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Robin Summerfield: So sexy, so soon

Robin Summerfield
Calgary Herald

September 12, 2008

Mini-skirts for mini-people, thongs for tweens and bikinis for babies: Childhood has never seemed so inappropriately sexy.

At the mall, it's often hard to distinguish the line between womenswear and clothing for girls.

With Halloween on the horizon, racks will once again be well-stocked with tight, short and revealing costumes for girls. Watch for provocative pirates or slinky French maids coming to a teen party near you.

Sex sells. That marketing mantra is nothing new but these days sex seems to be selling to a younger and younger demographic.

It's hard to know what to make of this all and what it means to be a healthy girl these days, or how to even raise one.

The questions aren't new.

But it's the so-called "sexualization of childhood" that seems to be gaining purchase these days.

Purchase is the apt word here as this sexualized childhood all feeds into an exploding consumer market that is increasingly and relentlessly targeting kids, the authors of a new book argue.

"I had no idea how bad it was going to get," says Jean Kilbourne, author of the new book So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids (Ballantine Books, $28).

Kilbourne is the Boston-based academic and author renowned for her 1969 lecture Killing Us Softly, which took aim at how women were sexually objectified in advertising.

More recently, her work has focused on the impact of media on teens and children.

Kilbourne and her co-author Diane Levin, a parenting expert and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, paint a not-so-rosy picture in their new book.

Youngsters are treated more and more as consumers, they maintain. And there has been an explosion of children-focused products and entertainment -- and a crossover between the two -- like never before, Kilbourne says.

Products like action figures, video games, toys, dolls, clothes, all the way down to pencils and notepads, and kids' meals at fast food restaurants, are all based on the latest hit TV show or kids movie.

The slutty Bratz dolls that were parlayed into a movie last year for tweens are a prime example.

The motivation behind this targeted marketing?

"If you can get people to eroticize shopping early on then you've got consumers lined up at the mall for the rest of their lives," Kilbourne says.

Shopping can become eroticized when consumers begin to define their sexual worth based on the clothes they wear, the perfumes they buy and all the things they own, Kilbourne argues.

Even the experience of going shopping and being surrounded by shiny, beautiful, expensive stuff can itself become an erotic experience, she says.

Kids are not immune to these desires and, just like adults, they are at risk of defining their self-worth by what they have, rather than who they are, she adds.

Children are also exposed to adult themes of sex and sexuality earlier and earlier. Exposure through various media -- television, music, video games, the Internet et al -- brands them with warped views about sex and sexuality, which in turn can stunt their emotional, sexual and social well-being, the authors argue.

It's not that children are learning about sex too young, it's about what "today's sexualized environment" is teaching children about sex and sexuality, they write.

It all adds up to this: Children are exposed to adult ideas of sex and sexuality way too fast, yet they are ill-equipped and too young to understand and process what it all means.

This sets them up to become adults who have trouble connecting or relating to others, they surmise.

So Sexy, So Soon arrives as more stories of teen sex, sexuality, virginity pacts and teen pregnancy have recently hit the news.

The 17-year-old daughter of U.S. vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is five months' pregnant. Her mother supports teaching abstinence to kids in schools. Unfortunately, that ideology didn't seem to work within her own family.

TV shows like 90210 portray the modern-day teen life as one big sexual conquest -- complete with deception and betrayal -- after another. In one notorious scene on the season opener of 90210, the high school's star lacrosse player and resident dreamboy receives oral sex from a teen girl while sitting in his car in the school's parking lot.

These on-screen teens are randier, richer and more removed from reality than ever.

Yet, there are some holdouts in popular culture. The Jonas Brothers, the trio of pop-star siblings, all wear matching no-sex-before-marriage rings. The boys were comically eviscerated for their virginity pledges by the host of the MTV movie awards this week.

An argument could of course be made that sex has always been in the news and firmly planted in popular culture.

But does this all add up to kids having sex sooner?

In Canada, a recent survey suggests otherwise.

A Statistics Canada study released in late August found 43 per cent of youth aged 15 to 17 had sex at least once in 2005, compared to 47 per cent in 1996-97. Modern teen girls, in particular are saying "no" more these days, the study found. In 1996-97, 51 per cent of girls aged 15 to 17 had sex at least once. In 2005, that number dropped to 43 per cent. Teen boys held steady at 43 per cent.

But when it comes to actual parenting in the trenches, numbers are just numbers. A study doesn't help a parent faced with real-life questions like 'What's a blowjob?' from their grade-schooler.

So what's a parent to do? Know the enemy, it seems.

Watch all the TV shows and music videos, listen to the music, play the video games, read the magazines and books, and surf the sites that your children do, Kilbourne says. Find out what they like and why, she says.

The key is to establish open, honest communication and an atmosphere of safety and trust with your kids, she says.

And then start a conversation.

"Even if you have a teenager, it's not too late," Kilbourne says. "It's never too late."

 

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