My friend Joe has taken up the Overton window of late  as a way into explaining how cultures decay.

I know we are supposed to be beyond that fear-based narrative about the decline of society and our broken moral compass, but old habits die hard, and all that.

At any rate, two related stories highlighting both the Overton window at work regarding the sexualization of children.

Exhibit A:  the use of a 10-year-old model in the French edition of Vogue, and in some poses that were decidedly more adult in orientation.  Here’s the party line for the defense:  such images are an ironic judgment on a modeling industry that exploits children.  Fair enough, I suppose, except let’s not forget that the method of critique still requires the sexualization of a child and that the industry under scrutiny actually deserves it.

Exhibit B:  Jours Apres Lunes, a French firm, has created a line of “loungerie” for girls ages 4 through 12, and in the selling of it has made pictures that I simply will not link to.   The creator of the line pleads misunderstanding because, you know, there’s a market opportunity there that needs to be filled.  And the clothing isn’t transparent(!) and those kids in the photos are just playing dressup.  Just like mom in every way, right?

A few reflections, all tentative and exploratory.

Much has been made within the evangelical subculture about the death of manhood and the rise of the perpetual adolescence.  And with good reason.

But evangelicals ought to be speaking at least as loudly, if not moreso, about the way our totalizing sexualization has brought on the demise of childhood.  On one level, regardless of their motivations (profits, in both cases) or of their intentions, both stories make the unthinkable a little more plausible.

Yet more importantly, in corrupting the integrity of childhood by sexualizing their models, they inevitably undermine the female’s distinct humanity by treating her as a sexual object.  The good news for bodies is that our identity lies not in our sexuality, but in our Savior (“for you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God”).

While that does not leave our sexuality alone, it does make sense of why we should want to preserve a non-sexualized childhood.  Such a state reminds us that our humanity goes deeper than our sexual expression, and points to the fact that our self-conscious sexuality requires a corresponding awareness of that deeper humanity if we are to live out the sexual dimension of our lives well.


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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Matthew,

    (Yes, this time I carefully checked to see who penned this blog!)

    I cannot let this pass without a puzzled query: “The good news for bodies is that our identity lies not in our sexuality, but in our Savior (‘for you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God’).”

    First, “good news for our bodies?” I don’t know how I’m supposed to parse this. Perhaps it’s your point to pose a puzzlement for us. If so, I confess puzzlement and ask you to unpack what you mean by using the word “bodies” here.

    Second, whatever it is that you intend by “good news for our bodies,” why do you implicitly deny that our identity “lies in our sexuality.” Or do you imply this denial?

    I ask, because one might reasonably read all this to mean that our biological, material, bodily (if you will) sex has, in fact, nothing necessarily to do with our identity. Indeed this is a frequent claim by religious feminists within the Church but also by feminists outside the Church. I recently ran across a religious feminist of an earlier generation – Virginia Mollenkott – who insisted there were 14 “gender identities” which were distinguishable, none of them constrained by bodily “gender.”

    If He made them male and female, I can’t see how anyone escapes having his identity permanently, eternally marked by his sex. Along with nail-prints in His hands and feet and a gash in His side, our Lord’s everlasting identity with the redeemed takes the form of a male: the Everlasting Man, not a woman; a Son, not a daughter; a King, not a queen; a Brother, not a sister; a Bridegroom, not a bride. If the identity of Christ is so marked by sex in all these senses, how can our identity escape a similar definition?

    And, anticipating a possible counter-objection from your side from our private correspondence, this is another case where masculinity as it’s presented in the Bible should be construed as inclusive of femininity – not that Adam was androgenic and femininity was separated from him, much less that men after Adam are anything like this; but rather that femininity arises from masculinity, in terms of it, for its sake and not the other way round.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson August 31, 2011 at 11:14 am

      Fr. Bill,

      The quick and lame response is that I’d encourage you to check out the chapters in EV on this. I unpack some of the distinctions I’m drawing more there. I’d also note that you left off the expansion of that thought in the next paragraph: “While that does not leave our sexuality alone…”

      Which is to say, I wouldn’t agree that sexuality has “nothing” to do with our identity. But I wouldn’t say it grounds or determines our identity either, which is the error I’m pushing back against here.



