It’s a “Girls Gone Wild” World

I’ve been working on my thoughts about the trend for women and girls towards skimpier, more revealing clothing for over a week now but I haven’t been able to get it quite right. The Two Blowhards recently treated the same subject, but they looked at it from a more reportorial angle whereas my thoughts are suffused with evaluation.

One of the points made in their comments area is that your perspective on sexiness changes dramatically once you have daughters. As someone for whom daughter possession is imminent, I can agree with that. One of the many ways in which it changes is that you realize that it’s one thing for the girls to want to dress like that—popularity is very important and so are boys, but popularity with boys is doubly so—it’s another thing entirely for a parent or parents to allow the child to dress like that.

Parents out there are probably thinking, “I tried to get them to not wear those getups but they wouldn’t listen.” I have heard parents speak of letting their children do things because they tried to make them stop unsuccessfully; I’ve seen them in the supermarkets and malls telling their kids no and then giving in when the kids started fussing. I’m afraid of what will happen when their kids are old enough to consider alcohol, “Mommy, you never give me any scotch. Wahhhh!” These sorts of things never worked in my day and we made do. I know that that’s a classic posture—things were different in my day—but they definitely were: at least in public.

Parents back then were much more concerned about their public image because a spoiled rotten brat for a child would earn them the withering glares of other shoppers and a sluttily-dressed girl would have been positively scandalous. Tattoos and piercings were for pirates, sailors, and the seedy underbelly of society. Now they’re practically de rigeur among both parents and children. The private is the public; there is nothing left that won’t be flaunted. “Kids want to look sexy at 12? Well, that’s what everybody’s doing: how can I fight the tide?”

To so trivially sexualize your child is reprehensible. The sexual revolution was about not being ashamed of sex, not being afraid of it. It taught women that sex was okay, sex was good. This is truly a helpful notion for women. What it didn’t advocate was that sexuality was a public act. Sex was something that consenting adults did in the bedroom and the repeal of many blue laws was heralded as keeping “the government out of the bedroom.”

Somewhere along the line, sex became a public act. Necking went from something that teenagers did on the edge of town to something they did at the mall. Public sex acts increased among all segments and age groups of the population. Jerry Springer’s show put forth the notion that there was some really bizarre stuff happening out there and the World Wide Web made access to that bizarre stuff even easier. The maxim “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” dropped the first clause and the sexual revolution somehow inched below the age of majority floor.

At the same time, repeated proclamations of girl power and female empowerment were bandied about with the introduction of video games oriented towards women and movies featuring strong female leads. Something always felt wrong about this, but I couldn’t pin it down until I read an article on the subject. Empowerment in this context is a chimera: a commingling of assertiveness with flaunted sexuality.

The examples cited in the article—Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft and Charlie’s Angels—are apt and representative, but there’s a much more insidious perversion of empowerment coursing throughout our society. The media examples are poignant and pervasive, but the media is just the harbinger of change—the permeation of our society suggests that the bastardization has taken root.

I’m talking about the general disdain for intellectual pursuits and the embrace of all things puerile and lascivious. The same thing that produces Lara Croft (and Temptation Island and Fear Factor and The Fifth Wheel) also creates a site about Republican Babes. In this view, a woman is sexy because she’s showcasing her breasts or her butt. And women acquire power or status only insofar as they’re willing to be sexy.

In other words, while the sexual revolution represented the liberation of women from stereotypes and Puritanism, it never addressed women in a non-sexual context. Never is a little overstated, but it didn’t address it in a significant way or we would see its effects today. Sexuality is a private thing primarily between a man and a woman—though all manner of other combinations are possible, of course. By linking women’s (and now girls’) identities to their sexuality, this private wonderful act becomes their public persona. Girl power, then, becomes the act of using your sexuality to get what you want.

That does a profound disservice to sex, women, and relationships. Women (and now girls) become mere objects for men’s desire or gawking. They become the pawns of women since “they’re only after one thing.” The women, recognizing this, withhold that “one thing” while dressing as if they were quite willing to do that “one thing.” Sounds like a timeless problem, right? It was because all of that is now quite open and public. Previously, men had to get to know a woman before he had sex with her and he had to more or less court her. Overt sexual behavior wasn’t part of the equation and could lead to immediate dismissal.

Now, sex is expected and part of the culture. Sex on the first date isn’t uncommon and people sleep with other people rather casually, even as friends. Women are judged on their looks and their sexuality. I can’t remember the last time I heard any man comment on how bright a woman was or how intriguing she seemed. It’s all about how “hot” she looks or how quickly she might have sex.

Jeremy Zawodny recently noted how rare it is to find books in people’s houses anymore. I seconded that because I can’t, offhand, think of anyone I know locally who has more than a hundred books in their house or reads regularly. And I’ve noted a disturbing lack of intellectual activity in all of the teens I’ve encountered as well. I’m sure that intellectual pursuits are still frowned upon in the high school culture, much like they were when I was in school.

I’ll confess to not being terribly familiar with the current teenager scene, but I’ve read enough to suggest that I am, if anything, understating the situation. That is the minimum bar that future kids will raise higher and higher. And that scares me more than I can say.

My daughters will grow up in that context, but they will not partake of it if I have anything to do with it. And I will. My responsibility as a parent is to raise my children and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them distract me from that purpose because of any temporary inconvenience or embarrassment. My wife and I have already decided that they will not hang out at the mall, that they will not dress like prostitots, that they will watch a limited amount of television, and that they will sit down to dinner with us at the dinner table on a nightly basis. I will encourage in them a love of and thirst for knowledge that will lead them on a path of lifelong learning. I will impart in them a respect for books and the knowledge they contain. I will foster in them an attitude of logic and reason so that they may come to understand the world and the ideas expressed in it.

There is the distinct possibility that this proto-sexual anarchy will engender a backlash and a reaction. Perhaps other parents will come to be as frustrated and disgusted as I am about the state in which we find our societ
y and they will take their children out of the cultural norm. And perhaps this will stanch the moral tide and restore a return to normalcy. I don’t really know, but I suspect that it’s simply too much effort for most people to expend. It is not too much for me and it is simply too important to not undertake it.

[UPDATE (9/10/03): Another data point. My friend Larry also pointed out that this essay didn’t really cover the issue of independence, which I agree is a very important quality to instill in my children that is generally lacking among today’s teens. He also suggested that sex as a teen isn’t that big of a deal if the foundations are there. I agree with that—to a point. As I told him, I think that sex is too wonderful a thing to have outside of love (i.e., casually). I believe that a teenager can feel love if she’s mature and in tune with her values and I wouldn’t have a problem with sexual activity in that context.]

[UPDATE 2 (9/10/03): Yet another data point. As far as I can tell, “dogging” is having sex in front of strangers. I’m almost positive that this didn’t use to happen except as maybe an accident. That is some freaky stuff.]

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