Sex and the Single Tween
Thank God I’m not 11 anymore.
(Link): Sex and the Single Tween
- Over the past two decades, the rise of the Internet and social media initiated a dramatic shift in popular culture: Almost everything that could be sexualized has been sexualized, producing a new generation of girls racing toward womanhood before even finishing puberty.
The result terrifies many adults: American women, age tween.
Exactly what – and who – is a tween? Tweens range in age from 10 to 12 years or 8 to 14 years, depending on whom you ask. The U.S. Census estimates that there are more than 20 million tweens in the country; just under half are girls, and they are the primary focus of this story.
The nickname “tween” references a vaguely defined life stage (somewhere between childhood and adolescence) but it also delineates a dynamic marketing niche.
At the same time, the word tween has become so common that it allows many adults to distance themselves from this radical transformation in the sexualization of young girls, as if it were just another life stage.
For the last few years, I have been following this stunning transformation, talking with girls, parents and experts.
When I met Brianna, Sarah, Cat and Madison in 2009, social media had not yet infiltrated tweendom; Instagram didn’t exist, nor did Snapchat and Vine.
Facebook and Twitter were still the province of teenagers and adults.
And yet it was clear even then that tween girls were totally plugged in to popular culture, trends and sex – an education their parents were constantly – and sometimes desperately – scrambling to monitor.
It is impossible to write about the representative tween, since each girl has unique experiences, interests and points of reference.
Geographic, racial, religious, socioeconomic and familial factors vary, too, and play key roles in development.
Because they have ready access to the technologies, social media, fashions and culture that play such a prominent role in their sexualization, I have focused on the experiences of middle- and upper-middle-class girls. (Unless first and last names are given, all names have been changed for confidentiality.)
Today’s tween is no longer a child but not yet an adolescent; too old for Barbie dolls and Disney Junior, too young for Facebook and to understand the search results that pop up when she googles “sexy.”
She is old enough to text, want designer jeans and use Instagram, but too young to have her own credit card and driver’s license. Still, she is a malleable thinker, consumer and marketing target.
Each day, she is exposed to eight to 12 hours of media, depending on her age, that hones her understanding of how she is supposed to act.
She spends a significant portion of her day plugged in – communicating, posting photos, playing games, surfing the web, watching videos and socializing.
When TV, music, social media and the Internet are used as baby-sitters – when adults don’t ask girls questions or encourage them to think critically (and sometimes even when they do) – a dangerous scenario emerges: The media start to parent.
The tween years are a period of learning and acclimation, yet the lessons of gender and sexuality begin much earlier.
Forty-five percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls use lip gloss or lipstick, 61 percent wear nail polish (up from 54 percent in 2008) and 42 percent use perfume or body spray, according to a 2013 study by Experian Marketing Services.
Those numbers jump when girls hit their early teens: 65 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds use lipstick or lip gloss, 84 percent wear nail polish and 78 percent wear perfume.
And according to a 2009 Newsweek article, girls ages 8 to 12 each spend approximately $7,170 on hair, face, hands and feet during their tween years.
Among 8- to 11-year-old girls, 46 percent like to keep up with the latest fashions and 35 percent think it’s important to wear “cool” clothes, according to Experian.
This desire to dress up is learned from parents, older siblings, friends, toys, magazines, books, computer games, apps, social media platforms, Disney characters, parent-approved celebrities, parent-disapproved celebrities, pop music, shopping malls, advertisements, billboards and more.
For decades, Disney has been raising girls on cartoon princesses of effortless beauty, impossible proportions and a penchant for crowns and mirrors. They are good and chaste, sexy but not sexual.
As girls grow up, they graduate from those cartoon movies to shows like Miley Cyrus’s seminal Hannah Montana and, later, The Bachelor, a reality series on Disney-owned ABC that pairs a modern-day prince with a parade of interchangeable Miss America lookalikes who are sexually attractive but not sexual, educated but not overtly intelligent.
“The TV tweens are watching is getting racier,” says Jane Buckingham, founder and chief executive officer of Trendera, a consulting firm with expertise on younger generations. “It used to be all Nickelodeon and Disney; now Pretty Little Liars is a huge hit among tweens. That is a scary show with a lot of sophisticated content.”
