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The Sexualization of Children Goes Deeper than Drag Queens
When sex is a market commodity, it plays by market rules.
Ian Clary is exactly right:
I don’t know where the sudden surge of drag queen culture has come from. Maybe it’s about that popular reality TV show. Maybe it’s about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner and the trans movement. Maybe it was always this big but social media has just now shone the spotlight. Regardless, the proliferation of videos and stories about “family friendly” drag shows, in which scantily clad men simulate coital movements and positions in front of kids as young as 10 and 11, is a reprehensible shame on American culture. It’s disgusting, outrageous—and part of a very dark trend.
In virtually all of these drag queen videos, the children’s parents and other adults are nearby, giving overt or tacit approval to what’s happening. If you’ve done any meaningful ministry among non-churched families in the past few years, this may be disconcerting but it probably isn’t stunning. There is absolutely an ambient comfort level among many in American culture with children’s being exposed to highly suggestive and even explicit material. For one thing, a plurality and probably a majority of American children have unrestricted web access on their phones and tablets. The normal American teenager has sent or received at least one nude photograph from a peer. What’s more, an enormous amount of mainstream entertainment marketed to children, even young children, is tinged with sexual overtones. Blues Clues has become arguably the most jarring example of this, but there are many others.
The pretense that we’ve been able to maintain a truly “adults only” space for public sexual expression has distintegrated. As I wrote last year for First Things:
For decades, media moguls and sex researchers insisted that maintaining a robust market of pornographic content for willing adults was compatible with protecting children from being harmed or victimized. From plastic bags over magazines, to cordoned-off sections of the video store, to FCC-mandated time slots, the narrative was the same: Adult-only desires can and should be fulfilled.
The Internet utterly destroyed this compromise, and the smartphone delivered the coup d’etat. Extreme forms of pornography are now viewed regularly by 12- and 13-year-olds. Teens are participants, not merely viewers.
The sexualization of teen culture, that arguably reached a media nadir in the 1990s and has given birth to “porn literacy” curriculum now, is directly responsible for the sexualization of kid culture. The PG-13 rating gave cover to the idea that a 13 year old can and ought to be sexually experienced; the smartphone ensured that they were. Now, as technological immersion takes command, the average 10 year old has become conversant in sexual vocabularly and expression in a way that the public was explicitly promised would never happen. How can you draw a distinction between 10 and 13 when your technology cannot draw a distinction between 13 and 18?
A few years ago, a journalist named James Bridle published a lengthy essay on the way that Internet content creators leverage algorithm to direct children toward videos and images that resemble familiar things (Peppa Pig, superheroes, etc.) but contain dark or explicit twists. Sometimes these kid’s videos are truly awful and exploit children. In many cases, there is nothing objectively terrible about them, it’s just that they’re weird, and often feature real children doing strange or uncomfortable things. While Bridle does not uncover vast swaths of pornographic content marketed to children, he does uncover a massive vulnerability within online content’s algorithm and organization, a vulnerability that some people, somewhere, for some reason, are deliberately taking advantage of.
It’s reasonable to assume that children with unrestricted web access are discovering the associative nature of their search terms much earlier than most adults realize. And what I’m getting at here is that there is a soft sexualization of children that is happening at a massive, out of control scale, that’s almost certainly supporting and making plausible the hard sexualization of children at things like drag shows. When people ask, “How can parents be OK with that man shoving his crotch in their child’s face,” they assume the parents have an objective set of values they are willing to put in between their children and the world. For most parents in the West, that isn’t true. They rely on the kids’ self-reported sense of comfort. This makes the sexual exposure that happens online hugely significant.
In 2016, The New York Times reported on a huge surge that cosmetic surgeons were seeing in adolescent girls requesting “labiaplasties.” The article remarked that physicians were “sort of baffled” at the increase for such an intimate, seemingly invisible cosmetic procedure. But of course, there was and is no mystery. The era of digital pornography put forth a very specific ideal of what a naked female body should look like, and the overwhelming majority of teen girls know exactly what that ideal is. There’s a persistent naivete among many about just how deeply shaped young minds are by pornography. And what we are seeing in many corners of the world is that this shaping has culminated in a bodily insecurity and confusion that demands surgical intervention. Whether it’s a procedure to look more like the models on the screen, or a procedure to look more like the gender you feel you are, the Sexual Revolution’s logic exults not finally in the body but in the knife.
Which brings us back to drag queens. I’m no expert. But I imagine that part of the appeal of drag queens in our current cultural milieu is that they exhibit a sexual ambiguity, and it’s precisely that ambiguity that many feel is comforting in a culture of massive sexual conformity. That’s not a typo; I believe “sexual conformity” is exactly the right way to describe how we think and feel about our bodies and other bodies in a post-Sexual Revolution age. When sex is a market commodity, it plays by market rules. And markets have winners and losers. Our sexually liberated time is one in which there are many sexual losers: people without the right look, without the right appeal, without the right consent…and without the right bodies. I wonder if, to the normal 10 year old in American culture, a drag queen is a subtle source of comfort, an alternative to the intense bodily Olympics that have become mainstreamed through the Internet. Like a pill whose side effects require further treatment, Drag Queen Story Hour may be sexualization-in-response-to-sexualization.
This should inform how policy-oriented conservatives think about it. The sexualization of children is a scourge in our society. But ground zero is not the drag show, it is the WiFi-enabled bedroom.