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PrudeHow the Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls (and America, Too!)
By Carol Platt Liebau
Center StreetCopyright © 2007 Carol Platt Liebau
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe New Scarlet Letter
Fourteen-year-old Jennifer awakens well in time for school. As she dresses, pairing a cropped top with a trendy miniskirt, she listens to a popular radio station where the male-female morning team is discussing whether more men "go" for women's breasts, legs, or buttocks. On the school bus, the new rumor is that Amy gave Mike a blow job after the party last Saturday night. In her homeroom, her teacher is annoyed-a used condom has been found in the hall.
After school, Jennifer and her friends head to the mall. They check out the stores, including the provocative window display at Victoria's Secret, and try on clothes-camisoles styled like lingerie, short shorts, tight pants-designed to showcase their figures. They pick up the "hot" new novel Rainbow Party-about a group of fifteen-year-olds who plan to attend a sex party, and the newest Gossip Girl book (the one where high school senior Vanessa juggles sex with two different guys and her friend Blair sleeps with a young English lord).
Back at home, Jennifer is about to start her homework, but decides to check in at MySpace.com and get the latest dish at CosmoGirl.com, where she encounters the question: "Are you a lesbian or bisexual and have a romantic story about you and your girlfriend? Tell us your love story and it could get picked for the magazine!"
As she types on her computer, the stereo's playing a hit song, and Jennifer sings along with a hit from one of her favorite groups, the Pussycat Dolls: "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?"
Better get down to work, she decides. That way, she'll finish everything in time to watch Laguna Beach. Although Talan has confessed his love to Taylor, he's hooked up with Kristin (again)-that's the one who outraged her sort-of boyfriend, Stephen, in Season 1 by dancing provocatively on a table during a coed Mexican vacation (even though, at the time, Stephen cheered her on, calling, "You look so good-keep dancing on the bar, slut!"). Jennifer doesn't want to miss tonight's episode- everybody will be talking about it tomorrow at school.
In some ways, the first decade of the twenty-first century might seem like an odd time to focus on the challenges confronting adolescent girls.
By most measures, young women in America have never had it better. Their professional options are limitless-they can become anything from an astronaut to a zoologist. No longer need girls think twice before pursuing graduate degrees; females constituted a majority of the nation's law students by 2000, and in 2003, for the first time, the majority of applicants to US medical schools were women. Even the choice to stay home and work as a wife and mother now earns some well-deserved and longoverdue respect.
At school, girls are outpacing their male counterparts by most measures. They are half as likely as boys either to be diagnosed with learning disabilities or placed in special education classes. The advantage girls enjoy over boys on reading tests is five times as large as boys' advantage on math-and more girls than boys are enrolled in high-level math and science classes. Girls are less likely to be disciplined, suspended, held back in school, or expelled. They are more likely than boys to graduate from high school, enter college, and graduate from college. In fact, where men represented 58 percent of the undergraduate student body on college campuses thirty years ago, they now constitute only 44 percent.
And American girls are much less likely than their male counterparts to die, commit crimes, or become the victims of them, according to a study of gender-specific trends published in 2005. They are almost half as likely to be binge drinkers, and less likely to succeed in committing suicide.
Given the breathtaking opportunities before them and the magnificent advantages they enjoy, it would seem that American society has treated young girls with enormous generosity. And in many ways, it has.
But not all the changes in recent years have been to the good. Today, American girls are forced to navigate a minefield more challenging, difficult, and pressure-filled than ever before when it comes to one vital topic: sex. With a frequency that would have been unimaginable even two decades ago, newspapers run stories of girls giving boys oral sex on school buses, in classrooms, at parties. Magazines feature stories of pansexuality among New York teens. Gossip sheets report that many of the celebrities idolized by adolescent girls are wearing clothes and engaging in behavior so vulgar that it once would have destroyed their careers. Lyrics to popular music contain unspeakably coarse and often derogatory references to sex in general, and to women in particular-and young girls sing along without a second thought. Pornography pops up, unbidden, on the Internet. Stores such as Victoria's Secret and restaurants like Hooters capitalize on an implicit message that being sexy at all times is a female imperative.
Fifty years ago, in an era of poodle skirts and bobby socks- or even twenty years ago, well after 1967's summer of love-few would have predicted the scope of the transformation of young girls' lives. How did this happen?
