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Robin Thicke’s summer hit, ‘Blurred Lines’, prompted a wave of criticism about its lyrics (“I hate these blurred lines, I know you want it”) and video which featured near naked women being ogled by a fully clothed Thicke and chums. It was banned by YouTube but is widely available on other video-sharing sites. The controversy came soon after the Government announced that it will introduce age-ratings in music videos sold off-line, one of the outcomes of the Bailey Review on the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood, which also includes a single website, ParentPort for parents to complain about a programme, advert, product or service, and restricting sexualised ads outside schools.

But it’s the debate over how and whether to tackle online pornography that has created most heat in recent months with Cameron’s sexualisation advisor (and rising star), Claire Perry MP, leading the charge. In May, the Children’s Commissioner published a report detailing the clear links between children’s access to pornography and boys holding sexist attitudes towards women and relationships, and engaging in earlier and riskier sexual activity.

In July, the Prime Minister announced a series of measures to limit access to online pornography, including filters, and child abuse images. This included closing a loophole in the extreme pornography legislation that means it is currently entirely legal to view and download films called ‘brutal rape porn’ and ‘daddy rapes daughter’. The campaign to address this extraordinary legislative blunder was spearheaded by Rape Crisis South London and was widely supported by women’s groups, academics and others.

In the context of consistent polling showing that the Conservatives have a ‘women problem’ (the party is far behind Labour with women voters) it is not irrelevant that action on pornography is popular with women. According to a YouGov poll, 86% of women think that pornography is damaging to children and 40% want search engines not to link to porn sites at all.

Politics aside, the sexualisation agenda is important and supports work led by Home Secretary Theresa May to prevent violence against women and girls. There is a growing body of literature on the way that sexualisation provides a conducive context for violence against women and girls to occur by portraying women as constantly sexually available and men as sexual predators.

The Government deserves plaudits for its action to date but there is much more work to be done. Furthermore, there are gaps in government policy that make no sense. Why, for instance, does action to tackle sexualisation not include the print media which has been sexualising women and girls for decades on Page 3 and elsewhere? The Sport is little more than pornography on the bottom shelves of our newsagents. This is an issue that we, alongside other women’s groups, gave evidence to Leveson about and on which he reported last November (from page 662 here).

Furthermore, whilst pop songs and videos tell young people that women are sex objects and that there are ‘blurred lines’ when it comes to sexual consent, why is there no obligation on schools to counter these harmful messages by giving children and young people the chance to talk about  consensual and respectful relationships? Why are excellent public campaigns, such as the Home Office’s ThisisABUSE teen relationship abuse campaign, not disseminated to schools so that they can plan work around them and ensure they are ready to respond to disclosures of abuse?

So where does the sexualisation agenda go from here? We want to see much clearer linking of action to tackle sexualisation and pornography with the government’s violence against women and girls strategy. It must include more consistent regulation of harmful images across the media, both offline and online. The British Board of Film Classification’s ‘harm’ based criteria is a model approach. There should be a legal obligation on schools to teach basic life skills on sexual consent and relationships and, whilst funding of Rape Crisis provision in London and nationally is welcome, more should be done to fill the gaps in provision for survivors of sexual and other violence, especially children.

Holly Dustin is the Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition.

Follow Holly on Twitter.


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