Sex & Relationships

Is Our Sexed-up Society Creating Prosti-Tots?

Super-sexualized 'prosti-tot' culture posits hotness -- as opposed to, say, math -- as a girl's highest attainable goal.

Last week’s YouTube sensation was the adorkable 12-year-old Avery, all haystack hair and crooked glasses and giant Bugs Bunny teeth, lip-syncing in her messy bedroom to the Ke$ha mega-hit "TiK ToK.” (Sample lyrics: “I'm talking about everybody getting crunk, crunk / Boys tryin' to touch my junk, junk.”) 

What’s awesome about Avery is that -- especially given the other sagaciously smart-ass material on her YouTube channel -- it’s safe to say she is totally in on the joke. (Doofy kid + “brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack” = funny!) She’s not trying, pathetically/disturbingly, to be grownup “hot.” She’s letting her creative eccentric ironic sarcastic confident dweeb flag fly. “I’munna fight!” indeed.

But much of Avery’s charm comes from the fact that she embodies a refreshing counterpoint to (if not commentary on) everything that is disturbing these days about pop culture for young girls. In other words, she’s not Azucena Diaz, the Peruvian 9-year-old whoremade Britney’s “Toxic” video shot into terrifying soft-porn (and was then applauded for it, when she wasn’t being enthusiastically slut-shamed, slash, threatened with sexual assault). Diaz is not just shaking what God gave her. (Though God did appear to give her an unusually large budget.) She is shaking what we gave her and her tween peers: the super-sexualized "prosti-tot” culture that re-packages porn as mainstream "sexy" and posits “hotness” -- as opposed to, say, math -- as a girl’s highest attainable goal.

Just a small sampling of what we get from teen culture’s role-model-o-matic: mini-Miley Noah Cyrus, following in the pole-dancing steps of her big sis, sharing her rendition of “Smack That,” and dressing up as Hermione Granger a diminutive dominatrix for Halloween. Recently came the “news” that 9-year-old Noah was launching a lingerie line for little girls. That she is in fact doing no such thing (the error has reportedly been traced to the otherwise unimpeachable Perez Hilton) is “not the point,” writes Marjorie Ingall at Tabletmag.com. “The point was that it seemed completely credible, because hey, look at her.”

Also: Suri Cruise’s red lipstick, Brazil’s 7-year-old “samba queen,” slutty undies in the juniors department, Toddlers & Tiaras, baby’s first stilettos (which, we understand, are supposed to be "heelarious"), Bratz.

What’s going on? Why the ever-more-aggro sexualizing of ever-younger girls -- even as abstinence-only crusaders and their ilk try, fatuously, to wish their sexuality away?

“The most basic answer is that it’s highly profitable,” says Meenakshi Gigi Durham, professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Iowa and author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. “These sexualized images are all commercially driven. The younger the demographic advertisers target, the more they can create cradle-to-grave consumers.” (And gone-to-early-grave parents.) Tweens were already the “most powerful consumer group since the baby boom" -- a $335 billion market -- in 2004. By 2007, according to Durham, the tween market had reached $700 billion worldwide.

Why is it sex that we’re selling them? (As opposed to, say, really expensive turtlenecks?) Hello, backlash. “It may also be a social and cultural reaction to women’s increasing power -- running for president, vice president, becoming secretary of state,” says Durham. All of these seemingly empowering, you-go-girl messages "are in fact disempowering,” she says. "They define sexuality in narrow, even impossible terms, like being thin yet voluptuous. The message girls get [from some magazines and elsewhere] is that their worth is limited to their attractiveness: no mention of intelligence or artistic capabilities or math skills or spirituality or environmental activism. It’s a one-dimensional picture of what girlhood is about."

