Sexy girls: Too much too soon?

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2013-03-06

By Lyba Spring

I don’t think I was more than six years old in the 1950s when, with my parents’ blessing, I entertained  Muskoka Lodge vacationers with my imitation of Marilyn Monroe, a bra stuffed with toilet paper, singing, “’s Wonderful” from my glossy lips.

Today we observe with horror little girls grinding and lip synching to online music videos dressed in their very own thongs.

Children are sexual beings from the moment they are born. Almost immediately, parents act on their sexuality by imposing gender roles. We expect pre-school children to explore gender roles by dressing up; but girls are doing more than dressing up. Their sexual development is being hijacked: department stores offer them alluring clothing and sexy toys; the media invite them to imitate the porn-style dance moves of their favourite stars. This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed. The early (or precocious) sexualization of young girls, also referred to as “hypersexualization,” is a hot topic in both the popular media and recent academic research.

But then, wasn’t some version of it always there, lurking beneath the surface of the adulation of the classic Hollywood movie stars? One might argue that the difference between wanting to look and act like Marilyn Monroe or Christina Aguilera is the amount of flesh shown and the sexual acts portrayed (although there was no click of the mouse in the 1950s and ‘60s or mobile devices facilitating the ubiquitous spread of explicit sexual images).

Its current incarnation may be particularly troubling to women who have reaped the benefits of feminism and who had hoped for a more positive vision of sexuality for their own daughters.

Will this generation of girls be able to grow up to revel in attractive and even sexy clothes without recrimination and fear of violence? Or will the messages of early sexualization lure them into intense body scrutiny and excessive dieting? Will fearful parents tend to become more repressive towards girls’ sexual expression? And, ultimately, does this early sexualization lead to aggressive and unwanted attention to girls’ sexy personas and even give pedophiles permission to see little girls as accessible sexual playthings?

It’s as if contemporary society were grooming them for something. Or maybe it’s all about the money.

Sexual objectification

The fact that sex sells is cliché. Advertizing, a major player in mainstream media, features images of women that would have passed as soft porn a few short decades ago. Who gains power, profit and influence—and at whose expense?

Toronto sexual health educator Karen B.K. Chan, owner and trainer at her company Fluid Exchange, says that sexual objectification is part of the “commodification of sex.” With changing sex roles comes the empowerment of women; but, she says, some believe the sexualization of women by women means acquiring power. They would be taking power by becoming “more and more desirable sex objects (mainly for men)” without questioning that so-called power. “Men continue to be valued and given power; and women continue to be valued for how valuable they are to men.”

The Réseau québecois d’action pour la santé des femmes has focused a huge amount of work on the topic of this sexualization of girls in Canada—raising sexual objectification in its analysis of the fashion industry and its effect on body image. The pressure to be slim and wear size zero results in dissatisfaction with body size. Although there is a significant obesity problem in Canada, 37% of girls in Grade 9 and 40% in Grade 10 perceived themselves as too fat according to a 2008 study cited by the National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Even among students of normal-weight (based on BMI), 19% believed that they were too fat, and 12% of students reported attempting to lose weight.

Pornography is part of the problem, according the RQASF blog. The industry currently imposes its culture on advertizing and media as well as the manufacturing industry for teens and tweens. RQASF maintains that the purpose of these sexual images is to normalize them.

The American Psychological Association (APA) also examines the objectification of women in its Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, concluding these are the “models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.” Girls are encouraged to buy into their objectification and accompanying loss of power, with the operative word being “buy.” This process may result in discouraging girls and young women from challenging their less powerful status. According to a study published in Psychological Science, “women who were primed to evaluate themselves based on their appearance and sexual desirability had a decreased motivation to challenge gender-based inequalities and injustices.” (Read more).

Feminists raised the issues of sexual objectification and power in the 1960s. Caroline Heldman’s contemporary analysis is reminiscent of Jean Kilbourne’s original 1979 version of the documentary Killing Us Softly. We don’t seem to have “come a long way, baby” at all. Only now it is “babies” that are being targeted. The fashion and toy industries have been seeking new markets in the same way the tobacco and alcohol industries target adolescents. Magazines traditionally marketing to adult women are now turning their attention to teens and tweens. The APA report mentions Bratz dolls dressed in miniskirts, fishnet stockings and feather boas, and stores selling thongs sized for seven to ten year-olds—pushing girls into the adult world.

Chan contends that children are growing up quickly in terms of their use of language, taking on adult patterns of behaviour and adult entertainment. They are “desensitized to sex, sexual violence and objectification,” adding that “children and adults have fewer and fewer separated worlds.”

And these separate worlds are “often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them,” according to the APA report. “Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.” 

