Commentary Sexuality

Recital Revelations: When it Comes to the Over-Sexualization of Young Girls, We Are the Problem

Martha Kempner

Last weekend I had a revelation. It was well into the second hour of an interminable dance recital and little boys were twirling little girls in mock romance while the audience cheered, and it hit me; when it comes to the sexualization of young girls, we are the problem. We are society. We are the ones who send our girls mixed messages. 

For years, lots of us have been talking about how young girls get mixed messages about gender and sexuality. They are told that they should work hard but that looking pretty is more important. They are told that they can do anything a guy can do, except maybe math. They are told that sex is exciting, fun, and morally wrong. They are told that they should look sexy but that really wanting sex and actually having it (certainly having too much of it) makes them a slut. They are told to protect themselves but are looked down on (again as a slut) for having a condom in their purse. They are told that it’s good to make guys want them but they shouldn’t “give themselves away.” 

When we bring this up, we often blame the media — the TV show or movie of the moment whether it’s Gossip Girl or the Twilight Saga. Sometimes we aim our comments at manufacturers or retailers—like when Lego released its new pink shopping-themed set for girls or J.C. Penney’s put out a tee-shirt that said “I’m too pretty to do homework.”  Magazines and advertisers are also often blamed for blatantly playing to girls’ insecurities and creating an airbrushed-ideal of women’s bodies that no real person could achieve. Sometimes we get to blame individuals like Rush Limbaugh who called a law student a prostitute for wanting birth control.  But often the blame for these mixed messages is put loosely on “society” and left at that.

Last weekend I had a revelation. I was sitting in a high school auditorium full of parents and grandparents. It was well into the second hour of an interminable dance recital and little boys were twirling little girls in mock romance while the audience cheered, and it hit me; we are the problem. We are society. Each and every one of us adults is part of this society that hyper-sexualizes and confuses our girls (and our boys) and it is our fault.

It is my fault.

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My older daughter is almost six. I signed her up for a class at this particular dance school primarily because one of her good friends was going to take it and it ran at the right time on Saturday mornings. I thought she would enjoy the mix of ballet and tap and I knew she would be thrilled by the idea of the recital. As a kid, I was always a little jealous of my friends who were in dance recitals with fancy, sparkly costumes. The only dance class my mom ever signed us up for was modern dance with Lily Schraeger, an aging hippy who would never dream of putting on this kind of a show.  As an adult, I’ve come to see these recitals as one small step away from beauty pageants and yet I not only let my daughter participate, I coughed up quite a bit of money for that privilege. (As I said, I am the problem.)

From the beginning of the class, I felt out of place at the school. I thought their rules requiring black leotards, white or pink tights, and ballerina buns were far too strict. (I let Charlie wear her preferred purple tights anyhow.)  I didn’t particularly enjoy the sounds of older kids taking private voice lessons in the room right off the lobby (the week that a 15-year-old practiced an aria from Carmen was actually painful). But I seemed to be in the minority on all of this, the other parents I talked to during class were unfazed. In fact, I was the only one who thought the costume — a leotard made to look like a mock tuxedo with a skirt only in the back, pink and white stripes, sequin buttons, a bow-tie choker, and polka-dotted wristbands — looked Playboy-bunny-ish. Everyone else said it was kind of cute.

One day on the ride home from class, my daughter told me she knew what ambition was.  For an instant I feared what this school that took itself so seriously as a “performing arts center” might have taught her. But when she told me it was a cup of coffee, I realized that she was dancing to Dolly Parton’s 9-to-5 theme song (“tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition, and yawn and stretch and try to come to life”). I found myself relieved; at least the lyrics weren’t too inappropriate. I even laughed through her dress rehearsal as 16 girls were wheeled out on stage in office chairs and then stared at their feet while desperately trying to remember both to tap their feet and swing their arms at the same time.   

On show day, my husband and I brought our mothers because this seemed like the kind of event grandparents should attend. Admittedly, none of us went into this with a particularly good attitude. We are not showbiz people. My husband hates Broadway-style productions. My mother (who never even let me have a Barbie doll) had gone on record saying that Charlie’s costume offended her feminist sensibilities. And my mother-in-law, who commented that the school wasn’t “child-centered,” couldn’t believe we were going to have to suffer through 29 acts of other people’s children in order to enjoy the four minutes that ours was on stage. (The recital playbill reminded us that “per our show contract” no child could leave early.)

