[Content note: sex, child sexualization, child molestation and rape]
I’ve been depressed lately so writing has been difficult. (Here’s more about that if you’re curious.) Hopefully this isn’t the only thing I’ll be able to produce for the next few weeks.
Children and teens should be able to express their developing sexuality (safely and appropriately) without being shamed for it.
Adults are marketing sexual ideas and behaviors to children at very young ages, and this isn’t a good thing.
Both of these things may be true, but I’ve noticed that many people of a progressive persuasion often have trouble entertaining both of these ideas at the same time.
That is, whenever someone is claiming one of these, someone always appears to argue the other one as though they disprove each other. If someone says, “You know, it’s really sketchy that they sell pole dancing kits for little girls,” someone will inevitably counter, “So you’re saying there’s something wrong with girls expressing their sexuality? You’re slut-shaming.” If someone says, “We shouldn’t prevent children from exploring sexuality safely,” someone will respond, “Yeah well they only want to explore it because the mainstream media is teaching them inappropriate things.”
Much has already been written and researched about the sexualization of childhood (particularly girlhood). One study suggests that almost a third of girls’ clothing may be sexualized. The American Psychological Association released a report on it in 2007 and discussed some of the negative effects of sexualization. And, of course, commentary abounds and you can easily find it online.
Are some of the critical responses to sexualized children’s toys and clothing prompted by, as counter-critics love to allege, “prudishness”? Probably some of them. But that’s not all there is to it.
First of all, as the APA report suggests, increased sexualization of girls can have negative consequences for individuals and for society. But beyond that, I think there’s something to be said for discovering one’s sexuality through experimentation and exploration rather than by looking at commercials and magazines to see what other people (supposedly) do. Many of us grow up with images of what sexiness and sexuality is that later turn out to have absolutely no resonance for us. It’s a particular facial expression, a particular way of dressing, a particular procedure for hooking up and getting off, a particular move or strategy or “trick” to get a potential partner interested.
Eventually, some people unlearn some of these things and decide which of them really feel sexy and which don’t. For instance, some of the things I think are sexy are pretty “normative,” such as high heels and PIV intercourse. Other things that have been presented to me as sexy by my surrounding culture, though, I do not still think are sexy, such as men who ignore my boundaries, falling into bed together without having to say a word, and long straight hair. Some things that I think are sexy are things that have generally been presented to me as decidedly unsexy, such as asking for consent before kissing, having upper body muscles, and women who are dominant rather than submissive.
But some people don’t really question what they find sexy and why, and end up having a sexuality that’s pretty close to what they’ve seen advertised. And some of them are totally happy with that. But others are not, and they never really realize that they have other options.
Cliff Pervocracy once wrote about the experience of realizing that a particular pornographic image with which we’re all familiar isn’t necessarily how everyone likes to do it:
Rowdy and I watched porn together last night. Because Rowdy is a gentle soul in ways I am not, I tend to watch hardcore kinky porn and he tends to watch porn of real couples having sweet lovey sex. We were watching his porn.
The woman in the video had sex the way I do. When she was on top, she didn’t pump her whole body up and down, she just moved her hips rhythmically. And she didn’t stay on top forever going poundpoundpound like a champ; she did it for a few minutes and then switched positions. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a woman in porn do that.
The part that blew my mind: the guy in the video was way into that. And Rowdy was way into that. And it was in porn, which gave it the official stamp of People Think This Is A Sexy Thing. I was astonished, because I always thought wiggling my hips on top meant I was incompetent at sex. I thought you were supposed to bounce full-length on a guy until he came, and since my thigh muscles can’t do that, I thought I was too weak to do me-on-top sex correctly. It was amazing to see people accepting a less athletic method as a totally valid, hot way to have sex. Hell, it was amazing just to find out that I wasn’t the only person on Earth who has sex that way.
Kids are probably not going to be exposed to hardcore pornography, of course, but they get exposed to other messages about what normative sexuality is, such as high heels and makeup, female passivity, and, apparently, pole dancing.
Aggressively marketing particular sexualized products or behaviors to little kids means that they are that much more likely to grow up with the idea that that’s how you do sexuality. It gives them that much less room to discover for themselves what’s fun and pleasurable as they become old enough to try it.
But the problem with this whole situation goes beyond people growing up forced into little boxes of sexual expression. Namely, there is a terrible and dangerous hypocrisy here. Adults create ads and marketing campaigns that persuade little girls to want pole dancing kits and t-shirts with sexy messages on them, and adults make horrible assumptions about the girls on whom this marketing works. It’s a rare case of molestation or statutory rape in which some source doesn’t claim that the female victim dressed “older than her age” or “seemed very sexually mature.”
