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?

Save the People, Not the Boobies: The Ethics of Breast Cancer Awareness

Few ad campaigns make me as misanthropic as the breast cancer awareness ones I’ve been seeing at an especially high volume for the past month:

There’s also this video (NSFW).

I hate these campaigns for many reasons. First of all, they make breast cancer all about boobs. Yes, it has “breast” in the name, but reducing an illness as complex and life-shattering as breast cancer into a cutesy “save the boobies!” campaign seems callous and inappropriate.

I’m not sure everyone would even agree that the prospect of losing your breasts is the worst thing about breast cancer, and yet that’s what these campaigns almost universally target. It’s not the “boobies” or “ta-tas” that need to be saved–it’s the human beings who have breast cancer.

It’s even worse when the campaigns are created by and/or targeted at men and involve that hint-hint-nudge-nudge assumption that men should care about breast cancer because men love tits. Never mind that men can get breast cancer too, and never mind that men care about breast cancer not (just) because they care about boobs, but also because they care about their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and etc. who might get breast cancer, or who already have.

Campaigns like these also completely ignore women who have chosen (or been forced to) undergo mastectomies. If breast cancer research and awareness is all about “saving the boobies,” does losing your breasts mean you’ve lost the fight?

This preoccupation with breasts is probably what inspires awful ads like this one by the Cancer Patients Aid Association, an Indian NGO:

The text at the bottom reads, “One out of every eight women develops breast cancer in her lifetime. Early detection helps recovery. Get yourself examined before it’s too late.” So there you have it. If you get a mastectomy, you’re “making yourself ugly.”

This is all to say nothing of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the hypocrisy and reactionism of which should by now be well-known. (Incidentally, the former Komen executive who was responsible for that move was not content with merely that; she just had to write a book-length screed against Planned Parenthood, as well.) This unethical organization seems to be the beneficiary of most (if not all) of the sexualized ads I’ve seen. I still refuse to give them a single cent, which is difficult given how easy it is to accidentally pick up one of those pink-ribbon-branded products at the grocery store.

On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to explain what feminists mean when we prattle on about “objectification” and “sexualization,” which are closely related concepts that often (but not always) occur together. Objectification is the reduction of a person to their body parts (usually the sexual ones; hence the frequent co-occurence of objectification and sexualization). An advertisement that objectifies women might show, for instance, a single female leg in front of a flashy car, or a woman lying in a martini glass–literally like an object to be consumed. Sometimes men are objectified too, but that seems to be rarer. Ads that objectify people often don’t show their faces (or eyes), thus making them seem less like people and more like bodies.

Sexualization, meanwhile, is when a person (again, usually a woman) is represented in such a way as to arouse the viewer or otherwise connote sex when the actual purpose of the representation has nothing to do with sex at all. You wouldn’t call pornography “sexualization” because the purpose of pornography is to depict sexual acts and to be arousing. But when an advertisement designed to sell cars or alcohol–or solicit donations for breast cancer research–portrays women in a sexual way, that’s sexualization.

The objectification and sexualization of women in the media has a great deal of negative effects, both on an individual level–for the people who view them–and on a cultural level. Check out the work of Jean Kilbourne if that interests you.

However, I am not a marketing expert. If I were, and if I were charged with designing an ad campaign that elicits as much attention and donations for breast cancer research as possible, there’s a good chance I would feel compelled to create an ad like this, because there’s a good chance that this is the kind of ad that works best.

Hence the misanthropy I mentioned earlier. Marketing people know what they’re doing. If this is really the best way to get people to pay attention to this important cause, I would say that not using ads like these is even more unethical than using them–at least until we shift our culture enough that we don’t need them anymore. But that still means that we’re choosing the lesser of two evils. I would rather more money went to breast cancer research than less, but I would also rather we stopped reducing women to their erogenous zones in our media.

After all, I don’t agree with this rubbish that men are “programmed” or “hardwired” by biology to be obsessed with breasts, at least not to the level that our society seems to think they are. As I already discussed when I wrote about public breastfeeding, the sexualization of breasts is not universal to all cultures and time periods. Even if “sex sells,” breasts don’t necessarily have to always be part of “sex,” and I think it would be beneficial to our society if they were not.

For the record, whether straight men’s love of boobs is entirely biological or not, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon public policy or trivialize serious illnesses. Besides, you can totally be an awesome (male) feminist and a boob enthusiast at the same time.

