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Sexpot Virgins: The Media's Sexualization of Young Girls

Professor M. Gigi Durham discusses the corporate media's sexual objectification of girls and how to help young women fight regressive media messages.
 
 
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In 2006, the retail chain Tesco launched the Peekaboo Pole Dancing Kit, a play set designed to help young girls "unleash the sex kitten inside."

Perturbed parents, voicing concern that their 5-year-olds might be too young to engage in sex work, lobbied to have the product pulled. Tesco removed the play set from the toy section but kept it on the market.

As M. Gigi Durham points out in The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It , Tesco's attempt to sell stripper gear to kids is just one instance of the sexual objectification of young girls in the media and marketplace. Some of the many other examples include a push-up bra for preteens, thongs for 10-year-olds bearing slogans like "eye candy," and underwear geared toward teens with "Who needs credit cards ... ?" written across the crotch.

Targeted by marketers at increasingly younger ages, girls are now being exposed to the kind of unhealthy messages about sexuality that have long dogged grown women. Girls are told that their worth hinges on being "hot," which in mainstream media parlance translates into thin, white, makeupped and scantily clad. Meanwhile, acting on their sexual impulses earns them the epithet "slut." Teen magazines advise girls on how to tailor their look and personality to please boys (in order to entrap them in relationships). Advertisements present violence toward women as sexy.

According to Durham, the regressive messages about sexuality that circulate in mainstream media hamper the healthy sexual development of kids and teens.

Durham's critique does not end with the corporate media. She also faults adults for failing to engage in reasonable, open dialogue with teens about sex -- thus leaving the sexual education of young people to a media primarily concerned with generating profit, as opposed to, say, selflessly helping young people develop healthy ideas about sexuality.

AlterNet talked to Durham on the phone about the sexual objectification of girls in the media and how to help them challenge regressive messages about their sexuality.

What's the "Lolita Effect," and why is it harmful?

The Lolita Effect is the media's sexual objectification of young girls. In the Nabokov novel the protagonist, who is 12 years old at the start of the book, is the object of desire for Humbert Humbert the pedophile. In the book you're put into the mind of the predator; Lolita, in Humbert's view, initiates the sex and is very knowledgeable and all that. Nowadays the term Lolita has come to mean a little girl who is inappropriately sexual, wanton, and who sort of flaunts her sexuality and seduces older men. I'm very critical of that construction in the novel and in real life because little girls can't be held responsible in this way. They're not born with the understanding or intention of seducing older men, and the burden of responsibility can't be placed on children. They're just too young to knowingly enter into these kinds of relationships. The Lolita Effect is the way our culture, and more importantly our corporate media, have constructed these little "Lolitas" by sexualizing them and marketing really sexualized items of clothing and behaviors to them -- constructing them as legitimate sexual actors when they aren't.

In your book you talk about how over the past 50 years female sex symbols have gotten a lot younger. In the 1950s you had people like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, who reached the peak of their popularity in their mid- to late 20s. Now there are 12-year-old models. What accounts for this shift?

That's interesting, isn't it? Marilyn Monroe was 27 when she starred in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes . It's a lot easier for me to accept someone pushing 30 as a sexual being. What accounts for this shift? I can make educated inferences even though of course we have no hard data about what actually caused it. Part of it is that marketers caught on, somewhere in the 1990s, which was a very prosperous time economically in the United States especially, that young kids, tweens and children had a lot of disposable income and were spending a lot of money. Last year the market research firm Euromonitor said that worldwide tween spending reached 170 billion dollars. I think a large part of it was the marketers' realization that they could cultivate cradle-to-grave consumers by targeting very young kids by getting them to buy into the frames that older women have been persuaded to buy into for a long time, such as trying to achieve unattainable bodies and present themselves as highly desirable to men. They could get little girls to start consuming cosmetics and fashion and even diet aides at very young ages and then hold onto them for longer. So I think a lot of it was a marketing impulse.

I think there are a few other factors at work as well. Women have entered the public sphere more and more and have become much more accomplished and successful in the workplace and economically and in terms of assertiveness within their relationships. Little girls still represent a traditional version of femininity: They're docile, they're passive, they're easily manipulated, and I think that's being held up as an ideal of femininity, which to me is kind of scary.

