The consumer’s role in sexualizing youth
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