The first number was a medley from Cats performed by the school’s audition-only theater troupe, made up of kids ages 10 to 17 or so. I was a little disturbed by the costumes which consisted of midriff-baring shirts, jazz shorts, and purposely ripped tights. The 80’s street-walker look was offset slightly (or maybe made worse) by the long, swirling cat tails pinned to each dancer’s butt.  I found myself worried for the girls who did not have the body type that one typically associates with dancers or midriff-baring shirts for that matter. I thought the adult who picked the costume should have been more accommodating to varying body shapes.

The dancing started. There was a fair amount of sexual innuendo in the moves. The girl cats would turn their butts to the audience while swinging their tail and singing suggestively over their shoulder. Who knew the phrase “rabbinical cats” could sound so naughty. My jaw dropped a little bit when a boy cat (who couldn’t have been more than 11) did his best Elvis-the-Pelvis impression essentially right at the mouths of girls who were on all fours in front of him. (That move drew cheers from the audience, by the way.)  I’m used to these kind of “sexy” moves; 5-years-olds are constantly emulating Katie Perry and Beyoncé in my living room. The difference here is that since adults choreographed this they had the opportunity to dictate what the kids did and didn’t do, and chose to include these anyhow.  Still, I cut the program some slack and mostly spent that opening number being impressed that the kids were pretty good. (And laughing at the look of horror on my husband’s face which was worth the hefty price of admission — 22 bucks a ticket).

It went on like this for a while.  He looked dismayed (at all but the forest ballet number danced to Tchaikovsky) but I thought it was okay. A little too Toddlers in Tiaras for my taste, but okay. The really little kids were adorable in their tutus and feathers with no idea of why they were on the stage, and some of the older kids were actually talented. Of course, most of the numbers were terrible and I kept trying to calculate how much longer the whole thing would take. But I wasn’t hating it. In fact, I started to wonder if we were just too damn cynical or worse too politically correct. Maybe our children would be better off if we were the kind of parents who took out ads in the recital playbill wishing them luck instead of the parents who laughed at those ads for including phrases like “our little princess.” By the time Charlie came out beaming with pride at being on stage and having a fabulous time pretending to be a Rockette (she says she wants to be one when she grows up) I was almost convinced I was a bad mother for not liking this kind of thing more. 

And then the Wednesday afternoon class came out on stage. This class was also kindergartners and first graders but instead of tap and ballet it was called something like Broadway Bound or Showtime.They were dressed in different Disney princess costumes, placed behind identical purple plastic vanities (in the shape of princess castles), and began to sing and dance to “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”  The lyrics to this old Peggy Lee song include:

I adore being dressed in something frilly
When my date comes to get me at my place
Out I go with my Joe or John or Billy
Like a filly who is ready for the race

And, the chorus:

I’m strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
who’ll enjoy being a guy, having a girl like me

It was my turn to be horrified.  The whole scene seemed wrong to me — the princess dresses, the make-up tables, the “I just got to be pretty for a boy” lyrics.  But the majority of the parents in the room seemed to be lapping it up. The chuckling and cheering got louder when a few little boys came out on stage dressed as fifities greasers and began to sing “Last Dance” by Donna Summer.  The song’s chorus goes like this:   

Oh, I need you, by me
Beside me, to guide me
To hold me, to scold me
Because when I’m bad
I’m oh so bad  

Except in the last verse when it ends with, “because when I’m bad I’m oh so horny.” The boys pretended to woo the girls with this song and the number ended with each boy getting down on a knee and dipping a princess backwards. The hoots from the audience suggested that no one else thought the lyrics had bad messages or the moves were inappropriate for these six or eight-year-old kids.   

The biggest cheer of the day actually came during the obligatory, retrospective video in which kids were asked why they liked going to this school.  One of the young boys who had been in at least half of the numbers (there were less than a dozen boys in the show so they were used repeatedly) explained that he liked going to this school because he got to hang out with so many “gorgeous young ladies.” The audience thought this was just hysterical. He’s 10, at the most. 

And that’s when it hit me; we are the problem.

We can’t complain about television or retailers or advertisers treating our girls as sex objects at way too young an age if we are going to sit in a room and cheer for five-year-olds practicing the come-hither look that was taught to them by an adult. We can’t get mad at a Barbie doll that says “math is hard” if we are going to dress our own kids up in sequins and teach them songs about how important it is to be pretty. We can’t get mad at our teens for thinking about sex all time and yet applaud when they shake their asses at a room full of adults. 