  2. Thank, you, Matt for the quick response. I’ve ordered EV. I’ll be pouring over it in the near future.

    “But I wouldn’t say [our sex] grounds or determines our identity either, which is the error I’m pushing back against here.”

    Again, I’ll try to follow up on this as you expound it in EV.

    At this point, however, I guess I’m committed to the error you’re pushing against!

    Abstractly, we might posit something called “humanity” which we could consider (again, abstractly) as something distinguishable (abstractly) from our sexuality. The only thing within standard theology that might answer to this is the imago Dei.

    But, humanity as a datum of either academic or pastoral theology has two problems attched to it:

    1. It is never encountered or experienced as such by anyone. It’s always a human male we’re dealing with, or a human female. Which is, to say, a man or a woman. And, when one cannot know for certain whether it’s a man or a woman one is dealing with, there is always at best a disorienting uncertainty (as, for example, when one is handed a baby to coo over and you’re not told its sex) or at worst a crawling sensation of morbidity.

    2. In the prosecution of the feminist cause within Christendom, it is always the alleged common humanity of men and women to which the feminist appeals as the ground of eradicating the way Jesus and the Apostles prescribe behaviors and responsibilities (or prohit such) based on the sex of the Christian.

    At any rate, I’ll await the arrival of Earthen Vessels before proceeding very much further. It may turn out that we substantially agree. Or not. We’ll see. I do welcome the discussion.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson August 31, 2011 at 11:44 am

      Sounds good. That said, I might try something like this out: I think identity construction needs to have differentiating levels. Being from St. Louis is a part of my identity, but not in the same way that being male is. And being male is a part of my identity, but not in the same way that being a Christian is.

      That said, I don’t disagree with (1). And with respect to (2), I think it important to listen to the feminist critiques and will simply underline that, as you point out, they weren’t the first people to look for a common humanity beneath sex. “Rational animals” was but one of many attempts.



  3. Being the mother of three girls, and coming from a family where multiple women were sexually molested as children, few topics make me more incensed than this one. Ever since the last failed attempt by the U.S. to indict Roman Polanski, and the subsequent pious outrage and obfuscation by both Hollywood and the European intellectuati, I’ve been utterly convinced that most, if not all, fashion and movie conglomerates are driven largely by sexual predators, grooming the unsuspecting public to give up their daughters with less and less resistance. The signs, in terms of the promiscuity of most women in Hollywood, their inability to form and keep stable relationships, their cookie-cutter jump from child star to hypersexualized adult – all absolute carbon-copy behaviors of those who’ve been sexually abused.

    I wonder sometimes what contributions the digital age makes, and by that I don’t just mean pornography. In today’s world, many of us do very little hard labor with our bodies, especially children. Even a hundred years ago, many children still did manual labor on farms, walked miles to school and got a lot more PE while they were there. Now, they’re driven in air conditioned comfort, they get a half hour a day outside if they’re lucky (more if their parents can afford to put them in sports), and their recreation consists of sitting and pushing buttons on boxes. IOW, they don’t know what their bodies are for. Girls especially are steered so early towards “dance” and “cheerleading, but rarely tree climbing or rock climbing. There are constants about our bodies that matter to God, that can provide a good foil to the infamous “changes” that puberty is traditionally supposed to signal. But that would require thinking about them…


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson August 31, 2011 at 6:19 pm

      Someone oughta write a book on that. : )

      Seriously, though, I’m not ready to call the leaders of Hollywood sexual predators (though Corey Feldman clearly is: I suspect the reality is still pernicious, yet less consciously so. I take it that the French lady designing the “loungerie” really did mean no harm and was genuinely surprised by the outrage. But those justifications–it’s hard to find a more facile rationale for what seems so obviously wrong.



  4. […] The Good News about Bodies and the Sexualization of Children Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Lee Anderson […]


  5. Christian Lawyer September 2, 2011 at 8:12 am

    Matt — The two examples you cite are surely troubling and just kind of creepy. I think you are right about the objectification of female bodies. But, I would suggest that, especially because you are writing from within the evangelical community, the “Toddlers and Tiaras” show (and the child beauty pageant phenomena in general) must be added to the list of prime examples. I find it just as creepy, and even more troubling because it’s so much closer to home than either “the French” or “Hollywood.” (Not saying this is an evangelical phonemenon, just that it comes out of the same southern cultural mix that also has such a strong evangelical presence.)

