Sax on Sex

The emerging science of sex differences.

Underage girls dancing onstage in lingerie

Underage girls in lingerie - why is that a problem?

The video has gone viral.  According to The Early Show, one online version of the video has already received 2 million hits, and there are multiple versions streaming from dozens of web sites, although the copyright owner keeps shutting them down as fast as they spring up on YouTube. The videos show five girls performing at a dance competition in Pomona, California. The girls are dancing a choreographed routine to BeyoncĂ©'s song "Single Ladies," wearing nothing but bras, hot pants, and knee-high stockings with black boots.  They gyrate their hips, they kick their legs high, they do pelvic thrusting in unison - all standard stuff for a Pussycat Dolls routine.

But these girls are 7, 8, and 9 years old.

Well, what's wrong with that?

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Apparently nothing, according to some.  The parents of at least two of the five girls have already gone on national television to defend the dance.  Melissa Presch, the mother of one of the "Pomona Five", told Inside Edition that she was "shocked" that anybody would object to the routine. Inside Edition's Jim Moret asked Cory Miller, the father of another of the girls, whether the routine might perhaps be "overly sexualized."  Mr. Miller said no, it's just "really high energy."

In a column on the Pomona Five for TIME magazine, Allie Townsend writes that "Children are not yet in possession of their own sexuality, and until they are, it should be protected, not put on parade."  That is surely correct, as far as it goes.  Prior to the onset of puberty, children do not have an authentic sexual agenda (you will find scholarly citations supporting that point in my book Girls on the Edge).  These girls were performing a routine which was created by an adult.  They were not expressing their own sexuality; they were faking a sexuality which they don't yet possess.

But why exactly is that such a bad thing?  Why is it any different from a 9-year-old girl pretending to be an astronaut or a veterinarian?  Here is where the commentary so far on this issue has been weak.  Most of the media pundits have said something along the lines of "let kids be kids."  But that's less persuasive today, in an era where 11-year-old girls have their own Facebook page and 11-year-old boys can, and do, download hardcore porn from the Internet.

Why exactly is it so harmful for prepubescent girls to pretend to be sexual?  What's wrong with a 10-year-old girl dressing up as a French maid for Halloween, in a short skirt with fishnet pantyhose, rather than dressing up as a bunch of grapes as her mother did 25 years ago?

The answer is more complex, and more controversial, than you might guess.  It begins with the straightforward point already made by several columnists writing about the Pomona Five.  Underage girls dancing in lingerie, or dressing up as a French maid for Halloween, are sexually objectifying themselves, putting their bodies on display for the entertainment and titillation of others.  That kind of activity teaches girls that sexuality is a commodity which girls provide to boys.  You don't see many boys dressing up in Chippendale's outfits for Halloween; the boys are going as Darth Vader or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, just as boys might have done 20 years ago. 

American culture has long made women into sexual objects.  But two generations ago, the sex objects were women, adult women like Sophia Loren or Marilyn Monroe.  The sexualization of prepubescent girls in the mainstream of American culture - rather than off in the dark shadows of Lolita and Humbert Humbert - is a relatively new phenomenon.  For more on how the culture has changed in just the past 20 years, so that sexualized images of prepubescent girls are now considered normative within the United States, see the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girlhood. This report also makes a strong case that the sexualization of girlhood is a big part of the reason why girls today are more likely to be depressed and anxious, and more likely to have eating disorders, compared with girls just 20 years ago.

In my book Girls on the Edge I start with these and other similar research findings, but I don't stop there, because I think that the sexualization of girlhood exemplified by the Pomona Five has farther-reaching consequences than those noted above.

Sexuality is close to the core of human identity.  How you identify sexually, and how you express your sexuality, is a key ingredient of who you are.  We all have masculine and feminine within us.  How you balance your inner masculine and your inner feminine is one of your defining attributes as a human being.  This is the central idea in an overlooked book by Robert Bly and Marion Woodman entitled The Maiden King, the book that is the starting point for my discussion of this issue in Girls on the Edge. 

Most enduring cultures of which we have any record have protected prepubescent children from adult sexuality.  One reason for that is surely to allow each child to develop their sexuality.  If girls pretend a sexuality which they don't feel, then sexuality becomes a mask, a show.

In researching Girls on the Edge, I spoke with girls across the United States, Canada, and Mexico, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.  I have heard from many 15- and 16-year-old girls who are bored with dressing up in lingerie.  Some of these girls have a "been there, done that" attitude not only toward lingerie but toward heterosexual sex in general.  What's really exciting for some of these teen girls is the possibility of emotional and spiritual intimacy.  But after years of putting on a show for the boys to hoot and holler, some of these girls don't believe that it's possible to have emotional and spiritual intimacy with boys.  The growing disconnect in the tempo of sexual development has contributed to this problem.  It has always been the case that girls begin puberty earlier than boys:  but 40 years ago, the between-sex difference in the average age of onset of puberty was measured in months, not years (see chapter 4 of Girls on the Edge for scholarly citations on this point).  Today, it's common to find 8th-grade girls who could easily pass for 11th-grade girls, sitting next to 8th-grade boys who could easily pass for 5th-grade boys.  The girls are reading Twilight and watching Gossip Girl while the boys are playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. 

In my previous blog, I presented data that teen girls today are roughly three times more likely than teen boys to identify as homosexual or bisexual:  roughly 16% of girls compared with roughly 5% of boys.  In my book Girls on the Edge, I suggest two reasons why that might be so.  One of those reasons is the sexualization of girlhood.  When girls come to regard (heterosexual) sex as a commodity that girls provide to boys, some of those girls may lose hope that the boys they know are capable of emotional and spiritual intimacy.  Those girls may come to believe that emotional and spiritual intimacy is easier to achieve with other girls, rather than with boys.

In researching her scholarly monograph on exotic dancers, published by New York University Press, Dr. Bernadette Barton spent five years interviewing exotic dancers from Hawaii to Kentucky.  She found that roughly half the women she interviewed identified themselves as lesbian or bisexual.  Professor Barton makes a strong case that these women have come to regard men as clients.  When these women want spiritual and emotional intimacy, many of these women prefer the company of other women.  Sexual intimacy is most satisfying (for most women) when it happens in the context of emotional and spiritual intimacy; and for many of these women, that is more likely to happen with another woman.

My prediction:  if you keep track of the Pomona Five, and contact them ten years from now, at least 2 of those 5 girls will identify as bisexual or lesbian.  The end result of pushing girls to be sexual before they ARE sexual, is girls who are disengaged from (heterosexual) sex.

Comments like these have earned me the wrath of some lesbian women.  They accuse me of being heteronormative, i.e. of assuming that heterosexuality is the norm, with lesbian being pathological.  If those women were to read my book Girls on the Edge, they would realize how far off the mark they are.  On the contrary, I celebrate and cherish the variety of human sexual experience - as long as it is genuine, authentic, and honest, and not a show put on for others.  What's most troubling to me about the Pomona Five is the fact that these girls have been pushed into portraying themselves as sexual objects before they are old enough to know their own sexuality. As a result, they are more likely to be disengaged from their own sexuality, less likely to know who they are and who they want to be, as sexual human beings.

Their parents should be ashamed of themselves.

Leonard Sax MD PhD is a physician, psychologist, and author of Girls on the Edge: the four factors driving the new crisis for girls, which has just been published by Basic Books.

 

Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., is a family physician, PhD psychologist, and author of Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge.

more...

Subscribe to Sax on Sex

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?