The sexualization of children

I distinctly remember being horrified sometime in 1979 by a European sex magazine which featured nude children in suggestive positions on its cover.  It was the first time I had seen pedophilia presented as other than a form of sickness. Today this sexual predisposition seems to be taken merely as an expression of a taste, rather than as a psychological aberration.

Over the past year, reported cases involving the sexual abuse of children reached nearly epidemic proportions.  Incest became daily fare on tabloid print and television.  The recent indictment of a congressman and of a town mayor on two separate charges of statutory rape served to dramatize the situation.  Suddenly, Filipinos realized that pedophilia was not just an affliction brought to our shores by foreign tourists.   And that the question begging for an answer is not whether there are Filipino pedophiles, but how our culture manages to hide their presence.

It is still very much a problem with no name.  Where children are regarded as possessions and not as persons, they have no rights. The adults in their families can abuse their innocence with impunity, often disguising their viciousness as routine affection.   When the act is discovered for what it is, the tendency is to bury it as a family secret, for fear of ruining the honor of the whole clan and the future of the child.

It may appear as an irony that reported cases of child abuse have risen in proportion to the growing social awareness of children’s rights. But it is only because the relentless promotion of the rights of the child has rendered sexual crimes against children increasingly visible.  This has gone hand in hand with the gradual emancipation of women in our society.  Whereas in the past, the prospect of a jailed husband and a publicly humiliated child would be sufficient to deter the wife from running to the police, today more and more mothers are unwilling to stand aside as mute witnesses to the rape of their own daughters.

That is the good news.  The bad news is that the sexualization of children in the larger society has continued unabated, and the evidence seems to point to an alarming shift in sexual values.

A recent cover story of Newsweek magazine highlights what it refers to as “Japan’s dirty secret: schoolgirls selling sex.”  Known as enjo kosai, or literally, “assistance friendship”, it is distinguished from prostitution.  The girls, 13 to 18 years of age, who participate in this trade usually accept brand-name gift items like designer clothes or cosmetics in exchange for sexual favors.

Accounts of this phenomenon vary.  Newsweek quotes the deputy director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police juvenile division as saying: “It has to do with a longing for material things.  It’s not that they come from poor families who need to support themselves.  They just want to have more and more.”  Japanese sociologist Shinji Myadai offers an interpretation revolving around the themes of sexual disparity, pervasive alienation and cynicism in an affluent society:  “Girls have found out that this is a deceitful, male-oriented society, full of lies.  If ordinary guys can buy women, why can’t ordinary girls sell themselves?”

But all this does not explain  the surge in demand for kogyeru sex, or sex with “child-girl”.  Yoshie, the Tokyo high-school girl who talked to Newsweek, had the most sensible comments:  “The people buying the high-school girls are from the older generation.  They created the market.  They have no right to say that we are immoral.”

I am afraid she is right — that market was created long ago through mass media and irresponsible advertising.  Today, in Japan at least, sexiness no longer comes in the form of young girls dressed up as sensuous women.  It is the other way around –  prostitutes dressed up in schoolgirl uniforms to look like children.

One wonders what the precise origins of this sexual fantasy are.  But child-sex seems to thrive in rich and poor societies alike.  Japan’s “dirty secret” came with affluence and consumerism.  Ours first came to public notice in the form of the street-children of Metro Manila and the young boys of Pagsanjan.  In a recent article for Isyu, Andrea Pasion writes of 10-year-old Carol who begs for alms on Quirino Highway during the day, and supports her “shabu” habit by selling her body on C.M. Recto Avenue at night.  It is a scene played out every night around the Quezon Memorial Circle, where teen-agers, male and female, may be seen routinely selling sex to cruising motorists.  Is this something we have to live with?

One autumn day in October this year, more than 300,000 Belgians gathered in the capital city of Brussels on a “White March” to protest sex crimes against children.  There has never been a demonstration this huge in this small country.  It took the death of two young girls who were kidnapped and repeatedly raped by the same man to jolt the whole community into demanding decisive action from the police and the courts, and more importantly, into re-examining national values.

Yesterday was Ninos Inocentes.  Traditionally we celebrate this day by acting out, in childish pranks, the innocence of children.  Isn’t it time we restored the original meaning of this day – the defense of  our children — by saying no to the violence adults inflict on them and by taking a hard look at the nation we have created for them?


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