AdvertisingBody ImageGender InequalityOn The PulseRetailSexualization

How do we draw the line between sexual exploitation and harmless presentation of children?

By January 21, 2010 5 Comments
Do these American Apparel models convey similar messages despite their age difference?

Do these American Apparel models convey similar messages despite their age difference?

When it comes to children, it can be very difficult to distinguish what is exploitative from what is innocent. If a certain pose signifies sexual provocation amongst adults, must that pose have the same meaning when created by a child? And how does this increasingly blurry territory affect how the judicial system defines child pornography?

This issue came up while I was searching for a scandalous, though not X-rated, photo on the American Apparel web site to include in our Gallery of Offenders. While there, I noticed that the web site had a children’s section, and out of curiosity, I decided to see how their children’s photos compared.

Most of the children’s photos were age-appropriate, cute, racially diverse, and positive overall, but there were a few that caused alarm. If I had seen any of the questionable photos in another context, I wouldn’t have given them a second thought. However, because they were from American Apparel, a company notorious for their pornographic advertising, I deemed them inappropriate.

Some of the children’s photos were disturbingly familiar. Here’s what I mean:

All photos were found on American Apparel

All photos were found on American Apparel's web site and pasted together.

In context, they look pretty bad. Whether the children were posed that way, mimicked the adult models, or were simply caught in a random position that we have given a sexual meaning to–does it really change the fact that these photos are the ones used to advertise clothing?

What complicates the situation is that adult women often mimic the innocence and playfulness of young girls as a way to flirt or behave in a sexual manner.

These American Apparel ads each show models in childish poses.

These American Apparel ads each show models in childish poses.

Basically, women are imitating girls in order to look young and innocent, and girls are in turn imitating women in order to look more adult and sexual.

This issue reaches far greater than fashion advertisements. Pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children are serious problems that are no doubt getting worse, due to the increased sexualization of little girls. But are we unable to separate the harmless from the harmful?

A photo from the alleged collection of child pornography

A photo from the parents' alleged collection of child pornography

A few months ago I ran across the San Francisco Chronicle story Are bath-time photos child pornography?, and was shocked to learn that parents faced child-abuse charges for the bathtime photos’ “sexual exploitation” of their daughters.

In more recent news, the U.S. Army charged a soldier serving in Afghanistan with child pornography possession after the soldier’s mother sent him photos of a young relative playing in her swimsuit.

Why does our culture both try to protect children from sexual abuse (sometimes without reason), yet recklessly perpetuate pedophilia by sexualizing childhood? Why can’t we just act our ages and treat and view others in an age-appropriate manner? Or is the concept of “age appropriate” too ambiguous to define?

–Sabrina