Are the Fears about Sexualization Misplaced?

This week, I have a piece up at Role/Reboot: The Real Problem with Sexualization Isn’t Victoria’s Secret. Excerpt:

Sexualization is a very real problem. The backlash against it, however, can lead to the pathologizing of any and all interest in beauty, fashion, or traditionally feminine sports like cheer, dance, gymnastics, and figure skating. In the rush to make sure that girls have role models who aren’t primarily concerned with beauty, we risk labeling those girls who are interested in cultivating their appearance as either frivolous or victimized. When the APA calls for a culture that rewards accomplishments “based on young people’s abilities and character rather than on their appearance” (emphasis mine), they perpetuate a frustratingly false dichotomy. It’s the modern iteration of the lie that a girl can’t be both pretty and smart: In this new paradigm, you can’t care about your looks and be empowered at the same time. Achieving the latter means letting go (or pretending to let go) of any interest in beauty and sexiness.

Much of the anxiety about sexualization is really about outsourcing adult men’s self-control to the bodies of young girls. The real sexualizers aren’t the marketers, but the older boys and men who are unwilling to distinguish grown women from children. Men aren’t nearly as weak, stupid, or easily deceived as we like to imagine. We fret about sexualization because we fret that grown men will, inevitably, see a short skirt, or a t-shirt with a provocative message, as an invitation—even on the body of a 12-year-old. That sells men woefully short. It’s not an overask—really, it isn’t—to expect adult men to see a 14-year-old in heels and makeup as still a child. The problem is less girls’ self-objectification and more adult men’s refusal to stop using that supposed self-objectification as an excuse to be predatory creepers.

One Mistake Won’t Ruin Your Life: Why We Need a Female Steve Jobs

My Genderal Interest column this week at Jezebel has a simple message: one mistake won’t ruin your life.


In his famous 2005 Stanford commencement address, Steve Jobs spoke about the hidden blessings of his very “public failure.” After his firing from Apple, Jobs said he felt “like running away… I had let the previous generation down.” But, he pointed out, his humiliation turned out to be the seed of his liberation: “the heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. (What had seemed like a mistake) freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

Yes, there’s a difference between an adult dealing with the fall-out of getting fired by a computer company and a 12 year-old coping with the aftermath of having flashed her boobs on a webcam. At the same time, Jobs’ address didn’t go viral because it was only relevant to male software engineers and entrepreneurs. It went viral because it was a universal human reminder about resilience and the capacity to overcome obstacles. It was a more eloquent version of the same speech we usually give to boys, when we urge them to shake off setbacks as learning experiences and “try, try again.” Teen girls hear that message much less often, and when they do, it’s likely with the implicit reminder that 2nd, 3rd, and 97th chances are mostly for men.

Obviously, Amanda Todd needed and deserved a lot more than a pep talk about getting through the hard times. Ending the “one mistake will ruin your life” narrative must also be accompanied by a war on the cyber creeps who prey on young girls. We also need a (long-overdue) campaign against a slut-shaming culture that pushes girls to walk the impossibly thin line between being sexy and being skanky. While there’s absolutely no need to encourage girls to send nude pics far and wide, it would also be helpful to press home the message that a young woman’s worth has nothing to do with how few –- or how many — people have seen her naked.

Of teen sex and suitcases

On this Shrove Tuesday, we start the new term at Pasadena City College with painful cutbacks.

One of my colleagues (who as far as I know has been unaware of the controversy surrounding me) greeted me in the office this morning and said “Good morning, Hugo! You look like you’ve aged ten years.”

But all is well regardless. I’ve got a piece up at Role/Reboot this morning: Teens, Sex, and the Suitcase Rule. Inspired by Amy Schalet’s wonderful Not Under My Roof, the post looks at different attitudes towards teen sex, including my own family’s particular approach to the issue. Excerpt:

American parents, Schalet claims, use a strategy of “connection through control.” By imposing rules (curfews, blanket prohibitions on pre-marital sex), parents seek to demonstrate love and to maintain a vigilant presence in their children’s lives. Parents in the United States pursue connection through control even when they know it won’t work; the American adults Schalet interviewed were often pessimistic about their own ability to regulate their adolescent children’s behavior. Contemporary parents often assume that their kids will have sex anyway; they describe their own efforts as “swimming against the tide.” But because American parents tend to see teenagers as fundamentally irresponsible, they often believe that they have no choice but to continue to do whatever they can to regulate their teens’ private lives, even if they doubt the efficacy of the strategy.

