While I was aware of the rampant sexualization in our pop culture and advertising, I was not privy to the sexualization of children until I came across two books: So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Child by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne and The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It by M. Gigi Durham.
Both books were real eye-openers to me.
Durham: "The goal of hotness is pervasive in girl culture...Over the past century, our culture's preoccupation with girl's bodies has intensified , and girls themselves have become evaluated in terms of sex appeal....hotness is culturally emphasized as important--perhaps even the most important characteristic of girlhood...The clearest message to girls from virtually all contemporary media is that being hot is a social imperative, and to be hot requires a specific set of attributes....Its all about looks and arousal; hot girls are 'eye-candy,' and sexuality involves public sexual performance."
Levin and Kilbourne report mainstream retailers such as Target and J.C.Penney sell "padded bras and thong panties for young girls that feature cherries and slogans such as 'Wink-Wink' and 'Eye-Candy,' slang terms referring to sexual appearance and sex. "
They also report of a T-shirt for four-year old girls that says, 'Scratch and Sniff' across the chest. Also gym shorts for ten-year old girls that have two handprints on the back--one on each cheek--zeroing in on the spot supposedly waiting to be grabbed, patted, or pinched. Wal-Mart carries panties for junior girls with the words, "Who needs credit cards" on the crotch.
They indicate more and more stereotypical images of sexiness and hotness are luring girls into this false intimacy, narrow sexuality and consumerism. The Bratz dolls for very young girls are dressed in sexually revealing clothing--including bikini underpants for dolls for preschool girls. Both preschool boys and girls--and beyond are routinely exposed to narrow definitions and messages of sexuality and femininity.
In the world of advertising, writes Kilbourne, only young people have sex. Not only are young women valued only for their sexuality, but the rest of us end up in a culture arrested in adolescence, surrounded by teenage fantasies of sex and romance, a culture that idealizes the very things that make real intimacy impossible--inpulsive gratification, narcissism, distance, and disconnection, romanticism, and eternal youth. Sex in advertising is about a constant stae of desire and arousal--never about intimacy, fidelity or commitment. This not only makes intimacy impossible--it erodes real desire."
Levin and Kilbourne write that young girls "learn at a very young age that their value is determined by how beautiful, thin, 'hot,' and sexy they are....They learn that sex is the defining activity in relationships, to the exclusion of love and friendship."
Mainstream marketers are turning young children into sexy objects:
"Children are also pictured in increasingly sexualized poses in mainstream advertising meant for adults. Major fashion magazines for men and women often feature photos of young children in very sexy poses, selling a whole range of products and brands that often are not just for children. One Ralph Lauren ad in The New York Times Sunday Magazine--surely a publication not read by kids in the house--portrayed a girl and boy, seemingly about eight years old. The boy closes his eyes as the girl, who has sexy long blond hair and is wearing extremely short shorts, leans in to him, holds his hand, and kisses his cheek, with apparent passion."
Durham states the obvious double bind in young girls (and subsequently, as they get older): its impossible for them to walk the thin line between acceptable "hotness" and unacceptable sluttiness. Girls are sometimes celebrated for their sexual exploits but then stigmatized for their promiscuity. Hotness though, as she states the obvious is not for everyone. Young girls know there is a hierarchy of sexuality and not everyone is hot--a very few are ever hot and desirable as defined by mainstream media. "Sexiness, desirability, and ultimately worth is tied firmly in our mainstream media to the achievement of the slender, taut, bosomy, and ultimately Caucasian Barbie body."
Durham observes that in so many of these images, "sex is purely physical and based on female exhibitionism; this physicality can trigger high emotion, which is often violent; but the woman's sexuality never translates as anything other than a stimulus. It has nothing to do with intimacy, mutual respect, or love, ideas that that have virtually become unthinkable in the arena of contemporary sexuality. The constuction of the myth of female sexuality in music videos connects sex directly with female body displays and male desire, and disconnects it from 'softer' emotions like tenderness and affection." Kilbourne reports young girls are encouraged to sacrifice their relationships and to enter into hostile competition for the attention of boys.