The authors (Levin is a professor of education; Kilbourne, an authority on the effects of advertising) accuse the media of sexualizing children. Constantly, American children are exposed to a barrage of sexual images in television, movies, music and the Internet. They are taught young that buying certain clothes, consuming brand-name soft drinks and owning the right possessions will make them sexy and cool-and being sexy and cool is the most important thing. Young men and women are spoon-fed images that equate sex with violence, paint women as sexually subservient to men and encourage "hooking up" rather than meaningful connections. The result is that kids are having sex younger and with more partners than ever before. Eating disorders and body image issues are common as early as grade school. Levin and Kilbourne stress that there is nothing wrong with a young person's natural sexual awakening, but it is wrong to allow a young person's sexuality to be hijacked by corporations who want them as customers. The authors offer advice on how parents can limit children's exposure to commercialized sex, and how parents can engage kids in constructive, age-appropriate conversation about sex and the media. One need only read the authors' anecdotes to see why this book is relevant. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kidsby Diane E. Levin, Jean Kilbourne
Risqué Halloween costumes for young girls. T-shirts that boast "Chick Magnet" for toddler boys. Sexy content on almost every television channel, as well as in movies and video games. Popular culture and technology inundate our boys and girls with an onslaught of graphic sexual messages at earlier ages than ever before. Without the emotional sophistication to
Risqué Halloween costumes for young girls. T-shirts that boast "Chick Magnet" for toddler boys. Sexy content on almost every television channel, as well as in movies and video games. Popular culture and technology inundate our boys and girls with an onslaught of graphic sexual messages at earlier ages than ever before. Without the emotional sophistication to understand what they are doing and seeing, kids are getting into increasing trouble emotionally and socially. Parents are left shaking their heads, wondering: How did this happen? What can we do?
Levin (education, Wheelock Coll.; Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture) and coauthor Kilbourne (Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel) have cultivated their credentials as experts on media influence and children's development. As the title promises, this book delineates formative social influences promoting premature sexual knowledge and behavior in young children. Among examples of the "new sexualized childhood," the authors emphasize the well-established fact that manufacturers take advantage of children by pushing sexually suggestive products such as Barbie and Bratz dolls, eliciting child sexual behavior. A more useful feature is the sage advice to parents. By emphasizing ongoing discussion and communication between parents and children, this work provides strategies for helping children, particularly adolescents, thread their way through the minefields of societal and peer-reinforced sexuality. Comparable to Susan Linn's Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising, this book is recommended for all public libraries.
“This book–by two of America’s leading experts on the effects of media on children–is powerful and profoundly useful. It is packed with great stories and poignant examples of the stress children face in our sex-soaked culture. Best of all, the authors offer sane and practical solutions for all of us who want to make things better for children, parents, schools, and the culture at large.”—–Mary Pipher, Ph.D., author of Reviving Ophelia
“So Sexy So Soon is a most timely and important book. For parents who are troubled and worried about what their children are seeing and hearing, it offers helpful guidance and support; it not only documents the trends but provides parents with many useful strategies to combat them.”—David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Hurried Child
“Levin and Kilbourne, two of the nation’s most astute analysts of media and youth, have produced the definitive book on the sexualization of childhood. Complete with sample conversations, guidelines, and practical advice, this book will teach you how to keep your child healthy as you navigate the minefields of popular culture. Essential reading for parents, educators, and health professionals.”—Juliet Schor, professor of sociology, author of Born to Buy
“Every parent should read this eye-opening book. It is a rallying cry to take a stand against the commercial sexualization of children. I highly recommend it.”—Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D., professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, and director of the MediaCenter at Judge Baker Children’s Center
“Levin and Kilbourne show us how children, from their earliest years, learn about sex, sexuality, and relationships. Best of all, they give us concrete strategies to fight harmful influences and help us nurture children toward loving relationships now and throughout their lives.”—Nancy Carlsson-Paige, author of Taking Back Childhood and Professor of education, Lesley University
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Read an Excerpt
Never Too Young to Be Sexy
Living with Children in Today’s Sexualized World
It has never been easy being a parent. But today, it has gotten even more difficult. A 2002 survey by an organization called Public Agenda found that 76 percent of parents felt it was a lot harder to raise children today than when they were growing up, and 47 percent reported that their biggest challenge was trying to protect their children from negative societal influences, including disturbing and confusing images, violence, and age-inappropriate messages appearing in the media.