In the Netherlands, according to Schalet, parents also want to protect their teens. But their technique is the reverse: “control through connection.” Like American adults, Dutch mothers and fathers believe adolescent sexual experimentation is inevitable. But rather than grimly soldiering on in the effort to repress teen exploration like their American counterparts, many Dutch parents seek to integrate teen sexual discovery into family life. Teens are expected to bring their boyfriends and girlfriends home to meet the relatives and to participate in family activities. Sons and daughters are encouraged to integrate their romantic lives into communal domestic routines. In due course, typical Dutch families will permit their teenage children to invite boyfriends or girlfriends to spend the night. Unlike in my family, the luggage and the bodies all sleep in the same bedroom. Sexual discovery is private, but it’s also sanctioned. The end result is, Dutch parents hope, a safer and happier experience for their children.

Romeo and Juliet laws at Role/Reboot

Happy Groundhog Day! 25 years ago this morning, I tumbled down a flight of stairs after leaving a German literature class in Dwinelle Hall on the Berkeley campus and ended up in the hospital with a severe concussion. Any February 2 since that doesn’t involve an ambulance ride is a fine one, regardless of what that groundhog sees.

I have a column up at Role/Reboot today on statutory rape and age-of-consent rules: Is Age Ever Just a Number? Teens, Sex, and Romeo & Juliet Laws. It was inspired by this piece by my Jezebel colleague, Erin Gloria Ryan.


It’s impossible to write age-of-consent laws in such a way that they take into account the maturity and experience of every individual adolescent. As with legislation about drinking and voting, society needs to set a cut-off point—even if that point seems arbitrary and unfair. Where we draw those points shifts as cultural mores shift. (When I was born in 1967, the drinking age was 18 and the voting age was 21. The reverse is true today.)

Though the law cannot be written to meet every individual situation, Romeo and Juliet laws do reflect an evolving and increasingly nuanced approach to teen sexuality. These laws are enforced by police, prosecutors, and judges, all of whom can use their own discretion when it comes to deciding whether real harm has been done. Even when the law says, as it must, that 14 is 14 and 18 is 18, those who apply it should do so with both common sense and an appreciation for the very real complexities of teen sexuality.

An Open Letter to a Sixteen Year-old Girl: “Your Body is Never the Problem”

Though I originally published this piece at Scarleteen, Healthy is the New Skinny reprints today my Letter to a Teenage Girl. Excerpt:

It’s important too to note that however much skin you are revealing, you are never responsible for another person’s inappropriate behavior. Save for the blind, we are all visual people. We notice each other. There is no right not to be seen. But there is a right not to be stared at with a penetrating gaze of the sort that makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. While it may seem that you get those leers more often when you’re showing more skin, you’ve probably noticed that you get those creepy stares at other times as well. And the key thing you need to know is that men can control their eyes — they really can — and women can control their judgment. Your body is not so powerful that it can drive others to distraction. (And yes, if we’re honest, sometimes we wish that our bodies were that powerful, particularly if it meant drawing the attention of someone to whom we are attracted!) If some men choose to be distracted by you, that is their choice, a decision for which they (not you) are solely responsible. No matter what anyone tells you, you need to remember that.

It is not inconsistent to want to be seen and not be stared at. You know the difference, I suspect, between an “appreciative look” (which can feel very validating) and the “penetrating stare” that leaves you feeling like crawling into a hole. While people are not required to give you the former, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to avoid giving you the latter. It’s also not unreasonable to want guys your age to be interested in you, and want the creepy old ones to leave you alone. Remember, it’s not hypocrisy or naïveté on your part to dress in a way that you hope will get you that positive attention you want without also bringing the negative attention you fear and loathe.

Booty shorts and body image: sexualization in high school sports

My Thursday column at Healthy is the New Skinny looks at the problem of creeping sexualization in high school girls’ sports:

Take a look through an old high school yearbook from the 1970s. You’ll see the volleyball players with some fairly short shorts – and the guys on the basketball team with shorts that may well be even shorter. The tops are mostly loose fitting; the outfits are comfortable and practical.

But take a look at what high school volleyball players are wearing today – and at what the boys on the basketball team have on! Over the past two decades, boys’ shorts have gotten dramatically longer and their uniforms much more concealing, all without any sacrifice of athletic performance. But even as more and more opportunities are emerging for girls to play sports, the uniforms that they’re required to wear (particularly in sports like track and volleyball) have become tighter and more revealing.

