The Guardian And The “Sexualisation” Panic

According to Wikipedia, a moral panic is defined as: “…an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.”

Most societies experience panics on a regular basis, but Britain, thanks to the trashy level of our press, perhaps experiences more than most countries. Moral panics have a simple purpose: to convince a citizenry that something must be done. And that something is almost invariably bad, when viewed in hindsight.

A good moral panic needs a simple message so that commentators can easily push it into the public mind: a good panic needs good branding. Thirty years ago, a moral panic was in full swing under the label “Video Nasties”. For those who don’t remember, a Video Nasty was a term coined by the media for what we now call a horror video. Led by morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse, the media and politicians set out to convince the public that, unless something is done, British society would be engulfed by a tsunami of torture, rape and murder. Something was done: the Video Recordings Act (1984) imposed on Britain the most draconian system of video censorship in the democratic world. The Video Nasties panic may have been subsequently exposed as a fuss over nothing, but the censorship system, run by the BBFC, still operates today.

The “Sexualisation” panic has been in full swing for five years or so, and is reaching a point of saturation; it is regularly repeated throughout the media, and has been adopted by politicians not just from the religious right, but also from the left. As I blogged a couple of years ago, Sexualisation is an almost meaningless and certainly unmeasurable concept. It was largely brought into the public consciousness in 2010 by an evidence-free government report which was (bizarrely) carried out by a Christian organisation. It has become an umbrella idea that encapsulates various morality causes including (but not limited to) censoring music videos, censoring pornography, removing bare breasts from the Sun newspaper, banning “lad’s mags”, shaming parents into dressing their children more “modestly”; in fact, it is used to attack any kind of sexual expression, or even innocent nudity. Those leading the panic – including the pro-censorship “feminist” group, Object, politicians, and Christian morality campaigners – have learned from Mary Whitehouse’s “Video Nasty” success, and are turning up the level of hysteria until the government is pressured into taking action.

The scary thing about Sexualisation (as opposed to Video Nasties) is that it is undefined and undefinable. Thus, when we reach the something must be done moment, that something will be sweeping and draconian. Given that Sexualisation is a “disease” that allegedly affects men, women, breasts, children, shops, TV, video, the Internet and even (shock horror!) high streets, the only valid response to it must be a cross-society attack on all sexual expression. Perhaps we need a Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice? That might work.

I’ve expressed my sadness before that the normally liberal-ish Guardian becomes conservative and censorious when sex is on the agenda. This week, The Guardian entered full moral panic mode by inviting “the public” to submit “sexualised imagery from the high street”. The question is, how does the Guardian decide what “sexualised imagery” is? I’ve walked down my high street today, and have seen the following:

  • Women in mini-skirts. Yes! Women are revealing not just their ankles, but their knees and their thighs!
  • Women revealing cleavage!! Low-cut tops are surely the devil’s work, designed to “objectify” breasts and thus cause men (who as we know, have literally no impulse control) to rape people.
  • A teenage girl in shorts and fishnets: because the perverts who see Sexualisation everywhere are particularly (and disturbingly) obsessed with the way children and teens dress.
  • Builders with no tops on: False alarm – topless men are actually OK, because the neo-Whitehouse crowd (in common with all morality campaigners) only want to cover female flesh. Men, of course, can dress however they like.

But I could find no recent explosion of “sexualised imagery”. Of course, there are porn mags, but there have always been porn mags; in fact, porn magazine sales have collapsed under the pressure of competition from DVD and the Internet. The term Sexualisation implies that things are changing for the worse. But unless I’m missing something big, they aren’t. Indeed, the debate has moved away from “harm” to the far broader measure of “causing offence” – and the reason for this is simple: the pro-censorship movement can provide no evidence of harm.

So why not submit your own images? Since the Guardian has joined the “anything that offends anybody must be bad” brigade, photograph things that might offend somebody and send them in. Seen gay men holding hands? Muslim women showing hair from under their hijab? Mixed-races couples kissing? All those things represent Sexualisation, and are offensive, right? To somebody?

As we are led headlong into a new wave of censorship, it’s saddening to see Mary Whitehouse’s Mediawatch-UK organisation joined in its endless morality campaigning by “feminists”; and the Daily Mail joined in its “cover up women” fetish by the Guardian. These are conservative times indeed.