Cultural critic Susan J. Douglas would agree. In her latest book, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done, she argues that much of today’s “girl power” (and “empowerment” in general) is just objectification 2.0:

[E]nlightened sexism takes the gains of the women’s movement as a given, and then uses them as permission to resurrect retrograde images of girls and women as sex objects, still defined by their appearance and their biological destiny. What the media have been giving us…are fantasies of power. They assure girls and women…that women’s liberation is a fait accompli and that we are stronger, more successful, more sexually in control, more fearless and more held in awe than we actually are. We can believe that any woman can become a CEO (or president), that women have achieved economic, professional and political parity with men….Yet the images we see on television, in the movies, and in advertising also insist that purchasing power and sexual power are much more gratifying than political or economic power. Buying stuff -- the right stuff, a lot of stuff -- [has] emerged as the dominant way to empower ourselves…[The] wheedling, seductive message to young women is that being decorative is the highest form of power.

Of course, there are many girls who -- like Avery? -- manage to escape the jiggly juggernaut, remaining original and confident and saucy in their own ways, whether or not they also happen to enjoy Ke$ha and/or miniskirts. But as a rule, prosti-tot culture “can actually do girls some harm,” says Meenakshi Durham. Though careful to say that in most cases we are talking about correlation, not causality, she argues that young girls’ ills -- eating disorders, low body image, unplanned pregnancy, STDs and so on -- are at least an indirect result of a popular culture that equips girls only with counterfeit currency: “sexiness” rather than sexuality, attention rather than agency.

One 2008 study Durham cites found that 12 percent of all media aimed at teens had sexual content but less than half of 1 percent addressed sexual health; other studies show that girls are not well-trained to be their own advocates when it comes to articulating needs and setting boundaries. Not that all girls are dim bulbs or doormats who get their only sex ed from the Teen Choice Awards, but still: no wonder so many are ill-equipped to (for one thing) contemplate sex as desire (their own), not being desired (by guys); it’s not a huge leap from there to all manner of troubles. (Related: the misplaced hand-wringing about “hookups,” as Kate Harding has argued at Broadsheet.)

One study in Scotland (covered here in the Guardian) found that a broad decline in girls’ mental health coincided pretty suspiciously with the rise of celebrity and hypersexualized culture. A report by the American Psychological Association linked the sexualization of young girls to eating disorders, low-self esteem and depression, and even, tentatively, to girls’ reluctance to enter traditionally male-dominated careers.

If you look at it this way -- i.e. through the lens of a not-so-far-fetched backlash conspiracy theory -- all of a sudden our culture does not seem so schizo about sex. Yes, we tell young girls to dance on poles and to remain "pure." But either way, it’s all about controlling their sexuality, curtailing their power, keeping them down, cradle to grave.

“When the terms of girls' sexual confidence are established by others and mediated by judgments about purity and morality, it's no confidence at all,” says Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence.

(Yes, we also worry about the boys. “Men and boys are increasingly sexualized, too,” Tablet.com's Marjorie Ingall writes. “They’re under more pressure than ever to be hip, thin and fashionably dressed. And it starts early. I once saw a onesie for baby boys that read, 'Hung like a five-year-old.' [We] should encourage boys not to view girls as objects, but not to buy into their own objectification either.”)

And the girls? The trick, Ingall notes, is this: “We don’t want the kind of modesty conservative thinkers like Wendy Shalit have in mind: long sleeves, long skirts…Those are the same tired, shaming rules. We need to help girls feel at home in their bodies, but in a way that celebrates them instead of hectoring them."

As Rachel Simmons says, "Real confidence comes from within. Girls need to connect with their own sexuality before they begin thinking about how to package or present it to others. Girls also need the skills and permission to advocate for themselves in sexual relationships. This is a huge issue. I've learned that the fear of a best friend getting mad at you turns into the fear, at least in a heterosexual context, of a guy getting mad at you for saying what you want or don't want to do sexually.”

It’d also be nice to have a whole lot more positive, diverse role models, even fictional ones. Research by (speaking of role models) the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media has found that male characters far outnumber female characters in TV and films for kids, and that female characters are much more likely to have "unrealistic figures." (Somebody please start a petition to get Amy Poehler’s other show on prime time.)

In the meantime, we have to help girls be “active, analytical media consumers, and to understand that sexuality is normal and healthy -- and only one part of what it means to be a person,” Durham says, adding: "We can also encourage girls to become activists, and to make their own media. They can often create a very powerful counter-narrative."

We’re looking at you, Avery.