “and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person” (Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls) .
It is that last point- the inappropriate imposition of sexuality upon a person- that has been particularly problematic in our community, especially as it relates to our boys.
Our understanding of gender, gender roles and gender norms has shaped the way which we differentiate boys and girls in many ways through societal rules that have no basis in science or nature, but none more so than when it comes to sex and sexuality.
Girls are taught from early on to be pure, virginal, and “good” while it is somehow accepted that boys will be less able to control themselves and thus are encouraged to have multiple female partners and be aggressively interested in women and sex from as early as possible.
The number of female partners a man has is seen not only as a symbol of his manhood and prowess, but also as a potential buffer for possible homosexuality as homophobic tendencies dictate that this is a way to ensure that our boys ‘don’t become homosexuals’ (spoiler alert: sexuality and sexual orientation don’t work this way).
Those beliefs of this perceived difference between “boy children” and “girl children” is what makes it possible for an adult to be able to act in a sexualised manner with a young child in public and to think nothing of it. Think about it: had it been a man who was rubbing his penis on a 7-9 year old girl in the name of carnival would it have been allowed to happen? Would those parents have proudly displayed the moment on social media with an “attagirl” type message? Would that man have made it out of the festivities alive or would the mob have deemed him a pedophile and acted ‘accordingly’?
A child is a child. That statement remains the same whether they are born male or female. Children are not equipped to handle sex: not only physically but also emotionally and psychologically. Boys and girls are not different at all in that regard and it is this notion that girls need to be protected and boys encouraged that puts girls, boys, men and women not only at a disadvantage but also at risk.
When a grown woman has sex with an underaged boy we call it initiation, not rape. It wasn’t that long ago that fathers shared stories about taking their underaged sons to brothels to “become men”. Chris Brown has bragged on US national media about “losing his virginity” at the age 8 to a 15 year old girl, never once registering that what happened to him was child sexual abuse.
All of these things come together to normalise behaviour and unify messages that dehumanise boys and men. As a society we tell men that they are supposed to want every heterosexual sexual experience that is made available to them. A “real man” will want as much sex as he can get. A “real man” will never turn down a woman sexually. And if that man says ‘no’ then there is something wrong with him.
This has meant that numerous male victims of child sexual abuse and rape do not even recognise that they have been victimised until much later in life when they are forced to face dysfunctional relationships of their own, risky sexual behaviours, drug and alcohol misuse or have difficulty managing their anger.
They are left to construe their own sense of worth while confronting a lifetime of messages that essentially equates their value to their sexual abilities. Messages that they received from birth and which have made them vulnerable since.
Even if the boys in the CayMas images were asked if they wanted the women to wine on them they cannot legally or developmentally consent. As such they should never have been put in that situation in the first place because that has normalised a behaviour that perpetrators of child sexual abuse can use to their advantage when looking to do children harm.
The act of having what are supposed to be “safe adults”- ie: parents and guardians- consent to this taking place also gives these boys the wrong message that their bodies are not their own. It lays down the foundation that adults can make decisions about their bodies and about other people’s access to their bodies. Again, this is something that perpetrators of child sexual abuse also use to their advantage when grooming children to do them harm.
All of it makes the boys more vulnerable. All of it teaches them the wrong lessons.
All instances captured, including the one of the crying infant, at the very least depict the sexualisation of children. It is sexualisation because, while the child does not know any better and does not understand, the adults in question and any other adult seeing the image understand the sexual implications of what is happening.
All instances captured are, at worst, on the scale of child sexual exploitation. Child sexual exploitation is a form of child sexual abuse, and as such there is no such thing as parental consent for the act to happen. In other words, saying that ”the parent didn’t have a problem with it” or “I’m the parent and I said it was okay” is not sufficient for the act to happen and for the adults to be free from fault. Parents simply cannot consent to their children being sexually exploited.
While sexualisation of children is developmentally damaging, it does not always meet a criminal threshold and in some cases it is not in fact a crime. The criminal scale of child sexual exploitation is a matter for the police (through the collection and presentation of evidence) and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (in the interpretation of the evidence) to deliberate over and determine the likelihood of a successful prosecution beyond reasonable doubt. Despite this legal consideration it is our aim as a community to be pro-active and not wait until matters escalate to the level of a criminal threshold before we begin to address them.
As a community we must not only continue to educate ourselves, but we have to help others so that they understand what this is and the harm which it does, not only to the child involved but to the community as a whole. We must confront the fact that there are aspects of our culture that allow this to happen, and that technology and social media have only brought to light that which has been going on for decades. It is not enough to condemn parents and festival organisers when we haven’t made holistic child safeguarding our priority and set down the house rules for how to treat our nation’s children. That continues to be on all of us.
Protection Starts Here (PSH) is a grassroots, multi-agency child abuse prevention project spearheaded by the Cayman Islands Red Cross in partnership with the Employee Assistance Programme, Health Services Authority, Ministry of Education, Royal Cayman Islands Police Service and Sands Creative Studios. For more information, or to get involved, contact [email protected].