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Learning Sexuality: Children, Marketing, and Sexualized Products

[Content note: sex, child sexualization, child molestation and rape]

I’ve been depressed lately so writing has been difficult. (Here’s more about that if you’re curious.) Hopefully this isn’t the only thing I’ll be able to produce for the next few weeks.

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Children and teens should be able to express their developing sexuality (safely and appropriately) without being shamed for it.

Adults are marketing sexual ideas and behaviors to children at very young ages, and this isn’t a good thing.

Both of these things may be true, but I’ve noticed that many people of a progressive persuasion often have trouble entertaining both of these ideas at the same time.

That is, whenever someone is claiming one of these, someone always appears to argue the other one as though they disprove each other. If someone says, “You know, it’s really sketchy that they sell pole dancing kits for little girls,” someone will inevitably counter, “So you’re saying there’s something wrong with girls expressing their sexuality? You’re slut-shaming.” If someone says, “We shouldn’t prevent children from exploring sexuality safely,” someone will respond, “Yeah well they only want to explore it because the mainstream media is teaching them inappropriate things.”

Much has already been written and researched about the sexualization of childhood (particularly girlhood). One study suggests that almost a third of girls’ clothing may be sexualized. The American Psychological Association released a report on it in 2007 and discussed some of the negative effects of sexualization. And, of course, commentary abounds and you can easily find it online.

Are some of the critical responses to sexualized children’s toys and clothing prompted by, as counter-critics love to allege, “prudishness”? Probably some of them. But that’s not all there is to it.

First of all, as the APA report suggests, increased sexualization of girls can have negative consequences for individuals and for society. But beyond that, I think there’s something to be said for discovering one’s sexuality through experimentation and exploration rather than by looking at commercials and magazines to see what other people (supposedly) do. Many of us grow up with images of what sexiness and sexuality is that later turn out to have absolutely no resonance for us. It’s a particular facial expression, a particular way of dressing, a particular procedure for hooking up and getting off, a particular move or strategy or “trick” to get a potential partner interested.

Eventually, some people unlearn some of these things and decide which of them really feel sexy and which don’t. For instance, some of the things I think are sexy are pretty “normative,” such as high heels and PIV intercourse. Other things that have been presented to me as sexy by my surrounding culture, though, I do not still think are sexy, such as men who ignore my boundaries, falling into bed together without having to say a word, and long straight hair. Some things that I think are sexy are things that have generally been presented to me as decidedly unsexy, such as asking for consent before kissing, having upper body muscles, and women who are dominant rather than submissive.

But some people don’t really question what they find sexy and why, and end up having a sexuality that’s pretty close to what they’ve seen advertised. And some of them are totally happy with that. But others are not, and they never really realize that they have other options.

Cliff Pervocracy once wrote about the experience of realizing that a particular pornographic image with which we’re all familiar isn’t necessarily how everyone likes to do it:

Rowdy and I watched porn together last night.  Because Rowdy is a gentle soul in ways I am not, I tend to watch hardcore kinky porn and he tends to watch porn of real couples having sweet lovey sex.  We were watching his porn.

The woman in the video had sex the way I do.  When she was on top, she didn’t pump her whole body up and down, she just moved her hips rhythmically.  And she didn’t stay on top forever going poundpoundpound like a champ; she did it for a few minutes and then switched positions.  I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a woman in porn do that.

The part that blew my mind: the guy in the video was way into that.  And Rowdy was way into that. And it was in porn, which gave it the official stamp of People Think This Is A Sexy Thing.  I was astonished, because I always thought wiggling my hips on top meant I was incompetent at sex.  I thought you were supposed to bounce full-length on a guy until he came, and since my thigh muscles can’t do that, I thought I was too weak to do me-on-top sex correctly.  It was amazing to see people accepting a less athletic method as a totally valid, hot way to have sex.  Hell, it was amazing just to find out that I wasn’t the only person on Earth who has sex that way.

Kids are probably not going to be exposed to hardcore pornography, of course, but they get exposed to other messages about what normative sexuality is, such as high heels and makeup, female passivity, and, apparently, pole dancing.

Aggressively marketing particular sexualized products or behaviors to little kids means that they are that much more likely to grow up with the idea that that’s how you do sexuality. It gives them that much less room to discover for themselves what’s fun and pleasurable as they become old enough to try it.