Writer Peggy Orenstein offers a lucid insight in the documentary, Sext Up Kids: “Girls need to understand that sexuality is something that comes from within and connects a girl to herself and to her desire and to her needs and her wants, and is ultimately empowering as she gets older; whereas sexualization is the performance of all that; and it’s a performance of sexuality and a performance of sexual entitlement that actually disconnects them from that stronger external sense of self.”

And that is the point. Raising sexually healthy children includes supporting them to find a personal sexual expression with which they are comfortable. Imposed, early sexualization objectifies and disconnects them from themselves, and interrupts this process.

Is there real harm?

The overtly sexual images depicted in documentaries on this subject continue to engender what Tatiana Fraser, the co-founder and Research Associate of Girls Action Foundation calls “moral panic,” a knee-jerk reaction that clouds this discussion; e.g., It’s a Teen’s World, Sexy Baby,  and Sexy Inc. Fraser asks if we are “slut shaming” little girls, blaming them for their legitimate sexuality.

The Commissioner for Children and Young People of Western Australia suggests that sexualization has become the ”background noise” or ”wallpaper” of children's lives and that this may be potentially harmful to them. (See its issue paper on sexualization, summarizing several studies in Australia and the United Kingdom). However, while some studies claim sexualization of children may impede children’s healthy mental and sexual development, they point out that “to date there is little substantive or empirical evidence to support these claims. 

The APA report suggests that when girls ask for sexy merchandise, they are “sexualizing themselves” and objectifying their bodies to serve the desires of others. APA researchers suggest there is a need to further investigate how this affects girls’ development, including their intimate relationships, ideas about femininity, body image, physical, mental, and sexual health, sexual satisfaction and risk factors for early pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted infections.

However, consensus on these questions is difficult to find (not to mention answers), according to the U.K. Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre, which reviewed recent research literature on the commercialization and sexualization of childhood. While the growth in sexualized images and products appears to encourage girls to grow up too fast and become too sexy too soon, the U.K. researchers admit that there is “much less agreement on what the effects of the sexualization of culture, in general or specifically on children, might be.”

The refrain is familiar: more research on the topic is needed.

Sexy women; sexy girls  

A parallel phenomenon emerging from this discussion is what the APA report calls “issues of age compression. The adultification/sexualization of young girls is paralleled by an infantilization of adult women,” writes Lisa Wade in a commentary about a photo spread in French Vogue. Pornographic images abound of women dressed up as schoolgirls.

Society currently prefers women who are thin, small and hairless, says Chan, unlike many other periods of history and/or in other places, where curvy womanly bodies were, and still are, prized. She says that girlish bodies have much more social capital. So, “as women get their vulvas reshaped to look like little girls, little girls (who naturally have little girl parts) become sexualized too.” (Listen to the CWHN podcast on Designer Genitalia).

The APA report recommends examining “the relationship between the sexualization of girls and societal issues such as sexual abuse, child pornography, child prostitution and the trafficking of girls.” As for how this precocious sexualization of girls might play into the fantasies of pedophiles, a fact sheet from the Department of Justice Canada points out that “the risk may be highest when they are very young or when they are in their pre and early adolescence.” And children who show signs of sexual abuse may make “verbal or behavioural sexual advances towards older individuals.”

But how shall we distinguish between the learned behaviours of sexually abused girls and their sexualized friends, watching the latest music video and grinding away?

“Little girls have always been sexualized,” says sex columnist Sasha (Alex Tigchelaar). “This mythical concept of childhood that we have currently created didn't always exist. This does not mean that kids should be available to adults for sex. It is adults that choose to label [children’s exploration of pleasure] healthy or precocious and we do that with our own flawed and incomplete understanding of what that actually means.” 

Deplorably, the proliferation of child sexual images (child pornography) on the Internet makes sharing easier for pedophiles. And the mainstreaming of soft porn images in contemporary advertizing includes sexual images of girls. I believe it is these images, in part, that give pedophiles permission to view children as sexual objects.

Searching for healthy sexuality

Opponents of sexual objectification and the precocious sexualization of girls have pushed back.

  • Abercrombie and Fitch in the U.K. bowed to parental pressure, removing their padded swimsuit top for prepubescent girls.
  • Seventeen Magazine in response to a consumer campaign instigated by an eighth-grade girl, has created a “body peace treaty” pledging to use only “real girls” and “models who are healthy.”
  • The documentary Miss Representation “challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls which make it difficult for the average woman to feel powerful herself.”
  • The YWCA has created the Facebook page Taking Sexy Back, a forum for advocacy against sexualization.

Yet, no clear vision of an acceptable version of “sexy” has emerged. Echoing comments by Fraser from Girls Action Foundation, a YouTube commentator on CBC’s Sext Up Kids accuses society of slut shaming and not accepting adolescent sexuality.

