Monday, September 21, 2009

On the sexualization of pre-teens: A sex-positive, feminist viewpoint

Current Music- I Watched The Temple Fall (The Shondes)

This is partly in response to my cousin (first cousin once-removed, I believe? Or is it second cousin? I always confuse these things) Miryam's post on "Juicy" clothing (which I had to look up, as I'd never heard of it) and the sexualization of pre-teen girls.

A couple of caveats: first, I'm not a parent, and I accept that my views on this issue are lacking the experience and perspective that comes with being one. That said, I WAS a teenage girl fairly recently, which brings with it a different sense of perspective.
Second, as the title of my post indicates, I'm a queer, sex-positive feminist. This means that I come at this issue with certain pre-determined beliefs and assumptions about sexual morality and gender.

Like Miryam, I'm bothered by the implicit message of the "Juicy couture" line of clothing (though it's worth pointing out that this line is HARDLY the worst offender: Feministing highlights some really egregious examples)-- namely, that the body of a pre-teen girl is prime real estate for the advertisement of commercialized sexuality.

My concern, however, has less to do with sexuality per se; rather it has to do with the fact that this kind of clothing is a result, as well as a perpetuator, of a culture that sees female sexuality as object rather than subject and defines the ideal of female sexual attractiveness as passive, submissive, and childlike-- "Lolita-chic", if you will. I also think this culture tells girls that their greatest asset is their nascent sexuality-- in other words, why bother studying when you can marry a nice doctor? And make no mistake-- the vast majority of this marketing is directed at girls-- you may see padded bras sold to six-year-old girls, but I doubt you can find correspondingly padded underpants marketed to boys.

The other side of this coin is that it's female sexuality that's seen as dangerous and as a sign that our collective morality is slouching downward. We criticize the behavior of sexually forward teen girls, and yet our concept of manliness is based in part upon a man's conquests. For a further exploration of these double standards, by the way, I highly recommend Jessica Valenti's informative and entertaining book, "He's a Stud, She's a Slut, and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know"

And I don't believe this culture is a result of being too open about sex; on the contrary, I think NOT talking about it makes it worse. Blaming feminism and sex-positivity for this phenomenon also overlooks the fact that objectifying young women is nothing new; for instance, a quick look through my iTunes library turns up several British folk songs about fair young maidens falling in to bad situations with handsome rakes, rambleaways, and saucy sailor lads; indeed, one, "The Gentleman Soldier", sounds like an 17th-century rendition of "Bitches ain't shit":

It's of a gentleman soldier, as a sentry he did stand
He saluted a fair maiden with a waving of his hand
So boldly then, he kissed her, and passed it off as a joke
He drilled her up in a sentry-box, wrapped up in a soldier's cloak

"Oh, come, my gentleman soldier, now won't you marry me?"
"Alas, my dearest Polly, these things can never be,
"For I have a wife already, and children have I three,
"Two wives are allowed in the army, but one's too many for me!"

And the drums are going a rap-a-tap-tap
And the fifes they loudly play
Fare thee well, Polly my dear,
I must be on my way.

I also don't think it's a question of secular vs. religious; I find the father-daughter purity balls common on the Christian Right profoundly creepy, for many of the same reasons. The marriage of teenage girls to older men is common among Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints-- and again, the same trope of the prepubescent, submissive woman as the height of attractiveness is at work here. On the other hand, I know of many relatively secular parents (including my own!) who didn't buy such clothing for their daughters, mainly for the reasons I've described.

So I don't like these clothing lines one bit. But I don't necessarily think they exist because our current culture is any more sexualized than any other. I think they exist because our current culture is particularly consumerist, and the makers of this clothing are simply capitalizing on well-established misogynist trends. (Note that this doesn't excuse them one iota!) I don't think the answer is less sexual freedom or sexual frankness. On the contrary, I think the answer is more frank (and age-appropriate) talk about sexuality, within a cultural context that teaches teen girls--and boys-- to respect themselves and others as whole beings.

No comments:

Post a Comment