Each and every one of us who let our children participate in this show is to blame.  Whether it’s the mom who sat in the lobby during class sewing rhinestones on her daughter’s pageant dress, the two dads who took turns dropping their twin daughters off, my friend who holds similar social views as me but was able to see past them and just have fun with her daughter’s enjoyment of the class, or me who has now ranted about it for well of 2,000 words. We are also to blame when we buy midriff baring shirts or high heels for nine-year-olds, when we give in to the demands for the bikini with the triangle top long before puberty, and when we design cheer-leading costumes that barely cover the girls’ derriere. We are adults, they are children. We should know better. We should teach them better. 

Instead, the adults running the show choreographed a finale featuring the school’s theme song. The basic gist of this original song is that other people have other interests but we are performers. The lyrics included:

Some kids like math but it’s all A-squared, B -squared, blah blah blah to me. 
Some kids run for student council but you won’t find me in a debate.
Some kids like art but that’s just an easy A if you can draw.

Seriously?

I left the show in a really bad mood not just because I was traumatized by it but because the people around me were not, and because I felt stuck. I have this kid, this lovely, beautiful kid, who loved being up on that stage dressed as a cross between a Vegas showgirl and a cocktail waitress. And she was pretty good at the tapping and the shimmying. I am a big proponent of parenting the kid you have and fostering what they love, but I can’t let her do this again.   

I’m not a fan of censorship or trying to shield my children from what I see as negative influences. I bought the Disney princess crap for my daughter and am grudgingly saving it for her sister. We have our fair share of Barbies lying around. I’ve spent my hard-earned cash at Claire’s and earnestly helped her decide between clip-on earrings and fake glasses. 

My argument has always been that giving in to these things is okay because ultimately she is growing up in my house and will be exposed to my values. Her father and I constantly tell her, and even her 20-month old sister, that they’re smart, that smart is more important than pretty, and that girls can do everything boys can do. And I’m sure no one will be surprised that we talk about sex all the time as well.

Still, I have to draw my line somewhere. I have no allusions that we can stick this sexualized genie back in the bottle. Sure we can throw out a lot of battle cries like this one to adults who run dance studios or clothing companies and ask that they stop putting 10-year-olds in skin-tight clothes.  We might even have some success — J.C. Penney’s had to take its shirt off the market. We can plead with other parents to stop buying these clothes and hope the free-market does its thing but it’s not realistic to think my 13-year-old niece would be caught dead in my Laura Ashley Bat Mitzvah dress that looked like it came straight from the set of Little House on the Prairie. Heck, I realize that some of my friends will still send their kids to this dance school because they see the recital as harmless fun and maybe they’re right.  All I can do is think critically about whatever it is my daughters ask for and then explain to them why I am saying yes or no.

When I tell Charlie we aren’t going to go back to that dance class, I will tell her why. I will tell her that I think the recital emphasized the wrong thing — showmanship instead of talent. That I think it was too much like a beauty pageant and valued pretty over smart. And, that I thought the dance moves were too grown up for the kids that were doing them. I will encourage gymnastics instead (because she’s also good at that). I will try to get her more interested in tennis which she likes to play with her father. If she wants take dance lessons, I will try a new school in town that someone just told me about which lets the kids choreograph their own numbers and has a show in the studio without costumes.

My hope is that ultimately I will have created a young woman who is capable of thinking critically for herself about the countless messages that are thrown at her every day. And if that young woman actually does grow up to be a Rockette, I will have to accept her choice— glittery costume, leg kicks, and all. 

In the meantime, I’m going to think twice before I blame “society” or anyone else for the fact that she’s wiggling her hips like an adult or asking for a push-up bra at seven —because I am society and I am to blame.

Commentary Race

Have a Problem With Black-Only Spaces? Get Over It

Ruth Jeannoel

As the parade of police killings of Black people continues, Black people have a right to mourn together—and without white people.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

Dear Non-Black People:

If you hear about a healing space being organized for Black folks only, don’t question or try to be part of that space.

Simply, DON’T.

After again witnessing the recorded killings of Black people by police, I am trying to show up for my family, my community, and victims such as Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I am tired of injustice and ready for action.

But as a Black trans youth from the Miami, Florida-based S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective told me, “Before taking action, we must create space for healing.” With this comment, they led us in the right direction.

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Together, this trans young person, my fellow organizers, and I planned a Black-only community healing circle in Miami. We recognized a need for Black people to come together and care for each other. A collective space to heal is better than suffering and grieving alone.

