Public Republic random header image

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can do to Protect Their Kids, by Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne

May 16, 2009 by · 23 comments

Elayne Clift

Photo: orangeacid

It takes a lot to shock me, but elementary school kids playing “the rape game” on a school bus? Baby T-shirts sporting “Chick Magnet” on the front? Blow jobs at Bar Mitzvahs? All this and more is documented in Diane Levin’s and Jean Kilbourne’s important new book aimed at helping parents steer their children into a world where pop culture is spelled S-E-X.

In addition to identifying the problem of raising kids in a “toxic cultural environment”, the authors ask, “What can you do?” and then wisely and practically offer specific steps to take.

These guidelines – coming from an educator and an expert in media content analysis – range from how to “keep up with children’s media and popular culture” to “work[ing] cooperatively with other adults.” There are helpful lists like “Twelve Reasons Why Just Saying No Isn’t Enough” and scripts for “Working It Out Together.”

This book is not the work of doomsday polemicists; it is a parenting manual for the 21st century written by two experts who get the problem and give useful tips for confronting it.

They are also good at analyzing the problems confronting both parents and children in a media-mad world. For example, an examination of how media and marketers exploit children for profit underscores the desensitization that comes with sexualization. It becomes all too easy to overlook “the sexualized culture of consumerism”, especially when everyone else seems to be yielding to it.

“Because the industry’s messages have become so normalized in our culture and because knowledge of the thought processes and emotional and psychological needs of children has been so obscured, many adults have become desensitized to the full impact of these messages on children”, the authors say.

Levin and Kilbourne worry about a growing “compassion deficit disorder” in which children are learning to relate to others in negative, competitive ways rather than with caring and connection. “In the media and popular culture, children endlessly see that sex and sexiness, not affection, are the primary focus of relationships between adults.

They see that it’s normal to treat oneself and others as objects and to judge people by what they buy and how they look.” This is vintage Kilbourne, whose important video series about women and advertising, “Killing Her Softly”, is shown to great effect in Gender Studies courses all over the country.

The authors also write compellingly about “the nag factor” and the “clash of cultures” that take place daily. Companies actually design advertising campaigns that encourage kids to nag their parents to the point of purchase, thus setting up discord between parents and children. For example, parents who feel that certain clothing is inappropriate end up vetoing their way to strained relations with their offspring.

As one mother put it, “I felt like I was caught in a vice. I wasn’t going to let her out of the house looking like a hooker. But I hated that setting this limit damaged our relationship.” The authors interpret the situation as a clash of cultures in which family values come up against a commercialized culture heavily wedded to sexualized media.

The problems do not abate as children grow into adolescence. “The pressure on young women to attain an ideal (and impossible) image of beauty is becoming steadily worse,” the authors claim. They say studies have shown that young women feel they must be perfect, sexy and smart, all of which is wrapped in “an illusion of effortless perfection”.

Levin and Kilbourne conclude their book with a chapter called “Creating a New Cultural Environment” in which they offer “A Dozen Ways to Turn the World Around”. The focus is on legislation and public policy, media, education, and the development of organizations and coalitions to combat the problems discussed in this compelling book.

“Of course we can’t change overnight all of the problems in society that contribute to the sexualization of childhood”, the authors (both mothers themselves) assure us. “But every parent can find some way, small or large, to have a voice to advocate for change”.

Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne have laid out a kind of roadmap toward that change. It is a map based on knowledge, experience, and the reality of our time. Perhaps most importantly, it goes beyond exposing the problem and giving advice; it offers parental empathy and support so often missing in “how-to’s” aimed at those of us already feeling vulnerable and under pressure. That alone makes it worth reading.

Related posts ↓

23 comments so far ↓

  • Nobody has commented yet. Be the first!