The Watchful Eye Newsletter
Mary Bailey, Editor
The Sexualization of Boys The Other Half of the Story
By Mary Bailey
Starting with this issue, the name of our task force will change from the Sexualization of Girls to the Sexualization of Youth. The reasons for the change are as follows:
It took only a few months for us to realize we were focusing on half the problem. It’s not just the sexualization of girls that is at issue, but also the sexualization of boys. We had taken our name from the American Psychological Association’s report, “The Sexualization of Girls,” and built on its evidence that the mainstream culture is imbuing girls with adult sexuality, making them seem appropriate sex objects, and encouraging them to dress and act in ways once reserved for soft-core pornography.
Staring us right in the face was the parallel sexualization of boys—parallel, but by no means similar. While girls get much of their sexual acculturation from mainstream entertainment, fashion, and advertising, boys are getting their sex education directly from Internet pornography. All they have to do is press a button that says yes, they are 18, and they’re into a universe being tutored by the soulless and amoral men of porn.
So today let’s talk about the boys. Although the future is difficult to foresee, the probability is that boys will continue to log on to Internet pornography. And, as long as it’s profitable, online pornographers will continue to influence young minds. In such a climate, boys need to know what scientists know: that pornography can become like a drug of dependence, requiring ever-larger “doses” to have its effect. And they need to know that their brains are elastic, rewiring themselves based on what they do (or imagine doing), and that the part of their brains that views pornographic sex can enlarge and take over adjacent areas, eventually crowding out other, more romantic, choices they might have made. Finally, they need to understand that whenever they relate to a girl in a pornographic fashion, they’re not just exercising a choice, they are betraying her willingness to please and probably affecting her health and well being.
Of course not all boys exposed to online pornography will progress to exploiting girls or become addicted to the kind of mean, degrading, and humiliating sex so often found on the Internet. Some will empathize with the objectified women, while others will turn away at various stops along the way. But from the accounts we’ve read or heard so far, the situation can only worsen if society ignores it much longer.
It is time the sexualization of boys became a topic of serious public discussion. What kind of society are girls going to face if boys continue to absorb this “sexual Asperger’s syndrome,” this inability to empathize? We need to launch a public health campaign. Our efforts to improve girls’ lives will be meaningless if we ignore the role the sexualization of boys plays in the world that girls inhabit. The future is hard upon us. Or, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently said in a different context, “It is part of the human comedy that we sense what’s coming but do not take action. The truly devastating shocks aren’t the ones that sneak up on us but those we see approaching, inexorably, yet can’t summon the political will to address.” Let us see, dear readers, that it does not happen.
On Biology and Destiny A Pragmatic Approach
By Jill Niebrugge-Brantley
In the September issue of The Watchful Eye, reader Margot Peters raised an important point for everyone interested in the problem of the sexualization of girls when she speculated that “No social conditioning has been able to correct men’s overwhelming sex and power drive, which is inherent.” Are persons wanting to oppose the sexualization of girls—and, really, of youth—playing King Canute to the irresistible tide of biological imperative?
There is certainly data to suggest that the onset of puberty is occurring earlier in girls and boys than was the case fifty years ago. Lois Rogers in The Sunday Times (06-13-10) reported that “Growing numbers of girls are reaching puberty before the age of 10, raising fears of increased sexual activity among a new generation of children” and that scientists are attributing the causes to obesity and contamination from chemicals now present in the food chain. There is also a fear that this may put girls at an increased risk of breast cancer. There have also been reports of boys being similarly affected—one report asserts that boys are dropping out of choir at the age of 12 or 13 because of changes in their voice. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/8052873/Choirs-in-deep-trouble-over-voice)
Three points seem important here. The first is that there is an obvious need for people concerned with the sexualization of youth to try to learn more about the physiological/biological causes of the lowering of the age of the onset of puberty—and its consequences for health. The second point is to consider that the problem we are trying to address is not girls’ sexuality but the socialization of girls to see themselves as sexual objects. The third point is that because it is hard for us as humans to determine what really is human nature and what is culture, it seems especially important to take to questions about it the position of philosophic pragmatism, as expressed in William James’s argument that “Truth happens to an idea. An idea becomes true” and his question, “What difference would it practically make to any one if this notion rather than that notion were true?”
We perhaps cannot know how malleable the human being really is or how set in certain behaviors. But we can ask ourselves if it is better to proceed from the assumption that we can control our destinies through some shaping of culture and ideas or if it is better to treat biology as destiny. At this point those concerned with the sexualization of youth are choosing the former—but ready to be educated.
