Bragg, Sara and Buckingham, David Too much too young? Young people, sexual media and learning. The Sexualization of Western Culture. For guidance on citations see FAQs. Too Much Too Young? The presence of 'sexually explicit' material in the media has routinely generated concern on the part of many commentators, even if what counts as 'explicit' has changed markedly over time. In recent years, however, this debate seems to have taken on a new urgency.
The concerns expressed in this debate often appear to reflect much broader anxieties about the changing nature of childhood in contemporary societies: As these passive linguistic constructions suggest, blame is laid at the door of external forces, most commonly the media and consumer culture.
If they buy their children clothes with suggestive slogans, parents are held to be complicit or powerless to resist the tide of consumer culture that pushes sexuality at their children. Young people, meanwhile, are assumed to be incompetent and unable to negotiate this new sexual culture, because they lack the skills of critical media consumption that might enable them to resist it, and because they are in any case ideally asexual or sexually innocent.
Children are predominantly perceived as in need of protection — although this often involves measures that are also designed to control them Buckingham, The debate about sex education in the UK has been highly politicized for decades, as many writers have pointed out Thomson, Broadly speaking, the post New Labour government has adopted a less moralistic stance than the Conservative party, issuing new guidance on Sex and Relationship Education DFEE, , supporting new training schemes for teachers and entering into discussions with editors of teenage magazines.
One was a research project carried out from to , entitled Young people, media and personal relationships, and funded by a consortium of British broadcasting and regulatory bodies see Buckingham and Bragg, and The second, Media Relate , built on the findings of that research, as well as on media education pedagogies, to develop teaching materials on sex and the media, for use in school sex education classes Bragg, Our starting point in both cases was that media are more diverse and contradictory than simply a collection of 'negative' messages: We also began from a belief that the formation of sexual identity is a complex process, which is unstable, insecure, always under construction in ways that cannot be explained by mechanistic psychological notions of role modelling or sexual socialization.
The first research project involved extensive qualitative work - over one hundred pair and focus group interviews with young people aged from nine to seventeen as well as approximately 70 parents - and a survey of nearly young people. We worked with a range of young people, both working and middle class, in the South East and the North of England. We aimed to allow them to express their views in different forms, so in addition to pair and group interviews, participants completed a scrapbook or diary on the theme of media images of love, sex and relationships.
The scrapbooks enabled young people to talk to us in ways they chose, about what they saw as important; they acted as both a record and reflection, thus bringing their voices into the project in more diverse ways. They also helped us to grasp in a tangible way what young people were talking about when they referred to media texts such as newspaper or magazine articles or advertisements that they included.
Our approach was broadly to begin at a more personal or individual level, and then to move on to the more social context of the peer group. In the Media Relate project, we worked with various partners to develop a set of teaching materials consisting of worksheets and a DVD targeting teachers and students aged i.
The materials were piloted in a range of schools, and teachers and students were interviewed about their experiences and opinions of using them. Young people speaking back In research, young participants — like adults - inevitably adopt particular subject positions, or construct versions of the self and others in relation to widely-circulated public discourses on the topic at hand see Buckingham, All the young people we talked to showed an acute awareness of the public debate about their relationship to sexual media, and this shaped the narratives and presentations of self they offered in interviews.
Since they were aware of their positioning as innocent, vulnerable or media-incompetent, both in the domain of public debate and frequently in the family, their response was often to emphasize their knowingness, be it about sex or the media, and thereby to construct a powerful counter-position to the powerless one marked out for them. However, on other occasions, young people adopted a moralistic voice about sex in the media that was almost indistinguishable from the views commonly expressed in newspapers.
In their expression they demonstrated an adult knowingness about the terms of the debate that in itself challenged adult assumptions of youthful ignorance. In addition, young people often expressed a conventional moral agenda — one that confounded popular representations of them as lost in a moral vacuum.
