On Saturday, I went to watch my Mother perform with her Belly Dancing group in a nearby town centre on their ‘Day of Dance.’ It was advertised as a family friendly event with a wide range of ages participating in the show. Everyone was very supportive of the acts (ranging from amateur to very professional) until the Burlesque group arrived on the stage. A group of six women in a variety of corseted and stockinged costumes began to dance to ‘Burlesque’ sang by Cher in the recent film of the same name, and pretty much straight away, the judgmental comments began. I was disappointed, but not particularly surprised by the array of disapproving and ridiculing comments from the women around us, but it was something me and my Mother both felt that really got me thinking. Our knee-jerk reaction was that it was not appropriate for young children to be watching. But the more we talked about it, the more we realised that we actually supported it.
We thought that sometimes our desire to protect children from being negatively influenced or abused means that we censor positive displays of sexuality that would be good for them to experience. The women were showing us how Burlesque can be a dance for women, so they can express their sexuality in a fun way and feel glamorous doing it. It’s possible that we are so used to seeing women being sexualised in a way that is exploiting female sexuality, that we don’t recognise empowering sexuality when we see it. This may be a result of female sexuality being so often portrayed as the sexuality of the heterosexual male gaze, that we start to believe that female sexuality belongs to heterosexual men. When we see a display like the Burlesque women’s it takes a while for us to re-see it as belonging to the women themselves. So the instinct is to shield our children from all displays of sexuality instead of allowing them to view sexuality expressed in a positive way. Our instinct is also to try to create an imaginary Eden for our children by restricting what they see instead of explaining the differences in what is already going on around them, all the time. When children are young, it may seem easier just to censor what they see instead of talk to them about it. The child’s honest gaze and direct questions can remind us of the reality of the sexist (or otherwise unpleasant) world we have to deal with everyday as adults, making us think about it instead of just shrugging it off as ‘normal’ or ‘just how it is’ or mindlessly ignoring it. But the best way to ensure children are not mindlessly influenced or abused is to ensure they understand what is going on around them (as much as they are able to.) And that means we need displays such as the Burlesque dance so we can show children what positive, empowered sexuality is.
There is another issue as well. The fear that children will begin copying adult behaviour that is inappropriate, and inviting sexual attention they are too young or not ready for. The response is censorship. And this is another facet of rape culture. In this situation, women bear the responsibility of acting ‘appropriately’ so as not to not to influence children to behave inappropriately. The child then bears the responsibility of behaving in a way that is deemed to be ‘correct’ so that they do not ‘invite’ sexual attention. Where is the responsibility of the adult trying to sexualise and abuse the child? That does not mean that children should be allowed to behave in a sexual manner inappropriate for their age, understanding or readiness, but that the responsibility to protect children belongs to adults alone. Victim blaming also not only dehumanises the victim, but the perpetrator as well. Assuming that the victim is to blame also assumes that the perpetrator is incapable of responsibility. With this dichotomy we turn people into fallen angels and monsters, instead of human beings.
And this gets more important, and more complex as children grow into teenagers and young adults. Teenagers and young adults need space to experiment with their sexuality, in terms of what they are ready for and what they like, and who they like. Sexual maturity comes quicker to some than others, and mistakes are often made. This makes the responsibility of adults to be respectful and acknowledge the rights of the younger people around them even more important, as well as teaching them to have the same respect for each other. This filters into adult relationships too. The same feelings of not quite knowing exactly what sexual experience you are ready for repeats itself from the beginning of every new relationship. The relationship may last one night or 10 years, but there may still be points in time when one person is unsure of how far they wish their experience to go. This is when it is important that the words ‘No’ or ‘I’m not ready’ or ‘I don’t want to’ should be treated with the respect they deserve. That each individual is in charge of their own sexuality and what happens to their own body. And if we don’t take the time and effort to explain this to children as soon as the opportunity arises, they may suffer for our choices.