How would you have answered this survey? Are you, too, having a hard time trying to protect your children from negative influences? Are you finding it difficult to set and enforce limits on the media that your children are exposed to—to determine how much, when, and what? As parents, you are often told that it’s your job to “just say no” to all of the inappropriate content out there, and that this will solve the problem. But just saying no won’t solve the problem, and anyway, you can’t say no to everything!
Instead, we simply have to deal with the popular culture in our children’s lives, often at the most unexpected times, in unforeseen ways, and whether we want to or not. This book is designed to help you do just that. And in order to be able to do so, the first order of business is to examine and recognize when and how the new sexualized childhood is influencing children from a young age.
Several recent books and news and research reports have expressed concern about today’s sexual attitudes and behavior of many adolescents, and increasingly even tweens (eight- to twelve-year- olds). These accounts often make it seem as if the behavior in question suddenly appears out of a vacuum when children enter high school (or middle school). Rarely do we hear about what was happening in the early years that paved the way for what is happening with teens.
There is a lot going on in children’s lives around issues of sexuality and sexiness that is important for the caring adults in their lives to recognize. The following stories from parents and teachers make it very clear that if we are to understand and deal with the sexualization of childhood, we must begin our efforts with very young children.
CRYING IN THE BATHTUB
Jennifer reported that one evening not long ago, her seven-year-old daughter Hannah began crying in the bathtub. Alarmed, Jennifer asked what was wrong. Hannah responded, “I’m fat! I’m fat! I want to be pretty like Isabelle—sexy like her! Then Judd would like me too!” Jennifer knew Isabelle, a very thin, very popular girl in Hannah’s class who wore “stylish” clothes that Jennifer thought were inappropriate for a seven-year-old. Jennifer put her hand on Hannah’s shoulder and said she liked Hannah’s body—it was a wonderful body for a seven-year-old and she certainly didn’t need to lose weight. But Hannah continued to cry and to say that she wanted to go on a diet. Jennifer felt uncertain about what to say or do next. In her view, Hannah had a normal body for a seven-year-old girl. Jennifer thought it must be abnormal for such a young child to be thinking about diets, let alone wanting boys to like her for being “pretty” and “sexy.” But, normal or not, Jennifer saw that Hannah was truly concerned and distressed, and she wanted to do something to help.
As Jennifer strove to understand Hannah’s outburst, she was tempted to put a lot of the blame on Hannah’s friends, who were becoming increasingly influential and important to her. Recently, Hannah had come home from a playdate talking about having had a fashion show with her friend’s Bratz dolls. Jennifer was concerned that when Hannah and her friends played together they often acted out going on “dates” and having weddings with their Barbie dolls, but she was truly horrified by the time they spent at other houses with Bratz dolls—by their name, their anorexic-looking bodies, their overt sexuality and hooker-like wardrobe, as well as by the focus on shopping and appearance as the point of the play. When she voiced her reservations about Hannah’s having the dolls, Hannah said that everyone else had them and that she loved playing with them at other children’s houses.
She and her friends liked dressing them up and having them go shopping and out on dates. Although Jennifer didn’t give in, she wasn’t sure what she would do when Hannah’s birthday arrived the following month. She was certain some other girls would give these dolls to Hannah as gifts. Even if Jennifer took them away, she knew Hannah would continue to play with them at her friends’ homes. Recently, Hannah had begun to nag about joining the Bratz website, an online community where kids can play and buy things for their Bratz dolls in cyberspace, along with other children who are logged on.
