They’re sexy and they know it. “Sext Up Kids” explores the hypersexualization of our children – and the consequences.
You would have to live in a cave to not be aware of how sexualized young children are today. I only have to stand at my front door and watch the parade of very young girls walking to the high school down my street in clothing that I find both inappropriate and appalling or listen to boys brag loudly about how they “banged” someone over the weekend. Sometimes I feel like I’ve become a prude, but then I see films like Sext Up Kids and realize that it is good that I am uncomfortable with my observations and this movement in our culture. At least, I have not become completely desensitized to it.
Sext Up Kids is a documentary that
…exposes how growing up in a hyper-sexualized culture hurts our kids. Teens and pre-teens show and tell what they are doing and why they are doing it. Experts reveal startling new research, tracking how the pressure to be sexy is changing teen and sexual behavior in alarming ways…Parents and educators struggle to help kids navigate puberty in a world where the line between pop culture and porn culture is increasingly blurred. For every parent who thinks, “that’s not my son or daughter,” Sext up KIDS is your wake up call. – CBC, Doc Zone.
I recently had the opportunity to interview filmmaker, Maureen Palmer. She provided much insight into the issue of hyper-sexualization in our society, it’s consequences and what we, as parents, can do to help our kids have a more critical view of what is being served up to them on a daily basis by our media and culture.
TTG: What inspired you to make this documentary?
MP: The idea has been percolating for a few years – from a Maclean’s magazine cover story, I think titled, “ Why do we dress our six-year olds like skanks?” to just observing how-ever younger girls were dressed My knee-jerk reaction, “what are their parents thinking?” I knew, was just too simplistic. When approached by two enlightened male producers – Moncton’s Dreamstreet Pictures, who wanted to hire me to direct a film about sexualized girls – I jumped at the chance.
Very quickly, I realized the answer was complex and it was as much to do about sexualizing boys – as girls.
TTG: What is the most shocking thing you learned during this process?
MP: Truly shocking, that ‘anal was becoming the new oral.” Is there really a 16-year-old girl anywhere who thinks anal sex is fun? This is a result of the extreme penetration – excuse the pun – of hard core porn in teen boy lives, where anal sex is everywhere. When I was a teen, I don’t think I’d heard of anal sex. That young girls today are being asked to perform it – and are actually doing it – floored me.
TTG: How can parents become involved and aware with what is happening with our kids when it comes to sex, without completely locking them up?? How do we get our voices to rise above all the noise served up to them by our culture and the media?
MP: Experts tell us it’s even more critical now, to begin communication early and often with children about sexuality. Five or six is not too early, especially speaking in age-appropriate terms. If you come across porn, providing context about real-life sex as opposed to fantasy, is vital. Pre-teens especially who have not been exposed to depictions of mature loving sex, may grow up with a distorted impression of what sex should be, especially if they watch violent or extreme hard core porn. “No Judgment” seems to be the expert’s mantra. They believe if you judge your kid, he or she simply won’t talk to you. And point out healthy body images everywhere you see them in media to both boys and girls to counter the barrage of sexual imagery. Finally, one expert we spoke to says she gathers up all electronics at 10pm out of her teens’ bedrooms, partly so they won’t be tempted and also so they’ll sleep. There are plenty of texting bills that show texts from teens literally all night.
TTG: There seems to be a real tug-of-war happening in society when it comes to young girls. On the one hand, we are teaching them to be more empowered, more self-confident but on the other, we are objectifying and devaluing them more than ever. How do these two cultural ideals exist without more tension??
MP: Here comes my rant:
Are we really teaching them to be more empowered? I question that premise.We may say all the right things – but what we do and what others do around us, that sends a greater message. When the biggest marketer, the most popular toy line on the planet for girls, is “Disney’s Princess brand,” I wonder. Playing princess is all about being rescued. That’s not empowering. Sure one of the princess’s is spunky, but really…. ? Even the Disney princesses have become sexualized, with cartoon drawings of them getting progressively bustier and tinier-waisted as time goes by.