Edit: Here’s a great article that basically makes my point for me.

[Guest Post] Runway Rising: Perks and Challenges of a Socially Conscious Fashion Company

Hey everyone! In this guest post, my friend Danielle writes about fashion, mental health, and running a socially conscious business.

To all fans and readers of Brute Reason,

I am Danielle Kerani, CEO/Founder of the knit fashion company AK Kerani and a fellow student at Northwestern with Miriam.

When Miriam first asked me to write a guest blog for Brute Reason, I was both flattered and excited. I have become a huge fan of this blog, mainly because of the bravery it takes to so openly confront anxiety and depression. Having struggled myself with these issues, I know how much of an internal battle it can be. For many months you can be stuck in a cycle of believing you are better only to let yourself down. And this cycle continues until you grow strong enough to realize that your depression is not only a pest that sticks to you. It is your twisted lover that you hate but from which you cannot part. And when you realize that you, not your depression, are the one keeping yourself from a healthy life, only then can you cast the ring into the fire.

Miriam requested that I talk about the seeming paradox of running a socially conscious fashion business. I created AK Kerani last summer in honor of my uncle, Atindra Kumar, who had passed away in June. Since then it has grown from a simple online platform to a vibrant small business selling high quality handmade products to promote knitting as a therapeutic activity for those struggling with anxiety and depression.

At this time, I knew just as well as I do now that the media, fashion-related media being one of the worst, is very conducive to anxiety. Fashion ads don’t merely attempt to persuade us into buying pretty and trendy clothes and accessories. They often seem to be rooted in a deeper manipulation, telling us that our worth lies not in our inherent value as people, but in our ability to represent society’s standard of sexuality. Seeing the adulation that models in ads appear to receive, we get thrown into loops of self-centered anxiety. If adopting the identities of these figureheads is the key to our happiness, why not starve our bodies and souls to be like them? Having partaken in all of these mindsets, I was able to see how all encompassing the media has become, such that nobody in the world, no matter what career path or lifestyle they choose to pursue, is completely immune to its influence.

I hope that AK Kerani can represent a different kind of world – one in which fashion is a means of individual expression and inspires us to love the world and its gifts. We don’t need to hate the world like helpless martyrs when we have a large part to play in whether this cycle stops or continues. I believe that one day, fashion can represent many pathways of real diversity, beauty and sexuality as opposed to one pathway of twisted, photo-shopped lust.

The main challenge of running AK Kerani is to figure out what place our company holds in the entertainment industry, the fashion industry and in society. Are we mainly in business to sell high quality fashion products? Or is our main goal to promote our socially conscious mission? Is there a way that these two elements of our business can intertwine perfectly? Or will one always come out on top? Ultimately, I often find myself struggling with one complex issue: How does AK Kerani battle the trends of the current fashion media without somewhat playing into the current industry enough to gain influence? If we don’t create traditionally appealing visuals to interest potential consumers, how will we ever be able to shout out our mission to a large crowd of ears?

We want to believe that the fashion industry can be a tool for social change. We want those who hear our mission to understand that hurting, starving and demeaning ourselves are not the only ways with which we can fight our anxieties. In hopes of counteracting these common reactions, AK Kerani will set up programs in hospitals and mental health institutions to give those struggling with anxiety not only an employment opportunity through knitting for us, but also a refreshing outlet for feelings they thought they could never control.

There is nothing wrong with looking appealing and celebrating the gifts that we all have been given. Pretty eyes, luscious hair and sculpted legs were never the problem. The problem is the significance that we ascribe to them. The problem is that we have been conditioned to believe that these attributes mean happiness, success and even love. And often, we force ourselves to relinquish all of these things in favor of pursuing the unattainable goal of a skewed perfection.

Though I have become way healthier at handling my own struggles with self image, disordered eating and overall anxiety, I have often wondered if the media’s damage is too pervasive to allow those of us who grew up with it to be completely healed. At times I am tempted to give up. If I am guilty of the same struggles my company condemns, how can I truly lead it to victory? And then I realize that humanity is not about being perfectly healed. It’s about struggling through adversity so that the light shines even brighter than it would have had you never fallen. We will always find ways to struggle, hate and doubt. An improved media, no matter how reformed and supportive, would not change that. But nor do we want it to. Because what we are striving for is reality – for the media to see us truly as we are and proudly represent it. And this can happen at anytime in any place as long as we learn to uphold different values – ones that seek to encourage instead of discourage.

