Sexy girls: Too much too soon?

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2013-03-06

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.

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