Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hit Me Baby One More Time: The Sexualization of American Tweens

After doing a presentation for class on abstinence-only sex education and the ideologies surrounding the sexual restriction of women today, I came across this article on Jezebel discussing the sexualization of youth in our society. Basically, little girls are now dressing up as sluts, and everyone's all up in arms about little Sally's string bikini.

Slutty Halloween Costumes

But I honestly don't think this problem is anything brand new. I mean, 10-15 years ago, when I was a kid, I wanted to be sexy, too. I dressed up in cute little outfits and danced around my living room to old school Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, who back then were closer to tween role models than sex symbols. Paris Hilton did not make girls interested in looking sexy. Not to say that I support baby drag queens a la Little Miss Sunshine, but I definitely don't think we can blame Paris for all this. This problem has been institutionalized for years; if you're going to blame anyone, blame the Spice Girls. Better yet, blame the parents! Mine wouldn't let me go out of the house in something that was "too old for my age." I wasn't even allowed to really play around with makeup until I was 12 or 13, let alone go outside wearing it. And my parents were not strict at all. They were just aware of the effect society can have on young girls, not just Paris Hilton or celebrities that the media deems "slutty." (Sidenote: The only reason P. Hilt is considered slutty is because of the whole sex tape debacle, and in my opinion, making a sex tape with someone you love and trust to not release it is a completely fair and rational decision that can be made by someone who is not "slutty." Perhaps she was naive to assume that he wouldn't release it, but I don't think she was slutty for being willing to participate in it.)

Anyway, Jezebel points out Carol Platt Liebau's argument that "girls are being led to believe they're in control when it comes to sexual relationships but they're actually living in a profoundly anti-feminist landscape where girls compete for attention on the basis of how much they are sexually willing to do for the boys."

Now this makes me nervous. I spend a lot of time harping on how women should learn and understand their bodies so that they can have gratifying sexual experiences, whether alone or in relationships. Liebau makes me question this argument. Could I have been wrong all along? Could I have been tricked into believing that I, as a woman, wield the sexual power, when in fact I am just feeding into a patriarchal society that I refused to acknowledge?

I'm not sure I'm willing or ready to buy into Liebau's argument. As a woman, as a human being, I have agency, and whether I decide to use that agency in a sexual manner or not, I am still making my own decision. I may be impacted by social norms, but for the most part I try to break out of the (chaste) box society puts women in. If Liebau is so concerned with little girls emulating older women, perhaps she should look no further than American history; sure, society is oversexed these days, but women are getting married much later in life, compared to the 14-16 range common in the Middle Ages. I also think it's interesting that she would resort to blaming the media for the sexualization of tweens, when just last week the Times published an article about the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education, which is a governmental function, not a media one. Teens are having sex younger and getting pregnant more frequently. The media could have something to do with it, but it’s the government’s fault for funding ineffective programs. And most of these programs are anti-feminist. Debbie Nathan argues in The Nation that abstinence-only programs are targeted specifically for girls, intent to plant the notion that having sex before marriage is considered “deviant” societal behavior. This is so deeply embedded into the heads of girls that, even when they choose to get married and lose their virginity (though 88% of girls who make virginity pledges end up breaking them), they cannot disentangle the concepts of “good” and “bad” sex. There is still a negative connotation attached to sex that lurks over them, and it becomes a completely unenjoyable act, focused solely on pleasing their husband. If we could stop framing the abstinence debate and the (sex) objectification of girls in a patriarchal context, perhaps then women can break out of the “anti-feminist” Liebau speaks of, and when little girls dress like sluts, we wouldn’t think it was a bad thing because we wouldn’t even have use for the term “slut.” But that’s just my idea of utopia, I guess.



Michele said...

Jess--what a GREAT post!

I have to say that I agree with Liebau's argument, though. Although you may not feel it, most girls and women are under tremendous societal pressure to be what men want them to be. Last night Ali and I watched the Victoria's Secret fashion show (her decision) and the whole thing was women in lingerie parading before leering men, yet it was touted as some sort of "empowerment for women" kind of thing. Most of TV and media is about how women LOOK, not who they are as people, which was one of the things at the heart of feminism.

The problem with patriarchal societies is that the values are so deeply ingrained that women, too, are drawn in without realizing it. They often reinforce these notions more than anyone.

Women have been set up to be the "sexual gate-keepers" and they have to be responsible for not only their own sexuality, but men's too. Women get to be sluts or prudes. There are no male equivalents for those terms. They are just "men," able to be sexual as they want to be without judgment. The "anti-feminist environment" that Liebau describes is one where even though women think they're in charge, they are still the ones who pay the price. They are still the ones who are sluts or prudes, still the ones who are judged. This isn't a function of government--this is a society that has still not adapted itself, no matter how much it thinks it has.

Michele said...

P.S. The MTA video is a prime example of what I'm talking about. Is it really "empowering" to feed right into male fantasies of pole dancing? To me, that seems more like exactly what the patriarchy wants, women as sexualized beings only.

Jess and Josh said...

But the MTA video -- isn't that empowering in its own way? Instead of trying to strike away from want the patriarchal society wants, you're throwing it right in their laps (literally); look at how the men react. They don't know what to do. They're confused. By actively participating in the society instead of rebelling against it, to me,it seems like a big FUCK YOU. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.

Michele said...

Yeah--I don't know. I hear what you're saying and to some extent I think you're right (Darvin agrees with you, btw). I just really struggle with some of this stuff because it feels like it feeds into the culture of sexualizing women all the time. There's a fine line between women being in charge of that and men driving it. I think it's that men are sexual too, but you don't see them dressed in skimpy clothes or pole dancing. It's that our sense of who we are as sexual beings is in some sense being defined by men, so we're playing into it.