Do you see a happy little girl? And do you see a confused one? I wonder if you can guess which one is my daughter.
Yes, you got it. My daughter is the one on the right, pictured with me posing for an embarrassing photo to advertise her preschool’s annual fundraiser. Goofy as we look, I still find this picture much easier on the eyes than the one on the left. All I can think when I look at this little girl made up like an adult and photographed with bedroom eyes, is how oblivious she must be to the meaning behind the directives she is being given. “More shoulder! Part those lips! Look, um, vulnerable!” Yikes.
This little girl is the victim of “sexualization,” a term which I use to mean the inappropriate IMPOSITION of a NARROWLY-DEFINED sexuality. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s everywhere.
I don’t think I need to spend too much time explaining why sexualization of little girls, and even adolescent and teenage girls, is problematic. Just take a look at the 2007 Report from the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls for a comprehensive list its detrimental effects on the health of girls and women. In addition to its documented repercussions on girls’ cognitive skills, emotional wellness, and mental health, the rampant sexualization of girls in popular media is shown to negatively impact girls’ sexual health. From the report: “Self-objectification has been linked directly with diminished sexual health among adolescent girls (e.g., as measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness; Impett, Schooler & Tolman, 2006). Frequent exposure to narrow ideals of attractiveness is associated with unrealistic and/or negative expectations concerning sexuality. Negative effects (e.g., shame) that emerge during adolescence may lead to sexual problems in adulthood (Brotto, Heiman & Tolman, in press).” Yeah, that’s pretty sex negative.
Now let me tell you a little more about me. I am sex positive. Really sex positive, now that I have finally overcome the years of shame that took root during my childhood and lasted straight up to my thirties. I can’t blame my mother, for she was a self-described “active participant in the sexual revolution” and did her best to instill her stigma-free attitude in me. But something held me back and kept me closeted for three decades, and I think I know what that something was. It was sexualization in media. When I read my culture I saw one way to be sexy, one way to be a woman encouraged even when I still wanted to just be a girl, and I felt at once betrayed and paralyzed by this from a very young age. Like most women, when it came to my budding sexuality, I felt inadequate and therefore ashamed.
I don’t want this for my daughter! She deserves a healthy sexuality, whatever that means for her. She deserves the time and the space to figure out for herself, and only when she is ready, what she wants. Yet already she is surrounded by imposed and narrowly-defined representations of “sexy,” starting with the first Barbie doll she was given.
Ah, but like any subject worth fearless exploration, this issue is not simple. Messages and movements that seek to condemn sexualization seem sometimes to be condemning sex (like Puritans?), condemning representations of sex (no free speech?), or condemning our right to enjoy representations of sex (are we right back to shame?). After all, short of examples as horrifying as the one pictured above, sexual imagery in advertising, video games, etc. must be appealing to something innate in the masses, for as they say, sex sells. It sells because it evokes something in us, and we forward-thinking sex positive folks know that we are allowed to feel what we feel. After all, sexuality is something to celebrate when it is authentic.
Authentic sexuality. What the hell is that?
And therein lies the question. It is a question which no two people will answer alike because each of our authentic sexualities is self-defined and fluid. Although many refuse to admit it, is begins during childhood, even for girls. Dr. Sharon Lamb, member of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, shed light on an often invisible subject in her book The Secret Life of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do – Sex, Play, Aggression, and their Guilt. In interview after interview with an ethnically diverse group of women, she learned that women remember engaging in sexual play behind closed doors, some at very young ages. But they also remember learning to feel extreme guilt about these behaviors (and especially about deriving pleasure from them) and adjusting their memories to blame initiation on the “other girl”. In boys, masturbation may begin as soon as they find their penis, but in girls such play is labeled “bad” and that label is communicated in ways that children understand quickly.
Even as we acknowledge that the development of sexuality begins during childhood, we must also remember that childhood sexuality is a far cry from adult sexuality. Sexuality is something that develops over time, not something that is simply turned on at puberty. Just as kids need room to have age-appropriate relationships to money in order to learn the skills they need to manage it as adults, they also need room to have age-appropriate relationships to sexuality. You wouldn’t give a complex budget to a 10-year-old and expect her to understand it, so why would we put makeup on a 7-year-old and expect her to sex it up for the camera?
I am no Puritan, and believe me, there are aspects of sexuality that are controversial to some but which I consider to be potentially healthy and authentic. Sexuality often authentically conjures exploration of power dynamics, is most focused on certain body parts, and if we are to be honest, can be made more exciting by its supposed deviance. Resisting what’s “imposed” begs questions about which components of the sex we see in mass media are inflicted upon us and which components simply express a common thread of human sexuality, speak in a language we all understand. Who can deny that seeing Glee actress Lea Michele sucking a lollipop in her underwear by the school lockers is sexy? She’s 24 now, and only posing as a teenager after all. Maybe this is just what turns us on.