The show, on ABC Family, is rife with sexual innuendo, mature language, stealing, lying and murder, plus a high school student has a sexual relationship with her teacher. “Even the language on Disney and Nick is getting more sophisticated, because the 8- and 9-year-olds are getting more sophisticated,” Buckingham adds.
Today’s preteen girl is a new breed.
“The way kids dress when they go to school is just beyond me. They come into my office barely clothed!” says Barbara Daley, a child and adolescent psychologist in Boston who has worked with patients for 25 years.
“They’re wearing a little cami, and if they are among the developed kids, you know, who let you out of the house? It’s all designed to be provocative, but I don’t think they really know what they’re provoking.”
American girls are entering puberty earlier.
For decades, it was generally accepted that girls hit puberty at the age of 11.
In 1997, a landmark study of 17,000 girls found that the mean age for the beginning of breast development was 8.87 years for African-American girls and 9.96 years for white girls; for pubic hair, it was 8.78 years and 10.51 years, respectively.
Then, in 2010, another study found that by the age of 7, 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls and 10 percent of white girls had started developing breasts.
“If you’re 11 and you look 15, people will interact with you like you’re 15 – but you’re only 11. And you’ll interact back like you’re 11. You’re more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors,” says Dr. Frank Biro, director of research, adolescent and transition medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, whose 2013 study linked early-onset puberty with obesity.
“Kids seem to be developing earlier and getting more sexually focused earlier,” says Daley. “They are sexually active a lot earlier, too; as early as 12 or 13 is not so unusual, whereas before, I’d say about 10 years ago, it used to be really unusual.”
… Like a Virgin
Adolescence as we know it was born in 1904, with the publication of G. Stanley Hall’s groundbreaking book of the same name.
What was once regarded as a biological process of maturation came to be understood as an entire life stage: “Adolescence is a new birth, for the higher and more completely human traits are now born,” Hall wrote. “Development is less gradual and more salutary, suggestive of some ancient period of storm and stress when old moorings were broken and a higher level attained.”
In 1950, Erik Erikson integrated developmental and social psychological concepts into his major work on the stages of life, Childhood and Society. Emphasizing the “identity crisis” of teenagers, Erikson defined for generations the struggles of adolescence.
By that point, middle-class girls were already a discernible target for marketers.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Helen Pessel sold her Little Lady line of cosmetics to 6- to 14-year-olds, and Munsingwear and Teenform marketed bras to young girls.
In 1959, Barbie arrived. Dressed like a sunbathing glam goddess, she was a transition toy for girls too old for baby dolls and old enough to image having boyfriends.
Barbie had the hair, the breasts and Ken, teaching girls what to desire while showing other marketers and businesses how to reach them.
In 1960, Earnshaw’s Infants’ and Children’s Merchandiser, a leading publication of the children’s clothing industry, devoted a column to what it called the “subteen world,” describing the “subteen” as “half-girl and half-woman” – bold yet demure, sassy yet chaste.
Thus began the gradual yet persistent sexualization of girls: the selling of girls, to girls, by advertisers, the media and, one might argue, their parents.
In the 1980s, sexual tension and virginity invaded American girlhood in the forms of Madonna, MTV and the AIDS crisis.
The infamous 1980 Calvin Klein ads featuring Brooke Shields, then 15, epitomized the union of youth and sex. In a series of commercials, Shields seduced the audience with lines like, “Mama said he’s only interested in my Calvins” and “You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”
Her body, face and poses were seductive, and although she looked older than a teenager, she also looked like a girl playing dress-up.
By that point, Shields was already an established brand of pedophilic adoration.
Five years earlier, at the age of 10, she posed for provocative bathtub photos. With her prepubescent body oiled up and her face thick with dark eye shadow, thick mascara, blush and red lipstick, she faced the camera naked, washing herself with a sponge.
The photos, which Shields’s mother consented to, appeared in Sugar and Spice, a Playboy Press publication, and large prints were exhibited by Charles Jourdan on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
When she was 12, Shields had played a child prostitute in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby.
The Calvin Klein ads (shot by renowned photographer Richard Avedon) simply capitalized on Shields’s persona, and in return, Shields proved that sex, girlhood and marketing sells (in this case, jeans).
