Sexy kids

Always eager for new markets, capitalism has turned to pre-teens: shops are full of videos, clothes

The pink cotton T-shirt hangs from the "Sale" rack at the front of the shop. Its logo, in red lettering, stretches from left to right: "So many boys, so little time." It's an old line, which usually raises a smile. But not this time: this T-shirt is a "5-6 years" size. Inappropriate? Well, yes. But everything is relative. What about the thong for seven-year-olds, with a little heart on the crotch? Or the padded bra for a nine-year-old? As for America - you can buy your prepubescent daughter a thong with a cherry and the words "Eat Me" embroidered across it.

What have we done to childhood? Browse on the high street and you'll find make-up for children, perfume for toddlers and magazines such as the BBC's Girl Talk, with 11-year-old cover girls and features, aimed at the nine-plus age group, that give tips on how to get the beach babe look. Pre-teen has become an erotic term in itself; Lolita, a concept as familiar as Barbie.

For many children's organisations, the greatest culprits in this sexualisation of the under-age are the manufacturers: "Theirs is purely a marketing exploitation," says Michelle Elliott, director of the charity Kidscape. "They claim that they're responding to demand. But it's not true. They've run out of teenagers and they're asking - what next?" Last year, Kidscape launched a campaign to pull Tammy brand thongs and padded bras from Argos: "We pointed out that, as a responsible family store, Argos should not carry such items. We succeeded in getting them to withdraw the merchandise - and they've told me that in future they will consult with Kidscape before purchasing children's clothes."

The clothing industry is not alone in milking young tastes for profit: the pop music, film and pharmaceutical industries are equally eager to boost sales by treating children as mini-adults who deserve no special protection. They target kids (and their pocket money) with the same message: you are a sexy little beast - and will be even sexier, once you've tried this shampoo, learnt from this film, listened to this song.

As a sales pitch, it is hard to beat. And even if you should feel confused about your sexual being, or want to cling to your dolls rather than shop for your thongs, there are plenty of examples out there to confirm how sexually attractive you are. There's the video of Britney Spears gyrating suggestively in a school uniform and pigtails: all the boys - and the men - keep saying she's sexy. There are those clubs that specialise in "school discos" - attended by ravers dressed up in gymslips and short little school uniforms. And, should you browse the net, you will find S Club Juniors, the pop group aged 11-14, striking suggestive poses in their crop tops. So intense and widespread is the message that little kids are sexy that even the slowest of slow developers cannot fail to get it.

The market - and Fleet Street, or at least the tabloid end of it, with its titillating stories that fume, in extraordinary detail, about dirty paedophiles, under-age sex and teenage pregnancies - has understood that it can tap into powerful yearnings: of children, to have their way, and be adult; of adults, to have their way with children. The former urge has long been recognised; the latter, long suppressed, and never more so than now. Yet many refuse to acknowledge the link between these urges: if you promote raunchy lyrics about the under-age or allow a child to listen to them; if you sell boob tubes to a nine-year-old, or allow your daughter to wear them, you may be making her wish come true - but what are you doing to the paedophile, or even, closer to home, to the lecherous, perhaps drunk, family friend who happens to drop round when neither parent is about? Many would agree with Michelle Elliott of Kidscape that "parents have to beware. If you dress up your child in a sexual way, it will justify the paedophile. We're making children vulnerable."

Ironically, the same parents who see nothing wrong in allowing little Jane to dress as Britney-in-the-making will forbid their children (boys and girls) from taking the bus to school unaccompanied, ban them from playing out of doors and generally circumscribe their movements as insurance against the bad adult world out there. Some responsibilities, it would seem, are recognised, some risks taken on board.

In the marketplace, however, even these responsibilities are shed: the "kidult", after all, is a money-spinner - all those must-haves that children beg their parents for, all those paedophile porn gadgets adults get off on. As a result, the come-ons from manufacturers have grown ubiquitous, luring children on a fast track to adulthood in much the same way that wages used to lure children down mines or up chimneys in the Victorian era.

