Two decades ago, a friend recounted an unsettling dinnertime experience. Just as he put a forkful of spaghetti in his mouth in a busy restaurant, his 10-year-old daughter casually asked, “What’s a blow job?” My friend recalled how he had to first recover from choking on a meatball, and then make a valiant attempt to respond.
Fast forward 20 years, and children are still asking questions about sex—but at a much younger age. Young children do not have the cognitive understanding that allows them to understand what it means to be “sexy,” let alone what a blow job is. But by the time a 10-year-old approaches middle school age today, she may be faced with the latest fad—girls giving blow jobs as a way of gaining peer status.
From a young age, children are being exposed to messages about sex and sexiness that come to them through the media and popular culture. Even when parents seek to responsibly shield their offspring from media messages that they deem to be questionable or damaging, it is impossible to block them completely. Children today are immersed in a sea of media that is as ubiquitous as the air they breathe.
Many believe that the powerful messages of consumer culture represent a public health crisis, but perhaps it is a spiritual crisis as well. Christians understand the power of the lifelong process of formation, and a primary task of the faith community is to participate in the formation of our children. But while we view them as children of God, the marketplace is claiming them as its own, exerting a powerful formative influence on what they will become.
One potent threat to authentic formation is the sexualization of childhood. Sexualization is not the same thing as sexuality or sex. Our sexuality is God’s good gift, to be celebrated and used responsibly. It is a normal and necessary part of a child’s development to be curious and to ask questions about his or her own sexuality. Sexualization, on the other hand, is a distortion of God’s good gift. It occurs when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed.1
The sexualization of childhood is a consequence, albeit unintended, of the targeting of children as a consumer market. The FTC Improvement Act of 1980 stripped the Federal Trade Commission of any authority to regulate advertising and marketing to children, opening the floodgates to creating TV shows with the sole purpose of selling toys. Children were being treated as consumers for the very first time.2 In those early years of deregulation, advertising reached children primarily through television. But today many children have access to more than one media platform right in their bedrooms. Over the past few years, the ways they access media has shifted. Children as young as eight now have mobile access through devices such as I-Pods or cell phones. Even if a family is monitoring and blocking access at home to content they find inappropriate, it’s as close as the child’s cell phone—or those of their friends. It all adds up to a staggering 7½ hours a day—more than any other activity except sleeping.3
It’s all about selling products to children. Increasingly, marketers rely on violence and sex to sell, because they know it works. The marketing principle of KAGOY—kids are getting older younger—translates into marketing to young children using the fads and trends popular with older children and youth. Sex is portrayed in cynical, degrading ways, as a commodity, and is linked to violence. The result is a dehumanizing of one of the most cherished aspects of human identity—all in the name of consumption.
Increasingly, what the media communicates about gender roles is becoming rigid and polarized. Young girls are immersed in a culture of pink princesses and hyper sexualized clothing and toys, such as the popular Bratz dolls for children five and up. Recently Lego launched LEGO friends, a girlified, pink version of the toy.4 Thongs and panties for young girls from Target, J.C. Penney and Abercrombie have padded bras and thongs with slogans like “Eye Candy”.
In contrast, young boys get the message that masculinity is defined by insensitivity and extreme macho behavior, and the vehicle for the message is violence. In contrast to the GI Joe dolls of 20 years ago, action toys for little boys are on steroids, with exaggerated muscle bound bodies and ever more violent hype. By their actions and attitudes, our children are evidence that they are paying a price for the sexualization of our culture.
Good parenting calls for shielding children from the impact of sexualization. But in a world where media messages are sophisticated, targeted and unrelenting, the burden should not rest solely on the shoulders of parents. As Christian educators, we have a responsibility to help equip parents and to find ways to counter the powerful and relentless formation of consumer culture, especially as it distorts our children’s understanding of who they are as children of God. Here are some suggestions for how we can respond as faith communities.
- Schedule a viewing of Consuming Kids for the parents in your community. Find out how to get the DVD and a screening kit from http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/events/consumingkids.html
- Offer media literacy education and sex education for children, youth and adults, as well as venues where dialogue about the struggles of parenting can take place. While we debate whether these conversations should be taking place at church, the culture is exploiting and educating our children in ways we surely would not choose. So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do To Protect Their Kids, by Diane E. Levin, PhD. and Jean Kilbourne, Ed. D.(Ballantine Books, 2008) has a wealth of thoughtful and practical suggestions for parents.
- Encourage members of the congregation to become prayerfully engaged in the public sphere, speaking up and speaking out about consumer practices that are toxic and that feed sexualization. The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (www.commercialfreechildhood.org) is an excellent source for information and advocacy.
1 Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. New York: American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 1.
2 So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Children. Diane E. Levin, PhD, and Jean Kilbourne, Ed. D. New York: Ballentine Books, 2008, pp. 36-37.
3 Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Old. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. Victoria J. Rideout, M.A., Ulla G Fohr, PhD, and Donald F. Robert, PhD, January 2010, pp. 1 and 16. If multitasking with media is included, the total is 10 hours and 45 minutes a day.
4 “LEGO Friends Petition: Parents, Women and Companies To Stop Gender-Based Marketing.” Farah Miller and Emma Gray, The Huffington Post. First posted January 15, 2012, http://www.huffington post.com/2012/01/15/lego-friends-girls-gender-toy.
Martha Bettis Gee, a certified Christian educator and a ruling elder, is Associate for Child Advocacy and Networking for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a writer, editor, and consultant.