What Ever Happened To…
Remember Shelby Knox, the 15-year-old girl who tried to get her Lubbock Texas high school to teach sex ed? Shelby’s experience led to the documentary “The Education of Shelby Knox” and inspired the Dixie Chicks song “Lubbock or Leave It.” The film became an official selection of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and was aired on PBS’s “P.O.V” that same year. Since then, Shelby has graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in political science and now specializes in designing workshop programming on sex education, women’s rights, and youth empowerment. Here is Shelby, addressing the readers of “Hardy Girls, Healthy Women,” who named her SPARK-of-the-day last month:
“I want to add my SPARK to this movement for the girl I used to be. I hated my body for being too big, my hair for being too curly, and my supposedly unnatural aversion to the tight, skimpy clothes that were my only hope for a boyfriend. I didn’t know that the media wanted me to hate my thighs so I would buy weight loss products and expensive jeans, my hair so I would buy flat irons and creams galore. I didn’t realize there were forces out there that want young women to think their worth lies in their sexuality and being able to attract a mate rather than their innate ability to take over the world. When I figured out how to decode these messages I got angry. I started the journey to loving myself, and I found my power in activism and plotting to—you better believe it—take over the world. I want young women to embrace their big hips, their big mouths, their big dreams and become the leaders of the next generation of the revolution.”
Teens: Hypersexed Images ‘No Big Deal’
Abridged from Women’s Enews, 10-29-06
By Sandra Kobrin
Many female teens in a study conducted by the San Francisco-based Women’s Foundation of California said hypersexualized media depictions of women are “normal.” Almost all of the teens polled said such images are “no big deal,” part of their daily life, and what they expect to see on TV and in magazines. While many said they believe the images are often not beneficial to women, the responses suggest that many of the young women are resigned to this being the way society is right now and that women’s bodies are used to sell practically everything.
“I know in my head the images are excessive, but to me they feel normal,” said a 17-year-old. “Sex is what sells, even to me.” “The sexy images do have an effect on me even though I know it shouldn’t because it is based on materialism and shallowness,” said an 18-year-old. “My parents’ generation had the ‘60s and ‘70s, women’s rights and the Beatles,” said a 15-year-old. “What do we have? Paris Hilton.” Most of the young women noted that the images are geared toward men and may be harmful to women because they contribute to men’s perceptions of women as sexualized objects.
Girls’ first job
Ariel Levy, author of “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture” takes a dark view: “It gives them a message before they are even sexually active,” she said. “They have already been taught through music videos, reality TV, MySpace, etc., that part of the job of being female is to put on a show of wantonness…even if it has nothing to do with what you want. Young women are trying to look and behave like those images, as if they were porn stars. As if being able to incite lust is women’s work. That’s your first job, inciting lust.”
Letters to the Editor
Three responses to “Teen HOT Lane: No Route to Empowerment,” Mid-September, 2010
Thank you so much for this issue of The Watchful Eye. It really speaks volumes to me on so many levels for both my children Luke (9) and Amelia (11). I think that part of my plan in moving to New England was to take the kids farther from the six foot billboards that litter every area of Los Angeles from the freeways to the valley school yards that consistently depict the early sexualization of children and the objectification of women. Unfortunately, however, it really exists everywhere, and while New England may never catch up to Los Angeles in media saturation, the Internet and cable make everything readily available and viral among Luke and Amelia’s peers. Watchful eye indeed.
— Karen Petersen, New Hampshire
I would like to add a thought to your excellent report. As an octogenarian myself, I’ve grown up with many generations of women besides my own, and from my observations, the girl we called a “tomboy” related to boys on an egalitarian basis—not shy, but into sports and physically active. Wasn’t she less vulnerable to being exploited and therefore more self-assured in the long run? Think about it!
— Shirley Caminer, Rockville, MD
I was thinking about your September article, “The HOT Lane: No Route to Empowerment.” When I was growing up, I was told that girls could have any occupation they wanted. Colleges were accepting more and more women into traditionally male programs, such as math and science. It seems odd that society is forcing these young women to wear sexy clothes, listen to songs about getting a man to like them, and being told to diet. When I went to college I did a research study on body image in college age women. Almost 100 percent of them had significant body image problems. They all wanted to be tall, thin, and busty. Even with all the negative data I was getting, these women wanted to be engineers or mathematicians or scientists.
The Wall Street Journal reported a story about Mattel, the makers of Barbie, and their efforts to create a new Barbie. Mattel surveyed 600,000 young girls and asked them what profession the new Barbie should become. A great majority chose anchorwoman Barbie because anchorwomen are sexy and pretty. Computer engineers were ugly and dorky. The majority of the young girls believed they could become a computer scientist. However, Barbie represented a pretty and sexy image which the computer scientist did not portray. Therefore the young girls choose a more “fashionable” profession. Simply put, computer scientist, engineers, and mathematicians are not sexy enough for Barbie. What message are we as a society sending our young girls? They can be mathematicians so long as they are sexy?
— Elana Cohen, Silver Spring, MD
A ‘TWE’ Alphabet | A is for Allen
Director-actor Woody Allen has always been a “selfish jerk,” discovered writer Andrew Postman. When in summer 1992 Allen’s live-in partner Mia Farrow accused Allen of sexually molesting her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, Postman began reviewing the movies Allen had made up till then. He was a long-time Allen fan and had his movies almost memorized. But when he took a fresh look at the films, he found, “with a heavy heart,” that Woody Allen, whose voice had long been a “comforting, hilarious, daring, original presence” in his head, “had been playing an immoral schmuck for decades.” Postman just hadn’t noticed before.
