The con­sumer’s role in sex­u­al­iz­ing youth

The Compass - - CLASSIFIED - Dara Squires

In his re­cent sen­tenc­ing hear­ing on pos­ses­sion of child pornog­ra­phy charges, Ray­mond La­hey apol­o­gized to his church and to “the vic­tims of pornog­ra­phy.” And while I be­lieve he does har­bour sin­cere re­grets, his fail­ure to rec­og­nize his own re­spon­si­bil­ity for those vic­tims in his apol­ogy makes me doubt the ex­tent of his sin­cer­ity.

For the boys de­picted in the hor­rific im­ages he held were not just vic­tims of their abusers, or of the pornog­ra­phy in­dus­try, but vic­tims of La­hey him­self. As the end con­sumer in a mar­ket cre­ated to ful­fill his de­mand, he bears re­spon­si­bil­ity for the pro­duc­tion of the ob­ject he de­manded.

La­hey claims that he didn’t look for child pornog­ra­phy. He was merely a non-dis­cern­ing con­sumer of sado­masochis­tic im­ages of men. How­ever, he ul­ti­mately viewed the im­ages and must have taken some plea­sure from them or he would’ve at the very least deleted them from his hard drive, if not report the im­ages.

We, all of us, rec­og­nize that what La­hey did was wrong — that his be­hav­iour and com­pul­sions were de­viant. La­hey him­self, un­like some sim­i­lar de­viants, rec­og­nizes this. But what most of us fail to rec­og­nize or ac­knowl­edge is our own guilt and how close we come to sim­i­lar de­viance.

Ob­vi­ously, the view­ing of pornog­ra­phy is about sex­ual plea­sure. But it runs deeper than that. Much pornog­ra­phy, es­pe­cially the sort La­hey was view­ing, is about a power dy­namic. By turn­ing the per­son into an ob­ject for con­sump­tion, view­ers are si­mul­ta­ne­ously able to ex­ert their power over that per­son/ob­ject. In its barest essence, pornog­ra­phy is about con­trol and op­pres­sion.

How close does our cul­tural iconog­ra­phy run along those same lines? In her work, Mo­ral Lit­er­acy, Bar­bara Her­man it­er­ates that when pornog­ra­phy be­comes a com­mer­cial­ized ob­ject the line be­tween per­sonal viewer and so­ci­etal re­sponse to the ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion be­comes blurred. “Given the per­me­able bor­der be­tween in­dus­trial pornog­ra­phy and cul­tural iconog­ra­phy (in ad­ver­tis­ing, film, etc), the idea of women [chil­dren or in­deed any hu­man] as avail­able for use leaves the do­main of pri­vate fan­tasy and gains pub­lic re­spectabil­ity.”

So­ci­ety deems child pornog­ra­phy un­ac­cept­able. But other so­cially ac­cept­able forms of ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion run very close — too close for my per­sonal com­fort. As the in­di­vid­u­als who make up our so­ci­ety, it’s time we ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for le­git­imiz­ing hu­man ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion.

We may like to con­sider our­selves in­no­cent by­s­tanders in a so­ci­ety gone mad or an in­dus­try that has over­stepped its bound­aries. How­ever, many peo­ples’ re­sponse to me­dia is the same as La­hey’s re­sponse to pornog­ra­phy. It’s all about power and plea­sure.

I don’t watch much tele­vi­sion, and es­pe­cially not re­al­ity tele­vi­sion, but I have oc­ca­sion­ally in­dulged in some guilty view­ing. What struck me each time is that it truly is guilty view­ing. I think most of us rec­og­nize, if not ac­knowl­edge, this. Re­al­ity tele­vi­sion is based around an en­tire premise of power and ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion. Our com­pul­sion to view is com­pa­ra­ble to that of men like La­hey view­ing pornog­ra­phy.

The prom­i­nent pub­lic dis­course around re­al­ity tele­vi­sion cen­ters on the ex­er­tion of power — mo­ral judg­ment on the viewer’s part — over the per­son or ob­ject por­trayed. The plea­sure we gain may not be sex­ual, but it does in­volve the idea of con­trol and su­pe­ri­or­ity.

When we watch pro­grams like Tod­dlers and Tiaras, we par­tic­i­pate in both the hy­per­sex­u­ali- sa­tion of young chil­dren and the per­pet­u­a­tion of a power dy­namic in view­ing the per­son as an ob­ject. We con­sume the me­dia im­ages of th­ese chil­dren and their fam­i­lies in much the same way that we con­sume su­per­sized fast food. And like the su­per­sized meal, we feel guilty or ashamed of the plea­sure we take from it be­cause in its essence, we know it’s wrong.

It’s the same when we en­counter ad­ver­tis­ing or me­dia that por­trays young chil­dren sex­u­ally. From Brit­ney Spears’ provoca­tive pose on the cover of Rolling Stone mag­a­zine at the age of 17 to the more re­cent por­trayal of young girls in lin­gerie for French loungewear com­pany Jours Après Lune, we know it’s wrong. The is­sue is what we de­cide to do with that knowl­edge.

Some of us, like La­hey claims he did, will let it lie on our hard-drives, ig­nored but also not ad­dressed. Some of us will view it and feel em­pow­ered as a re­sult — ei­ther through arm­chair mo­ral judg­ments against those who pro­duced and par­tic­i­pated in it or be­cause of a phys­i­cal plea­sure re­ac­tion to the im­ages them­selves. And some of us will have en­tirely a dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal re­ac­tion; we will feel sick and fright­ened that such im­ages have en­tered the realm of pub­lic re­spectabil­ity.

We are not by­s­tanders in the cul­ture of con­sumer cre­ation; we are the end fac­tor — the con­sumer for whom the cre­ation is in­tended. The only way to change the equa­tion is to dis­rupt it by chang­ing and charg­ing how we re­act to it. We can­not af­ford to ig­nore it or ac­cept it. If we do, when and where do we draw the line? When is the ob­jec­ti­fi­ca­tion of a hu­man ac­cept­able and when is it not? How do we de­ter­mine de­viance when our en­tire so­ci­ety en­gages in it to some ex­tent? Dara Squires is a free­lance writer and a mother of three.You can con­tact her on face­book at


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