Dec 17, 2010

Bringing Up Kids in a Porn Culture

Parents are in an impossible position today thanks to the increasingly pornographic and hypersexualized culture. One of the major jobs of a parent is to socialize children into the culture. But what do you do if the culture is toxic? Children and adolescents are being exposed to a heavy diet of soft core porn and these images are now so commonplace that they are almost impossible to avoid. If you think I’m exaggerating, then flip through a magazine at the supermarket checkout, channel surf, take a drive to look at billboards, or watch TV ads, and you will be bombarded with images that a decade ago would have been considered soft-core porn.

If you want an example of just how hypersexualized our culture has become, then look no further than the rebranding of Miley Cyrus. It seems like just yesterday she was a squeaky clean Disney icon who was loved by millions of girls around the globe. Well, she is still loved, but now she looks just like all the other young female celebrities who are competing for stardom in a culture that increasingly hypersexualizes young women. From her photo shoot in Vanity Fair, where she wore bed-head hair and not much else, to her pole dancing at the Teen Choice Awards, Cyrus has been forced by the dictates of the market to conform to an increasingly narrow image of what it means to be female in today’s culture.

These images have a profound effect on both girls and boys because they provide them cultural cues on what it means to be a woman or a man. As children begin to develop their gender and sexual identities, they become especially reliant on media images to figure out what is cool, hot and most importantly, valued by their peer group. So what does it mean for a girl to mature in a culture where Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are role models?

People not immersed in pop culture tend to assume that what we see today is just more of the same stuff that previous generations grew up on. But what is different today is not only the hypersexualization of the image, but also the degree to which such images have overwhelmed and crowded out any alternative images of being female. Today’s tidal wave of soft-core porn has normalized the porn-star look in everyday culture to such a degree that anything less looks dowdy, prim, and downright boring. Today a girl or young woman looking for an alternative to the hypersexualized look will quickly come to the grim realization that the only alternative to looking hot is to be invisible.

And what girl wants to be invisible? Adolescence is about being noticed and the desire for visibility among one’s peer group too often means conforming to the plasticized, formulaic and generic images that bombard us daily. We should see the porn culture as a bully that manipulates, coerces, and grooms girls into conformity by providing them with limited choices. This culture is slowly chipping away at girls’ self-esteem, stripping them of a sense of themselves as whole human beings, and providing them with an identity that glorifies sex and trivializes every other human attribute.

An American Psychological Association study on the sexualization of girls found that there was ample evidence to conclude that sexualizing girls “has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.” Some of these effects include risky sexual behavior; higher rates of eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem; and reduced academic performance.

There are, of course, girls who successfully resist this culture, but they pay a price by having to embrace an identity that is at odds with mainstream culture. What I find from my interviews is that these young women and girls tend to have someone in their life–a mother, an older woman mentor, or a coach–who provides some form of immunization to the cultural messages. But often this immunization is short-lived.

Every summer I co-teach an institute in media literacy at Wheelock College, and many of the participants are parents or teachers. Year after year we hear the same story: they are working hard to provide their daughters or students with ways to resist the culture, and for the early years the girls seem to be internalizing these counter messages. However, at some point–usually around puberty but increasingly earlier–the girls begin to adopt more conventional feminine behavior as their peer group becomes the most salient socializing force.

While girls are being trained by the pop culture, our boys are being seduced and manipulated by a multi-billion dollar a year porn industry. Studies show that the average age of first viewing porn is 11, and porn today looks nothing like your father’s Playboy. Type porn into Google and you won’t see anything that looks like the old pinups; instead, you will be catapulted into a world of sexual cruelty and brutality where women are subject to body-punishing sex as they are being choked, spat upon and verbally abused.

I regularly lecture to parents groups and they are appalled by the images that any 11 year old can freely access by typing PORN into Google. What often shocks them is the sheer level of brutality where sex is used to make hate, not love, to a woman’s body. The feelings and emotions we normally associate with love – connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection – are missing, and in their place are those we normally associate with hate – fear, disgust, anger, loathing, and contempt. It is images like these that are now commonplace all over the Internet and are shaping the way boys and men think about sex, relationships and intimacy.

I have a son and I am outraged that the pornographers spend millions of dollars on research trying to figure out how to turn him into a porn user. My son, and indeed all children, have the right to develop their sexual identity in a way that is authentic, affirming and in keeping with their own developmental time clock. Porn today is the major form of sex education for boys and cultural education for girls.

This predatory industry even has its own lobbying organization called The Free Speech Coalition. One of their big successes was in the case of Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the coalition in declaring the 1996 Child Porn Prevention Act unconstitutional. Its definition of child pornography (any visual depiction that appears to be a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct) was ruled to be overly broad. The law was narrowed to cover only those images where an actual person (rather than one that appears to be) under the age of 18 was involved in the making of the porn, thus opening the way for the porn industry to use either computer-generated images of children or real porn performers who, although eighteen and over, are “childified” to look much younger.

Following the court’s decision, there has been an explosion in the number of sites that childify women, as well as those that use computer-generated imagery. Young women are made to look like children by dressing them in school uniform, putting braces on their teeth and making them act like pre-pubescent girls. Websites with names such as First Time With Daddy, Exploited Teen and First Time Sex legitimize and normalize the sexual abuse of girls.

I have been on many talk shows where someone invariably says that it is up to the parents to keep their kids away from the porn culture. Certainly we have a part to play, but the reality is that the culture should be helping us to raise our kids, not undermining us at every turn. The pornographers have done a stealth attack and it is now time to fight back. We can’t do this on an individual level, so we need to build a movement that empowers parents and children to resist the porn culture. The first step is a grass roots education campaign aimed at raising consciousness to the harms of porn as a way to build a community of like-minded people.

One tool in this battle is an anti-porn slide show developed by the founders (including myself) of the activist group Stop Porn Culture. This show is now being given in homes, community centers, colleges, schools and anti-violence organizations across the country. It is a way to start the discussion and to encourage people to become active. It is important to build a network in your area because your children need the support of a peer group if they are to stand outside the porn culture. Ultimately this movement is based on the belief that the culture belongs to us, not the pornographers, and they have no right to rob our children of an authentic and life-loving sexuality that is based on connection, intimacy and equality.

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