By the 1990s, the Internet made pornography instantly accessible.
Girls started wearing low-rise jeans, thong underwear and bellybutton rings.
Sex and the City, which famously featured the Brazilian in a 2000 episode, glamorized the successful single woman with her bachelorette pad and trail of suitors, making the privileges of adulthood accessible to young women.
A decade later, Gossip Girl bestowed those privileges upon teenagers.
Sex was not simply a pillar of the entertainment industry; it permeated the news coverage of politics, too. In 1998, President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky brought sex talk to the dinner table. Later that year, Viagra arrived.
In the mid-1990s, the cynically infantile British girl band, the Spice Girls, leveraged the purchasing power of millions of preteens and teens by selling music under the guise of girl power.
In doing so, they primed the public for a crop of fresh-faced teenage Lolitas; Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera quickly transformed from parent-approved good girls to sexed-up pop stars.
When Paris Hilton’s sex video leaked in 2003, right before her first reality TV show, The Simple Life, aired, sex was so integral a part of American pop culture that the scandal boosted her career, much like a hot music video would have a decade earlier.
A 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that between 1998 and 2005, the number of sex scenes on TV nearly doubled.
During prime time, 77 percent of shows included sexual content, averaging nearly six sex-related scenes per hour.
Among the top 20 shows for teenagers, 70 percent included sexual content and 45 percent included sexual behavior.
Reality TV heated up in the late-1990s and early-2000s.
And while less than one third (28 percent) of reality shows contained sexual content, according to Kaiser, the genre largely presents young women as sluts, prudes, bitches, gold diggers and emotional basket-cases.
Throughout the 2000s, reality TV refined its purpose, exploring what happens when a group of hot young things live, drink and sleep together.
MTV’s The Hills proved that privileged high school nobodies, devoid of talent yet sufficiently attractive, could become famous.
In other words, if it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone.
These days, reality TV has turned the spotlight on young girls, from the tween darlings chasing fame in Dance Moms to the life of 8-year-old Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, an overweight child beauty contestant in rural Georgia. These girls, so close in age to their fans, are infinitely accessible.
Maddie Ziegler, one of the girls on Dance Moms, has more than 1 million followers on Instagram; her account features selfies, photos with friends, kissy faces and dance poses.
… Today, 73 percent of tween girls “love watching TV” and 24 percent use their computers to visit websites “a lot” while doing so, according to data obtained from Experian. Fifty-one percent want to be famous.
A recent study, “The Value of Fame,” by Yalda T. Uhls and Patricia M. Greenfield, found that becoming famous is the “major aspiration” among children between 10 and 12 years old. “Fame was the most important value portrayed in the two most popular preteen programs of 2007, Hannah Montana and American Idol, whereas it ranked near the very bottom for those broadcast over the previous 40 years,” Uhls and Greenfield wrote.
As mothers look more like their daughters and teenagers look more like 20-somethings, who do preteens look up to? Kim Kardashian, the sexy, curvy celebrity famous for reasons they can’t quite grasp; Selena Gomez, an updated version of Simpson’s pure Lolita; Taylor Swift, the good girl answer to Gomez, and Ke$ha, who’s like Swift on a bender.
Tweens today are constantly exposed to the seemingly impossible expectation of being innocent and sexual simultaneously [note by Christian Pundit: so too are adult, single and married Christian women by other Christians]. As one mother says, “We try to sell Taylor Swift whenever we can.”
… “You Cannot Take It Back” [The Internet and Social Media]
Social media is a magnificent beast that feeds on boredom, fame, friendship and instant gratification – everyone and everything is likeable, rankable and sharable.
Tweens effortlessly, almost innately, navigate new social media platforms while parents are forever trying to log on and keep up.
“One of our daughters searched ‘bunnies kissing’ around Easter. She wanted to see cute pictures of bunnies kissing. And Playboy bunnies came up,” says Alyssa Lerner of Westchester County in New York. “All of a sudden, the outside sexual world touches them… That’s the perfect example of innocence gone wrong.”
Today, 91 percent of 12- to 13-year-old girls have Internet access and 72 percent have mobile access via smartphones, tablets and other devices. Once tied to desktop computers in family living rooms, tweens’ Internet access is now in their pockets and stays with them all day.