Deep down, however, Jennifer realized that what worried her most was where this interest in appearance, popularity, and sexiness would lead. If Hannah was dissatisfied with her body at the age of seven, she wondered how she might feel at thirteen. Jennifer had seen news stories about an increase in precocious sexual behavior among children and teens, and she knew that eating disorders were on the rise, even among little girls. Were Hannah’s tears about her body the first sign of such trouble for her? What was the relationship between concerns about body image and sexuality? And what did she mean by being “sexy” anyway? Knowing how high the stakes were, Jennifer felt almost desperate to find the right way to respond. But she was upset with herself for feeling unsure, even anxious, about knowing the right thing to say or do.
PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING GIRLS
Nora, a highly experienced kindergarten teacher, told us about an incident with a child that left her scrambling to figure out how to respond. In his daily school journal, five-year-old James had made a drawing of what looked to Nora like a woman, with long hair and bright red lips as well as big wavy circles on her chest that looked like breasts. Next to the drawing he had written the letter W over and over again. Nora asked him to tell her about his picture. She was caught off guard when James explained that his drawing was of “a professional wrestling girl with big boobies.”
“At first I thought he was trying to be fresh, to be a wise guy, but I caught myself before I reacted too harshly,” Nora reported. “I took a deep breath and tried to think through how to respond. I decided to start with a question.” (This is almost always a good way to start when you’re not quite sure what to say.) So Nora asked James what he knew about “wrestling girls.” He matter-of-factly replied with his eyes open wide, “I saw her on TV last night with my [big] brother, Brett. He was babysitting! He let me stay up late and watch with him! It’s a secret!” She was glad she had asked him the initial question about what he knew about wrestling girls, because his response helped her begin to get a handle on what was going on for James.
Nora recalled that it was the look on James’s face when he answered her, of both bravado and worry at the same time, that left her confused and concerned. She knew that James’s parents were quite clear about limiting the amount and kind of media in his life. She knew how much James looked up to fourteen-year-old Brett and admired everything he did. She was pretty sure that James’s parents would be distressed if they knew about Brett and James’s secret! She was also pretty sure that if James shared the secret with her, he was asking for something, but what exactly was it?
Rather than try to work it all out with James at that moment, Nora decided to buy some time to think about what to do. So she said to James, “It sounds like you saw things you hadn’t seen before... things that were not really for kindergartners. I’m glad you told me about your secret.” James smiled and put his journal away.
After the event was over, there was a lot for Nora to consider. Why did James decide to disclose the secret to her and do it through his daily journal? Why did he choose to focus on the breasts? Did he know that focusing on them could be seen as provocative to his teacher or have sexual connotations? After all, what signifies sex to an adult might mean something quite different to a five-year-old. Was James trying to use his drawing to brag and feel more grown up about his having seen this grown-?up program? Or could he have made his drawing because he needed someone to talk to about it when he knew he couldn’t reveal it to his parents because it was a secret? Was he testing Nora to see if she would get upset or angry, or looking to her to help him sort the experience out?
Nora began to think about the issue more broadly than just about James. If James drew his picture of the “professional wrestling girl” as a way of talking to an adult about something disturbing he saw on the screen, as Nora now thought he did, do other children also need such opportunities to process the graphic content they are seeing in media and popular culture? Well, then, whom are they talking to? How often do children end up seeing things their parents don’t want them to see and then learn not to talk to adults about it? And when they do experience the forbidden fruit, what does it teach them about honesty and deceit and about the nature of their relationship with the important adults in their lives?
Finally, Nora started to feel better about how she had responded to James and realized she had learned an important lesson for her future teaching: Whether they’re scared or want to feel grown-up and impress others with what they’ve seen, this is the kind of conversation with an adult that children often need in order to help them deal with the sex and violence they see. Furthermore, such conversations might also be used to teach children alternative lessons to what they’re learning from the screen.
