Here’s a conversation I had with my teenage daughter this spring:
“Are you leaving for school? Aren’t you forgetting something?”
I wasn’t always this way. Back in my uber-progressive-hippie-wannabe days, I thought the open expression of sexuality was a glorious step forward, not only for the liberation of my feminist sisters, but for the odds that I might actually get some. However, that was before I was the father of two daughters. And I’m sorry, but once your cut-offs are so short that the pockets hang below the cuff, those aren’t pants anymore. They’re just denim panties.
For me, I think the breaking point was Miley Cyrus at the 2013 VMA awards. There she was, Hannah Montana, grinding her backside into a man twice her age, surrounded by dancing teddy bears. Some things you just can’t un-see.
Our generation of parents walks a tricky line when it comes to sex. In our youth, we pushed hard to expand our sexual horizons beyond those of our parents, and we gained a lot of freedom in the process. But now our own kids are pushing past our limits, and that makes us squirm. One minute your baby girl is a little dew fairy, running around the house in a pink tutu and butterfly wings. Then all of a sudden she’s walking out the door in her underwear.
For sure, this dance is nothing new. It’s the job of each generation to shock their parents, and to carve out some scandalous new territory to call their own. But at some point, the sexualization of childhood has a cost. Toddlers & Tiaras notwithstanding, we can all agree that a 4-year-old shouldn’t be treated as a sexual creature. But what about 14? Or 12? Or 10?
To make matters worse, the conventions of teenage sexuality have changed since we were young. Is “grinding” just today’s equivalent of the slow dancing we did as kids? Or is it a simulated sex act where partners don’t even have to see each other’s face? Researchers have identified “hooking up” as the predominant sexual experience for many of today’s teens. In theory, it’s transient, casual sex, explicitly removed from any emotional involvement. The kids say it’s fun, and “chill,” and it avoids all the needless drama of relationships. But when you dig a little deeper, there’s a lot of pain and emptiness and self-contempt just beneath the surface. And that’s especially true for the girls.
Here we get to the real issue. Sex, for all of its transcendent pleasures, is also a consumer product. And more often than not, the target demographic is heterosexual men. Capitalism, in its purest form, is just the cultivation and feeding of desires. When people really want something, they’re willing to pay for it. And the most successful business model is to find a desire that you can magnify until it’s unquenchable. That’s why the real engine of our economy isn’t capital or innovation or education. It’s addiction.
Find a way to create and supply an addiction, and money will flow to you like the Nile to the Mediterranean Sea. Coca-Cola did it with sugar and caffeine. The Medellín Cartel did it with cocaine. Facebook does it with relationships and pseudo-relationships. But our biggest addiction of all, the one that sells everything from cars to alcohol to clothing to video games, is sex. And sex, in this case, means women.
If you’re a little girl growing up in America, what does every commercial, billboard, pop song and TV show tell you about sex?
It’s really, really important.
It defines you as a woman.
This isn’t some vast sexist conspiracy perpetrated by Mad Men in suits. It’s just a natural outgrowth of our free-market economy. People, and men in particular, are interested in sex. That interest can be manipulated into obsession. Obsession leads to consumption, consumption makes money, and money (as they sang in Cabaret) makes the world go ’round. The only thing you need is a way to transform sex into an abundant, reliable, mass-market commodity. That commodity is women. That commodity is my daughter, and yours.
I understand that sexual repression was the other end of this pendulum swing. No one wants to go back to chastity belts and scarlet letters. But there must be some way to delay the sexualization of our children until they can handle it, and control its considerable power for themselves.
The other day, my daughter was curled up on the couch with her boyfriend. They were watching a cartoon that was written for 6-year-olds, and giggling hysterically. Sometimes, I think we pay too much attention to the part of our kids that’s desperately trying to grow up. We shouldn’t ignore the part that just wants to keep being a kid. And if that means being the one lonely voice in their lives that tells them they don’t have to rush into the world of sex, then so be it.
Pants. They’re not just for prudes.
Jeff Lee leaves his house fully dressed in Seattle.