The Sexualizing of America
Certainly, cultural Cassandras have wrung their hands about the moral disintegration of youth before-not just in Victorian or Puritan times, but during the Middle Ages and even back in the days of the Greek philosophers. With any significant cultural change, especially concerning something as personal and powerful as sex, there are bound to be those in any age who will fiercely object and confidently predict disaster. So it's a fair question: What's so different now?
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the sexual revolution over the last half century is the rapidity and the scope of the changes. A report from researchers at San Diego State University, which analyzed 530 studies spanning five decades and involved more than 250,000 young people between the ages of twelve and twenty-seven, offers a glimpse into the magnitude of the transformation in both sexual behavior and attitudes.
Between 1943 and 1999, even as life expectancy rose, the age of first intercourse dropped from nineteen to fifteen for females. During the same period, the percentage of sexually active young women rose from 13 to 47 percent. And between 1969 and 1993, the percentage of female teenagers and young adults having oral sex skyrocketed from 42 to 71 percent.
But perhaps the most dramatic phenomenon was the revolution in young women's beliefs about premarital sex. Only 12 percent approved of it in 1943; by 1999, 73 percent did.
One of the authors of the report noted that "Baby Boomers were having sex for the first time in college, but [the current generation] started having sex in high school; there's been a major shift there." Reflecting on the changes, she observed that women's sexual behaviors had been much more affected by cultural influences than men's.
In fact, over the last forty years the United States has indeed experienced an incremental but aggressive sexualizing of its culture-until today there exists a status quo in which almost everything seems focused on what's going on below the waist. Sex has become virtually unavoidable in every context; the public square-from the airwaves to billboards to newspapers-is saturated with it.
Sometimes it seems that sexiness has become the most important measuring stick for determining what is worthy of public interest; being "sexy," as most celebrities would attest, has become the ultimate accolade. Everything is about "sexy," from shades of lipstick and eye shadow to hair, as evidenced by the advent of products like the Big Sexy Hair grooming line.
Nor is the sexiness craze limited to fashion and beauty items-it pops up in some unlikely places. Food, apparently, is sexy-and so are some of the chefs who prepare it, according to the press. Cars can be sexy, too-Road & Travel magazine featured a "2004 Sexy Car Buyer's Guide" (extolling "sensuous hunks of gorgeous metal"). Even cameras can apparently experience their own moments of sexiness-one ardent admirer of a Samsung Digimax wrote a piece designed to change the mind of "[w]hoever said cameras could never be sexy."
And even though politics has long been known as "show business for ugly people," it hasn't remained immune to the cultural obsession with sex. Even some political activists have adopted the vocabulary of suggestiveness. In the heat of the 2004 elections, a group called Votergasm called on its members to pledge not only to vote in the election, but to have sex with another voter as well. Similarly, members of F the Vote sought to defeat George W. Bush by inviting conservatives to sign a contract pledging not to vote for the president in exchange for sex.
Current press coverage of politics and public policy likewise employs sexual imagery. Notably, a Washington Post piece discussed the "sexual frisson" precipitated by the wardrobe of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice15. Fashion writer Robin Givhan asserted that "Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power," alluded to "the erotic nature of high heels," and went on to exclaim, "Dominatrix!"
In 2002, CNN also resorted to the language of the bedroom in an effort to lure viewers to Paula Zahn's morning news program. 16 The promo included a picture of Zahn as provocative and sexy flashed across the screen and a voice-over asked, "Where can you find a morning news anchor who's provocative, super-smart, [and] oh yeah, just a little sexy?" In conjunction with the word sexy, viewers heard the sound of a zipper opening. The ad was pulled only after Zahn herself and some CNN executives objected.
In fact, behavior that would once have been the occasion for shame is touted in the mainstream press as a harmless diversion. Consider the coverage of Jessica Cutler, the Capitol Hill intern who published a Web log discussing her sexual exploits with six different men. The Washington Post covered the story in glowing detail, and when its reporter last caught up with Cutler, she was writing a book, preparing to appear in the pages of Playboy magazine, and enjoying the innumerable small perks of minor celebrity, such as tables at trendy Washington nightclubs.
When even 60 Minutes-the epitome of the stodgy, old-line television newsmagazine-devotes an entire hour to the world of pornography, it's clear that sex talk has become an integral part of Americans' daily experience.
It's certainly become part of the American vocabulary. Even the word sucks-as in something or someone sucks-frequently used even by the most affluent and educated, locates its origin in oral sex. As Lee Siegel pointed out in The New Republic, "Considering how many times 'sucks' is used in print, in conversation, and online now, the entire country is evoking the act of fellatio on a continuous basis."
