A new line of bathing suits for young girls introduced by model/actress Elizabeth Hurley has sparked a minor new media uproar and drawn criticism from a number of quarters. Critics have condemned the suits and the celebrity for contributing to the increased sexualization of girls in our culture. They site not only the suits themselves, but the “provocative” poses the girl models in the ads strike.
I personally think the most obscene thing about these suits is the price.
As the father of a tween girl, the notion of increased sexualization of female children is a gut punch — a sure way to sicken and sadden me. The whole idea of KGOYS — Kids Getting Older Younger Syndrome — is as real (ask toymakers) as it is depressing. I watch Teen Nick or pretty much any non-animated Disney show and want to set my (remaining) hair aflame after ten minutes of dating, kissy, girl/boy chasing, defined-by-partner absurdity.
I look around and anecdotally am convinced that we are exposing kids to more sex and sexuality than at any time in my experience.
But I also am convinced that childhood and what we expect of it is elastic. Being a good dad for my tween girl today means restricting her web access and maxing out parental controls to insulate her from explicitly sexual content. Being a good dad a few centuries ago might have meant getting her married off at 12.
Which leads me to ask a question: Is this increased exposure to sexuality leading to bad outcomes for girls? More teen pregnancy, earlier onset of sexual activity, increased incidence of STDs? In fact, statistics in all these categories are encouraging. Teen pregnancy is at a 20 year low, STD transmission is flat, and kids are not having sex earlier or more often — the opposite is true.
From the CDC:
Overall, in the 20-year period from 1988 through 2006–2010, the percentage of teenaged females who were sexually experienced declined significantly (from 51% in 1988 to 43% in 2006–2010). This decline has been gradual and steady over these years with very small, nonsignificant changes between any two of the survey years. From a long-term perspective, this significant long-term decline is a reversal from a period during which the percentage of teenagers who were sexually experienced was steadily increasing.
While not directly related to sexual activity, there has also been concern that girls are maturing physically at a younger age. Could this be somehow related to a more sexualized environment? Yet recent studies have shown that while there may be more girls developing breasts at an earlier age, that the age of first menses has remained stable. Unsettling information which nonetheless leads me to the conclusion that girls are not actually reaching sexual maturity any sooner.
Okay, so it doesn’t seem that this change in sexual climate is causing girls to make worse decisions for themselves, but perhaps it inflames others. Does this objectification of girls make them a more legitimate target to rapists, pedophiles and sickos?
Again, a look at the statistics reveals surprising results. The rate of sexual assaults against children, is not just in decline, it’s in steep decline — down over 60% from 1992 to 2010. As a father, and particularly in light of recent high profile cases, I find this to be the most encouraging piece of data I’ve seen in ten years.
Okay, so here’s where it gets a little crazy. Let’s line these things up. I know you see where I’m going.
Is it possible that a more sexualized, less repressive culture actually benefits girls?
Does sexualization have to equal objectification? Aren’t we, after all, at The End of Men?
Isn’t it conceivable that a greater awareness of their own latent sexuality — their self identified “sexiness” as decried by critics — makes girls more aware, more empowered and less likely to be victimized?
Okay, back to being a dad. I do not believe that exposure overtly sexual material of any kind is good for girls. I am downright spastic about parental controls; you can probably hear my kids whining about it from there. Yet I very much want my daughter to have complete agency over her body and her sexuality. I personally believe that the greatest boon our culture has given my daughter to help her accomplish that is Title IX.
Team sports, available to this generation of girls to a degree that is unprecedented, has given my daughter a degree of self confidence and joy in her physicality that I am grateful for almost daily. She owns herself. And me to.
I was recently asked to be on a high profile show to discuss this issue. When they vetted my opinion on the subject, I was very politely told that the conversation was headed in another direction. I think they were on the market for an outraged dad, shotgun-on-the-front-porch dad looking to defend his daughter’s honor, and I’m sure they can find it. But they may find that a lot of dads have changed. Daughters, too.
And when I look at the empirical data pertaining to both, I feel hopeful.