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?

All Nonconsensual Sex is Sexual Assault: How We Categorize and Minimize Rape

[Content note: sexual assault, statutory rape]

People, as it turns out, really love to categorize sexual assault.

They like to speculate about which ones are worse or more traumatic. They like to refer to certain sexual assaults with sanitized language that either glamorizes or minimizes what happened. If at all possible, they like to leave words like “rape” and “assault” out of it.

Here are two recent examples of these tendencies.

1. Richard Dawkins has previously claimed that sexual abuse of children by priests does less “lasting damage” than “the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.” Recently, he ignited controversy again by stating that he cannot condemn sexual abuse of children by teachers–which he himself went through–because standards were different back then and he doubts that “he did any of us any lasting damage.” Dawkins also made this type of move during the Elevatorgate incident, in which he mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort with being propositioned in an elevator in the middle of the night because Women In The Middle East Have It Worse™.

2. Last week, a video posted on Instagram showed a frosh week event at Saint Mary’s University in which students chanted, “Y is for your sister [...] U is for underage, N is for no consent [...] Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.” So, they were chanting about rape. However, many news articles covering the story only referred to the chant as promoting “nonconsensual sex” or “underage sex” rather than statutory rape or sexual assault.

Nonconsensual sex. Underage sex*. That old standby, sex scandal. The lengths to which writers and editors will go to avoid using the words “rape” or “assault” are impressive. It’s interesting because usually journalists make an effort to choose language that grabs as much attention as possible (at least, that’s what was impressed upon me repeatedly during my year in journalism school).

“Sex scandal” sounds like something you’d find in a tabloid and forget by tomorrow, when yesterday’s papers are today’s subway litter. “Underage sex” sounds like “underage drinking.” “Nonconsensual sex” sounds like a bad idea fueled by apathy or impatience, like having sex without a condom. It makes it sound like consent is just an added bonus, in case you really want to cover all your bases.

All of these common journalistic tropes insist on using the word “sex,” but all sex without consent is by definition assault or rape.

This doesn’t mean that all sexual assaults are identical. They can be perpetrated by strangers or friends or acquaintances or partners or family members or authority figures. They can involve physical force, or they can not. They might leave the person in need of medical attention, or they may not. They may be nonconsensual because the survivor is a minor or because they were intoxicated or because they simply didn’t give consent. They may be motivated by a desire to punish or to “turn” a queer person straight or to take what one feels owed or to alleviate boredom. They may or may not lead to pregnancy or STI transmission. They may be perpetrated by someone of any gender upon someone of any gender. They might take place in the survivor’s home or in the assaulter’s home or in someone else’s home or at a bar or club or outside or in a school or in a medical facility or at a prison. The survivor may not have consented to any sexual activity with the person who assaulted them, or they may have consented to some of it. They may have had consensual sexual encounters with that person in the past, or they may not have.

These distinctions are relevant in some contexts. They are relevant for researchers studying the causes and effects of sexual assault, and for those who want some descriptive statistics. They are relevant for activists and educators who may want to target particular situations in their prevention work. They are relevant for survivors who might want to get support from others with similar experiences.

They are not relevant in deciding whose sexual assault was “worse,” because the same event could affect different people differently. They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “legitimate” and which are not.

They are not relevant in determining which sexual assaults are “really” sexual assaults, which ones we’re going to refer to as “assault” and which ones we’ll just call some form of “sex.”

Sexual assault is the only crime to which the reaction is frequently some version of “Well, maybe it’s not that bad.” “Maybe she was mature for her age.” “Maybe he deserves it; he’s in prison after all.” “Maybe they actually wanted it.” “Maybe it wasn’t even that traumatizing.”

Or maybe we keep trying to minimize sexual assault, both with our words and with our actions, because treating it with the gravity it deserves is harder–harder emotionally, harder strategically. It requires eradicating the disdain with which many people view assault victims.

A good place to start is resisting this dilution and weakening of our language. Call sexual assault what it is, every time. Poynter has some great guidelines:

Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less….[S]ometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.

And stop it with the masturbatory thought exercises about which assaults are “worse” than others.

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*Originally, when I posted it on Twitter, this headline at least included the word “non-consensual.” Then it inexplicably disappeared.

[guest post] We Need To Talk About Incest Survival

[Content note: incest, sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders]

Someone I know and respect asked me to publish this anonymous guest post. -M

Mia Fontaine wrote an article in The Atlantic recently about the incest problem in America. Although we talk about sex scandals, stranger danger, and the abuses of the Catholic Church, as a society, we don’t really address the adult on child abuse that takes place primarily inside children’s homes.

Given the prevalence of incest, and that the family is the basic unit upon which society rests, imagine what would happen if every kid currently being abused—and every adult who was abused but stayed silent—came out of the woodwork, insisted on justice, and saw that justice meted out.

I have felt compelled to write about what happened to me, but I am too terrified of the consequences to post under my own name. Still, perhaps my story might give someone else the courage to do more than post anonymously to the internet. Perhaps someone will read it and realize how important this issue is. Or perhaps I’ll just feel better having written it. All worthy goals.

