Grappling with the Sexualization Issue

Study: 22 percent of all teen girls — and 11 percent of teen girls ages 13-16 years old — say they have electronically sent, or posted online, nude or semi-nude images of themselves. — PsychCentral, January 2009

Youth Catalytics’ interest in the sexualization of girls began a few years ago, when the executive director of a Massachusetts agency told me how disturbed he was that so many young girls — 10, 11, 12 — were coming into his agency’s programs already dressing and acting like fully sexual adults. While their clinical diagnoses weren’t specifically sexual in nature, sex seemed to have been a big part of their lives: many of them, for instance, came from families that didn’t particularly mind them “dating” older men and spending their evenings at after-hours clubs. Now, even in a highly structured residential program, it was all the staff could do to keep them from changing into skin-tight latex pants and midriff-baring tops on the way to school.

We checked around, and found that his concerns were hardly unique. Everyone in the field we talked with had noticed the same thing. And no one really knew how to respond. Were these behaviors sexually reactive, stemming from sexual abuse, or were they a product of the culture itself? And if it turned out culture was the problem, then what the answer?

So we started to dig into the topic, looking hard at the causes of this trend and identifying new approaches that agencies and communities as a whole were taking in response to it.

At this point, I’ve seen quite a bit of research on this issue, none more alarming than the American Psychological Association’s voluminous 2007 report detailing the pervasive objectification of girls by society, by parents, and by one another. That’s about culture and psychology. But there is the purely physical aspect of the phenomenon, too. Girls are undeniably reaching biological maturity earlier; research is clear on that point. What triggers early puberty? That’s not so clear. From different scientific quarters come theories suggesting a complicated interplay of cultural and environmental factors: sexy TV and music, social networking sites on the internet, chemical pollutants, the absence of real fathers in the home combined with the presence of non-biological “father figures,” and more. Teasing apart what causes what, and to what extent, is the hard part, of course, so it’s not surprising that no consensus has yet emerged.

It’s easy to get tangled up in this issue, to conclude that the more you know, the less you really know for sure. Can we actually figure this one out? Should we keep trying?

I admit to having my own front-row seat to this particular show: my 14-year-old stepdaughter and her circle of friends, all of whom somehow have been indoctrinated in the belief that being sexy is right, good, and necessary. If you can’t excite the envy of your girlfriends and jumpstart the nascent sexual appetites of boys in your class, you might as well just die now. I mean, like, do you want to be popular, or not? As adults, we may have the notion that this mating dance is more about insecurity than about sex, but let’s agree for the moment that it doesn’t matter. Girls follow the siren song of their group, not their elders.

So what’s going on out there? And can anybody stop it?

The current female empowerment philosophy, explained to me by a veteran sex educator, seems to go something like this: Isn’t there something kind of cool about young girls finally getting to flaunt their sexuality? You couldn’t do that when I was growing up. You go, girl.

In the last few years, two completely opposite answers have emerged to that question. The social conservatives, rushing in to take advantage of our downward cultural slide, answered affirmatively. Of course we can stop it, they said. All it takes is … abstinence. And thus we got the abstinence movement. With substantial moral and financial support from the Bush administration, it spent years and many millions in public money trying to prove that kids could be scared out of having sex. (If you’re not sure if t

his is strictly true, consider that to get abstinence funding, your program had to explicitly teach that premarital sex was “likely to cause physical and psychological harm.”) Youth-serving professionals — in a heckling tone, usually — assured them that this approach wouldn’t work, but the abstinence folks stuck their fingers in their ears and forged ahead anyway. And this made perfect sense, because whether the approach actually changed behavior in any scientifically provable way — and we now that it doesn’t — was beside the point. Theirs was a religiously tinged ideological position, and science was irrelevant to it. Abstinence was the right thing to teach, so discussion could happily end there.

If the abstinence message was “sex-negative,” hyping all the potentially bad consequences of early (in this case, premarital) sex, the message from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum has been stridently “sex-positive.” This female empowerment philosophy, explained to me by a veteran sex educator, seems to go something like this: Isn’t there something kind of cool about young girls finally getting to flaunt their sexuality? You couldn’t do that when I was growing up. You go, girl — just be safe. This position is ideological, too, having its roots in the feminist movement, but at least it has the coincidental benefit of being more obviously right than wrong. Education is better for kids than non-education; knowledge is better than ignorance. It’s too bad we’ve had to fight so hard and spend so much money to arrive at this simple conclusion.

Of course, most of us don’t position ourselves at either the liberal or conservative extreme. We’re somewhere in the middle, wanting to do the right thing but unclear exactly what the right thing is. While I obviously support frank education about sex, I’m not entirely ready to acquiesce to our cultural moment. Is it impossible to fight the disturbing cultural tide welling up around us, or do we have to simply “go with it,” as my sex educator friend said? Forgetting the nonsense about “waiting for marriage,” is it possible or desirable to try to teach teens to wait until maturity, and then help them think about when, for each of them, maturity might come? Or would such an approach make us “sex-negative”?

Two years into this research, such are the questions I ask myself. A moment of clarity finally emerged for me a few months ago when I was sitting with my colleagues talking all this over. One colleague has an 11-year-old daughter who’s hurtling toward a role on Sex and the City, another is an expert on LGBTQ issues, and another ran a teen shelter in western Massachusetts for many years, seeing many troubled girls wash in and out of his program. Together, we wrung our hands.

Then I started talking about the little girl I mentor, Calley. Calley is just turning 12, but in many ways seems more like 6 or 7. She still likes coloring books and lick’n’stick tattoos, and her best friend in her neighborhood is in the first grade. On the other hand, Calley has crushes on boys in her class and devotes long journal entries to how much she longs to “be with” them. She seems a world apart from my stepdaughter, who wears strapless dresses and high heels to dances and wouldn’t dream of travelling from one room to another without her makeup bag.

But, despite my stepdaughter’s awkward lurch toward sexual sophistication, I’m not so worried about her. She’s got vigilant parents, great female role models, a middle-class future to advance, and all the expectations of her social class and peers to meet. If she gets into trouble, her parents will bail her out. Whatever she needs, she’ll get.

Calley is a completely different story. Her family lives in a rundown public housing project; none of the females in her family have jobs, let alone careers; and her own progress through life so far seems troubled. Her grades are abysmal and her ADHD medication keeps getting adjusted upward. Calley’s mother is smart and savvy, but she won’t be any match for the problems Calley could encounter in adolescence. All Calley needs to do is get entangled with an abusive boyfriend, get pregnant, become addicted to drugs or contract an incurable STD. Given her emotional neediness, it’s all too easy to imagine any of these things happening. And that will be that. The hopes she harbors for her future, flimsy enough already, will be gone.

So, as we wend our way to the end of our research, I’ve finally decided what I believe. The “at-risk” girls we work with can’t afford to make sexual mistakes, and we can’t afford any longer to take ideological positions at their expense. Our sexed-up culture isn’t out to hurt them personally, but it will hurt them nonetheless. It’s alright if we progressive types remain conflicted; being conflicted is one of our charms. But let’s be clear about one thing: these girls need our protection. In fact, I don’t think they can do without it.

Melanie Wilson is Youth Catalytics’ Research Director