    @ Fr. Bill — “ALLEGED common humanity between men and women”?? How can a Christian deny the common humanity of all of God’s children, all of whom were made in His image? I’m a feminist, but I don’t think the mere step of honoring our common humanity means you have to accept every tenet of feminism. But, asserting that men and women do NOT share a common humanity seems to start one down the path that ultimately leads to all of the problems of objectification, abuse, rape, etc. I’m surely not saying you support or tolerate any of that, only that to avoid that path, one must choose the other path that starts with acknowledging at least that men and women share a common humanity.

    @ Rachel — My heart goes out to you and your family about the abuse your family members suffered, but just because some people have a very different sexual ethic than you have doesn’t mean they have all been abused. That’s no more correct than the old canard that most gay men got that way because they were abused as children. Those sorts of blanket assertions, apart from not being true, make it more difficult to even have a discussion about sexual ethics. I’m not agreeing with the stereotypical sexual ethic of Hollywood, but there’s a lot of territory between the Charlie Sheen ethic and “Virgin Lips” movement. (And, why aren’t promiscuous Hollywood (straight) men plagued with the same assumptions about abuse? No one ever contends that Hugh Heffner, Warren Beaty or Charlie Sheen are the product of abuse.)


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 2, 2011 at 9:07 am


      Want to totally underscore agreement on the problematic nature of the beauty pageant world. I once was going to write a long essay on Little Miss Sunshine, but didn’t get around to it. I may, as it’s an interesting film in this context.

      Good to hear from you again, BTW. Really glad you’re still reading!




  6. […] KIND OF PERVS MAKE LINGERIE FOR KIDS? “The Good News about Bodies and the Sexualization of Children.” Much has been made within the evangelical subculture about the death of manhood and the rise of the […]


  7. Matt,

    You put it, “Stories highlighting both the Overton window at work regarding the sexualization of children.”

    Shouldn’t we say “the eroticization” of children?

    An iteration of an old beef with the switching of the word “sex” for “gender” and “having sex” for “carnal knowledge.”

    Children come out of the womb sexed. They are not, however, objects of natural eroticism. The perversion of eros includes children (before puberty), but erotic desire and activity properly ranges over those who have reached and passed puberty (ie. “coming of age.”)



    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 2, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      Buhler, it’s a happy day when you show up in the comments at Mere-O.

      Regarding the language, I use “sexualization” because there is an existing vocab out there that I’m fitting into, as you know. But I understand the objection. At the same time, I want to keep “erotic” for those things that awaken the deeper desires, not simply the sexual desires. In that sense, I think the “sexualization” of children is an okay way of putting things, as the images are simply meant to raise someone’s sexual excitement, not move the person beyond the images to the GTB.

      The distinction is going to play out for me in trying to describe the difference between nudity in porn and nudity in art. The former is purely sexualization, while the latter might include awakening sexual desire but not have that as its end and purpose. It’s more about the fullness of a person, rather than treating them as a sexual object. And “sexualization” to me refers to the latter.

      Does that make any sense?



  8. I’m sad to say it does make sense. Sad because I like being right.

    The existing vocab out there is there, but I can’t tell whether it’s part of the acceptable evolution of language or a part of the “philology department of hell.” Hard to say whether it’s worth battling over.

    Because one’s “sex” is such a fore-front issue of the Religion of the Future I do take issue with it whenever possible. But I may be wrong.

    The distinction between awakening sexual desire as a GOAL versus doing so as a BY-PRODUCT is helpful.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 2, 2011 at 3:44 pm

      Keith, totally agree with you regarding the struggles of whether existing language is worth battling over. I’m working through that very question on my political terminology.

      And thanks for seeing the distinction between goal/by-product for me and putting the right words to it. That is how I was thinking about it, but wasn’t nearly as clear.

      New goal: figure out how I can write stuff to bring you out of your corner more often.



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  10. […] Speaking of the awful modern trend of sexualizing children, MereO weighs in. […]


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