January 3, 2008

COMMENTARY – The Sexualization of Girls – Serving Up Our Children on Corporate Platter’


IT IS PROBABLY a good idea, right off the bat, to tell you a bit about myself. I am a cultural anthropologist, a mother of 9-year- old twin girls, and the wife of a doctor. My research focuses on how popular culture influences sexuality.

When I was younger I was not seduced by pop culture. Some may find that hard to believe. Trust me when I tell you, as an anthropologist who fully understands the constraining aspects of culture, that I lived on the edges of normative society, sometimes intentionally. My refusal to shave my legs for more than a decade might have cost me the title of "Homecoming Queen." I'm not kidding. I was first runner-up. I know what you are thinking, "I wonder what the other girls looked like."

Besides trying to defy the dominant rules of femininity, I also never got wrapped up in television shows and rarely went to rock concerts. I was, as you might have guessed, culturally retarded. Now I follow trends in popular culture as a meteorologist tracks weather patterns. I like to think of myself as an anthropologist-psychic, foretelling how popular culture will influence our sexual practices and desires.

Recently, I was listening to an interview on NPR. The guest was a photographer whose latest exhibit features morbidly obese nude women. Leonard Nimoy, known to the world as Mr. Spock, turned out to be the guest photographer. And viewers of Star Trek know that Mr. Spock is known for making prophetic and insightful comments. I was enthralled, listening attentively, when the NPR host asked Nimoy to talk about what inspired him as an artist. Nimoy replied that he was once told to "move toward what scares you."

A few days later, while I was having lunch with two colleagues - a philosopher and a social psychologist - I was reminded of what it is that scares me most: pedophiles.

Inevitably, our lunch conversations turn to the subject matters we are lecturing about that day. On that afternoon, I had prepared a lecture based on my fieldwork on Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean, in which I addressed the topic of sexual-economic exchange, in particular the way young girls trade sexual favors with older men for access to goods and cash. The philosopher explained that his students were in the middle of reading Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, which has been hailed as one of the best 100 books ever written. I confessed, between bites of my sandwich, that I had never read it. This came as a shock to my colleague, who understood all too well the nature of my research on girls and sex in the Caribbean. He tried to persuade me to read Lolita, exclaiming, "Wouldn't you, of all people, want to understand the mind of a man who wants to have sex with a young girl, if not for your research, then to protect your daughters?" I could hear Mr. Spock's voice, "move toward what scares you."

Like many parents, the fear of someone forcing my young daughters to have sex runs deep and has the potential to turn me into a madwoman. I must admit, while up until that moment in my life, I had not yet worked up the nerve to read Lolita, I used to watch NBC's To Catch a Predator, an evening program that sets up sting operations to catch sexual predators. It fascinated me. I studied the faces of the men on my high-definition TV, reminding myself and anyone else who would listen, namely my students and girlfriends, that pedophiles are ordinary-looking men, sometimes strangers, but more often than not, men who are in our everyday lives.

Men who prefer prepubescent girls sexualize them. In the eyes of a pedophile, girls are highly eroticized objects for their sexual pleasure. Part of what makes young girls so attractive to pedophiles is their innocence, or what some call their sexual navet. I can say without a doubt that 99 percent of mothers would just as soon cut off their right arms as permit their daughters to be alone in a room with a known pedophile. And yet, these same mothers are seduced by, and let their daughters be seduced by, the demands of our popular culture, which sexualizes girls. We all know what this looks like - preteens dressed as young adults, the 6-to-10-year-old set wearing cropped tight-fitted T-shirts, low-cut jeans, jewelry and lip gloss - over-sized and hyper-sexed Bratz dolls. The message is clear, "looking fashionable means looking sexy." On the positive side, a slow but growing social commentary is critical of this unhealthy trend. My personal favorite is Stop Dressing Your 6-year old Like a Skank!

Experts tell us that children who have been molested often live with depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem, all of which, negatively impact the quality of their lives. Guess what? A team of psychologists recently reported that exposing prepubescent girls to a media culture that teaches them to be prematurely sexual is also strongly associated with depression, eating disorders and low self- esteem.

Critical of the sexualization of girls, Rosa Brooks, in the Los Angeles Times, wrote that capitalism is "busy serving our children up to pedophiles on corporate platters." I would add that many mothers are acting as the caterers. I'm not talking about the JonBenet Ramsey beauty-pageant mothers; that's a given. I am pointing my finger at the mothers who buy their 6-to-10-year-olds platform shoes, short leopard-print skirts, and the childrens' version of the bikini swim suits seen in Victoria's Secret catalogs. I am pointing my finger at the mother who doesn't say no when her preteen begs her to let her get her ears pierced - and who then allows her to wear dangly earrings.

Every semester, I drag out sensational stories from my anthropological toolbox to teach my students about the power of culture. We read about mothers who bound their daughters' feet in 19th-Century China, a brutal act representing submission to larger cultural influences. We learn about impoverished Thai parents who trade their daughters for television sets, and their little girls end up as child prostitutes.

While doing fieldwork in the Caribbean on girls' sexuality, I collected stories about Nevisian mothers who sell their young daughters to men for sex. But here too, in the United States, mothers are trading their daughters' innocence for a type of sexuality that is potentially very dangerous. Are American mothers any less complicit in their daughters' subordination when they dress them like Britney or Paris?

When we buy into the rules set by popular culture, when we believe that our daughters have to dress like celebrities, when we limit their choices in life by teaching them early on that looking good always means looking sexy, we are seeing them through the eyes of pedophiles.

I am not arguing that when mothers dress their preteens provocatively they are asking for trouble from pedophiles. That's not it. I believe that this world should be safe enough for women to dress as they please. The key word here is "women." I understand why many mothers dress their daughters in the latest inappropriate fashions. It reflects the same complicated reasons why I enroll my daughters in private golf and piano lessons, drive a gas-guzzling SUV and take pride in my husband's occupation - it speaks to the desire to fit in and present the proper social markers of status and prestige. But take it from a woman who did not shave her legs for most of the '80s - we can resist dominant cultural norms. More importantly, we must change them.

Debra Curtis is an assistant professor of anthropology at Salve Regina University, in Newport.

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