One of the marketing messages geared toward young girls is the idea that being "hot" and "eye candy" for boys is of paramount importance. How does this emphasis on "hotness" hinder girls' development of healthy ideas about sexuality?

Let me say first that I think sex is great. I think sex is a wonderful, totally natural part of growing up. I think children are sexual -- and that's not just me; all of the research points to that. Adolescents are trying to understand their sexuality. And I do think that wanting to be sexually desirable is part of being a human being.

But at the same time this construction of "hotness" is rigidly and narrowly defined by the media. And there's so much emphasis placed on it that it becomes the only thing that's important in girls' lives -- or at least that's what the media would have you believe. Because achieving the mainstream media's version of "hotness" demands being a consumer.

If you're trying to be "hot" in the ways that they prescribe -- conforming to a specific body type, wearing a certain type of clothing -- of course you are going to be spending a lot of money trying to achieve it. So there are problems with it. For one thing, it negates and devalues all of the other aspects of a girl's personality. Sex is good, but it's one aspect of being a human being. A lot of other things are equally important, like your intelligence, creativity, spirituality and community involvement. All of these things are equally important in terms of being a fully fledged human being. But in many media, girls are told that only being hot matters. So it can warp them into skewed, one-dimensional people, where all these other aspects of their personalities aren't being developed. So that hampers them, as people.

In terms of sexuality, they can't experience their sexuality fully and joyfully and individually and diversely because they're being held up to this very narrow, very restrictive definition of what sexiness is about. So I think it's problematic on both of those fronts.

Can you talk about the idea that girls have to be "hot" but not "sluts"? Why do you think that this is such a deeply ingrained, pervasive construct?

That's not new. Girls have had to walk that line for quite a while now, where the emphasis is on being sexually desirable but immediately being condemned if they actually act on their desire. Girls are expected not to have desires of their own. The scholar Deborah L. Tolman identified this -- she called it "the missing discourse of girls' desire" -- I think sometime in the mid-'80s. This has been a problem for girls and women all along: They have not been allowed to express their own interest in sex or express their own desires or seek their own pleasure for quite a long time. … It's a terrible mixed message, and it's almost impossible to achieve it -- to walk around projecting desirability but to never be able to act on it, never be allowed to engage in it. One of the other problems is that because of this idea, girls aren't given good information about actual sexual activity. They are not given information to make them understand the risks and responsibilities, how to be in control, protect themselves against STDs, unintended pregnancies -- that's missing from the way they understand sex.

Is there a comparable set of messages about sexuality aimed at boys?

It's not as pervasive. Here's what I think about boys. I think they're getting a lot of messages about girls as sexual objects, in music videos and in video games. In most of the media targeted to teens and even to tweens, girls are always presented as eye candy and sexual objects. Both boys and girls are getting that message. Now, the message that boys are getting about sexuality and masculinity is that male sexuality is predatory, often violent and not emotionally engaged. Those are problematic constructions too. But in the end, girls bear the brunt of those constructions because they give boys an awful lot of power. They don't really put boys in vulnerable positions; they put boys in more powerful positions. In the end it harms both boys and girls. They are not getting good information. They're not getting an ethical, mutual understanding of sex and sexuality, where it's about consensus and cooperation and understanding each other on some human level. It's all about predation and submission.

You emphasize throughout the book that girls are not zombified, unthinking consumers of media but tend to be very critical of media representations. So to a certain extent, these offensive images and messages must resonate with the desires of many girls. How do we deal with the fact that sometimes sexuality isn't very P.C.?

In the sense of wanting to adopt some of these (sexual) costumes and things like that? I think there is a playful side to it. And I'm not criticizing out of hand. I'm not saying that girls shouldn't wear makeup or high heels. I don't think any of that is true. Because I do think that there is a lot of fun and playfulness involved in some of that. But I do think that girls need to think about it and to make sure that what they're doing is intentional and is making them feel good about themselves and good about their bodies and knowing that they have a lot of different choices. If they want to adopt a certain type of costuming one day that's OK, but they can go out in their baseball hats and blue jeans another day. They should be allowed to make informed choices about how to present themselves to the world, and they need to understand the consequences of those presentations. I think we need to have a lot of discussion about that with girls, just as long as it doesn't become a type of obsession that limits their views of what it means to be a girl.