Every bit of me just rages and rages when I read these things. We have people who are paid more money than most working adults will ever see to manipulate girls and their parents into wanting and buying these things, and then we blame these girls for being preyed on by adults who ascribe to them an awareness that they probably cannot have yet.
First of all (not that this needs to be said), statutory rape is wrong no matter how sexually mature a child is. (I’m not talking about those “grey areas” where one person is 17 and the other is 19 or whatever. I’m talking about those cases where the victim is 10 and the predator is 45, for instance.) But regardless, when little girls wear “revealing” clothes or put on lots of makeup or dance in a “suggestive” way (whatever that even means), they’re almost definitely not doing it because they literally want to have sex with someone. They’re probably doing it more because it’s been presented to them as a fun and exciting thing to do, something older girls do, something that just you’re supposed to do as a girl. It’s adults who interpret children’s exploration as necessarily sexual, or as a sign of sexual maturity. Just as adults freak out when they catch little kids playing with their genitals (or with a friend’s). They assume that just because it’s an expression of sexual desire when they do it, it must mean the same thing when children do it.
Of course, there’s nothing anyone, even an adult, can say or do that guarantees sexual interest, short of clearly saying so or initiating sexual activity. Little girls in miniskirts aren’t “asking for it” and neither are adult women in miniskirts. Or boys or men or gender-nonconforming folks in miniskirts, for that matter.
If we’re going to relentlessly market these types of clothing and toys to children, we need to stop making gross assumptions about “what it means” when a child wears those clothes or plays with those toys. It means nothing. It means that marketers know what they’re doing. It means that dressing up or dancing and shaking your butt can be fun. It means that kids enjoy exploring their bodies and what they can do or look like. It means nothing.
I’ve spent most of this post critiquing the marketing of sexualized stuff to children, but it’s also worth talking more about the other half of the false dichotomy I presented at the beginning. I think a lot of the panic about children doing “sexual” things is caused by what I just mentioned–adults’ (mis)interpretations of what that means. It’s also caused by general prudery and “but I don’t want my kid to grow up and do grown-up things!” Incidentally, very little of the panic about childhood sexuality seems to focus on the fact that children sometimes do (and are encouraged to do, particularly if they’re male) nonconsensual things, but sometimes that does happen and sometimes adults do (justifiably) worry about it.
Being neither a developmental psychologist nor a parent, I can’t tell you what is and is not appropriate for a child in terms of sexuality. In fact, I don’t think any developmental psychologist or parent could give you a definitive answer to that, either, and don’t believe them if they say they can. Things like this will always have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, because children develop at different rates and have different levels of understanding and awareness of their own urges and desires. But I want to legitimize the idea of letting children discover their own sexuality without being shamed or punished for it.
Further, the fact that children’s expressions of sexuality may be strongly influenced by what they see in the media does not mean those expressions are Wrong or Bad, or should be curtailed (necessarily). First of all, they will probably feel very “real” to the child, just as passivity and silence used to genuinely feel sexy to me. Second, you can’t strong-arm someone into discovering what feels authentic and what doesn’t. Telling a little girl that thongs are bad and she should never wear one or want one isn’t going to get her to think, “Hm, I probably only wanted the thong because I saw it in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and I really want to be pretty like the lady in the commercial.”
It’s impossible to avoid being influenced by one’s sociocultural context. Everyone changes and adapts to that context. (Yes, even you, hypothetical person who thinks you’re above all this.) So kids will always pick up on cues in their environment about how they should act. The problem is that, right now, sexualized images and products are being purposefully marketed to kids who are probably too young to even have the desires we associate with those images and products. Case in point: we think of pole dancing as something women do to arouse straight men, and even though it’s something that people now often do for fun or exercise, that’s still often going to be the meaning we ascribe to it. Do you really think a four-year-old has any understanding of what it means to turn a man on, or any desire to do so?
The problem is also that the range of sexualities that kids will encounter in the media, and in marketing specifically, is extremely narrow. Since sexuality is something that develops partially in response to what the developing person sees around them, this gives them a very short menu to choose from. Some may not ever realize that there are tons of other, longer, more interesting menus out there.
Note: There are a bunch of issues that I’m aware of but didn’t have space to discuss in this post, such as the even greater sexualization of children of color, the invisibility of queer and asexual expressions in this whole marketing/advertising bullshit, the fact that boys and girls are both impacted by this but in different ways, and so on. Future posts?