But the problem with this whole situation goes beyond people growing up forced into little boxes of sexual expression. Namely, there is a terrible and dangerous hypocrisy here. Adults create ads and marketing campaigns that persuade little girls to want pole dancing kits and t-shirts with sexy messages on them, and adults make horrible assumptions about the girls on whom this marketing works. It’s a rare case of molestation or statutory rape in which some source doesn’t claim that the female victim dressed “older than her age” or “seemed very sexually mature.”

Every bit of me just rages and rages when I read these things. We have people who are paid more money than most working adults will ever see to manipulate girls and their parents into wanting and buying these things, and then we blame these girls for being preyed on by adults who ascribe to them an awareness that they probably cannot have yet.

First of all (not that this needs to be said), statutory rape is wrong no matter how sexually mature a child is. (I’m not talking about those “grey areas” where one person is 17 and the other is 19 or whatever. I’m talking about those cases where the victim is 10 and the predator is 45, for instance.) But regardless, when little girls wear “revealing” clothes or put on lots of makeup or dance in a “suggestive” way (whatever that even means), they’re almost definitely not doing it because they literally want to have sex with someone. They’re probably doing it more because it’s been presented to them as a fun and exciting thing to do, something older girls do, something that just you’re supposed to do as a girl. It’s adults who interpret children’s exploration as necessarily sexual, or as a sign of sexual maturity. Just as adults freak out when they catch little kids playing with their genitals (or with a friend’s). They assume that just because it’s an expression of sexual desire when they do it, it must mean the same thing when children do it.

Of course, there’s nothing anyone, even an adult, can say or do that guarantees sexual interest, short of clearly saying so or initiating sexual activity. Little girls in miniskirts aren’t “asking for it” and neither are adult women in miniskirts. Or boys or men or gender-nonconforming folks in miniskirts, for that matter.

If we’re going to relentlessly market these types of clothing and toys to children, we need to stop making gross assumptions about “what it means” when a child wears those clothes or plays with those toys. It means nothing. It means that marketers know what they’re doing. It means that dressing up or dancing and shaking your butt can be fun. It means that kids enjoy exploring their bodies and what they can do or look like. It means nothing.

I’ve spent most of this post critiquing the marketing of sexualized stuff to children, but it’s also worth talking more about the other half of the false dichotomy I presented at the beginning. I think a lot of the panic about children doing “sexual” things is caused by what I just mentioned–adults’ (mis)interpretations of what that means. It’s also caused by general prudery and “but I don’t want my kid to grow up and do grown-up things!” Incidentally, very little of the panic about childhood sexuality seems to focus on the fact that children sometimes do (and are encouraged to do, particularly if they’re male) nonconsensual things, but sometimes that does happen and sometimes adults do (justifiably) worry about it.

Being neither a developmental psychologist nor a parent, I can’t tell you what is and is not appropriate for a child in terms of sexuality. In fact, I don’t think any developmental psychologist or parent could give you a definitive answer to that, either, and don’t believe them if they say they can. Things like this will always have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, because children develop at different rates and have different levels of understanding and awareness of their own urges and desires. But I want to legitimize the idea of letting children discover their own sexuality without being shamed or punished for it.

Further, the fact that children’s expressions of sexuality may be strongly influenced by what they see in the media does not mean those expressions are Wrong or Bad, or should be curtailed (necessarily). First of all, they will probably feel very “real” to the child, just as passivity and silence used to genuinely feel sexy to me. Second, you can’t strong-arm someone into discovering what feels authentic and what doesn’t. Telling a little girl that thongs are bad and she should never wear one or want one isn’t going to get her to think, “Hm, I probably only wanted the thong because I saw it in a Victoria’s Secret commercial and I really want to be pretty like the lady in the commercial.”

It’s impossible to avoid being influenced by one’s sociocultural context. Everyone changes and adapts to that context. (Yes, even you, hypothetical person who thinks you’re above all this.) So kids will always pick up on cues in their environment about how they should act. The problem is that, right now, sexualized images and products are being purposefully marketed to kids who are probably too young to even have the desires we associate with those images and products. Case in point: we think of pole dancing as something women do to arouse straight men, and even though it’s something that people now often do for fun or exercise, that’s still often going to be the meaning we ascribe to it. Do you really think a four-year-old has any understanding of what it means to turn a man on, or any desire to do so?

The problem is also that the range of sexualities that kids will encounter in the media, and in marketing specifically, is extremely narrow. Since sexuality is something that develops partially in response to what the developing person sees around them, this gives them a very short menu to choose from. Some may not ever realize that there are tons of other, longer, more interesting menus out there.