The issue isn’t improved performance. In high school volleyball, it’s hard to argue that French-cut briefs lead to a dramatic step up in anything other than attendance at games. (Many women I interviewed for this piece report that the number of people showing up for volleyball matches or track events rise when schools begin to require skimpier uniforms). The issue is how these uniforms and the expectations that come with them affect young women’s self-esteem.

Read the whole thing.

Love Hurts, Beauty Hurts: waxing, pain, and the pursuit of perfection

My Thursday short column is up at Healthy is the New Skinny: Bare Down There: Waxing, Beauty, and Pain. It’s a brief look at teens and bikini waxing, and the growing popularity of the Brazilian wax among very young girls (including, as the article notes, among those who have not yet hit puberty and begun to grow pubic hair.)

Lots has been written about pubic hair and what its removal means. Count me among those troubled by what seems the almost pedophilic fetishization of hairless vulvas in pornography. (To put it simply, I find it sexually and aesthetically unappealing as well as politically problematic.)

But the larger point is that waxing, like so many other beauty rituals, hurts. (That’s true whatever’s being waxed, whether it’s the pubis or the lip or the space between the eyebrows.) As older sisters and mothers and the media instruct young women about how they should best pursue beauty, they teach girls that pain is not only a rite of passage into womanhood, but a necessary (and continuous) aspect of maintaining femininity.

Pain happens on a spectrum, from the merely itchy (pantyhose) to the permanently body-altering (major cosmetic surgery.) High heels, piercings, and hair dye all exact both a financial and a physical price. “Beauty hurts”, older women say to younger women. And it’s not just beauty, but love that hurts: think of what we expect girls to go through with first intercourse — or with childbirth.

For much of history — and in many other parts of the world — this pain has been and remains mandatory. Girls have their genitals mutilated against their will in Mali and suffer fistulas from giving birth too soon and too young in Afghanistan. There’s nothing quite comparable in America, where we at least claim to give girls and women a choice to avoid these agonies. We don’t cut off little girls’ clitorises, we generally don’t force 15 year-olds into marriages, and we certainly don’t mandate Brazilian waxes for high schoolers.

But as most women and some men know, the cost of saying “no” to pain is very high. If a teen girl wants to feel confident at the beach in her bikini, making sure she’s bare down there (or damn near) is a price she must pay. Young women are raised to fear ridicule and social exclusion far more than physical pain. Watch what most young women do when they trip and fall: they leap back up, more worried about what others have seen than about any injury they’ve sustained.

The law doesn’t mandate you wax your vulva or straighten your hair or put on hose and heels. The state doesn’t force you to give up carbs and dessert to fit into a bikini. But the fact that certain behaviors aren’t genuinely compulsory doesn’t mean that they can’t feel obligatory. And for so many women, the pain that comes with meeting those obligations is less than the social cost of refusing to pursue beauty.

Any solution to this problem of pain has to meet girls where they are. Parents can refuse to let their daughters get waxed or get their ears pierced, but in most cases that only delays the inevitable. The solution, whatever it is, depends on opening up a conversation with our sisters, our daughters, our mothers, our friends and lovers. And in that conversation, we need to look at the ways we consciously and unconsciously valorize physical and emotional pain as the price of beauty and true womanhood.

“Your body is not so powerful it can drive others to distraction”: a letter to a teenage girl about clothing, modesty, and Slutwalk

As the controversy over SlutWalk hits the mainstream media, provoking a larger conversation about sexuality, safety, privilege and rape, I wanted to revisit this “letter to a teen girl”.

Rachel Hills, who blogs at Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, recently posed this question from her 16 year-old self: how do I stop creepy old men from hitting on me? Rachel writes that she didn’t get a satisfactory answer when she was young, and she still doesn’t get good answers today.

As a feminist and a father, a professor and a former youth leader with years of experience working with teens, I thought I’d take a shot at answering Rachel’s query.

If I were writing to a 16 year-old named Rachel, I’d say:

Dear Rachel,

I wish that I could offer you specific fashion tips that would guarantee that creepy older guys wouldn’t hit on you. For that matter, I wish I could share with you how to dress in a manner that would assure that your peers wouldn’t frequently judge you, either to your face or behind your back. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to ensure those things — because the sad truth is that no matter how you dress, no matter what you wear, you will be perceived by some men as a target for their unwanted advances.

