(WOMENSENEWS)–We didn’t talk much about sex when I was growing up. At school, we studied the reproductive organs in single-gender health classes. At home, my mother made sure I understood the physical changes that occurred as I made my way through puberty. But detailed discussions about the new “equipment” that my teenage friends and I were developing and how we might use it didn’t happen.
Of course, adults also weren’t talking openly about sex. Love and marriage, yes. But not sex. Remember “I Love Lucy?” Bedroom scenes in the show featured twin beds, and the stars were required to have at least one foot on the floor at all times.
Times have changed. Our culture is saturated with sex. Recently, I stood in front of a display of teen magazines and noted how often the word sex appeared. Sizzling headlines on glossy covers asked “Are You Sexy?” or proclaimed “Sexy Minis,” “Sexy Scene Stealers” and “Sexy Hair.” More headlines focused girls on everything but their brains: “Jeans That Give the Best Butt,” “Be a Great Kisser,” “365 Ways to Look Hot” and “Get Flatter Abs in Two Weeks.”
Television also leaves little to the imagination. According to industry statistics, the number of sexual scenes on television, across all genres, “has nearly doubled since 1998,” and a staggering “70 percent of all shows include some sexual content, and . . . these shows average 5.0 sexual scenes per hour.” Moving to the Internet creates a more disturbing picture. Analysis of entertainment found online, for example in video games, makes it clear that females are frequently portrayed as sex objects or as the targets of sexual violence.
To add to the problem, we’re exposing children to provocative images at increasingly younger ages. Amidst controversy, Mattel discontinued Lingerie Barbie and her “heavenly bustier ensemble,” but the popular Bratz dolls with their flirty, seductive looks and sexy clothing (miniskirts and fishnet stockings) keep sexualized images in front of girls as young as 4. The report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls specifically noted, regarding Bratz dolls, that it is “worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified adult sexuality.“
What is particularly alarming about our culture’s sexualization of children is its occurrence at a time when we are seeing the onset of puberty at younger ages than ever before. One-in-six 8-year-old girls is entering puberty, compared with 1-in-100 a century ago. Researchers seeking causes are looking at possible connections to, among others, the increase of obesity in children, hormones in food and phthalates, “a ubiquitous chemical plasticiser” found in products as diverse as building materials, food packaging, garden hoses and shoe soles.
The problem, says Lynn Ponton in “The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do,” is that girls can have “fully developed women’s bodies with all the associated social commentary before they even enter adolescence.” In other words, girls’ physical development launches them into sexual orbit long before they’re emotionally mature enough to manage the social pressures that result.
As if this were not troublesome enough, society compounds the situation by sending girls distorted messages about how their emerging sexuality is related to their self-worth and personal power. According to the report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, “Research suggests that viewing material that is sexually objectifying can contribute to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depressive affect and even physical health problems in high-school-aged girls and in young women.”
Of course, the source of a young woman’s healthy sense of self is not a low-cut blouse or a short skirt. Girls will benefit when adults can take steps to slow down the pace at which adolescents are being hurled into provocative adult behaviors. Furthermore, our daughters’ genuine confidence and self-esteem will develop as a result of our spending time to help them make sense of a culture that pushes every sexual boundary and depicts sex “as recreation, sex as commerce and exploitation, sex as sport, status and even violence,” according to a Washington Post article.
The code of silence in effect when I was a teen won’t work today. We must talk to girls early and often about what they are experiencing as they develop. If we can’t find the words, there are resources to help us. Author and human sexuality educator Deborah Roffman reminds us what research in sex education consistently confirms: “Children who grow up in families where sexuality is openly discussed grow up healthier.”
It has always been a parent’s responsibility to help a teen understand the fallacies in the messages communicated through popular culture. Ask your daughter to make a list of her personal qualities and of the evidence that she does indeed possess them. By redirecting her to reflect upon the inner strengths and talents that will shape the course of her life, you dilute the impact of the diminishing messages that surround her.
Excerpt from “Parenting Great Girls: Giving Our Daughters the Courage to Lead Authentic and Confident Lives.”
Jeannie Norris is a respected leader and advocate in the area of all-girls education. She speaks and writes extensively about the education and parenting of girls and the role of women in philanthropy.
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