The other side of it for me is that they should always feel like they're safe when they do that. As long as they feel like they're making choices that don't put them in a bad position, and also the adults around them don't feel like they're putting themselves in a vulnerable position. But one of the problems is that for many, many girls those choices are not completely safe, especially if they are in a situation where they could be at physical risk. We just need to be thinking really hard about how they're choosing to make these kinds of moves.

In the book you describe yourself as a pro-sex feminist. How did this perspective inform your approach to the topic?

It was very important to me not to be moralizing and coming across like I was policing or repressing girls' sexuality. I wanted to make it clear from the start that sex is a good thing and a really normal part of being a human being, and that we ought to acknowledge that children and teenagers are sexual and we shouldn't draw back in horror. One of the problems for me is that in the U.S. we have such a puritanical view of sex -- we absolutely refuse to talk about it, we don't have good sex-ed in schools, we don't give kids straightforward, accurate information about sex.

I wanted to, in a way, redefine the term pro-sex. I'm pro healthy, progressive ideas about sex. And I'm totally opposed to regressive or restrictive ideas about sex. I think that's a little different from the way it's normally defined.

You discuss how conservatives as well as progressives often talk about the wrong things and jump to faulty conclusions about young people's sexuality. What are some of the things that both sides get wrong, and what's a good middle ground?

One of the things that at least one of the sides gets wrong is this abstinence-only business. Realistically, it's really hard to stop kids from thinking about and experimenting with sex. That doesn't mean that I think 12-year-olds ought to run out and have sex. But only and always making it taboo, wrong, scary, terrible is going to mean that children don't feel like they have the safe spaces in which to express sexual feelings and ask the kinds of questions they need to ask to get the information they need. A lot of studies show that kids in the U.S. don't know where to go for contraception, for example. They don't know where to get counseling if something goes wrong. They don't know how to express their needs in sexual encounters -- their comfort levels of where to stop and things like that. I think it's a problem that we don't have a matter-of-fact approach to sex and treat it like a normal part of public health and humanity and talk about it a lot more.

But on the other hand, on the more liberal side, there's this "anything goes" attitude where "it's all great" and we should never say anything about it because somehow that translates into being anti-sex or being repressive or for censorship. I don't think that is true either. I think we need to understand that sometimes critique is necessary, that children are children and that they need some guidance and that caring adults do have a role to play in terms of helping them through these really difficult issues that are very hard for kids to navigate on their own. So I think there are problems on both sides. I don't think we should say anything goes, and I don't think we should police kids.

In terms of the pro-abstinence crowd, there seems to be a lot more outrage over things connected to sexual health, like the HPV vaccine, sex-ed, and condoms in schools, than there is about sexual media images.

Yes, absolutely, which is crazy and hypocritical. That's really at the core of what I'm writing about. We applaud all of these sexualized representations out there that I think in the end are very exploitative and really regressive. But then we won't deal in a straightforward way with the real-world issues that need to be addressed, like children understanding contraception and understanding STDs. So it's just nuts that the abstinence-only movement turns a blind eye to the really problematic representations of sexuality in the public sphere.

Why do you think that is? Do people just not realize how influential media are?

There might be some of that. Sometimes people dismiss the media as being unimportant or trivial or just entertainment with no impact whatsoever. For people that study the media, it's clear that it's not just background noise, that we live in a media-saturated environment, that media shape our understanding of the world. So I don't think that we should just dismiss it. I think that we ought to take media seriously.

Do you think that these media images are consonant with regressive attitudes about sexuality?

I think so. It's awfully hard to pinpoint causality, but certainly in some ways media reflect cultural, very patriarchal attitudes, where women are sexual objects and nothing more, and only certain types of bodies are presented as sexual. But at the same time, media are recirculating and reinforcing these attitudes. So there's a vicious cycle going on. For example, with violence against women: I completely understand the argument that these media reflect and in some ways are cathartic because they represent these social problems. But then at the same time they're recirculating them and reinforcing them.