Girls graduate from playing princess to playing with raunchier dolls like Bratz and Monster High Dolls. What message do those dolls send girls? I think at every stage of girlhood now, we sell the idea that empowerment is about looking good. Our entire culture (Toddlers and Tiaras?) is now about selling the message to ever younger girls: your worth is in your looks. Even before puberty now, girls believe themselves to be valuable, primarily if they are attractive to boys. Facebook for girls, is much about looking hot, and being “liked” for it.
That is a false sense of empowerment. And it gets more twisted as girls become teens as looking good becomes synonymous with sexual attractiveness. As Deborah Tolman, of the American Psychological Association tells us in the film, “ Showing yourself off as sexually empowered as a performance which is really what I think many young women are doing, many of them often drunk, certainly in the girls gone wild videos. It really is a performance and performance is not about your own body.
Peggy Orenstein also adds unique insight on this subject: “ Girls need to understand that sexuality is something that comes from within and connects a girl to herself and to her desire and to her needs and her wants and is ultimately empowering as she gets older whereas sexualisation is the performance of all that and it’s a performance of sexuality and a performance of sexual entitlement that actually disconnects them from that stronger external sense of self.
That so many girls are succeeding – look at the graduate school numbers – I believe it’s happening in spite of sexualization. I also think we’re doing a number on boys. In seeing their self-worth directly proportional to the fake-boob size of the girl on their arm, how to they ever find satisfaction with real girls? Too many boys are finding out too late, ‘she ain’t purdy she just looks that way.”
TTG: Maybe I’m a prude, but I was shocked to learn that 70-80% of teens are watching online porn. If this is how kids are learning about sexuality, are the concepts of love and romance lost for them?
MP: Not lost, but sure a lot harder to come by. Now there is a growing sense from some experts that intensive porn exposure in teen years actually prevents some young men from forming romantic relationships even when they find the girl of their dreams. I also hear from many young women in their teens and early 20’s, that porn-like sexual behavior is often requested from boyfriends. That is, once again, performing for boys. It’s not about allowing girls the freedom to experience sexual pleasure for themselves. Women in their early 20’s tell me they’ve engaged in all manner of hook-ups and one night stands that were border-line humiliating, because that’s what so many young men expect.
We’ve got to ask ourselves – how did it somehow get to be okay that an 11 – year old boy can watch hard-core porn on his IPhone on the school bus? The porn industry has hijacked our kids’ sexuality, robbing them of the magic that many of us experienced: that first real and reciprocated romance.
I also have to wonder how we gauge rights in our society. Does protecting freedom of expression mean we have allow 12 year-old boys to see a woman hanging upside down from a rope, being anally, vaginally and orally penetrated at the same time? Because that’s what’s readily available to anybody on line. Some of what I’ve watched this past year on-line, if it were treating an identifiable minority in such a manner, it would be considered hate literature. But it’s just women and girls being hurt and humiliated. So it’s okay.
As parents, there is so much we think we have to do – driving to gawd-knows-how-many soccer games and piano lessons and expensive birthday parties. Maybe it’s time we all stop and think about what our really kids need. They really need us to protect them. To talk to them. To give them the straight goods. And they need us to say “enough” to marketers and pornographers who make money off selling sexy too soon.
Chantelle Kirsch, YWCA of Vancouver ‘s Manager of Advocacy and Public Relations, feels the film’s messages as well as the long-term impacts of hypersexualization on young people are so important to discuss and understand:
“Evidence suggests women are three times more likely than men to be portrayed as sexually provocative in advertising and media, contributing to low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, depression and other health concerns. This image portrayal is also linked to societal tolerance of sexual violence and exploitation of girls and women.”
The YWCA of Vancouver is hosting a free screening of Sext Up Kids at UBC Robson Square on June 21st. Seats are limited, so it is advisable to reserve in advance. You can RSVP to Clare Marriott at 604.895.5772 or firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also view Sext Up Kids online here. Here’s a preview: