Another Perspective

Demeaning of Life

The sexualization of childhood has become an obsessive feature of the official culture.

By 4.1.08

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The "Free for All" page of the Saturday Washington Post has become mainly a forum for the politically correct to complain that their exquisite sensitivities have been rudely violated by some Post reporter or editor who has failed, say, to include the pronouns appropriate to both sexes or who has made the mistake of mentioning a woman's appearance. Last Saturday, one Bill Crews of Washington wrote to remind us that, as he put it, "Not Everyone Is Straight":

A certain strain of heterosexism -- a belief that everyone is or ought to be heterosexual -- was alive and well in "Let's Talk About Sex," on the March 27 In the Loop page. "Every last one" of the male interns in Congress "will probably be" at an appearance by "Grey's Anatomy" TV star Kate Walsh, reporters Mary Ann Akers and Paul Kane wrote. They seemed to totally discount that there are gay male interns who might not be all that interested in Walsh. Maybe they'd be more interested in her co-stars, Eric Dane and Justin Chambers. Maybe some lesbian interns would want to see Walsh. Your literary device demeaned and discounted gay men and lesbians and contributed to the social stigma placed on them. It had no place in The Post.

Imagine! It is now to be thought demeaning to a young person if it is assumed that he (or she!) might leer at one sex rather than the other. Equal opportunity ogling! What is wrong with this picture? What happened to the official culture's stern insistence that it is wrong and shameful to ogle anyone? Oh, right. I forgot. There is no more official culture. Or rather, the formerly unofficial culture that once had to hide away in corners and feel ashamed about yielding to unbridled appetite has now become the official culture. Like Mr. Crews, it's out and it's proud -- which is what produces such new problems as that of, say, the gay scout. When I was a scout, it was pretty generally understood that the promise to be "clean" somehow included the promise not to engage in sex of any kind, gay or straight. Not that we had much choice in the matter anyway. But now his sexual feelings, gay or straight, are thought to be an essential part of even quite a young child's identity.

Of course the "repression" of such feelings by the official culture took place in the context of a sexual ideal -- sex confined to marriage -- that, to put it diplomatically, wasn't always lived up to. But that's the point of having an official culture of the old type. It told you what the social expectations were even if it allowed for the possibility that those expectations would not be met. It's this expectation which we have lost -- and, with it, a mercifully fallow sexual period in which maturity and socialization can work on the youthful spirit in a way they no longer can.

Coincidentally, in the same day's Post there appeared a sad story about an eighth-grader from California who was killed because he was gay. Or at least he thought he was gay. Encouraged by the official-unofficial culture to explore his "sexual identity" at an age when, not so long ago, most kids knew or cared little about such identities, he had decided not only that he was gay but that being gay meant that "with his school uniform [he] wore purple eye shadow, nail polish and pink lipstick. In the weeks before he died, he added purple boots with three-inch heels."

What, I wonder, was left of the "uniform"? Pretty obviously the boy, Lawrence, "Larry," King had been indulged by his teachers and parents in this conceit of himself as an outrageously camp figure, and this indulgence naturally encouraged him to make it known that he wished to declare as his "valentine" the classmate who subsequently shot him as a result. "Homophobia," of course, is responsible, but homophobia is the product not just of irrational hatred but also of the kind of immaturity that is hardly surprising in eighth graders. Now one boy's life is over and another's is ruined because responsible adults in our culture have decided that experimentation with "sexual identity" is perfectly appropriate even for eighth-graders.

Thus, the Post blandly assures us that, "reassured by changing pop culture and easy access to information on the Internet, the age of sexual identification has dropped over the last few decades to the early teens and as young as 10, experts say" -- as if this process were a social force as inscrutable and inevitable as homophobia itself. But are we quite certain that an official culture that had the confidence to reassert itself and set its face against the sexualization of childhood could have no effect, even against pop culture and the Internet? Or, to put it another way, are not pop culture and the Internet themselves in part the products of the official culture's abdication of its responsibility to give moral leadership to society?

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.