Becoming Sexual by R. Danielle Egan
Mary Evans discusses moral panic and girls’ sexualisation
The much-quoted slogan “So Many Boys, So Little Time” - and its recent use by a large fashion retailer on a T-shirt aimed at young girls - has provoked, in very few words, a great many. Those extensive discussions identified the slogan as epitomising the way in which young girls (“young” in this context covering the years from infancy to adolescence) have become the focus of various narratives emphasising (largely) heterosexual identity and activity to the exclusion of other social and individual possibilities. As the first chapter of Danielle Egan’s book makes clear, sexualisation is regarded by many people throughout the West as a Very Bad Thing, with, as she writes, assumptions of implicit dangers through the creation of “a future of self doubt, a lack of ability to form intimate relationships and…self-destructive impulses such as: binge eating, sex texting, pregnancy, sex with older men, prostitution and even suicide”.
Becoming Sexual is not, however, a repetition of this litany of the possibly catastrophic. Rather, it is an investigation of the reasons for the widespread concern about this phenomenon and a plea for a more careful understanding of its origin. In the three core chapters of this book, Egan examines the themes that she identifies as most crucial to a better understanding of sexualisation: a recognition of the adult need to maintain the “innocence” of children; the class narratives at work in narratives of sexualisation; and the social need for stable forms and relationships of sexuality. The over-sexualised girls of various groups (viewed across a political spectrum that reaches from deranged conservatism to over-determined materialism) all threaten this fantasy of both the idealised past and the idealised female person. For making this case Egan is to be congratulated: the theme of the fantasy nirvana at the centre of political posturing about sexuality deserves constant critical attention.
This continued challenge to dramatised and miserabilist narratives about sexuality is one that is valuable and essential for any kind of intelligent debate about the way we live. At the same time, there is a need for other considerations: in particular, the ability to assess both the ways in which social reality might have changed and the recognition of previous literature that is relevant to a current topical question. A very important instance of the latter is Stanley Cohen’s account of “moral panics”, a term and a means of understanding that has a central relevance to the multitude of hyperbolic warnings about sexuality (both of young girls and otherwise) that dominate the popular press. Cohen’s foundational 1972 work Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, an account of the implications of affronts to particular constructions of the moral order, is still relevant to the issues Egan confronts and surely demands mention in this context.
In the concluding chapter of her book, Egan accepts that sexualisation is not necessarily to be dismissed as a fantasy and that there are various ways we can think more clearly about its extent and causes. The three ways she advocates are identifying the authors of the “problem”, the subjects of the “problem” and the history of the “problem”. These are all themes she explores here, noting for example the considerable history in the 20th century of constructions of sexual “threat” to the moral order and the priority given to the protection of white, middle-class, actually or potentially heterosexual girls at the expense of working-class girls. In these discussions she touches upon territory already explored, in the UK, by scholars including Beverley Skeggs, Angela McRobbie and Valerie Walkerdine. The overall range of the literature Egan considers, however, is considerable, drawing on sources across the anglophone world and citing the irresistible hyperbole of the Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips whenever there is a need for the dramatic.
But in one of the instances in which Phillips appears, some of the problems of Egan’s thesis about sexualisation become apparent. The case in point is one in which the footballer Wayne Rooney was reportedly involved with two female prostitutes who were, shock/horror, middle class. These women, Phillips wrote, refused to feel guilty; she thus confined them to “the bottom of a very dirty barrel”. Egan is rightly critical of this judgement and notes the various class narratives at work before concluding that the defensive projections involved in the demonisation of these young women arises from middle-class fears about social and economic security in the 21st century. We might agree with this - and in light of economic evidence about the growing gulf between the rich and the rest of the population it is more than possible - but at the same time recourse to connections between the psycho-social and the material demand a greater consideration than might be gleaned from the discussion of various forms of adolescent antics. It is here that it becomes important - for those who would agree that the sexualisation thesis needs scrutiny - to distinguish more clearly between the sexualised girl whom Egan describes as a “metaphor for our cultural condition” and the literal reality of that condition. While Egan writes that the sexualised girl “represents the erosion (or perceived erosion) of the family, nation, class stability”, the actual difference between what is perceived and what is the case is given less importance than it requires.
In the final pages of Becoming Sexual, Egan invokes her personal version of the familiar smoking-behind-the-bike-sheds account of one’s early life that is often introduced to demonstrate that we were all once “deviant”. In Egan’s account, the deviance amounts to the kinds of early encounters with cosmetics and “adult” clothes that are probably familiar to most women, and that have been reproduced (albeit in different forms) in younger generations. This stabilisation of the perception of social change is valuable, but it is problematic when it is part of the same narrative that draws on wider accounts of contemporary life. These accounts - where there are general references to the world of the 21st century - give us a spectrum of understanding that includes only the phenomena (sexualisation) and the general. But in the space between these two extremes there are collective and individual social relations: those crucial mediations through which we live our lives.
It is within those relationships and our own relationship to our bodies that we might locate actual change, so that sexualisation becomes less of a static and coherent achieved condition and more of a fluid, contradictory expression of the various claims on - and for - the female person. For example, the chain that links the woman being paid starvation wages for making the clothes that the adolescent girl works in Topshop to buy is a material one that underpins and articulates the fantasies around the female body. Becoming Sexual is a very welcome contribution to the tradition that challenges our too-easy acceptance of the translation of social fear into social fact. Yet it is perhaps also important to recognise - as Egan implicitly suggests - that we often prefer to live with our fears than to confront uncomfortable forms of reality.
Danielle Egan divides her time between Boston and Canton, the rural community in upstate New York that is home to St Lawrence University, where she is professor and department chair in gender and sexuality studies. “In Canton,” says the avid mountain biker and trail runner, “I live in an old craftsman-style house with my partner, Steve Papson, a pup called Milo and our cat, Frieda. The other part of the week I am in the heart of Boston training as a psychoanalyst at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.”
Egan was “born and raised in a working-class/poor neighbourhood in the San Fernando Valley. Novels were my refuge as an adolescent, but this didn’t translate into good grades. My grades were a reflection of how I felt about a particular teacher. If I liked them I got an A, if I didn’t a C-. Unfortunately I did not like many. I left home at 17 and dropped out of high school.”
She adds: “My mom (who was definitely not the reason I left home) went back to university when I was a child and that had a huge impact on me. I took my high school equivalence exam, started working full-time and began taking university courses. In university, I found myself…I loved every minute of it and quickly realised that a life of the mind was for me. It was a circuitous route (it took six years to get my bachelor’s degree and only four and a half to get my PhD), but it worked for me.”
Egan’s work has informed reports by the Home Office and the Scottish government. “UK policymakers are far more open to collaborations with academics. This is a wonderful thing. I was impressed by the fruitful collaboration between the academy and the Scottish government in its report on sexualisation. I also think the Welsh government’s work represents a good model for promoting dialogue and collaboration.”
She is fond of London “for work; its multiculturalism, intellectual and artistic culture, gorgeous outdoor spaces and location make it the perfect global city. For play, I love the southwestern US for its landscapes, culture and weather…basically, everything but the snakes.”
Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of the Sexualization of Girls
By R. Danielle Egan
Polity, 200pp, £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780745650722 and 9780745650739
Published 7 March 2013
Mary Evans is centennial professor in the Gender Institute, London School of Economics.