In those days, their premature entry into adulthood condemned children to TB, black lung and no school. Today it comes at a different, if equally worrying, price: one in four of all rape victims is a child; sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase among the under-18s; one in three British girls under the age of 16 is sexually active; and Britain has Europe's highest teenage pregnancy rate.

What's a parent to do? Parents complain that they feel powerless as the forces ranged against them increase. How persuasive can you be, with your objections to crop tops and explicit pop lyrics, when yours is the lone voice of dissent? Gone are the days when Mum and Dad could find some support from school, media and the church. Today, those institutions are either discredited or they have joined the conspiracy to rob children of their childhood. The government proposes to hand out free condoms and the morning-after pill in secondary schools and to fund birth control clinics, responsible to the health authority rather than the school, for 11-year-olds. Add to this the decision to allow teenagers easy access to the abortion pill RU486, and you can understand that many parents think the government contributes to a climate that condones under-age sex. Robert Whelan, of Family and Youth Concern, argues: "These proposals persuade children that sex is all-important and that they must hurry to step into an ersatz adulthood, a simulacrum of real maturity."

The disturbing precociousness is accompanied by an acceleration of children's physical maturity. At the University of Bristol, researchers who studied 1,150 eight-year-old children in Avon, as part of their "Children of the Nineties" project, concluded that one-sixth of all eight-year-old girls showed signs of puberty, compared to one in 100 in the not-very-distant past. Also, one in 14 eight-year-old boys had pubic hair - something once more or less confined to boys of 13 and over.

Yet did our children ever inhabit a Walt Disney wonderland of innocence from which Mother Nature and market forces now conspire to exile them? Emma Duncan, mother of five-year-old twin girls, thinks not. "We've created this notion of childhood, rather than robbed our children of it," she maintains. Paintings from the Renaissance onward show that children were viewed as "mini-adults, dressed in grown-up clothes, wearing grown-up expressions. It is a myth that there was a time when they were more protected, or more cherished, or more innocent."

Her own daughters force her to reconsider time and again how best to protect children: "Girls don't get pregnant because they wear sexy clothes. They get pregnant because of abuse, ignorance and lack of contraception." She has already taught the girls about sex: "I want them to have a knowing - informed - childhood."

At primary schools in the UK, sex education covers areas such as "stranger danger" - raising children's consciousness about potential abusers; how to say "no"; and how to blow the whistle on someone who has behaved "inappropriately" with you.

Further protection is offered in some schools by uniforms: not the short and sassy Britney Spears number, but prim and sober garb that restrains children from dressing as their pop idols do.

Yet even the uniform can be tarted up: as one primary school teacher points out: "My eight-year-olds come to class wobbling on high heels. The most I can do is warn their parents of how dangerous the heels are - the little ones could fall off and hurt themselves." What she feels she cannot do in the present climate, where so many parents express hostility towards teachers who "meddle", is warn parents that their little girl risks attracting the wrong sort of attention. She feels even less entitled to comment on the girls' dancing at school parties, "when some of them gyrate and sway like provocative, grown-up women".

Asian parents, she points out, are far more careful about their children's clothing and behaviour. "Some will not allow their daughters to attend school discos, or to wear revealing clothes or make-up. It's a cultural difference that shields the Asian girls from the fashion excesses others fall into."

Excess seems an apt term: our idealisation of childhood as a Teletubby Garden of Eden seems excessively sentimental; at the same time, the products and popular narratives - from MTV entertainments to Hollywood films - that we buy, and buy into, excessively sexualise the very young.

Is it any wonder that children who experience this contradictory view of themselves feel confused about their role - am I a nine-year-old or am I a nymphet?

And is it any wonder that paedophiles (who are rare) or men with Humbert Humbert tendencies (who are more common) feel equally confused when they receive contradictory messages about the innocent-sexual child?

Neither child nor predator exists in a vacuum: if we surround them with erotically charged images and props, both risk slipping into a sleazy landscape where sexy children are commonplace, and sex with children no longer taboo.