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Note: There are a bunch of issues that I’m aware of but didn’t have space to discuss in this post, such as the even greater sexualization of children of color, the invisibility of queer and asexual expressions in this whole marketing/advertising bullshit, the fact that boys and girls are both impacted by this but in different ways, and so on. Future posts?

Comments

  1. rq says

    Future posts?

    Please?
    I don’t always manage to read everything you write, but I’d make more of an effort for this topic.
    Not that that matters. :)

    • leftwingfox says

      Agreed.

      One area which I’m wondering about is the role of romantic love normalized in children’s entertainment. It’s not that relationships or romance are inappropriate subjects, but it is so common that I feel like it has a lot to do with attitudes of entitlement and objectification.

  2. smrnda says

    Great post. A friend of mine is a sex educator and discussed how she often worried that kids were getting a sex education from porn – not that sexuality in media is bad, but just that porn has about as much relevance to real life sexuality as Rambo III has to actual warfare.

    On media shaping desire, media is part of culture and there’s no way to avoid having it shape you. I have no problem looking at different media artifacts and knowing that they shaped who I am to the extent that I can’t imagine who I would be without them. Desires are shaped by what your told or shown is appealing along with individual experimentation, but there’s always a sort of pressure to like what you’re supposed to like, or feel odd when you have a preference that’s unusual.

    Pole dancing is an interesting example of something that was clearly sexual for a while, but which is becoming less so as it’s now a form of exercise. I wonder if it becomes bigger as a fitness activity if it will reduce the sex appeal or its perception as something sexual. Not that athletic activity can’t be sexual in some ways, but right now people think ‘pole dance’ and ‘sexual’ more so than say, ‘elliptical machine’ and ‘sexual.’

  3. Simeon Morris says

    So well written, and expresses better than I could my thoughts on sexuality.
    I can’t bare the idea that children either aren’t, or shouldn’t be sexual until the age of consent, that before that age they are asexual. Just because they are not adult, nor fully ready to engage in adult sex doesn’t mean they aren’t slowly developing their sexuality, and exploring it privately, or in conversation and sometimes play with others.

    I can’t stand prudishness, but also find abhorrent the marketing of sex to children.
    I would hope to show my children a healthy consensual, playful image of sex, as they grow, to keep it safe for them.
    Can’t quite visualise how I would do that but I don’t have kids yet, so we’ll see.

    Thanks again for the great piece.

  4. lochaber says

    Reminds me a lot of a book I read a couple years back. I’m not certain, but I think it was… Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut by Emily White.

    Had a chunk talking about people who seem to put up an act of being sexually exhibitionist (wet t-shirt contests, topless spring breaks, releasing homemade porn, etc.), but the author was claiming that the people involved weren’t doing it for personal pleasure, etc., but because they were trying to fit into the role of what they perceived as ‘sexy’

    It was a while back, so I’m pretty fuzzy on the details, and it may have been another book. Even so, I thought the book was a pretty good (if disturbing…) read.

    • smrnda says

      In a way,this brings a kind of totally commercial logic into sex. Imagine a job fair. You dress ‘professional’ even if you really don’t feel like yourself in the bland corporate attire because it fits a proper image to get a job. Sometimes everybody even knows that judging candidates by how they dress is ridiculous, but everybody seems to do it anyway. It’s unsurprising that people don’t perform sexually in the same ways.

      It sort of reminds me of a few people I knew who were sex workers – mostly strippers (female and male.) They actually viewed their *performances* as laughably absurd, and found it comical how these stereotypically ‘sexy’ performances worked so well on their audience.

  5. Glenn Charles says

    Interesting that you assume a lot of your experiences are confined to women. Biologically it’s doubtless true. By the way, you are quite correct in thinking that children’s clothes have been sexualized; in my youth tops that emphasized the breasts except for adults and except in some situations basically didn’t exist. As far as men who rape children they should be killed since the recidivism rate is nearly 100% even when castrated. (I am a psychology student and I did study it. The castration was tried in Sweden and was voluntary and…it didn’t begin to work. You don’t want to know, to the inevitable question.)

    • says

      Interesting that you assume a lot of your experiences are confined to women.

      I’m not sure what this means, but I don’t think I assumed anything of the sort.

      And please do not go off-topic by discussing what should be done with men who rape children. It’s not what this post is about, and, as a really sensitive and painful issue for so many people, it deserves more careful and nuanced discussion than it’s being given here. Please do not comment further on that topic.

