February 5, 2022 - 7:00am

The children’s toy franchise ‘Build-A-Bear’ has launched a range of ‘sexy’ stuffed toys, one complete with satin dressing gown and toy bottle of champagne.

It’s easy to rant at the commerce-driven sexualisation of childhood, a phenomenon now so pervasive even the Government has opinions. But I think the best way to view this is from the other end of the same telescope: not the pornification of childhood, but the infantilisation of adults.

This extends well beyond the sexual domain: consider the profoundly cringe term ‘adulting’, where performing any basic task is associated with ordinary adult self-reliance. So popular is the term that it now has its own reward chart stickers; those who wish to recreate the primary-school thrill of getting a sticker can now do so in exchange for managing elementary features of being a functioning adult such as turning up on time, doing the laundry or wearing trousers.

It doesn’t stop at adult reward charts, though. The collapsing cultural distinction between the assumed subjectivity of children and adults is, inevitably, sexualised as well, in the growing popularity of ‘age play’ BDSM scenarios, in which one or more participants adopt a child-like persona.

It’s hard to say definitively what’s triggered this converging sexualisation of infancy, and infantilisation of sexuality. Two possible (and related) factors spring to mind: firstly, the cultural reimagining of sex as principally a leisure activity, driven by birth control and ubiquitous porn, and secondly rising rates of childlessness.

I’m willing to bet roleplaying as ‘little’ is less common in adults who are themselves parents. I’m also willing to bet that for adults who themselves have young children, the idea of a ‘kinky’ version of the Build-a-Bear ritual, where children queue to put a ‘heart’ into their chosen bear so it ‘comes to life’, is likely to seem less edgy or amusing than just icky. And, more generally, nothing cures one more briskly of the twee fantasy that doing the laundry merits a sticker for ‘adulting’ than becoming a parent and realising that a newborn baby is utterly dependent on you getting your act together.

I don’t know if childlessness is creating infantile adults, or infantilised adults are refusing to become parents, but the two are connected. And the resulting subculture of sterile perpetual tweens is actively blurring the lines between childhood and adult sexuality, seemingly oblivious to the potential knock-on effects on actual children.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.