Global concerns, local negotiations and moral selves: contemporary parenting and the ‘sexualisation of childhood’ debate

Bragg, Sara and Buckingham, David (2013). Global concerns, local negotiations and moral selves: contemporary parenting and the ‘sexualisation of childhood’ debate. Feminist Media Studies, 13(4) pp. 643–659.



Parents are contradictorily positioned within the ‘sexualisation of childhood’ debate. On the one hand, they (‘we’) are assumed to share a universal ‘concern’ about it and are urged to ‘challenge’ it through campaigning, refusing to buy inappropriate products, talking with children about ‘media messages’ and so on. On the other hand, parents – often specifically ‘mothers’ – are also held responsible for sexualisation through their irresponsible consumption. This article draws on qualitative research with parent groups to suggest that sexualisation may be a less pressing issue for parents than is often claimed: because they tend not to perceive their own children as ‘sexualised’, do not accept that goods are inherently sexualized, and subscribe to ideas about child development and ‘good parenting’ that involve letting children make decisions about such goods on their own behalf. Thus, even where parents articulate general concerns about the issue, within their own families they may opt for negotiation, compromise and subterfuge rather than overt challenge. Regardless of this, however, parents are increasingly compelled to respond to the issue, and thereby to engage in practices of ethical self-formation and individual responsibility-taking. Whilst these practices have a longer history than the sexualisation debate itself, they are framed or shaped in particular ways by it. The article indicates some problematic areas that emerged in the course of discussions with parents, such as: (self-)surveillance and critical judgement of ‘other’ girls and mothers; the obscuring of constraints on individual choice in ways that naturalise social inequalities; and the convergence of sexualisation discourse with older discourses that make women responsible for male sexual violence.

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