Knitting, writing, and spastically experimenting with social media for AK Kerani have all taught me that success and health lie on an ambiguous continuum. To work out the kinks of a broken society and media, we must rebuild the confidence that we have lost piece by piece under its influence. And though we might think in grandiose terms picturing a new world, this world can only be achieved if we all commit to a slow and repetitive, but rewarding process of healing, row by row–one stitch at a time.

AK Kerani models (photo credit: Priscilla Liu)

Danielle Kerani is a native New Yorker who only just recently started appreciating the all-black stereotype: both in clothing and coffee.  Danielle is a junior journalism major at Northwestern University and is the Founder/CEO of the knit fashion company AK Kerani. In her free time, Danielle is a singer/songwriter, a blogger, a distance runner and a huge fan of exploring cool places with her boyfriend Jang, taking walks with her mom, and having crazy adventures with her super quirky friends. 

Got Sexism?

I apologize for the complete lack of posts lately; I’ve been busy volunteering and exploring New York City, where I am currently located. However, I’ve decided to crawl out of my Russian-food-and-thincrust-pizza-filled cave in order to comment upon this:

What are we looking at here? Silly-looking men holding cartons of milk? Not so simple. These are a series of new ads released by the Got Milk? advertising campaign. The ads showcase the fact that milk can supposedly help reduce symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and feature men making pseudo-sarcastic statements that reference the fact that women are supposedly very moody while on their periods.

The ads point to a website, EverythingIDoIsWrong.com, which is a slick, sardonic guide for men to help placate their bitchy wives and girlfriends during that time of the month. The tagline of the site is, “Your home for PMS management.”

Here are some revealing screencaps from the site, helpfully annotated with my comments:

Attention, men! Because you are from Mars and women are from Venus, you need a special vocabulary to speak with them.
I find this one especially ironic given that women’s concern with their weight has much more to do with societal pressure to be thin than it does with PMS or with making their partners’ lives miserable.
Sorry, men, you’re just going to have to deal with the Evil Women in your life always blaming you for everything.
Because clearly, the only things women care about are gold, silver, and chocolate.

I’ve written about this peculiar menstruation-related misogyny before, except that in my previous post about it, it was being perpetuated by and for women. This ad campaign, on the other hand, targets specifically men and sets up a “yeah bro I know what you’re going through” vibe with its audience.

I won’t repeat what I said in the previous post with regards to the validity of this whole PMS = bitch business, but I will add that these ads rise to a new level of chutzpah, because they somehow manage to turn PMS into a men’s issue. How do they do this, you might ask? After all, it is women, not men, who must deal with the inconvenience of bleeding out of their private parts every month, getting cramps, and feeling fatigued and nauseous. Right?

Wrong! The crappy thing about periods, apparently, is how difficult they make life for men. I mean, duh.

Furthermore, if these fictional men’s concerns do actually contain a semblance of truth in them, maybe it’s time that we recognize the fact that menstruation isn’t to blame here. Rather, the culprits are bad communication skills and a general lack of ability to promote healthy relationships. After all, the relationships hinted at by the men in the ads are anything but functional. Maybe the cure isn’t milk, but a good couples’ therapist.

But of course, it’s much easier to chalk such issues up to women being Complex Demanding Creatures who will never be satisfied by anything their partners do for them, especially not when it’s That Time of Month.

Honestly, this may come as a surprise to you, but most intelligent women find themselves much more pissed off about crap like these ads than about being on their period (or about their partner not taking out the trash/putting the toilet seat down, as the case may be). After all, this is so reductionist. The message to women is, You are your hormones. The message to men is, Deal with her PMS and you’re home free. In the end, advertising campaigns stand to gain from portraying men and women in this way, because the less people understand what really causes conflict in relationships, the more they’ll attempt to buy Stuff to solve all the problems.

And no; just like diamonds, flowers, and chocolate, milk is no panacea.

[Well, now I have two entire posts tagged with “menstruation” on this blog. I’m proud. Also, if you happen to really miss my writing, here’s my short-form blog, which I update much more frequently.]

More posts on this topic, if you’re interested:

OK, I’m done. Promise.