But Nora didn’t leave it there. She began to think about what should happen beyond the classroom. What should the role of schools be in helping children (and their parents) deal with the sexualized media culture? How was this experience with James related to debates that were raging around the country about whether to teach sex education— and, if so, what kind and when? More particularly, did she have a responsibility to talk with James’s parents about the professional wrestling girl episode? If she did talk to them, would this upset James and make him feel he couldn’t trust teachers and other adults to help him deal with scary secrets next time? Or would speaking with the parents help them connect more positively with James so that it would be easier for him to use them next time, rather than his teacher, to talk about what he’d seen on TV?
Nora was aware of a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation report that found that many children spend more time involved with media than on anything else but sleeping. So why wasn’t media education part of the school curriculum? Why didn’t schools see that they have a vital role to play in helping to influence the lessons that media are teaching children? Was the push to teach the “basics” for standardized tests that came from the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” mandate crowding out content that children urgently needed to work on? If children didn’t have avenues to deal with their feelings about media content, what happened to these feelings? Did their involvement with the disturbing and confusing images and behaviors they saw distract them from giving their all to traditional schoolwork?
While there was not one right or easy answer to most of Nora’s questions, she realized that the increasing exposure of the children in her classroom to confusing sexual content was creating new challenges for her that she needed to take seriously. We need more teachers like Nora in today’s world!
“WHAT’S A BLOW JOB?”
Meghan recounted with obvious distress that her seven-year-old daughter, Eva, had come home from school the day before and asked, “Mom, what’s a blow job?” Meghan’s first impulse was to tell Eva that it wasn’t something for children, it was for adults, and to terminate the conversation then and there. But something about the earnest expression on Eva’s face made Meghan pause. “Stay calm, stay calm!” she told herself. Then she asked, “Where did you hear about blow jobs?” Eva replied that she heard about it at school. Meghan followed with, “What did you hear about it?” Eva responded, “It’s sex.” Meghan couldn’t imagine where to go next with the conversation.
Meghan had always tried to protect Eva from exposure to violence and sex in the media. But ever since Eva had entered a large elementary school with many children who were not as protected as Eva, Meghan felt she was increasingly losing her ability to control this exposure. This new episode left Meghan feeling that things were really out of control. She had been aware, with some degree of ambivalence, that she might need to talk with Eva about issues such as oral sex during the adolescent or even the preadolescent years. She had heard news reports about incidents of oral sex in high schools. She had read that several boys at a private school near Boston were expelled because a girl had performed oral sex on all of them in the locker room. More recently, a friend had told her that two girls at a bar mitzvah had performed oral sex on the bar mitzvah boy in a bathroom. She certainly was disturbed by these incidents, but she was utterly appalled that the subject had come up with Eva at age seven!
Meghan and her husband had talked about how they wanted to be open and comfortable with Eva when talking about sex. But they had expected Eva’s first questions to be about where babies come from, not this. This was simply not what they had had in mind! Should Meghan actually describe oral sex? What could this possibly mean to a seven-year-old? And how would her explanation affect Eva’s understanding about sex and relationships between caring adults, both short and long term? Meghan also didn’t know what to think about the children who had used the term “blow job” in Eva’s presence. Where were they getting this language? What did they know?
Meet the Author
Diane E. Levin, Ph.D., (right) is a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, where she has been involved in training early childhood professionals for more than twenty-five years. An internationally recognized expert who helps professionals and parents deal with the effects of violence, media, and commercial culture on children, Levin is a senior adviser to the PBS parents’ website for girls, the co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the author or co-author of seven other books, including Remote Control Childhood? and The War Play Dilemma. She is a frequent keynote speaker and workshop presenter and has been a guest on many radio and television programs. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., is internationally recognized for her pioneering work on alcohol and tobacco advertising and the image of women in advertising. The New York Times Magazine named her one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses. Her award-winning films include the Killing Us Softly series, Slim Hopes, Calling the Shots, and Spin the Bottle. The author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, she is a frequent guest on radio and television programs such as Today and The Oprah Winfrey Show. She has testified for the U.S. Congress and been an adviser to two surgeons general. A Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women, she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.
