Porn and Hookup Culture in an Irish Primary School

13 Apr

Welcome to the first post in a series of monthly posts on masculinities in an Irish primary school. Over the coming months I will be sharing research findings on boys’ experiences of porn and hookup culture. There has been growing concern in recent years over the ‘premature sexualization of childhood’ that is claimed to be caused by the ‘sexualization of culture’. So before actually detailing the aforementioned findings, some of the initial posts will lay out the socio-cultural context in which they were produced.

As mentioned, the research in question took place in Ireland. The data were co-produced with eleven- and twelve-year-old girls and boys during their final year of primary school. I spent the academic year of 2009/2010 hanging out with the children a couple of days a week and interviewing them in pairs and groups about my observations. Furthermore, interviewees were invited to introduce topics of their own choice for discussion.

Overall, the themes that emerged ranged from academic performance to religion, from sports, dance and athletics to friendships and family relationships. Clearly, then, the more overtly sexualized themes chosen for analysis were not necessarily central to the children’s lives. Rather I played an active role in determining what to focus on. Nevertheless, porn and hookup culture did emerge and as such warranted exploration.

My choice was certainly influenced by the pervasiveness of sexualized bodies in popular culture but also the concern that it has been generating. By popular culture I am referring to film, television, advertising, fashion, music videos, lifestyle magazines and Internet pornography. In short, sex has become increasingly commercialised in recent decades and commercialised sex is a growing part of people’s everyday lives.

In the years leading up to and during the fieldwork that forms the basis of the current series, reports had been getting published and were gaining publicity throughout the West. It was being argued that children needed to be protected from sexualization (e.g., the UK, Australia and the USA). Ireland had not yet followed suit though sexualization was receiving media attention. Meanwhile, international opinion was divided on whether and how sexualization impacts society in general and children in particular. I figured that empirical evidence from Ireland could address a gap in the literature for a start but also make a valuable contribution to the ‘sexualization debates’ more globally.

Now that I have briefly contextualized the research findings, I will next make transparent some of my own positions surrounding children and sexualization.

Firstly, contemporary adult anxiety aligns itself with a history of concern about the debasement of childhood via mass communication technologies. For example, the 18th century French Romance philosopher, Rousseau, suggested that reading was “the scourge of childhood … for books teach us to talk about things we know nothing about”. While I do believe that concern for children is necessary in the early 21st century, I also agree that we should pay heed to the history of concern in order to keep the sexualization of culture including the premature sexualization of children in perspective.

Secondly, despite the general consensus that sexualization is an observable social phenomenon, what and who are sexualized is in fact contestable. Take, for example, the Playboy bunny logo. Easily recognizable by adults as symbolic of female sexual objectification, it is also deemed ‘cute’ by young children as well as objectionable, embarrassing and even ‘childish’ by teenagers. If a symbol as erotically loaded as the Playboy bunny logo is not encoded as sexual by all people all of the time, it is incumbent upon researchers to grapple with the definitional limitations of the term ‘sexualization’ when designing research methods and carrying out analyses.

To sum up, the research to be discussed over the coming months shows that porn and hookup culture were features of childhood in a primary school in Ireland. Porn and hookup culture tend to be categorized as effects of the sexualization of culture and when practiced by children they might be considered evidence for premature sexualization.

Currently in the West it is common sense knowledge that childhood is naturally a period of sexual innocence. Although I will unpack this presumed innocence in subsequent posts, the point for now is that any demonstration of sexual interest by children rouses tremendous anxiety in adults. Before we lose ourselves in panic, however, a nod to the history of concern reminds us that adults have a habit of becoming anxious over children’s exposure to mass communication technologies. Furthermore, one must exercise caution with the very term ‘sexualization’ – who and what is ‘sexualized’ is complex, another issue upon I which I will elaborate in the near future.

For now I wish to suggest that perspective and complexity will be two of the guiding principles of the research findings that will be introduced throughout this series. I look forward to our journey and it is my hope that the work, but more importantly children, will benefit from our mutual engagement.

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