What Little Girls Want

A couple of months ago I was sitting with the 10-year-old daughter of a friend, watching her play a computer game. It was one of those Barbie-esque house-playing games where you get to furnish a home and choose wardrobes for every member of a family. Now, she’s just a little girl to my eyes, given that she wears ponytails and still isn’t quite old enough for braces. Yet she sees herself quite differently. I know this because when she finished outfitting the teenage girl in her game, she ushered in her next character, a hunky young man. Eyeing his underwear-clad body coolly, she suddenly announced: ‘I’d like to break me off a piece of that!’

A few days later, after feasting her eyes on a teen heartthrob on TV, she repeated the sentiment. But this time, she said, she didn’t just want a piece, she wanted the whole thing.

Need I add that she’s a conventional little girl from an upscale suburb who goes to a nice school and has college-educated, channel-blocking, socially aware parents? But you probably could have guessed that. If you work with children, you know that nothing protects them from the culture we’ve created for them. Episodes of ‘O.C.,’ teen sex chat rooms, Abercrombie & Fitch ad campaigns featuring young, bruised-looking girls in rumpled, skimpy outfits — our society’s sexualization of children and teenagers is pervasive and inescapable. The truth is that all of today’s children are steeped in constant, low-boil sexuality, and the more media-savvy they are, the more raunchy the sexual material they see, hear, and imitate.

It’s surely easy for adults like me to be outraged and wounded in advance for little girls like the one I’m describing, who after all are learning at such a tender age to value themselves only through the appraising eyes of their peers and and the frankly predatory older boys who seem to beckon them ever closer. And it’s easy to be genuinely worried, as well. Today’s superheated media-induced sexual milieu is unprecedented: at no other time in history have ordinary children seen or heard as much, or been able to see or hear as much, as they do today. A social experiment is at work, and no one can say what the outcome will be.

So it’s good news that social and behavioral scientists are beginning to seriously investigate the issue. They are particularly concerned about why girls are reaching puberty far earlier than they used to — 8.9 years for African-American girls, 9.9 years for white girls. Is it because of our sex-saturated culture? Is it because of chemical factors, such as hormones in milk or the estrogen simulators in plastic? Or is it, as one study suggests, because of the dissolution of nuclear families and the presence of unrelated adult males in households where girls are growing up? Each theory is supported by a small body of scientific evidence, though no single, widely supported answer has emerged.

If these factors, alone or in combination, are influencing sexual readiness and behavior in girls in general, then it can’t be a surprise that the girls our members agencies work with — girls more vulnerable and troubled by far — are even more affected. Indeed, that’s exactly what agencies are telling us. Last year we conducted about 10 interviews with organizations that work with latency-aged girls. To one degree or another, they’re all seeing the same thing.

One program director described girls who “know just a little bit too much about sex.” The behavior she described ranged from an innocent-seeming search for “boyfriends” and fantasizing about kissing to more overt acts of sexuality. For the younger girls this behavior might manifest as sitting on a staff person’s lap and touching him or her inappropriately. It might manifest as changing into slinky clothes on the bus on the way to school. Or, for girls just a bit older, it might manifest as servicing boys behind the gym before the first bell rings. All of which has happened, and none of which is even mildly surprising to these workers.

So what are agencies doing to counter the forces pushing girls into ever-earlier sexual behavior? Their options, frankly, are limited. Some rely on the standard “healthy-body” curriculum that stresses self-respect, though they acknowledge that the approach seems unsatisfactory. We asked about abstinence programming — most of us would agree that abstinence is indeed a worthy goal for girls who aren’t yet 14 — but agencies say they’re turned off by the political overtones of the debate and uninterested in investigating further. It’s just not realistic, they say. All in all, they’re reacting to the sexualization trend with a mixture of helplessness and resignation. “We just tell them they’re too young,” one director said, knowing as she said it how inadequate the response sounded.

And that, for the moment, is where we stand.

Melanie Wilson is Youth Catalytics’ Research Director.