As we began mobilizing people to attend the community circle, our efforts were met with confusion and resistance by white and Latinx people alike. Social media comments questioned why there needed to be a Black-only space and alleged that such an event was “not fair” and exclusionary.

We know the struggle against white supremacy is a multiracial movement and needs all people. So we planned and shared that there would be spaces for non-Black people of color and white people at the same time. We explained that this particular healing circle—and the fight against police violence—must be centered around Blackness.

But there was still blowback. One Facebook commenter wrote,

Segregation and racial separation is not acceptable. Disappointing.

That is straight bullshit.

To be clear, Black-only space is itself acceptable, and there’s a difference between Black people choosing to come together and white people systematically excluding others from their institutions and definitions of humanity.

But as I recognize that Black people can’t have room to mourn by ourselves without white tears, white shame, white guilt—and, yes, white supremacy—I am angry.

That is what racist laws have often tried to do: Control how Black people assemble. Enslaved people were often barred from gathering, unless it was with white consent or for church.

Even today, we see resistance when Black folks come together, for a variety of reasons. Earlier this year, in Nashville, Tennessee, Black Lives Matter activists were forced to move their meeting out of a library because it was a Black-only meeting. Last year, students at University of Missouri held a series of protests to demand an end to systemic racism and structural racism on their campus. The student group, Concerned Students 1950, called for their own Black-only-healing space, and they too received backlash from their white counterparts and the media.

At our healing circle in Miami, a couple of white people tried to be part of the Black-only space, which was held in another room. One of the white youths came late and asked why she had to be in a different room from Black attendees. I asked her this question: Do you feel like you are treated the same as your Black peers when they walk down the street?

When she answered no, I told her that difference made it important for Black people to connect without white people in the room. We talked about how to engage in political study that can shape how we view—and change—this world.

She understood. It was simple.

I have less compassion for adults who are doing social justice work and who do not understand. If you do not recognize your privilege as a non-Black person, then you need to reassess why you are in this movement.

Are you here to save the world? Do you feel guilty because of what your family may have done in the past or present? Are you marching to show that you are a “good” person?

If you are organizing to shift and shake up white supremacy but can’t understand your privilege under this construct, then this movement is not for you.

For the white folk and non-Black people of color who are sincerely fighting the anti-Blackness at the root of most police killings, get your people. Many of them are “progressive” allies with whom I’ve been in meetings, rallies, or protests. It is time for you to organize actions and events for yourselves to challenge each other on anti-Blackness and identify ways to fight against racial oppression, instead of asking to be in Black-only spaces.

Objecting to a Black-only space is about self-interest and determining who gets to participate. And it shows how little our allies understand that white supremacy gives European-descended people power, privilege, and profit—or that non-Black people of color often also benefit from white supremacy just because they aren’t Black in this anti-Black world.

Our critics were using racial privilege to access a space that was not for them or by them. In the way that white supremacy and capitalism are about individualism and racing to the top, they were putting their individual feelings, rights, and power above Black people’s rights to fellowship and talk about how racism has affected them.

We deserve Black-only community healing because this is our pain. We are the ones who are most frequently affected by police violence and killings. And we know there is a racial empathy gap, which means that white Americans, in particular, are less likely to feel our pain. And the last thing Black people need right now is to be in a room with people who can’t or won’t try to comprehend, who make our hurt into a spectacle, or who deny it with their defensiveness.

Our communal responses to that pain and healing are not about you. And non-Black people can’t determine the agenda for Black action—or who gets a seat at our table.

To Black folks reading this article, just know that we deserve to come together to cry, be angry, be confused, and be ready to fight without shame, pain, or apologies.

And, actually, we don’t need to explain this, any more than we need to explain that Black people are oppressed in this country.

Commentary Sexual Health

Fewer Teens Are Having Sex, But Don’t Pop the Champagne Yet

Martha Kempner

The number of teens having sex may be less important than the number having protected sex. And according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, condom use is dropping among young people.

Every two years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health (CDC-DASH) surveys high school students to gauge how often they engage in perceived risky behaviors. The national Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) is wide ranging: It asks about violence, guns, alcohol, drugs, seat belts, bicycle safety, and nutrition. It also asks questions about “sexual intercourse” (which it doesn’t define as a specific act) and sexual behaviors.