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I was desparate to find something to help me understand and deal with the grossly inappropriate sexually colored behavior and conversations of my elementary-age grandchildren. I found this book in the library and ordered three copies for their parents. It's excellent information and has already had a very positive impact on the children. I've seen a huge change in them just by talking to them about respecting themselves and their own bodies as well as others. My 42-year old son commented that the book has helped him understand his own sexuality and sexual tendancies as he sees the perspective through his own formative years. Thank you, authors, for this important and extremely well-done book. I would make it required reading for every school teacher in the country.
Angeles Arrien (author of The Four-Fold Way) once said, ¿When we lose touch with our inner wisdom, we abnormalize the normal and normalize the abnormal.¿ What was considered crazy, disgusting, or taboo yesterday could become status quo, even necessary, tomorrow¿if we aren¿t paying close attention to our own internal guidance system. But that¿s not so easy to do anymore. Today¿s commercialized culture pushes limits for market share and bombards with mass-delivered influential, often aberrant messages¿making it increasingly difficult for moms and dads to function from their ¿wise selves," as I have discussed in my book, Parenting Well (www.parentingwellinamediaage.com).
An extremely disturbing trend is the counterfeit culture¿s sexualization of children. From early childhood through adolescence today¿s kids are bombarded with negative gender images and skewed messages about sexuality. Twenty years ago, for instance, when I was raising my children, it would have been unheard of, even unspeakable, for manufacturers to market thongs for seven year-old girls. Yet today, crazy as it is, that¿s what¿s happening. So Sexy So Soon provides many other equally distressing examples of how our innocents are now just cogs in the ¿sex sells¿ marketing wheel. The impact is profound. So Sexy So Soon demonstrates the critical urgency of the issue and beautifully articulates what can be done about it by parents and by all of us working together to stop this insidious form of child abuse. (The authors remind us that the thong is the stripper¿s clothing of choice, in case we have forgotten.)
Diane Levin (www.dianeelevin.com) is professor of education at Wheelock College and has been involved in training early childhood professionals for more than twenty-five years. She has worked extensively in the field of media-related issues, and is an internationally recognized expert on the effects of violence, media, and commercial culture on children, and speaks often on these subjects. She is the author or co-author of seven books including Remote Control Childhood? and The War Play Dilemma. Jean Kilbourne (www.jeankilbourne.com), a Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women is internationally recognized for her pioneering work on the image of women in advertising. A popular lecturer, The New York Times Magazine named her one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses. She has produced award-winning films, including the Killing Us Softly series and is the author of Can¿t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel.
Either one of these remarkable women could have alone written So Sexy So Soon. I¿m glad they decided to team up, instead. The combined wealth of each of their backgrounds and expertise bring a rich tapestry of ideas, examples, and suggestions. The ultimate power of the book is their compelling united voice¿not only as professionals pioneering this work, but also as mothers. By sharing parenting examples of their own fears, questions, and successes, they give us hope.
By admitting that this is a complex issue with no quick fixes and by giving practical ¿how tos¿ the authors provide both a thoughtful analysis of the problem as well as an effective action plan. Not much time? Go straight to Chapter 6 for dialogues demonstrating listening deeply and asking key questions to support children's healthy sexuality in a commercial culture.
I worry every day about her exposure to over-sexualized imagery and messages. I search often on ParentsDigest for summaries on books on this subject, and this one was money well spent. It is nearly impossible to sheild her completely, but this book explains how important it is to try to protect her from the effects of media and society's message of sexuality, as well as how deep the effects of those messages runs