They were aware of the ethics of relationships, and often explained and understood the behaviour of fictional characters in these terms. They referred to notions of decency and propriety in relation to sexual images in the public domain, although their exact analysis varied according to age.
Our research participants were at pains to demonstrate that they were responsible enough to be trusted to make their own decisions, illustrating their media competence and literacy in a number of ways. For instance, Lysa argued that she understood what she should expect to see if she was illicitly watching Channel 4 programmes late at night these have a partially deserved reputation for explicit sexual subject matter , and so would not be upset by them.
A group of older teenagers were scornful about those who complained about the sexual focus of a Friday night chat show, pointing out that the reputation of its presenter, its scheduling and the images in the title sequence already offered enough warning about its likely content. The voices young people adopted in their scrapbooks were also coded generically in ways that reveal how the media serve them as a resource.
This was often at odds with the more pleasurable engagements with the media that they described in interviews, such as passionate fandom for particular films, programmes or pop stars that were often shared with and therefore helped consolidate friendship groups.
At other times, however, the scrapbooks did enable different voices to emerge. Others drew on media formats to play with identities; for instance, introducing themselves through the magazine interview format, listing favourite activities, music, ambitions and so on, as if they were a celebrity being quizzed. They provide at least some of the terms within which young people think about their relations with the media, and against which they calibrate their own developmental levels.
Growing up, in her account, is not something that happens to her, but something she can achieve — and her media consumption is a measure of her speed and success in doing so. Similar stories were told by others, where laughing at innuendo on TV in the presence of parents revealed that they had greater sexual knowledge than they believed their parents attributed to them.
Family viewing of sexual material emerged in interview accounts as a source of considerable tension, necessarily entailing assumptions about what was appropriate or necessary, and what should be proscribed or forbidden, both for males and females, and for adults and children.
It was a site of struggle, in which competing definitions of identity were constructed, challenged, negotiated and defined as young people exhibited resistance or compliance with parental prohibitions or encouragement of appropriate viewing behaviours Bragg and Buckingham, Our interviews with children and parents suggested that what it now means to be a child or a teenager needs to be constantly defined, reasserted and worked over, rather than being taken for granted — and that sex becomes another terrain on which that definition has to occur.
They saw themselves as autonomous, calculating and self-regulating entities, in control of their own quest for knowledge, in relation to sex and sexual media material. They did not necessarily reject the principle of regulation. For themselves, they claimed a right to choose - and this was one that their parents increasingly recognized, particularly once their children reached the age of ten or twelve.
Nonetheless, the emphasis our interviewees placed on their self-governing capacities may help explain the particular dilemmas of regulating sexual material.
Sexual media material has been increasingly drawn into the domain of personal ethics, conceived of as an occasion for individuals to scrutinize their own desires, conduct and responses, rather than one of social harm, as is the case still with media images of violence. For this reason, it may be harder for centralized regulatory bodies to obtain the degree of consensus that is necessary to win legitimacy when it comes to controlling sexual material.
Whilst this seems a liberal, even audience-empowering move, it also places an additional burden of choice and responsibility on individual viewers. Representing diversity As many critics and commentators have observed, the media show an increasing diversity of sexual representations, often customized to particular social groups in the audience Arthurs, Our participants certainly perceived the media as offering more diverse sexual representations than they could find in the school or family.
For instance, many perceived a moral agenda in sex education that was fundamentally about 'just saying no' and that ruled out pleasure and fun: All our interviewees demonstrated a familiarity and confidence with the categories of lesbian and gay — whether as sexual populations represented in the media or as audiences for particular texts.
Such declarations suggest that heterosexuality is incredibly fragile, if it is so easily overturned by the simple act of looking. To this extent, we might even conclude that the media play a greater role in disturbing gender and sexual identities than they do in confirming them. In contrast, older participants, and girls across the age range, tended to take lesbian and gay issues as an opportunity to rehearse liberal versions of the self. At the same time, they acknowledged that much of this was utopian, an image of how they might like life to be, rather than reflecting their actual experience.