Started in 1991, this long-running study can provide both a picture of what high school students are doing right now and a historical perspective of how things have changed. But for more than a decade, the story it has told about sexual risk has been the virtually the same. Risk behaviors continually declined between 1991 and 2001, with fewer high school students having sex and more of them using condoms and contraception. But after the first 10 years, there has been little change in youth sexual risk behaviors. And, with each new release of almost unchanging data, I’ve reminded us that no news isn’t necessarily good news.

This year, there is news and it looks good—at least on the surface. The survey showed some significant changes between 2013 and 2015; fewer kids have ever had sex, are currently sexually active, or became sexually active at a young age. More teens are relying on IUDs and implants, which are virtually error-proof in preventing pregnancy.

In 2015, 41 percent of high school students reported ever having had sexual intercourse compared to 47 percent in 2013. The researchers say this is a statistically significant decrease, which adds to the decreases seen since 1991, when 54 percent of teens reported ever having had sexual intercourse.

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Another change is in the percentage of students who had sex for the first time before age 13. In 2015, 4 percent of high school students reported this compared to almost 6 percent in 2013. This is down from a full 10 percent in 1991. As for number of overall partners, that is down as well, with only 12 percent of students reporting four or more partners during their lifetime compared to 15 percent in 2013 and 19 percent in 1991. Finally, the percentage of students who are currently sexually active also decreased significantly between 2013 (34 percent) and 2015 (30 percent).

These are all positive developments. Delaying sex can often help prevent (at least temporarily) the risk of pregnancy or STIs. Having fewer partners, especially fewer concurrent partners, is frequently important for reducing STI risk. And those teens who are not currently having sex are not currently at risk for those things.

While I want to congratulate all teens who took fewer risks this year, I’m not ready to celebrate those statistics alone—because the number of teens having sex is less important to me than the percentage of teens having sex that is protected from both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. And that number is lower than it once was.

Among sexually active teens, there were no significant positive changes in measures of safer sex other than an increase in the number of sexually active high school students using the IUD or implant (up to 4 percent from 2 percent in 2013).

Moreover, some results indicate that today’s teens are using less protection than those who were teens a decade ago. The most telling finding might be the percentage of teens who used no method of contraception the last time they had sex. This decreased between 1991 and 2007 (from 17 percent to 12 percent), inched up to 14 percent in 2013, and stayed the same in 2015 (14 percent). There was also little to no change in the percentage of high school students who say that either they or their partner used birth control pills between 2013 (19 percent) and 2015 (18 percent) or those who say they used the contraceptive shot, patch, or ring (5 percent in 2013 and 2015).

For me, however, the most distressing finding is the backward progress we continue to see in condom use. The prevalence of high school students who used a condom at last sex went up from 45 percent in 1991 to 63 percent in 2003. But then it started to drop. In 2015, only 57 percent of sexually active high school students used condoms the last time they had sex, less than in 2013, when 59 percent said they used condoms.

It’s not surprising that teens use condoms less frequently than they did a decade ago. In the 1990s, the HIV epidemic was still front and center, and condoms were heavily promoted as a way to avoid infection. As this threat waned—thanks to treatment advances that now also serve as prevention—discussions of the importance of condoms diminished as well. The rise of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs may have also affected condom use, because these programs often include misinformation suggesting condoms are unreliable at best.

Unfortunately, some of the negative messages about condoms inadvertently came from public health experts themselves, whether they were promoting emergency contraception with ads that said “oops, the condom broke”; encouraging the development of new condoms with articles suggesting that current condoms are no fun; or focusing on teen pregnancy and the use of highly effective contraceptive methods such as long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC). The end result is that condoms have been undersold to today’s teenagers.

We have to turn these condom trends around, because despite the decreases in sexual activity, young people continue to contract STIs at an alarming rate. In 2014, for example, there were nearly 950,000 reported cases of chlamydia among young people ages 15 to 24. In fact, young people in this age group represented 66 percent of all reported chlamydia cases. Similarly, in 2014, young women ages 15 to 19 had the second-highest rate of gonorrhea infection of any age group (400 cases per 100,000 women in the age group), exceeded only by those 20 to 24 (489 cases per 100,000 women).

While we can be pleased that fewer young people are having sex right now, we can’t fool ourselves into believing that this is enough or that our prevention messages are truly working. We should certainly praise teens for taking fewer risks and use this survey as a reminder that teens can and do make good decisions. But while we’re shaking a young person’s hand, we should be slipping a condom into it. Because someday soon (before high school ends, for more than half of them), that teenager will have sex—and when they do, they need to protect themselves from both pregnancy and STIs.