In his book The Sexual Revolution, Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), an early pioneer of the sex-education movement, described the means for achieving a society that would not put any obstacles in the path of sexual gratification.
For all his moral anarchism, Reich was perceptive. He realized that in order to arrive at the sexual utopia he advocated, people would first have to learn to dispense with their natural shyness and embarrassment concerning sexual matters. They would have to lose their reluctance to expose erotically important parts of their bodies. Reich attempted to facilitate this by conducting psychotherapy sessions in which he would require his clients to, well, remove all their clothes.
Reich would be pleased to see a European beach today, which is often more in keeping with his ideal than what is found in brothels. In a brothel, the women have had to overcome the natural shyness surrounding erotically important parts of their bodies in order to sell sex. On a sunny European beach, women in various states of undress can be seen to have overcome this natural shyness—with no thought of sex at all. By refusing to acknowledge the erotic implications of revealing attire or nudity, they have so nearly achieved Reich’s goal of overcoming shyness that, for them, sex is flattened of its inherent potency. “Profane” may be the best word to describe Reich’s ideal and its realization, given that the term originally meant “to treat as common,” or as just the latest fashion.
The sexualization of the young can be viewed in this same framework. When low-cut blouses are marketed to 13-year-olds, when children’s music videos are saturated with sexual imagery, and when sex is constantly used to sell all kinds of products to young teens, one can expect many girls to become hyper-sexualized. However, such saturation can equally have a desensitizing effect, since it subtly encourages youth to treat their sexuality as something trivial, benign, and commonplace.
Either way, it primes girls for perverts like Reich: hyper-sexualized girls will want to have sex, and desensitized girls will be less likely to guard and protect what they have been conditioned to treat as nothing special.
Changing Children’s Brains?
The latest findings in neuroscience should also heighten our concerns, though these findings have yet to be factored into the British government’s investigation of the issue. Recent discoveries have shown that the human brain is in a constant state of flux, a characteristic that brain scientists call neuroplasticity. Put simply, the human brain is remarkably adaptable, constantly adjusting itself to the demands of the environment in which it finds itself.
This neurological fluidity is a good thing because, among other things, it enables people to learn new skills, makes it possible for stroke victims to recover some motor functions, and helps blind people compensate for the loss of sight by strengthening parts of the brain associated with the other senses.
But neuroplasticity also has a downside. In his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge shows that certain types of sexual stimuli have the power to reshape how the brain thinks about both sex in general and people of the opposite sex in particular.
Because our brains are so adaptable, the dominant assumptions that a collective culture has about sex can exercise a formative influence on the brains of those growing up within that culture, training them to think about sex in a certain way. We see this in the way people in different cultures have adhered to different, and sometimes opposing, paradigms regarding such things as female beauty and pleasing smells. In her book, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, Helen Fisher notes that, during Elizabethan times, it was the custom for a woman to keep a peeled apple under her arm long enough for it to absorb her scent. If the woman had to go away, she would offer the “love apple” as a gift to her boyfriend for him to sniff during her absence.
In societies where distinctive body odors were normative (as they were before deodorant was invented), the brain adjusted itself to the smell. Similarly, Norman Doidge tells how members of the Masai tribe in East Africa use cow urine as a pleasing lotion for their hair. “Many tastes we think ‘natural,’” remarks Doidge, “are acquired through learning and become ‘second nature’ to us. We are unable to distinguish our ‘second nature’ from our ‘original nature’ because our neuroplastic brains, once rewired, develop a new nature, every bit as biological as our original.”
Our society has dispensed with love-apples, but we are not immune to other fetishes. For example, a society that thinks high-heeled shoes on a woman are sexy but body hair is not, has already undergone considerable neuroplastic changes.
Many such biases are relatively harmless. But there is much harm done by the advertising and entertainment industries that literally train children’s minds to think of sex in trivial, reductionist, and mechanistic ways. Unfortunately, this point was ignored in the recent debate over the sexualization of children. Yet consider: just as the proliferation of body odor or cow urine in a culture can cause people’s brains to associate those smells with something pleasing, so the proliferation of certain attitudes about sex, through the marketing of products our youth have access to, can cause children’s brains to associate these paradigms with the good life, especially when they are saturated with such things from an early age (during which time the plasticity of the brain is most acute).
(The above information is from my article Salvo feature, 'Sex and the Kiddies: The Sexualization of Children and How Advertising and Entertainment Change Their Brains.' To read the entire article, click here.)