Indeed, none of the young people in our research identified as lesbian or gay. As others have argued, there is uneven development rather than a smooth narrative of increasing progressivism around sexuality Jackson and Scott, In a sense, however, the substantive positions the young people took up on these issues are not as significant as the broader discourses about the self that they entailed. None of our young participants presented themselves as dependent for moral guidance on the authority of religion, traditional morality, or established experts such as teachers, even where they came from strongly religious family backgrounds.
Honesty, happiness and personal freedom, rather than following externally imposed moral codes, seemed to be the pre-eminent ethical choices here. Learning about sex — and sex education Our interviewees were often negative about parents and schools as a means for learning about sex. When we discussed sex education in our interviews, young people were very disparaging, perhaps ritualistically so, since the anonymous survey results were more positive about it.
They claimed that sex education in schools taught them little that was new, and that the focus was much too narrowly medical or scientific, on 'the insides and all that' as Glenn aged 17 put it.
They argued that it was set in a preventative and biological framework, trying to alert students to the dangers and difficulties of sex rather than dealing with aspects of relationships. The media therefore came to fill what young people perceived as a gap: However, if young people do learn about sex and relationships from the media, this is not a straightforward or reliable process. When we asked Will whether he expected to find out about sex from school or from his parents, he replied: His curiously academic notion of 'research' seems to encapsulate something of the gradual, even haphazard, nature of sexual learning.
His insistence on 'working it out himself' was also typical of the independent approach many of the children adopted, or sought to adopt: Learning about sex and relationships was seen as a matter of actively seeking information from several sources, and making judgments for themselves about a range of potentially conflicting messages.
Such learning was often a collective process, conducted among the peer group for instance at sleepovers , rather than a one-way, top-down transmission of knowledge - in marked contrast to formal sex education. Participants emphasized that they were learning to become self- regulating sexual subjects, responsible for their own fulfilment, rather than being passively socialized into a moral code.
The materials covered four areas: They drew on a range of best practices in media education, which emphasize talk-based, open-ended, hands-on activities involving media production.
For instance, students are asked to create soap opera storylines involving teenage pregnancy, or to develop health education campaigns on issues such as condom use or support for lesbian and gay teenagers.
Through these processes, they engage actively with how meanings and ideas are represented, the constraints limiting the messages on offer, and the opportunities for change Buckingham, Media education practice of this kind is collective and social in its conception of learning, rather than individualist, and values informal learning, hence the role of group work and the focus on talk.
There are obvious dangers in the originators of an approach also evaluating it, so our comments here are not designed to promote our materials above others.
However, our interviews with students who used some of the materials were revealing. This degree of self-awareness is not taken into account by many sex educators who tend to see young people as manipulated by media they cannot resist. In feedback, students also often focused on lesbian and gay issues, raised by a role play exercise in which they debated how well magazines served lesbian and gay teenagers. Once again, this provided an opportunity for girls in particular to articulate progressive positions: So whilst teachers saw the scrapbooks as motivating for students, from our point of view it was equally significant that they seemed to have helped teachers to understand more about the world their students inhabit outside school, and thereby to develop different kinds of classroom dialogue about such issues.
Nonetheless, the materials did indicate problems in reaching boys, which have also been noted in previous research into sex education Kehily, , Hilton For instance, there were gender differences in responses to the scrapbooks: They may also have had access to more visual material than boys in the form of magazines.
Boys tended to write less, and their textual reference points were different: In the context of the school, these media forms may be seen by teachers as more problematic than those preferred by girls. However, for boys to do the same risks accusations of not being masculine enough. Moreover, a focus on forms of popular culture with which girls are more familiar may flatter their existing skills, whilst potentially leaving boys behind or reinforcing gender divisions in the classroom.
There are dilemmas and tensions that arise for young people in this new environment.