The other day I was blown away by a CBC documentary called “Sexted Up Kids,” which, as the title suggests, is about the sexualization of childhood. This was no gentle prod about the state of the world, but instead an “in your face” account of the sexualization of childhood and how horribly pervasive it is in our culture.
Sadly, none of what they discussed was a surprise. My daughter, when she was at school, recounted to me the words she was called in school by kids who thought it was normal to use the word “whore” after each sentence. I won’t go into the other words. I remember her telling me that when she was in seventh grade, she sat down in a school computer class in a space just vacated by a fellow male student, only to turn on the screen and find herself face to face with a porn site. Since then, I’ve been told things have only got worse.
The sexualization of childhood: start the fight early.
I know that when your children are in diapers and you are weighed down with diaper bags and bottles, strollers, and car seats, it’s hard to get excited about aspects of life that seem so far in the future. The one that probably seems the most distant is sex. It’s difficult to see that little innocent person in front of you as a teenager, who will be confronted with the most blatantly sexualized period in history, at least in recent history, by the time they grow up. I hear the Romans were quite an explicit lot.
What you might not realize, though, is that this doesn’t start when your little one enters the “tween” stage; it starts much earlier. What may surprise you is that the business of turning little girls into sex objects and little boys into ready-made sex consumers begins almost immediately after they have outgrown their diapers.
So how does this work? Well, it’s because of a little thing in the marketing industry called “KAGOY.” Children have always idolized the idea of growing up. As kids, we all walked around in our mothers’ high heels, trying to appear cool and mature. The marketing industry has simply shrewdly picked up on this concept and created the concept of KAGOY, which simply means, “Children are getting older and younger.” That means if seven-year-olds want to be 13-year-olds, marketers think marketing to them as though they were actually 13-year-olds is fair game.
The sexualization of childhood: who wants to be a princess?
It all starts off nicely enough. Letting your three-year-old girl play princess seems harmless enough, doesn’t it? We even think it’s cute and tell ourselves that it’s all in our heads, so what’s the harm in that? A make-believe world of pretty princesses even offers an element of protectiveness, almost as if they’re being shielded from the world. Little girls want to be Ariel, Snow White, Belle, or Jasmine, and Disney alone has 26,000 products based on these and the other “princesses.”
But Peggy Orentein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” who is featured in the film, draws our attention to the fact that, far from being protective, these Disney princesses are all about teaching children to view themselves as “the prettiest” or “the fairest of them all.” In other words, they sexualize childhood by teaching little girls that their worth is tied up in their looks, promoting the idea that their value is externalized and comes from being considered pretty. Then later, that need to be valued turns them from wanting to be the “fairest of them all” to wanting to be the “hottest” of them all.
Watch the toys you let your child play with.
The Bratz doll collection, which briefly fell out of favour around 2016, is now back with a vengeance. Bratz dolls and Monster High dolls, which have also returned to the market recently, simply make a bad situation worse. The Bratz dolls are heavily made up with pouty, sexualized lips, but the Monster High dolls dolls take the cake. They have super sexy underwear on for starters. With this sexualization of childhood, it’s little wonder that our little girls are in danger of growing up thinking their role is to be a sex object for boys. As they enter the “tween” market at about seven, they and their parents are made to think that wearing a shirt that says “Who needs brains when you look like this?” is normal and just part of our culture, perhaps even cute. Yet it holds a far more disturbing message.
All I can say is, try buying a pair of shorts for a sixteen year old girl. I remember it well. It was virtually impossible to find ones that aren’t weren’t place so far up her rear end as to make them more like a pair of underwear than shorts. Even with reasonable shorts on, I remember her telling me at the time that some guy on the bus came up to her and said, “Hey, I like your ass.” My daughter turned around and said, “Perhaps you should notice my face first!” I thought she struck just the right tone between calling him an outright jerk, which he deserved, but which might have caused other issues as a result, especially as she was on her own.
The sexualization of childhood: So what about boys?
