Summerfield: So sexy, so soon
September 12, 2008
Mini-skirts for mini-people, thongs for tweens and
bikinis for babies: Childhood has never seemed so
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
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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
The key is to establish open, honest communication and
an atmosphere of safety and trust with your kids, she
And then start a conversation.
"Even if you have a teenager, it's not too late,"
Kilbourne says. "It's never too late."