But then again, maybe this turns us on because we’ve grown up surrounded by these images, like cookie-cutter replicas of what we understand as “sexy.” Defining authentic sexuality is tricky, but defining what is inauthentic about the images of sex the media feeds us is all too easy. The sexuality our popular culture promotes is heteronormative, objectifies women for male gaze, renders female pleasure invisible, purports an “ideal” body type, exoticizes non-white sexuality, boxes men into masculinity, ignores trans identities, denies sexuality of people with disabilities… I could go on and on.
How do I simultaneously tell my daughter that sex is not shameful, but that the images with which she is assaulted daily on every screen, magazine, and billboard are misleading and problematic?
And since I brought up Glee, I’ll tell you that my journey from joy to disheartenment upon discovering it on Netflix recently illustrates my point perfectly. I don’t live in a cave, and I had heard the buzz about Glee. Given the opportunity to watch instantly, I gave it whirl. It was refreshing! It painted a picture of high school that, while still rife with stereotypes, made leaps and bounds in terms of a mainstream show at least attempting to show diversity and solidarity amidst difference. Finally! I thought. A show that breaks the mold in a tone of humor and heart, a show with musical numbers just for my silly side, a show that, although it’s for me, I can watch in front of my daughter. (Other parents of five-year-olds might sympathize with my near insanity at the thought of hearing another high-pitched episode of Dora.) But then the dancing began and my heart sank. It was sexualization on full display, with all its inauthentic (imposed and narrow) components. It was high-school girls in peek-a-boo cheerleader outfits performing for the male gaze and putting the marginalized characters in the background. Not every dance number, but too many. And the GQ pictorial brought it home, featuring only the white able-bodied characters, one male and two female, displaying all the standard cultural cues to signify “sexy.”
It has become a celebrity rite of passage to self-sexualize for mass consumption. And disturbingly, we adults just seem to love sexy teens, relish in the nostalgia of our own sexual development, or maybe just the mythical version of it. Is it because our earliest experiences were so formative? Because our bodies were most “perfect” then? Because we remember the raging hormones?
Regardless of the reason, the proliferation of these images is harmful to youth, and that’s a fact.
In response to the APA report, a movement has begun. SPARK, an acronym for Sexualization Protest, Action, Resistance, Knowledge, held a summit in October of last year and has been building its fire ever since. Organized by a partnership among like-minded organizations across the country, including The ASAP Initiative at Hunter College, Women’s Media Center, and Hardy Girls Healthy Women, the summit attracted an intergenerational crowd that included researchers, activists, and teens. The researchers summarized study after study showing the ample evidence of sexualization and it detrimental effects. The adults could be overheard lamenting at the sex-saturated media and jumping to the conclusion that all youth should be sheltered from it. Fortunately, the young women and girls kept us in check, and began shouting the mantra in unison: “We are TAKING SEXY BACK!” Can I get an amen for the sex positivity?
SPARK has stayed true to its sex positive approach by including spoken word poetry on its website, a glimpse of an alternative to the narrowly-defined sexuality we are sold. Nadia Bourne delivers a piece that is intimate and descriptive of a sexuality that is queer, non-white, and sincerely emotional.
There are very few words or phrases I can use to define my sexuality, because in truth it is in total flux. But one phrase that I vow to stick with from now on is “sex positive.” Daunting as the obstacles may be, I hope with all my heart that my daughter makes choices that are her own and that she never lets shame overtake her, and the best way for me to support that hope is to engage in anti-sexualization movements and activism. Being anti-sexualization IS sex positive.
We can try to make media developmentally appropriate for young audiences (less IMPOSED), try to make the industry responsible for its messages not only to the market they are targeting but also the market they are reaching. (Did you know that America’s Next Top Model’s audience averages 12-years-old?) We can strive to make media more inclusive of diverse sexuality (less NARROW). In the meantime, we can negotiate age-appropriate strategies with our children: shelter them from it when they are too young, engage them in dialogue about media literacy and sex education when they are ready (which is sooner that we think), and teach them that alternatives to what they are sold do exist.
Yeah, that’s right. If we can’t control the fact that youth culture is riddled with narrow versions of sexuality, it becomes our job to teach youth that their own “authentic” sexuality can only be defined by themselves. And they can only do the work to define it if they are given all the options. They need to see other doors to walk through, including doors that lead to queerness, beauty in diverse body types, empowered sexuality in non-white people, sexuality as celebrated for people of all abilities, female pleasure as encouraged, gender identity as fluid, play allowed as long as safety and communication are given top priority.
So not only is an anti-sexualization stance inherently sex positive, but I can tell you right now that only a sex-positive approach will be truly effective in our efforts to combat sexualization.
Sex positivity and combating sexualization are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually dependent.
This post first appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine