“Cinderella Ate My Daughter”

In the last two blog entries I have attempted to explore the whole issue of internet predators and teen victims (albeit in a somewhat cursory fashion given that the subject is so vast). In a nutshell:

We live in an online world where youth increasingly cultivate relationships via social media. For them, danger can result from the belief that this anonymous cyberspace and the people met there are somehow more real than actual friends; that virtual “friends” can replace and be as enriching as face-to-face interactions with real-life people. Young girls continue to grow up with a natural need and desire for acceptance and romance. It’s just that now, the person cultivating the relationship on the other end of the mobile device may very well have sexual assault/abuse/kidnapping/trafficking as their end game.

For the final installments on this theme (for now), I want to turn attention to the role culture is playing in grooming young girls to be sexually manipulated. And to help me with this I am drawing on two works by author Peggy Orenstein: “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” and “Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape”.

“Cinderella Ate My Daughter” is a book for which Ms. Orenstein researched the marketing and sexualization of girlhood here in the United States. As she characterizes it, we are now living in a girlie-girl culture awash in princesses and hues of pink and purple. And over the past several years, this marketing is aimed at reaching girls at younger and younger ages. One only needs to look at Halloween costumes marketed for ‘tween’ girls (ages 8-12) to verify this to be true. Here’s one example:

Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz

An unintended consequence of this marketing onslaught is young girls who form a self-image that they absolutely MUST be pretty, pink, hot, and sexy. The time-worn story goes something like this:

Once upon a time in a land far away, there lived a young girl who dreamed of being a princess. And what was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart. But that every little girl wants (or should want), to be the “Fairest of Them All” (mixing the princess metaphor to also include Snow White!) And as the princess of the land, of COURSE she would marry her Prince Charming, her knight in shining armor. And they would live (everyone please feel free to chime in here): Happily… Ever… After!!!

We use this quote from human trafficking survivor Holly Austin Smith in our presentations with teen girls:

“Like many middle schools girls, I believed my self-worth was dependent on having a boyfriend and/or having sexual appeal to boys and older guys. Welcome to the typical life of any misguided and media-overexposed American teenager living in the suburbs and addicted to love. For those kids who aren’t being noticed by anyone except predators, a pimp or other trafficker is likely to fall in line.”

I mean what if being a princess doesn’t turn out to be all that it was cracked up to be? What if the stereotype of a princess instead reveals her to not be pretty enough… or good enough… or important? What if the princess culture of sexualized pinks and tiaras leads instead to depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, and risky sexual behavior?

Again, from Ms. Smith:

“I cringe when people refer to me in news articles as a “former sex slave” because if I was a sex slave to anyone, it was to popular culture. Advertisers, entertainment producers and other moguls of the media were the ones who seasoned me to accept sexual exploitation and prostitution. My body was an object, its sole purpose, I believed by that point, was for sex.”

Picture a young girl who wants a guy and tries her best to snag him by: wearing the same fashions as Beyoncé… and applying her makeup just like Kim Kardashian… and watching porn to learn what guys want from sex. In short, emulating everything she can possibly think of in the hope of attracting him into her life. And yet, she still looks in the mirror and sees… a LOSER. And to compound matters, she may be image-shamed in the hallways at school (i.e., fat, flat, ugly)… or on social media… or even by her “friends”.

Then one evening as she’s working at the local library on a paper for school, an older good looking guy sits down at her table and after a time of glancing innocently her way says, “You have the most beautiful eyes.” And what comes out of her mouth next could very well define what her life is about to become. She could totally blow him off. Or she might utter a completely non-committal, “Thanks,” (but which still leaves the door ajar to his advances). Or… after being pummeled by everyone in her social sphere for oh so long, here is someone who actually seems INTERESTED in her… she could look longingly back and say, “Really? Do you think so?” And in that moment… she’s HIS. Unfortunately, what I have just described is a common set-up for how traffickers “recruit” victims (and yes… public libraries have become a prime recruiting location).