At what age can parents agree that their girls are becoming women with agency over their sexuality? Part of the dilemma is that some adolescent girls see it as empowering to take charge of their sexuality by texting a naked picture, dressing “provocatively” or putting on sexy performances as they mimic their favourite celebrities. They are navigating murky waters, often with little guidance and even risking legal reprisal. The United States has seen more prosecutions of young people posting nearly naked images of adolescents, but Canadians are not immune. Section 163.1 of the Canadian Criminal Code relating to child pornography specifies that the act of sexting becomes illegal when it involves persons who are under the age of 18.

The Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association’s blog about Sext Up Kids suggests that the pressure for girls to be sexy performers may have “devastating” consequences.

And yet, little girls in many cultures who perform by imitating adult dance movements are praised for their talent. A few years ago, I had an exchange with a Trinidadian friend about Brazil’s Viradouro samba school’s queen, who won the title at age seven. Child protection agencies were critical of the girl’s father allowing her to participate in the competition.

I told him I'd seen little girls at local carnivals “winin' down” (suggestive hip movements) and had always wondered if there were eyes on them that were more lecherous than admiring of their ability. In the context of the Rio Carnival, he said, she is a child prodigy and added that we are obsessed with sex in North America and have not really got beyond a puritanical view.

Fraser raises yet another provocative question: is this moral panic over sexualization more about the protection of white middle class girls, in particular when we condemn rap music? She suggests we take a step back and figure out how to speak about these issues to girls who are racialized or from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Cultural differences must be considered as we try to untangle the issues related to this sexualization of young girls.

As adult women, some of us struggle to find the balance between “attractive” and “sexy”; and part of that struggle includes busting the myth about any relationship between the way a woman is dressed and her being sexually sexual assaulted. In Toronto, following a police officer’s remark that "women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order not to be victimized, the Slutwalk movement was founded. We reject slut shaming for ourselves; we need to avoid doing it to our daughters.

At a workshop I conducted with parents, a mother shared her response to her daughter’s question about why she couldn’t go to school dressed like her favourite singer: “She’s an entertainer. She’s supposed to dress like that.”

It is not easy facing down an entire industry while your daughter kicks up a fuss in the clothing department, but maybe more frank talk with young girls about the sexualization of consumer culture will help to decrease the demand for sexy clothes and toys.

When I suggested to sex columnist Sasha that protests to reduce the number of sexy products for girls might put us into bed with the social conservatives, she was surprised. “Instead of railing against this,” she said, “we need to take more responsibility around how we frame sex in our lives as non-consumers. Don't spend, spend time.” 

What better way to ensure our daughters take the path toward healthy sexuality?

Where do we go from here?

Whether we are looking at an old phenomenon with shocking new twists, or one that puts the brakes on the march towards women’s equality, in terms in of the health risks of early sexualization, we may not yet be able to draw definitive conclusions about cause and effect. However, it is time to apply the precautionary principle: We need to create a healthier societal view of sexuality.

We cannot leave girls’ sex education in the hands of media and advertizing. Comprehensive sexual health education, although desired by the overwhelming majority of parents in Canada, is far from a reality. The guidelines for sex education are clear. What remains is to ensure national implementation of curricula based on these criteria. And yet, as Fraser points out, due to the cuts in Quebec’s sexual health programming, sexual health education has practically disappeared. Ontario’s revised curriculum was put on hold for years because of conservative backlash, leaving teachers in 2013 with a curriculum from 1998. This situation is echoed throughout the country.

If we truly want girls to grow up to have full sexual lives according to the WHO definition parents and teachers need to work together. They need to ensure that girls have familiarity with, and appreciation of, their sexuality. (Read more). Girls have the right to explore their bodies and the pleasure it affords. They need to understand that women come in all body sizes; and that beauty is not just a media construct. They need to learn to say yes to what they want and no to what they don’t. They need to become comfortable with their gender, their sexual orientation and their appearance. They need to understand that not all girls grow up heterosexual, nor do we exist only to attract and satisfy men; and that not all girls grow up to become mothers.

To these ends, society needs:

  • frank  parenting around sexual issues
  • support for the above
  • better training for teachers—not just for those teaching sexuality education
  • media literacy for young children, including the seduction of marketing
  • comprehensive violence prevention programs
  • a shift in advertizing to reward companies that use clever rather than the exploitative marketing

The bottom line drives our consumerist culture. Women have historically challenged the sexual objectification that makes money off our backs—and off the rest of our bodies. We can redirect the current incarnation of this push towards adult sexuality for profit by deliberately creating a sexually healthier society.

Perhaps girls can learn to appreciate contemporary versions of Marilyn Monroe’s sexual playfulness in a healthy and empowering way. Without buying a thong.

Lyba Spring recently retired from Toronto Public Health and now runs Lyba Spring Sexual Health Education and Consulting Services in Toronto.

For more:

Hypersexualization of young girls: Why should we care?
Sexy sells: The marketing of girls' sexuality

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