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…