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Chapter One Excerpt : The Sexualized Child

Chapter One: It’s Personal and the Stakes Are High – The Sexualized Child

Although we don’t often discuss it, the value of sexy is a given in our culture. Sexy is powerful. Sexy is exciting. Sexy sells. Drop into any playground or walk with the students as they change classes in middle school, and you witness firsthand how completely our children have incorporated the value of sexy. If you still have doubts, try buying not-sexy clothes for your daughter, (regardless of her age). Raised in an environment where power and social prestige is equated with looking and acting sexy, many children have incorporated the power aspects of sex into their self-image long before their bodies have felt the first hormonal twinges of sexual desire.

Alisa, an 11-year-old enters my office with all the bored façade of a 16-year-old, her pre-pubescent body at odds with the low-slung jeans, belly shirt, highlighted hair and full mani/pedicure. She flops onto the couch with as much annoyance as she can muster and tells me how ridiculous it is that her parents want her to come to therapy simply because her grades haven’t been “as perfect as they want them to be.” In fact, Alisa has entered middle school with a vengeance. Invited to parties by the popular older kids, her parents were initially pleased with her new found popularity, but now describe her as “obsessed” with her social life. “It’s like she can’t unplug, ever,” says her Mom who has failed at limiting Alisa’s Internet and social time. Always an A student, she has now become disinterested in schoolwork, music lessons, Girl Scouts—all the activities that had been important to her in elementary school. A couple of months into therapy, Alisa tells me about a party for an out of town friend, where she “hooked up” with an older boy in the bathroom.

“He wanted me to give him, you know, a hand-job. So, like, I was doing it and everything and when he got to that point, you know, right before he does it, and then I stopped and laughed at him and ran out of the room.”

She relates this story with a conspiratorial glee, as if she were telling me that she had managed to trick her parents into letting her stay up past midnight.

“Was this fun?” I ask.

“No, not really,” she answers, “After I started I wasn’t sure I wanted to. It kind of grossed me out.”

“Why would you do something that grossed you out?” I ask.

“I don’t know, I just thought it’d be a good story to tell my friends.”

Taking on the persona of a fully sexual adult before their bodies have experienced any adult feelings of sexual desire can have far-reaching consequences. It’s a frightening thing to see a child who has become sexualized before his or her time, playing with a power they cannot possibly fathom. Alisa is not unique. A great many children have come to believe that their social success depends on acquiring the power of sex before they have experienced their own sexuality or even understood what sex really is.

In 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) linked eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression with the early sexualization of girls. Although the effect of sexualization on boys was not studied, several components of sexualization—as defined by the APA—could equally be applied to the way our culture “inappropriately imposes sexuality” on our sons.13 What’s happening to our daughters, teaching them to “work” their sexy as a way to attain social power before they’ve grown into their sexuality is relatively new and is justifiably causing alarm. But our sons are being sexualized as well, with video games like Duke Nukem, reality TV and popular music. However, this seems to be causing less of a stir, perhaps because teaching little boys that sex is an entitlement that is often linked to violence is not really new.

Culturally, we have always understood that sex can be used or bartered for power and prestige: men who establish their power through sexual “conquest,” the struggling actress who gives sexual favor for a shot at stardom. We now collectively applaud this aggressive use of sexuality to gain power on reality TV shows like Survivor and The Apprentice. We watch with amusement as men and women use their sexuality to lie and manipulate each other in order to win large sums of money. But when our 11 and 12-year-olds, particularly our daughters, begin to aggressively use sex for social status, we are appalled. Given the nearly 44.5 hours of media (TV, movies, magazines, music, video games and Internet) that American children (eight to eighteen) consumes each week,14 should we be surprised that sex has become a benefit to be bought and sold?

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