The sexualization of children is the tendency of a society to turn children and childhood into sexual objects by associating them with sex and being sexy. Constant representation of sexualized children media, film, television, literature, music, and video games creates a societal attitude that condones the sexualization of children. Child sexualization happens in many cultures but it is arguably most prevalent in the United States and Japan today.
The sexualization of children is constantly being perpetrated throughout each society, though most people engage in it unconsciously because it has become almost unavoidable in the information age. In Japan and the United States, child sexualization exists throughout the cultures and is mainly perpetrated through media. Child sexualization differs in these two countries both in its behavioral manifestations and in the attitudes each culture holds. While both cultures sexualize children, the United States tends fetishize children looking and acting older, but in Japan, it is the opposite, and childlike cuteness is fetishized.Mass media in Japan is heavily influenced by anime (cartoons) and manga (comics). Anime and manga are a huge part of contemporary Japan’s cultural and identity. Adults and children alike read manga and often watch the anime adaptations on television.
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Because there are dozens of diverse subgenres in anime and manga, these media forms dominate the entertainment industry in modern Japan. Traditionally, anime and manga style has always depicted characters in a distinctly childlike way: wide eyes, full cheeks, and high pitched voices. Females often look small and lack adult curves which contributes to their youthful look; furthermore, they are normally depicted wearing revealing clothing— school uniforms are a staple. During the 1980s, in reaction to the growing social power women held in society, male authors and illustrators developed a new genre of anime and manga featuring a young, sycophantic female protagonist in sexual situations. Today, this titillating genre has become significantly more pornographic and more popular than ever (Bullough, 2006). Traditionally, Japan was a patriarchal and hierarchical society; however, the last few decades alone have seen immense sociocultural reform. Much of this social reform has had positive impacts on women and children, but changing trends in anime and manga have not all been constructive. For example, one category of anime and manga called lolicon, Japanese for “Lolita Complex” in reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, is hugely popular with a socially diverse albeit predominantly male audience (Galbraith, 2011).
Lolicon is another genre that fetishizes cute, young schoolgirl heroines and is characterized by its erotic and often violent themes. Contemporary social changes, especially those promoting women’s rights, have left groups of men feeling threatened; this, combined with the huge popularity of lolicon creates a dangerous trend of degrading women and children (Shigematsu, 1999). Fans of this type of material are generally unashamed— reading violent, pornographic lolicon manga in public, for example (Jones, 2003). It is not just girls being oversexualized, other genres similarly feature young boys in explicit sexual situations (Zanghellini, 2009). This material, however popular, is controversial in Japanese society and depending on the individual, can be appropriate or inappropriate. Many fans defend it by arguing that lolicon and similar genres are not child pornography because no real minors are affected or used at all (Galbraith, 2011). Lolicon, and manga and anime in general, fetishizes cuteness, a trait typically associated with children. Shigematsu (1999) argues that Japanese society as a whole idolizes cuteness, and the evidence of this can be seen in many facets of society: not just television and literature, but fashion as well.
Fashion is an integral part of Japanese society, and people often express themselves and their interests through clothing. One of the most widely popular styles is Lolita subculture (distinct from lolicon), in which grown women dress like children. Lolitas not only dress like dolls, wearing billowy, feminine dresses with ruffles and bows, but also act infantile and naive (Winge, 2008). This style alludes to young girls being “forbidden sexual objects,” as Winge describes it (2008, p.50). The style is very reminiscent of Victorian-era dress and according to Winge, comes, in part, from Western influence. However, this subculture is a discrete mix of Japanese and Western influence (Winge, 2008). In Japan, there is a distinct culture of fetishizing all things childlike, but in the United States, childhood hardly exists.
Today, American many children cannot wait to grow up. Milestones of childhood and adolescence, such as getting a cell phone or losing one’s virginity, are happening at earlier and earlier ages (Durham, 2009). Even the clothes that are marketed to be for children are often only smaller versions of adult clothes and can be very risqué. Although, at a fundamental level, media in the United States is one of the most influential perpetrators of the sexualization of children. Popular television shows, such as Toddlers & Tiaras, illustrate the way American society tries to age up children and make them into sex objects. Children on television and in film being depicted in sexual situations has been shown to have a profound impact on child viewers, especially young girls (Deckman, 2017).
The culture of child sexualization in the United States is arguably most evident in the cases of child stars. Underage celebrities are scrutinized like adults, made to look and act older than they are. An article published in W Magazine recently listed Millie Bobby Brown, a thirteen-year-old actress, as one of the “sexiest” people on television (Hirschberg, 2017). Other child stars, male and female, have faced similar media attention based on their image, especially what they wear.
This becomes problematic because judging a child based on clothing is fundamentally objectifying and depending on the context, can be sexually inappropriate.In America, there is an obvious sexualization of children (Hawkes & Egan, 2008); however, the outward attitudes toward child sexualization are dichotomous. Most Americans are typically revolted by the concept of sexually degrading children, yet their behaviors do not always reflect so (Durham, 2009). This may stem from the tendency that Western countries, especially the United States, have against having an open discourse about sex, and therefore an inability to recognize and counter the sexualization of children. Recent social movements have begun to contradict this tendency but, for the most part, it is still prevalent.
As Foucault argues in The History of Sexuality, most modern American behaviors and attitudes about sex can be traced back to the the emergence of capitalism hundreds of years ago (1990). There are other influences on American attitudes toward the sexualization of children. The United States was founded as a predominantly Christian country and is still known as such. Because of this, Christianity has impacted American society in ingrained ways, especially the cultural sense of morality. Many facets of the Christian religion view sex as a “sinful” act, thus do not generally condone a discourse about sex (Horrocks, 1997). Ultimately, attitudes in America depend on a combination of factors and scenarios, making it difficult to determine what is truly appropriate.
While Americans would be scandalized by seeing a stranger reading pornography in public, in Japan, it is tolerated. However, Japanese people would find the American proclivity to oversexualize child stars disconcerting. Because of tradition, media, and independent social growth, Japanese and American cultures have taken on very different attitudes and manifestations of this propensity to sexualize children. These discrepancies can ultimately blur the line between what can be considered appropriate or inappropriate behavior. Arguably, even within the cultures, it is unclear what is objectively appropriate behaviors and what is objectively not.
In both countries there are laws to defending children against sexual misconduct and a sense of propriety for protecting children, yet they are still sexualized almost constantly.