  6. Snowy Summer says

    I think I was in 5th grade when sex and sexuality became a thing for me. In school the boys were talking about sex, but noone actually knew about consent, pleasure and sex in relationships/marriages. Soon enough I felt arroused at night and experimented with my body. I recall one time the next day my parents confronted me on why I slept naked. I felt embarrassed and didn’t know what to say. So I felt ashamed and lonely because they didnt explain nor comfort me.
    I had pretty much next to none interactions with girls, besides cousins, because we were sheltered. So what happened was, I got cozy with a guy friend. It felt good and comfortable. Around the age of 12 I discovered I really liked girls, women and porn. One time I was trying to find a site to enjoy, when my mom just came home. There was nothing on the screen but she had an idea of what I was doing. She started yelling and shaming me, getting me all upset, uncomfortable and sad.
    On another occasion I bought a book on sexuality that was target at youth. It was really educational, but very hetero-normative when I think about it. When she discovered the book, the same thing happened, yelling and shaming. Moments like that changed me from an extrovert into a depressed quiet guy.

  7. Knabb says

    Children and teens should be able to express their developing sexuality (safely and appropriately) without being shamed for it.

    Adults are marketing sexual ideas and behaviors to children at very young ages, and this isn’t a good thing.

    This is a really nice, concise summary of the points, and I’m glad you built on it – it was a thought provoking article, and a good one. It’s also something that I’ve been involved in entirely too many arguments about before, and there’s a concise connecting point that I’ve found puts them together nicely. To borrow some of your phrasing:

    Children and teens should be able to express their developing sexuality (safely and appropriately) without being shamed for it. However, adults pushing commercialized sexual ideas have absolutely no place inserting themselves into the sexuality of children. As such, that adults are marketing sexual ideas and behaviors to children at very young ages isn’t a good thing.

  8. Dan L. says

    Very interesting topic for me, as I am a grandfather with grandchildren aged 12 (m) and 3 (f). I hope you will do more on the topic, because it appears to me they are growing up surrounded by much more blatant sexual information than their mother or certainly I did, and I am concerned about what effects it may have on their own sexuality.

    But perhaps we underestimate how developmentally sturdy children are, or overestimate the capacity for harm of mere exposure to sexual display at an early age. I don’t mean to advocate paleo-sex, but children seem to do fine sexually in primitive societies where what adults do must be pretty obvious to them at a very early age. Maybe the things to worry about warping or stunting children sexually are the same old ugly things we know too well: cruelty, abuse and neglect.

    Re. pole dancing, I saw rather a lot of it at bachelor parties in my younger days. I never found it (nor much else that goes on in strip clubs) sexy. Apart from the skeezy, mutually disrespectful and exploitative atmosphere of such places, I never did get what was “hot” about watching someone exercise naked.

  9. says

    Yes, this and everything else.
    Some points I’d like to comment on:
    1.
    My children are sexual beings, whether I like it or not, and they haven’t even hit double digit ages.
    But here’s the thing: their sexuality is completely self-centred. So we talked about pleasure and some basic rules:
    -at home
    – wash your hands. Before and afterwards
    It is a fine line to navigate between teaching them what is appropriate without invoking ideas of shame and guilt about their bodies.

    2.
    The next thing I noticed was my daughter posing in “sexy” positions. She was 5 at that time. She didn’t understand what those poses are meant to communicate, but she got the message that this is how women should look on pictures. When I wrote a blogpost about it I got creeps telling me the exact same thing you mention: “you’re dirty!!!!!!!!!!!! You’re sexualizing the kid!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    3.
    When I was a kid, girls and boys ran around naked in summer and at the beach (there is a glorious picture of me in our neighbours’ garden: naked except for yellow Wellingtons eating a hotdog) until about 5 and afterwards they wore swimming trunks. Nowadays baby girls are wearing bikinis as if there was something they need to cover. This is supposedly meant to protect them from sexual predators.

    4.
    And finally sexual harassment.
    My eldest started school 7 months ago. Within those 7 months I had to intervene because of sexual harassment of a 6yo TWICE.
    First time was when a classmate simply kissed her. When I talked about this to the boy’s mother, she agreed that this was inappropriate. The problem is, she didn’t agree that it was inappropriate because he didn’t care about her consent, but because they were too young. At what age does it become appropriate to kiss a girl/woman against her will?
    The second time was worse. The older boys in the after school daycare told her that she had to “pick three of them and then sleep with them”. And I’m sick and tired of people talking about how the perpetrators are “so young” and “still kids”. Because they never notice that the victims are young kids, too.