On Thursday, celebrities will dance in Parliament Square to draw attention to the scale of violence against women and girls all over the world, while inside Parliament a cross-party group of women MPs will lead a debate on making sex and relationships education compulsory - as a key way to ensure that all young people in the UK learn about sexual consent and respectful relationships, gender stereotyping and sexualisation.
Over the last few years there has been increasing attention to what is now often referred to as 'sexualisation'. This focus has resulted in new government policies which are designed to address the fact that young people might be less equipped than adults to interpret and critique the powerful, sexualised messages present in advertising, TV, film, music, and social media. Recommendations to Number 10 have included new age restrictions on music videos and video games, restrictions on billboard advertising, and a new website portal which makes complaining to media and advertising regulators easier.
The political debate around sexualisation has been largely framed however around parental concerns and obviously explicit content. Inevitably this has resulted in a focus on the need for greater restrictions and improved complaint mechanisms. It has not focused on children's and women's rights to be free from harm. Critically, it has so far failed to make the links between a wider context of sexualisation and women's unequal status in all our societies. There has been no 'connecting the dots' in terms of policies on sexualisation and its harms, preventing violence against girls and media regulation reform (an argument we made at the Leveson Inquiry).
Has anyone asked girls and young women (and boys and young men) what they think about the sexualised world around them, and what, if anything, they think should be changed?
Women's groups do innovative work in some UK schools to help deliver sex and relationships education. What those doing this work hear from young people, time and time again, is confusion about the gendered roles they feel that they are expected to fulfil. Many young people feel that they are given mixed messages about what sexual consent is, where the lines are, and when you can say 'no'. Many young men hold worryingly common attitudes that say sexual pressure and even force, as well as physical violence, is acceptable. As a result the Home Office, recognising the high incidence of violence against girls, is today re-launching a campaign to challenge such views.
These attitudes exist in a context where violence against women and girls is facilitated and promoted through the media, for example in music videos which normalise sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. Artists like Katy Perry, Kanye West and Skepta have all released videos, often significantly aimed at a teen market, which 'play' with ideas and images about pimping, sexual violence, submission and domination, male sexual entitlement, pornography and more. Some newspapers routinely carry 'up-skirt' photographs which imply that the subject has not consented to the image being taken. Facebook has hosted pages which joke about and trivialise rape; and while social media has many benefits, it has also (especially on smartphones) enabled cases of sexual bullying as highlighted in this NSPCC report and which for example lead to the death of Chevonea Kendall-Bryan.
When Imkaan worked with young black and minority ethnic women, they consistently voiced their disillusionment and sense of helplessness about the way they are represented in music and other media. They said that they want opportunities to discuss this and have their concerns addressed. As those young women noted, there are powerful racist as well as sexist messages throughout media, with black and other minority women 'exoticised' in very specific ways (I won't even link to the porn ads featuring a menu of different women listed by 'racial' origin, but it's a couple of clicks away and young people are more than aware of the racist-sexist stereotypes being promoted, not to mention profited from). Boys and girls from all backgrounds and ethnicities receive and respond to these messages in different ways. Many of them want to talk about it and they want to change it. They are telling us that they are being misrepresented and that they want to tell their diverse stories using their own 'voices' and 'images'. This is why Imkaan, the EVAW Coalition and Object are launching a new multimedia project funded by Rosa which young women will use to build a platform to highlight and critique sexist and racist music videos.
Young women should be at the heart of policy making to address sexualisation and sexual abuse. Our project will contribute to this, but schools and the government should get proactive on involving young women in challenging attitudes which condone and tolerate abuse. Only this will ensure we get a rights-based, rather than parents-focused, solution.