By Drew Dillingham
Catholic News Service
(Twelfth in a series)
ROME — In this week’s blog, I will take a break from writing about my courses at the Gregorian to discuss an interesting experience I had last weekend.
My wife and I decided to take a trip out to an Italian theme park. Before we left, we were aware that the park called itself “family-friendly.” What that meant did not completely sink in until after we arrived.
Upon queuing at the entrance, we realized that family-friendly meant that the median age of park attendees was around 9 or 10 years old. This did not bode well for us in terms of how many rides would be enjoyable for adults.
Nevertheless, the spirits of my wife and I were lifted by the joyful energy of the children around us as well as the smiles on the faces of the parents who accompanied them. So despite the fact that only a couple of rides looked very exciting to us, Kim and I happily entered the park alongside (well a few long meters away from) the frenzied mob of children and their parents as they rushed through the turnstiles at the park entrance.
My joy was quickly replaced with incredulity when the park’s dance team came out to greet everyone as they passed through the main gate. As all the little children gathered around and placed their full attention on the team, music for the song “Baby Got Back” started playing. The dancers — who were adults — were gyrating to the repeated lyrics of “my anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun.” The lyrics in themselves may have not had much of an effect on the children considering they were in English and not their native Italian. But the fact that the dancers were making sexually suggestive movements and we could all see their underwear must have, at least subliminally.
I understand that the dances were probably meant for the viewing pleasure of adults; however, children were still present. As both a future parent (God-willing) and someone who works in the field of child and youth protection, I was disturbed by this display because of the messages this sends to children in terms of sexuality.
First, as a potential parent, I asked myself what message this sends to boys and girls who have just begun to try to understand the role of sexuality in their lives. For girls, it sends the message that they are meant to be sexual objects to be used by others. For boys, it sends the message that it is socially acceptable to view women as sexual objects. It also poses risks to the creation of healthy relationships between the two sexes as peers during childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Second, in terms of child protection, I question whether this type of sexual exposure to children is a sexual offender’s dream. I say this because it is well-known that offenders groom their victims by exposing them to sexual images — in a way (though in a much lower degree and indirectly) doesn’t this type of public sexual exposure do the offender’s job for him?
I wish I had noted how the parents of the children reacted when all of this occurred. Did any parents avert the eyes of their children or physically remove them and take them elsewhere? I don’t know but that could be one option in this situation. What parents could also do is use a moment like this to explain to their children that this type of song and dancing is not okay, especially for children. It could also be a quick opportunity to talk about healthy relationships and grooming behavior. Though not many people would want to talk about these topics at that immediate place and time, perhaps it could be spoken about later at home.
Sexual displays pervade all areas of society, not just theme parks in Italy. To me, it makes no sense to expose children to sexuality, as studies done in psychological and moral development tell us, before children can understand how sexuality fits into their emotional and relational lives. Understanding sexuality and its proper use is already difficult for children, especially because of the limited way in which it is sometimes taught within our families and in the church.
The way sexuality is currently presented to children in our societies confuses children as they begin to learn more about what sexuality means — especially when we bring them into contact with images and ideas that should be meant only for adults (and in many cases, not even adults). As a society, especially a global society (believe me, this happens in the United States as well) and as a church, I hope we will work to make the world truly “family-friendly” by considering the needs of children first.
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Drew Dillingham is the Coordinator for Resources and Special Projects with the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. He is attending Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University’s interdisciplinary program for a diploma in safeguarding minors. He is an avid reader of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and shares his April 26th birthday. Dillingham also dabbles in the works of Bishop Robert Barron, thanks to the ongoing encouragement of his wife, Kim.