What do you think about the controversy over the new “Grand Theft Auto” game?

I do have issues with violent video games, because the way gender is presented reinscribes these really traditional and polarized views of masculinity and femininity, where men are violent aggressors and the women are almost always presented as sex workers -- they're always strippers or prostitutes. So there are almost no women with agency or power, who can command actual respect from men. And again, there aren't men who could work things (nonviolently), for example. So I definitely don't see them as progressive representations.

Can you talk a little more about the profit motive in media that in part drives these regressive representations of sexuality and sexiness?

That's a really key point in my argument. The media are for-profit enterprises, and we need to recognize that from the start. Whatever they do to represent any aspect of human experience, it's going to be connected to generating revenue. When they represent sex and sexuality, very obviously it's going to have a commercial motivation behind it. So we get these definitions of sexuality that are yoked to consumerism, and sexuality is only represented in a way that will stimulate consumption. So they're not acting in girls' best interests, and they're not acting in society's best interests; they're acting to generate profits. We ought to understand that however media represent sexuality is not going to be in ways that is good for anybody but the corporations!

What happens, though, is that media are influential in teaching kids about sex. There are studies indicating that because we don't have discussions about sex anywhere else in society -- most kids don't get it at school, most of them don't get it at home -- kids get a lot of their sexual understanding from the media. So they're going to only get corporate representations. They're not going to get alternative ideas about sexuality or counter-messages or scripts that could challenge some of those types of representations.

You also make the point that we can't blame everything on the media. What do you think of the tactics of conservative watchdog groups like the Parents Television Council?

Some of them are very censorious in their approach. I think there are some watchdog groups that are really helpful. One group I go to a lot is Common Sense Media, because I think their movie reviews are good and fair and they give you a lot of information so that you can make decisions about the media. But others are really inclined to repress representations in ways that I think are problematic. So I think we ought to be careful about that. I'm totally opposed to censorship. But I do think that parents could, and should, monitor their kids' media consumption, because not everything is appropriate for children of all ages. Even recently in my own life I've seen little kids traumatized by watching violent media. But you can't keep kids in a bubble forever. As they get older, they're going to be exposed to these things, and the most helpful thing that anyone can do is talk about what's going on in the media with children and offering them ways to maintain distance and be critical of these representations and understanding the selling intentions behind them and all of those things. But I know that not all parents or counselors or teachers are informed enough about media studies or media literacy to be able to bring these things up or to offer these perspectives.

So one of the things I argue for in the book is media literacy education in the schools. I really think that in this world it's as important as reading and writing, maybe even more important, for kids to understand the media.

But there's probably about as much funding for that as there is for sex-ed.

Yeah, totally. At the same time I think parents can go to these watchdog organizations, but to use their own judgment in terms of which ones they're going to rely on. They can cobble together different perspectives and make good decisions. And the third thing is, in my book there's a sort of DIY media literacy for everyday people because I think a lot of these analytical strategies in the province of media scholars that are talked about in academic journals and conferences -- these never get out to the general public, who need them more than we do. One goal of the book is to offer those strategies to people in the real world.

Is that basically what you would tell a parent who is concerned about overly sexualized media images but doesn't want to send the message to their kid that sexuality is bad?

Yes. Share values, talk about them, critique them. What I'm arguing for is the exact opposite of censorship, which is just a lot more critique and public discussion and debate about all of this.

Should we be trying to change the media, or is it best to stick to informing people and kids about it so they become more critical consumers?

To me the most important thing is to develop critical consumers, to put agency in the hands of consumers. There are a lot of interesting groups out there working with the media. For example, there's a group called the Media Project, and they work with TV writers to try to put more factual, more diverse information about sexuality into TV shows. Not in a preachy kind of way, but in a way that would expand ideas about sex.

The thing I want to emphasize is that any adult can start a conversation with their kids, even when they are really, really young, even as young as 2, which is what I've done with my kids. Not even specifically about sex, but about the selling intent behind advertising and comparing what goes on in real life compared to fiction and helping them sort out facts. You can start getting them to be critical of the media when they're very young.

 
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