I’ll pick this up next time and continue with cultural factors that impact the sexualization of teens. Till then…



Is There Danger On Both Ends?

[This is the second installment of a blog theme exploring internet predators and teen victims. For your reference, the first part was posted on July 28: 50,000 Predators Are Trolling Social Media… RIGHT NOW!]

I begin this entry still stuck in the year 2006! In that year the Ad Council ran a public service announcement on the danger of internet predators that remains chilling to watch. It depicts an overlapping dialog between an older male and much younger teen girl. I’ve linked to a YouTube post of the video and encourage you to check it out for yourself to take in its full impact:

Child Internet Safety PSA – Online Predators

Here’s the script:

Man:  Meeting a teen girl online is actually pretty easy. You can go into any chat room and just start talking. Most of the girls are usually so insecure and desperate for…

Teen:  Attention from older guys is totally flattering. They’re so much more mature and understanding than the guys my…

M: Age actually works to my advantage. They like to brag to their friends that they’re dating an older guy, so I just play along and pretend I’m really…

T: Interested in the same things I am. You can talk forever and really get to know someone without worrying about looks or whatever. That’s the best thing about…

M: Chatting seems unthreatening to them, so they lower their guard. After a while I start talking about how we’re soul mates and how lucky we are to have found each…

T: Other people don’t understand. I know what I’m doing. If you really care about each other, there’s nothing wrong with…

M: Meeting them is the goal. Once I get them out of their house… well, that’s when things get really interesting.

Announcer: Online predators know what they’re doing. Do you?

Now… from the research on internet predators that continues to this day, this is a somewhat accurate overall portrayal of an internet predator-victim scenario: older man trolling the net (e.g., chat rooms) searching for an impressionable girl to engage in conversation, teen looking for romance and flattered by the anonymous wiles of an older guy, more ”mature” male knowing how to psychologically manipulate a younger girl into believing he “gets” her, teen becoming more and more enthralled with the “depth” of their connection to the point of sensing no real danger and actually needing to meet with her “prince in shining armor.”

Without becoming a total research nerd, numbing your brain, and causing you to flee, I nevertheless would like to provide a couple of salient points to more completely detail what we have discovered about these internet encounters. As we already know, most Internet-initiated sex crimes involve adult men who use the Internet to meet and seduce underage adolescents into sexual encounters. They use communications such as chatrooms, social media, instant messaging apps, and video games to meet and develop intimate relationships with victims.

However, a finding that surprises many is that in the great majority of cases victims are COMPLETELY aware they are conversing with an adult. Offenders RARELY deceive victims about their age OR their sexual interests. Sex is usually broached online, and most victims who meet offenders face-to-face go to such meetings EXPECTING to engage in sexual activity. And further… three quarters of victims who have face-to-face sexual encounters with offenders DO SO MORE THAN ONCE!

Now… take all of that in for a moment. Unlike the predominant belief, the age and intent of the predator are VERY upfront. And counter to the common perception, more often than not the teen isn’t duped or coerced into the sexual encounter; they are willing participants oftentimes returning additional times.

Factors that make youth vulnerable to seduction by online predators is certainly a complex topic: immaturity, inexperience, and the impulsiveness with which some youth respond to and explore normal sexual urges. And please understand… in NO WAY am I attempting to characterize vulnerable teens as “at fault” for the heinous sexual assault that can befall them. But it makes me wonder… does the danger reside exclusively with deviant sexual predators? Or have attitudes and practices that are becoming “normalized” within teen culture more and more contributing to the danger as well?

It is this cultural aspect that piques my interest. What part does culture play in grooming our teens to be susceptible and vulnerable to the advances of online sexual predators? It is to this question that I will turn my attention next.

Before leaving, though, I want to provide some information to any adults who may be overly concerned for the online safety of a young one in their care. Below is a link to a PDF document by cyber-security expert, Mike DeCesare, in which he gives four tips adults can use to keep teens safe online:

How To Keep Teenagers Safe Online

Till next time…