9 thoughts on “The Guardian And The “Sexualisation” Panic”

  1. So the whole mess is a vocal minority screaming and politicians jumping on a bandwagon. I struggle with the issue of small groups finding power because no one thinks it is worth standing up to them. They don’t want debate and objectify anyone who expresses an opinion other than theirs.

    If people ignore the moral guardian outcry we will all be to blame for the society we end up with. And that really is a scarey thought.

  2. Sad and disappointed this article has appeared here on Moronwatch. Any and all outcry from religious quarters need to be unpacked, and gone through with a fine tooth comb, then most probably sent back.
    But the problem with the “sexualisation” isn’t that wee girls can’t dress for summer, it’s that sadly offences against children and rape against teens is on the up. And a third of these offences are being committed by other children.

    And I understand your concern with people obsessed with rape of children a la the EDL & their cohorts. But sadly that interest isn’t a choice for many people. Even at the most conservative estimates, not a choice for 1 in 10 people.

    I don’t think the problem is with young girls being sexualised, it’s with young men being turned into rapists.
    It’s seems the “Moral Panic” is the *only* reaction to this, in lieu of a more measured response.
    It is sad as an anti rape campaigner when your only allies are the very fruitcakes you spend your time decrying.
    *bangs head off wall repeatedly*

    1. So long as you can justify this statement with solid research evidence, I’ll agree with you: “offences against children and rape against teens is on the up”

      My understanding is the opposite. Sexual violence is now a good lower than it was. But I’ll leave you to post your link first – since you made the claim.

  3. “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice”
    Hmm, this may work, but I think Airstrip 1 needs something a bit catchier: How about “Ministry of Fun”, to be shortened into “Minifun”? A huge governmental organization that tells people how to dress, how to behave, what to show on magazine covers etc…

  4. As a minor point, the BBFC existed long before Mary Whitehouse, and censorship has also been around much longer (eg the “Lady Chatterley Trial” in the early 1960’s). I agree with the general thrust of your argument, and would suggest that the “moral panic” is often closely related to the “political panic” (I haven’t done any research on this one, so it’s a point for discussion, but the same organisations are often involved).

    An example of the latter might be the anti Muslim outcry after the horrendous 11 September 2001 attacks. Again the feeling is that “something must be done”, which has (over the last 12 years) resulted in some of the most draconian legislation (in both the UK and US), in the name of “fighting terror” (how you can fight a nebulous concept is another issue, which allows governments pretty free rein in how they define “terrorist”).

    I’d be interested in views as to whether this is a valid analogy.

    1. Fully agree. “Radical Islam” is a great example of a panic, as was the “Jewish Problem”.

      One sign of a well-formed panic is unity across the political spectrum. At the moment we most need intelligent opposition, it dissolves away.

  5. You could just call it for what it is: a ‘sex panic’. In the past it was about homosexuality (and still is, in come cases). It repeatedly crops up in relation to sex workers. In the 80s it was the fear that ‘porn’ would now enter the sanctity of the home via the VCR; now the same panic is applied to ‘the internet’. Hence the same flawed logic that there is some kind of ‘magic button’ which can switched on to keep all the bad stuff out (a method that works with UK Customs and Excise and physical items, but doesn’t looks so clever with cyberspace).

    Having (almost) got to the point where people can be accepted for the sexual identity, governments, the media and various ‘moral entrepreneurs’ are now trying use sexual behaviour as a political weapon. There’s a long history of feminism overlapping with sexual conservatism (and with conservatism in general) via ‘social purity’ campaigns. The Guardian is just welcoming its new sexual censors – while, ironically, running Snowden’s evidence of ‘National Surveillance State’.

  6. “The scary thing about Sexualisation (as opposed to Video Nasties) is that it is undefined and undefinable”

    That’s 100% correct – and you’ve spotted a kind of nonsense that few people notice.

    But have you noticed, so many things are undefined and undefineable? We can start with words we use every day like love, hate, intelligence – and we can move on to the language of politics: “equality” means something in mathematics, but absolutely nothing in human affairs. The gender-politics brigade make good use of the confusion over whether equality means equality of opportunity or of outcome. Or sometimes they think you can have “women’s equality” without having men’s equality, too. Nice people.

    Then move on to “abuse”, “oppression”, “assault”, “hate speech”. All complete twaddle. Even “racism” is hard to pin down – it’s been used to describe so many different things

    Orwell said “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

    Politicians use this vagueness throughout their careers. The “sexualisation” nonsense tells us nothing about the real world, apart from about the dishonest individuals who use the word

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