I was 18 the last time it happened, it was Christmas break my Freshman year in college. I ran and hid in my room and wondered how I’d let it happen again, it hadn’t happened in so long, I was in college now, surely I should have been safe. I didn’t cry, I just shook. In the decade since that night, I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to unpack everything going on inside me at that moment. Fear, anger, confusion, hurt, desperation for love and approval.

I’m not sure when it started. Maybe I was 11 or 12? It started gradually. Inappropriate hugs, hands lingering where they weren’t supposed to be, hands being held where they didn’t want to be. It escalated over the years to being given alcohol, oral sex, and being told that “if your mother ever found out, she would kill me.”

It was never vaginal intercourse and so, until the recent change in definition, it didn’t seem like I could call it rape. And, even though he lived with me, he was a step-relation, so I wasn’t sure whether it could be properly defined as incest. And I loved him, he was family, so I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. And it didn’t always feel bad, some of the things felt good. And when so much of life was filled with hate, criticism, and being ignored, it was really something for someone to show affection at all. At the time, I felt it was my fault and, without any labels that seemed right, couldn’t think of what it was that was being done wrong exactly, just that it made me nauseous to think about. With the massive age difference, I knew it was statutory something. I don’t know, I tried very hard not to think about it.

But then a strange thing happened. My body forced me to think about it. I stopped having my period. I knew, physiologically, that it was impossible for me to be pregnant, but I was terrified just the same. A home pregnancy test confirmed my understanding of anatomy.

After three months with no period, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist at school, but, when I refused to take antidepressants because I was terrified my parents would find out, they refused to see me. Then I decided I had to make an appointment with a gynecologist. My mother was annoyed by my urgency at needing to go. It took two months to get into see someone — a very religious, old Southern man with a private practice.

He didn’t believe me when I said I’d never had sex and forced me to take a pregnancy test–I explained that after six months amenorrheic I’d be showing if I was lying, but that didn’t help. They never asked me if I’d been sexually abused, but who knows what I would have said. They never asked what I thought had precipitated the loss of periods. I guess I wasn’t thin enough to be anorexic, so it didn’t matter, even though it was a clear sign of depression. The fifth or sixth time he asked me if I was really a virgin, I started to cry, I never felt so judged. Not that being a virgin was important to me, but being honest absolutely was.

He wrote me a prescription for some hormone that induced a period and for a year’s supply of birth control. Somehow, the massive cramping didn’t make me feel any better.

I had to go to a family event that fall where He was present. And He had started dating someone I knew, someone I respected and liked a lot. I didn’t know what to do. At the same time, my family was harshly criticizing me for being fat (size 12) and not caring about my appearances. Presumably they thought my unhappiness was from being “too fat to be loved” rather than some negative experience of mine.

I began self-harming–cutting and starving myself. I visited pro-ana websites “out of curiosity”. I would eat a Milky Way bar and nothing else. I would eat with other people so they wouldn’t know anything was out of place and go home and throw it up. I made a friend take all my knives and scissors. I fantasized about driving through stop signs and red lights through traffic and getting into horrible accidents. I drove through the city late at night trying to get lost.

I’m not sure what broke, but finally I went to see another school therapist and agreed to take antidepressants.

It was too late, I felt, to try to tell my parents, and my therapist agreed, but only because she thought my parents were horrible. She felt like I should just try to get them to treat me like an adult and stop complaining about my weight all the time. The incest and rape thing just wasn’t that important because it wasn’t going to happen again, but unless I stopped them, my parents would continue to be awful.

It got better. I stopped seeing the therapist six weeks later, and was much better than I had been. I still occasionally had nightmares, but managed OK. A year after this, I tried to talk to my mother about what had happened. I woke up in the night after a nightmare and was shaking, and my mother heard me walking around. She took me to an all night diner and we talked. I told her what had happened and she told me I had misinterpreted events. I insisted I had not. She didn’t remember the conversation the next day. Her therapist later told me that she wouldn’t survive being told, the guilt would kill her, so she must have blocked it. He told me I couldn’t ever tell her.

I am happy now, I love myself, I love others and others love me. I am doing what I want to do, I am an activist in causes I care about, and I am fighting fights I want to fight. And I can’t find it in myself to fight this fight out loud.

I feel like an enabler, writing this anonymously. Never having confronted him. Never having told the family. What good would it do now, to open all of that up? It wouldn’t help anyone, just open wounds. Just make people hate me or hate him…but probably me. Who wants to do that? To destroy a family? I like a lot of the people who would get hurt.

And so I stay silent. Along with thousands and thousands like me. Justice is not being stopped by a powerful organization like Penn State or the Catholic Church, but by the reality that the victims would be hated just as much as, if not more than, the perpetrators. We’ve broken down some of the barriers to reporting stranger assaults on children, but we haven’t solved the larger problem of helping those living with their abusers. Society isn’t built to fix this problem or help people like me, but it doesn’t always have to be like this. Go read that article in The Atlantic, share it, write about this issue, support RAINN, and be willing to hear the truth, even when it is unpleasant.