Not surprisingly, media consumption and exposure explodes between the early and later tween years.
Eight- to 10-year-olds average five and a half hours of media use a day, and thanks to their deft multitasking skills, they cram eight hours of media into those five and a half hours; 11- to 14-year-olds average nearly nine hours a day, which stretches to 12 hours with multitasking.
… It has also introduced a new outlet for girls (and boys) to experiment with their burgeoning sexuality. Girls learn how to take selfies and pose provocatively simply by watching and liking. The rewards – likes, comments, followers – are instantly gratifying. The stakes, however, are high.
“Social platforms like Instagram give tweens the ability to talk to their friends and seek validation from their friends all the time, anywhere,” Uhls says. “Girls are getting messages in television about sexualization, and they have tools now where they can re-create it themselves.”
… The Undressing of Girlhood
Marketing is not concerned with social responsibility. It’s about forging unbreakable bonds between buyers and products, by any means necessary. The typical preteen boy likes sports and video games, “anything that goes fast, makes noise or blows up,” says Mark Harris, a columnist and former editor at Entertainment Weekly. “But as a demographic, they are completely disorganized. They have no attention span. They don’t talk to each other about their purchase preferences. They are fickle.” Preteen girls, on the other hand, are “an international hive mind.”
Girls communicate with daunting efficiency, spreading tastes, trends and information, and they have the ability to turn something that is mildly interesting into a marketing monster (like the tween pastime du jour, Rainbow Loom).
Their identities are intrinsically tied to their favorite products, yet their tastes change quickly. Preteen girls will love something with an intense, complete passion that, once exhausted, will morph into an intense, complete rejection.
America’s 20 million tweens (boys and girls) wield $43 billion in annual spending power, according to a 2013 white paper. (BusinessWeek put that number at $51 billion in 2005, not including the $170 billion that parents and family members spend on tweens.)
It’s no wonder, then, that marketers devote around $17 billion a year to capture their attention. What exactly do preteens want? What are they buying? From Build-A-Bear and American Girl dolls to thong underwear, tween consumerism reflects just how young, old and in-between this demographic is.
… For most companies, however, wholesomeness is still the key to tween marketing, and savvy companies hook tweens by dressing up parent-approved items with enough winks and nods to nudge girls closer toward their own sexualization.
… Marketers have turned preteens into consumers, but parents are the enablers, buying their children those tablets, toys and clothes.
… “It’s gotten shorter and sexier and inappropriate for 9- to 13-year-olds,” says Holly Green, the owner [of a clothing store], about tween fashion. Green is dressed like her clients: jeans, black boots, a gray hoodie with neon stars, turquoise eyeliner. “A lot of the kids are dressing inappropriately for their age, and there are a lot of parents who encourage it,” she adds, tapping on her iPhone with her French-manicured fingers. “It’s Instagram. It’s Facebook. A kid goes to a party and sees it. I had a girl in here yesterday and this kid is pretty conservative. She says, ‘I want it shorter.’ I go, ‘It has cutouts – why do you need it shorter?’ ”
.. “I’m Moving to Siberia”
“Parents who think you can pretend the Internet doesn’t exist, or drugs and alcohol don’t exist, seem to be more likely to run into trouble,” Buckingham says. “You can’t shut it out completely; you just have to decide which fences you want to put up.”
… One might argue that never before have parents played such a critical role in the lives of their young girls. From raising important conversations and promoting critical thinking to imposing limits on fashion, TV, music, computer use and social media, they can help preteens navigate the chasm between fantasy and reality.
… “Maybe Smarter Than People Give Them Credit For”
Where does that leave tween girls?“Tweens are dealing with [social media and pop culture] at such a young age and making the mistakes early enough that they just get it,” Buckingham says. “It’s so innate and ingrained that it’s not scary or intimidating. They know how to work it to their advantage in a way that we didn’t. We had to learn it; they just get it. I think it’s not gonna be as much of a problem for them.”
A slow, quiet shift may be taking place among today’s tween girls. Ann Shoket, editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine, and Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, have noticed a change in girls’ attitudes toward their futures. Ambition, leadership and education have taken precedence over the fluff of fame.
“When I came to Seventeen in 2007, girls were not interested in the future,” Shoket says.