You may have heard people say things like “girls who wear short skirts are asking for ‘it'”. By “it” they may mean anything from rape to crude comments and penetrating stares. But as you may already have noticed, girls aren’t immune from harassment when they’re wearing simple or “modest” garb either. I’ve had plenty of students who’ve been accosted while wearing sweatpants or long dresses. I’ve had Muslim students who chose to wear head coverings, and they’ve been harassed both religiously and sexually. The bottom line is that there’s nothing you can wear that will guarantee respect from others. And the reason is that the root of this problem isn’t skin or clothing, it’s our cultural contempt for women and girls.

Have you noticed the way this works yet? If a girl is thin, she’s accused of being “anorexic”; if her weight is higher than the cruelly restrictive ideal, she’s “fat” and “doesn’t take care of herself” or “has no self-control.” If she wears cute, trendy clothes she “only wants attention” and if she wears sweats and jeans, she “doesn’t make an effort.” If she’s perceived as sexually attractive, and — especially — if she shows her own sexual side, she’s likely to be called a “slut.” If her sexuality and her body are concealed, she’s a “prude.” As you’ve probably figured out, the cards are stacked against you. You cannot win, at least not if you define winning as dressing and behaving in a way likely to win approval (or at least decent respect) from everyone.

The advice I’m going to give may sound clichéd, but it’s important nonetheless: you should dress in a style that makes you comfortable. Continue reading

“Mean” Boys: a note on whose words do more harm

My regular Thursday piece is up at Healthy is the New Skinny: Mean Guys.


But as sweet as some guys can certainly be, we also raise young women to give guys the benefit of the doubt. Most young women have high expectations of other women – and low expectations of most men. As a result, many girls excuse the really awful things so many boys do and say as just part of the “way guys are.” But the research suggests that excusing away those hurtful remarks doesn’t change the reality that what guys say has the statistically greater impact on young women’s self-esteem…

Read the whole thing here.

And a similar, longer piece of mine from June 2008: Boys, fathers, teasing, and disordered eating: spite more often wears a man’s face

A mea culpa

I wrote last week about Young Feminists Speak Out, an event I attended in Santa Monica. Though it was an important and interesting discussion, I noted that I was taken aback by what I interpreted as an ageist slight at “older feminists.” I mentioned posing for a Facebook photo with my colleague and friend Shira Tarrant, each of us with our middle fingers raised; the picture was captioned “middle-aged feminists flipping off ageism.” I posted it on Facebook within seconds, while the speakers were still speaking and the event was ongoing. Furthermore, while I tweeted my annoyance, I didn’t bring it up in the Q&A that followed, and I left the event early to have dinner with friends.

I’m fortunate to have thousands of Facebook friends, including a great many people in the feminist community and many, many former students. The photo ended up in everyone’s newsfeed on Facebook, and attracted many comments and much discussion. And the impression it left was that Shira and I, as “professional” feminists and professors in our forties, weren’t spending a lot of effort on connecting with the young people who were speaking. We had constricted around a couple of unfortunate remarks, and my choice to post the photo reinforced the notion that ageism had been the great theme of the event. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing at Feminist Fatale today, Miranda Petersen takes issue, rightly so, with how I interpreted the evening. Miranda writes:

The truth is age discrimination goes both ways. It’s funny; we addressed the topic of the “generational divide” to help break down some of those assumptions. Instead, we experienced first hand the lack of respect many young feminists are confronted with: either we are cast as ignorant or naive (e.g., “they’ve got so much to learn…”), or our integrity and motives are questioned (e.g., our justification for using “young feminists” in the title). There is certainly much learning to do on our part, and the distinction between age vs. ideological divides is worth some serious discussion. But how are we supposed to do better if we aren’t taken seriously to begin with?

Emphasis in the original.

Miranda’s right. I take full responsibility for posting a photo that was inappropriate and got a tremendous amount of attention. For the record, the picture was taken with my camera and was my idea; it was an impulsive and frankly juvenile decision to post it. I chose to do at the workshop what I try never to do with my students, and indeed warn against — taking one inflammatory remark out of context and focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else. For someone who considers himself a role model as well as an advocate for egalitarianism and social justice, for someone who works with these young people day in and day out, that was disappointing and inappropriate and I am genuinely, publicly sorry. I was wrong.

Ageism is a real issue. It does go both ways. And the annoyance at being falsely characterized as technologically incompetent hardly justifies tuning out the excellent points made by the many wonderful young speakers at last Thursday’s event.

I look forward to participating with enthusiasm and sincerity (and my twittering thumbs) at another such event soon. I will be participating with my colleagues and friends, for that they are, regardless of age.