From all of this, one message emerges: Sex is everywhere: Everyone's doing it, and that's just the way it is. This message is disseminated to young girls through almost every element of their lives. One journalist who shadowed a twelve-year-old girl estimated that she had been exposed to about 280 sexy images in the course of a day.
In short, today's girl world has become saturated with sex. Even girls standing only at the threshold of adolescence are forced to absorb information, confront issues, and handle situations that, in past generations, would have presented themselves much later in their lives, if at all.
The Impact on Young Girls
Somehow, as some segments of American society have been reveling in the ubiquity of sex, the very real psychological, emotional, and physical impact on young girls of giving too much, too soon has been discounted.
This relentless emphasis on sex has eroded the standards by which young women have traditionally been able to win appreciation and recognition for something more than their sexiness. In a culture that celebrates Paris Hilton, thong underwear, and songs like "My Humps" (wherein the female singer extols the sexual magnetism of her breasts and buttocks)-there's scant recognition or respect for female modesty or achievement that isn't coupled with sex appeal.
In fact, living in an overly sexualized culture takes a very real toll on girls. The emphasis on sexiness, revealing fashions, and the overvaluing of physical appeal creates pressure to measure up to bone-slim models or celebrities-and leads to unrealistic expectations among young women about how their own bodies should actually look. And although unwed mothers were treated with deplorable cruelty all too often in the past, today's nearly universal acceptance of premarital sex has effectively sanctioned a life decision that can have a severely negative impact on the futures of the unwed mothers, the children they bear, and the society that, too often, must support both.
Along with the ongoing threat of unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, a growing body of research confirms that sexual activity may be detrimental to young girls' emotional and psychological well-being as well. In fact, giving too much, too soon has been associated with an increased risk of suicide and a greater incidence of depression. There are good reasons to believe that the psychological and spiritual costs to girls of living in a sex-saturated society can't be calculated in physical or economic terms alone.
Why It's Happened
Several long-standing social trends account, in part, for the current public obsession with sex. They include radical feminism, which insists that true female liberation encompasses sexual license and that chastity is nothing more than the dead relic of a patriarchal culture's twisted efforts to control female sexuality. The emphasis on sexual self-expression rather than sexual selfrestraint, as well as the triumph of moral relativism, likewise has contributed in part to the culture's sexualization.
And all this has occurred even as the privatization of religion and its disappearance from the public square have deprived American youth of a once widely respected and understood moral foundation for chastity. Finally, too many parents have been reluctant to criticize current trends in sexual attitudes and mores, lest they be accused of being judgmental or-worse yet- hypocrites for denouncing youthful sexual behavior in which they themselves might once have engaged.
Letting Girls Down
In a world where being judgmental sometimes seems to have become the only behavior that elicits nearly universal condemnation, many Americans understandably find it difficult to challenge the gratuitous coarseness and mindless vulgarity that surrounds young girls at virtually every moment.
But by acceding to the rampant sexualizing of its culture, America has been letting its young girls down. When it comes to sexual matters, the discussion has shifted. Young girls now hear a great deal about ethically neutral health issues, but almost nothing that would suggest that sex is a matter that implicates personal morality and-yes-even religious values.
Over time, that results in an erosion of the kind of modest behavior encouraged in the past. As Elayne Bennett, president and founder of a character and chastity program based in Washington, DC, points out, "When society keeps giving a message that (a) you won't get pregnant and (b) that society doesn't condemn you [for engaging in promiscuous sexual activity], it really wears down some of the healthy and correct hesitancy on the part of ... young girls."
Over the past several decades, American society has instituted welcome reforms to ensure equal opportunity for women in the workplace. But even as barriers to female professional advancement have fallen, so, too, have many of the traditional social conventions that protected girls by supporting those who abstained from sex until maturity and/or marriage. Too many of us have forgotten that traditions now scorned as hopelessly retrograde-like requiring boys to come to their dates' house and meet their parents before their first date-existed for a reason. On the individual level, they were intended to send the message that a girl's parents were actively aware of and concerned about what she was doing (and with whom) when she left the house; from the boy's side, it signaled a willingness to assume responsibility for the safety and well-being of the girl whose company he sought. Collectively, such customs indicated that American society expected behavior from young people that combined sexual restraint, on the one hand, with respectful (even chivalrous) treatment of women, on the other.
Excerpted from Prude by Carol Platt Liebau Copyright © 2007 by Carol Platt Liebau. Excerpted by permission.
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