“They were like, ‘Please leave me alone, stop bugging me.’ So we did. It’s only just in the last year that I’ve begun to see that the future is where girls’ interest is really strong. That has been a really big shift.”
…Astley has seen a similar transformation at Teen Vogue. “When I started [in 2003], girls asked, ‘How can I become a model? What celeb have I met?’ It was way less sophisticated, less self-actualized and less about them. Now, 10 years on, I’m so happy to see how many girls are asking about college, education, my career and other people’s careers too.”
“People have this general, nebulous idea of girls as this mass of pink, selfie-taking, Kardashian clones,” Gevinson says. “And not only do I think that a lot of girls aren’t like that, but I also think the girls who are like that are maybe smarter than people give them credit for. For as much as there are a lot of awful messages sent out to girls at the moment, I think that they are better equipped to deal with it.”
Censorship, she argues, isn’t the solution. “You’re not helping a young person teaching them abstinence in the same way that you don’t help them by making sure they never, ever come across anything bad online. If you’re gonna have sex, this is the safe way to do it. When you use the Internet and find things that could be potentially damaging, this is what you do.”
For tween girls, having sexual knowledge is not the same as being sexualized, and the girl who understands the difference probably has a strong support system. If preteen girls are more capable of navigating their world than adults realize – if their new playground is online, on apps and on smartphones – should parents let children plug and play?
… “I’m not so concerned if they’re on Instagram or Vine, but I am concerned about what their support group is,” says Georgia Gaveras, director of training and education in child and adolescent psychiatry at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. “Parents or adults need to make themselves available to kids at a younger age than we might expect to help them navigate this.”
“Those Are Not Real Girls”
If, as Selter argues, it will take decades to fully understand how tweens react to today’s sex-saturated, pop culture-obsessed, instant-gratification world, I figured I could at least find out how the tween girls I interviewed in 2009 have changed.
This winter, I met again with Brianna, 16, Sarah, 16, and Cat, 15. More than four years have passed since they talked to me about Lady Gaga, boys and blow jobs. Now sophomores in high school, Brianna and Sarah attend public school while Cat goes to private school.
All three have grown into confident, inquisitive teenagers – with flashes of their tween selves still there: Brianna’s booming, playful voice; Sarah’s steady, quiet presence, Cat’s infectious, bubbly personality. When I reminded them that, four years ago, they told me their generation was more advanced than any other, they burst out giggling.
“We went on walks with boys!” Brianna says, sitting on the couch in her parents’ living room in Uggs, leggings and a plaid collared shirt. “We kissed on the cheek!”
“I remember I refused to walk next to my boyfriend in fifth grade, I was so embarrassed,” says Cat. “I didn’t really like him. He played Pokémon. But I thought it was cool to have a boyfriend.” Taller and thinner, she has long brown hair dyed red and wears smoky eye shadow and paisley pants.
“It’s crazy how many people in my grade have already had sex,” says Sarah, who sits cross-legged in black leggings and a gray T-shirt. She and Brianna both wear gold nail polish.
“I’m gonna explain to you the social stratification in our grade,” Brianna announces, grabbing my pen and drawing a picture of her school cafeteria in my notebook. “There are the sluts. Then there’s my group. Then there’s Sarah’s group, and then there’s the boy group. They all hang out together, even if they hang out with different girls.”
“I don’t think any of them are virgins,” Sarah says, pointing to the group labeled Sluts.
“They hang out with guys and hook up to look popular. The majority are having sex, probably, but secretly each one hates each other,” Brianna says. “No one in my group has had sex. I don’t think anyone in your group has had sex,” she adds, turning to Sarah, who is the only one of the three with a boyfriend. “And the boys, I don’t think any sophomore boys have had sex in these groups.”
Who, then, are these girls sleeping with? In unison comes the answer: “Older guys!”
“Guys don’t need approval from girls, but these girls do slutty things ’cause they feel they need the approval from guys,” Cat says. “If you’re old enough, and you understand it and you’re in a relationship, have sex with that person if you want to. But don’t do it because you feel that you have to.”
(Link): How the Sexual Revolution Ruined Friendship – Also: If Christians Truly Believed in Celibacy and Virginity, they would stop adhering to certain sexual and gender stereotypes that work against both