Boys, of course, are not immune to this sexualized culture and are just as affected by it. Boys are being trained through advertising to see girls as objects to be sexy for them rather than as people, as fellow human beings with feelings and a need for love like them. The end result of that is boys who cannot understand “no,” because they have been led to believe that because girls project sex, that must mean they want it. Note the disturbing, brutal reaction shown by some of the boys in the sexual assault case of 15-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, who was gang raped at a party. Some of them texted with comments like, “Will you have sex with me?”
During the pandemic lockdown, there was an ad shown on British TV about tea. It used tea as a euphemism for sex, explaining that if someone had a cup of tea and decided not to drink it, it was their choice. Inviting someone over for tea and automatically expecting them to drink the tea was clearly wrong. As was the notion that they had a right to be angry if the person in question refused to drink their tea. It was a brilliant campaign, but sad in that such salient points even had to be pointed out.
Easy access to porn is behind this change and the sexualization of childhood begins early. Boys are seeing it at home and school, and as the film points out, all parents tend to think it’s somebody else’s child that’s doing it. The facts are that nearly everybody’s child is doing it. Boys are increasingly using their mobile devices and home computers to access it, and with it comes a change in their idea of how sex and love are supposed to look and feel. They no longer see sex as part of connectedness, as a way of expressing love, but instead as a brutal and often violent act, a thought pattern that stays with them and has the potential to destroy relationships in the future.
Why aren’t we talking about the porn industry?
Yes, we have classes in schools that are supposed to address all this, but in all the years my daughter attended school, they never mentioned the porn industry and parents tell me now that they still don’t. It seems to me like an alarming omission.
No parent wants their child to encounter any of this. After reading this, you might want to buy an airplane ticket to somewhere you can escape and help your children retain their innocence. Many parents think they have time, that this can only happen when the kids are older. That was the message of this film. You don’t have to wait until they’re older. You have to start now.
From toys and clothes that promote sex to the language used to describe it, our cultural idea of sexuality and love is deteriorating more quickly than any of us could ever imagine. The sexualization of children is endemic across the western world. In the feedback section for the film, I found one comment from a kindergarten teacher. She said that although potty talk has been around for generations, children’s words have now taken on a frighteningly sexualized tone. This apparently even applies to children as young as four years old.
Sexual education that now includes orientation and gender identity can muddy the waters still further. Much can be said about that, which I will write about separately. Suffice to say, education should be as much about knowing when to introduce a concept as it is about the concept itself.
Know what your kids are up to.
So what are the solutions? I’d love to say we can fight against it by calling for laws that prevent advertising to children, particularly over the internet. In fact, I think we should try and do just that, though what’s right is seldom chosen over what is profitable.
Having said that, we can also fight against the sexualization of childhood in our own homes. Put the computer somewhere in the middle of the house where you can monitor what’s being looked at. Help the kids avoid children’s gaming sites and products that are linked to online games, as this is one of the most effective ways the marketing industry gets to your children. Avoid buying your children mobile devices, but if you do, monitor what they can and can’t access and remove them frequently.
Buy the least sexed up dolls you can find and make comments about ones that your children play with elsewhere. Draw their attention to the way our culture views girls as soon as you can. Do a chore together and chat while you do it. “Isn’t it sad that Dolly has so much makeup on.”I wonder why she needs all that makeup to feel good about herself.”
Teach respect for both boys and girls.
Don’t forget your little boys too. Talk to them about the sexualized culture in a way they can understand, and do it often, pointing out everything you can that explains how boys should relate to girls. Explain to boys that no matter what choices girls make, they are all deserving of respect. Show them the forces that girls experience to help them understand what is happening and to show them where society gets it right and where it gets it wrong. Get all supportive parties involved too, and keep the messages coming all the time as they grow.
But the bottom line is straightforward. The only way this sexualization of childhood will get better is if we, the parents, shout loud enough and act through our wallets. Thinner profits; that’s the only thing the marketers and companies care about. Let’s stop the sexualization of childhood. Let’s send them a message, loud and clear.