Among the movies Postman reviewed were Annie Hall, in which Annie is a “giggly, needy schoolgirl” whom Allen patronizes and scolds. Their relationship ends when the girlish Annie turns into a mature woman. In Manhattan, Allen is a 42-year-old man sleeping with a girl 17 years old—but that’s okay, he explains, “as long as the cops don’t burst in.” And once again Allen “spends most of his time belittling her…with occasional spasms of gratitude that she makes her supple self available with such frequency.” In Stardust Memories, Allen enjoys imagining his girlfriend in bed with her father (“Did he have a little crush on you?” he asks). He denies flirting with her kid sister, saying, “She’s not even 14. She’s 13 and a half.”
When a male character tells him, “Child molestation is a touchy subject,” Allen replies, “Read the papers. Half the country’s doing it.”(Washington Post, 02-15-98) A few Q’s: How many men carried a “hilarious” Allen in their heads? Did they swallow the Allen persona whole—and did they ever act on it?
Did I say that? Last month I wrote that the sexualization of girls in our mainstream culture would not cease until young women and girls themselves protest it. It was no sooner out of my pen when another solution appeared in the person of Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who leads the U.S. State Department’s fight against human trafficking. “Ambassador Lu,” as he is called, told an audience at the Capitol Hill screening of “Playground,” a film on child trafficking, that the only answer to child exploitation is to effect a massive change in our cultural attitudes toward sex and children. And who or what can bring about such a profound change, we might ask? Only the arts community, the ambassador said. Nothing will happen, he predicted, unless and until the arts community gets wholeheartedly behind an effort to create a healthy cultural mindset toward children. This sounds so self-evident. Are you listening, all you artists out there?
Rutgers student Tyler Clementi was not the only gay student to commit suicide after being mercilessly bullied, reported Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak. Clementi, the 18-year-old who jumped off a New York bridge after his roommate allegedly videotaped him with another man and broadcast it on the Internet, may have received the most attention from the press, but three other gay students also killed themselves over the same couple of weeks as a result of bullying. While the older LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community often thinks that coming out is easier for the young than it was for them, that’s not always true. Today, “technology affords a handful of new fronts for bullies to harass and humiliate: Facebook wall posts can be seen by more eyes than any bathroom wall graffiti, and Twitter can outrun all playground gossip,” Dvorak said, adding that “Relentless texts and e-mails pound a young soul to a pulp as bullies hide behind anonymous e-mails and whittle away at any sense of safety.” (Wash Post, 10-04-10)
The Lingerie Football League is what you might imagine it to be. The Washington Post called it an “unholy meltdown of attractive young women playing tackle football in bedroom lingerie.” Young athletic women dressed in shoulder pads, helmets—and bras, garters, “tight-tight boys shorts”—played a mini version of real football on MTV2, the teen channel. “Get lots of great [rear] shots,” a cameraman was told. The women were “posed provocatively, with hips and shoulders turned to emphasize curves and cleavage,” and shot from behind as they bent down in their tight-tight pants. (Wash Post 09-30-10) Thus MTV2 gave young males an “object” lesson in viewing female athleticism. In its report, “The Sexualization of Girls,” the American Psychological Association put it well: “Female strength has been redefined as male pleasure.”
Enough with the sexy sidekicks, writes Newsweek’s Julia Baird. Condemning the lack of female characters in family films, Baird says the few that do exist rarely do “anything meaningful or heroic.” “It is a disgrace that we are still teaching girls that they should be onlookers in a world where boys do interesting things. Too many females on screen are inaction figures: watching, waiting, applauding, and baring flesh.” According to the Annenberg School of Communications, between 2006 and 2009 only 29.2 percent of characters in 122 family films were female, and of those, one in four was depicted in “sexy, tight, or alluring attire” compared to one in 25 male characters. One in five female characters were portrayed with “some exposed skin between the mid-chest and upper thigh regions”—because, commented Baird ironically, “you wouldn’t want to take on the world without baring your midriff— girl power!” Other studies, Baird noted, show that the more TV a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in life, and the more a boy watches, the more his views become sexist. (Newsweek, 10-04-10)
Gender lessons. “Helping to reinforce masculinity are the massive media and toy industries, which seem to be cemented in gender apartheid. In 2008, in a trip to Toys R Us with my nieces and nephews, aged between eight and thirteen, I couldn’t believe how much the store had changed from when I used to go with my own son a decade earlier. While there was some gender division among the toys in the 1990s, today the store has an almost tangible gender barrier down the middle. One half was full of toy guns, knives, swords, wrestling figures, and violent computer games, and the other half magically turned pink with princess dresses, dolls, makeup, and hairdryers.” (Gail Dines, Pornland)
This newsletter does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Organization for Women