Commercialization occurs when corporations take something that already belongs to the people, repackage it in a way that suggests it is now improved, and sell it back to the people at a profit. Bottled water is one example. Sexuality is another—and far more devastating—example. when human sexuality is redefined by revenue-driven CEOs, when the interlocking media industries (advertising, entertainment, fashion, television, the internet) serve it back up to a willing public, all of us lose.
In her 2005 book, Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families, Pamela Paul identified the ways in which the increasingly profitable business of pornography is influencing western (and by definition global) culture. Far from being an exclusively male problem, pornography is a societal problem because of its incalculable influence on the culture in which we are inescapably immersed. while it is one of the more obvious expressions of commercialized sex, pornography cannot be viewed separately from other forms of the industry, which include stripping, prostitution, and every other form of popular culture that objectifies our bodies, encourages us to sell and/or consume sexuality, and separates sexuality from the context of relationship.
The systematic “pornification” of our lives by powerful corporations that drive popular culture exacts a terrible price on society. In the following pages, we map the continuum, from seemingly harmless children’s products to misogynous, body-punishing pornography. The content is explicit at times, but we cannot afford to proceed with blinkered eyes.
The Sex Lives of Children: a tale of consumption
Twenty-five years ago, a balding, middle-aged man approached a 13-year-old girl at a school play and invited her to model in his hotel room. Knowing her father would object, the girl asked her mother to take her.
They met in the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver, where the man told the mother to wait in the bar while he and the girl went upstairs, but the girl asked her mother to accompany her. He wasn’t thrilled, but he shot several rolls with her mom in the room.
A few weeks later the girl received a copy of the photos, along with a note indicating that she was “not model material” because she was “unable to take direction.” His meaning was clear—she had worn her mother’s modest bathing suit rather than a bikini or scanty underwear, and she had refused to peek out from behind the shower curtain or lie on the bed with her legs in the air.
That girl was me. I had allowed myself to be photographed by a complete stranger based on the promise that he could fulfill my fantasy to be gazed upon and admired by the entire world. But I had not been able to do the overtly sexual things he had asked me to do. I had never been naked in front of anyone. I hadn’t even kissed a boy.
If this same story took place today, would my 13-year-old self think twice about posing topless or spreading her legs for the camera? Perhaps not, thanks to the currently toxic level of sexual exposure among young girls. Bombarded with images that link a woman’s value to her sexual willingness, girls see their role models engaging in graphic, exhibitionist behavior —and being rewarded for it (at least in the short term).
Girls as consumables
The training starts early. Bratz dolls, manufactured by MGA Entertainment for preteen girls (7-12) “who are mostly into music [and] computers,” are “fully articulated fashion dolls that provide hip and trendy alternatives to traditional dolls.” According to the manufacturer’s website, the dolls “are inspired by modern advertising and computer anime images”; sales rose to $750 million in 2005, exerting enormous influence on the body image and focus of the latest generation of girls, a trend that began (and continues) with Mattel’s Barbie.“Things are heatin’ up as Chloe takes to the scorchin’ sands of Bratz Beach,” reads the advertising copy for the “Spring Break” version of the Chloe character doll. “Strolling in the dreamiest bikini around, she’s ready for what’s sure to be a summer to remember.” Chloe comes dressed in a bikini and see-through miniskirt. She sports peroxide-blonde hair and, like all the Bratz dolls, oversized lips and eyes, pencil-thin legs, and a wasp-sized waist.
Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera: Anyone who has ever stood in a supermarket check-out line knows that, in addition to conforming to an extremely narrow definition of beauty (identical to that of Bratz dolls), today’s female pop icons are sex objects to be alternately exalted, ogled, emulated, critiqued, condemned, pitied, and recycled … ad nauseum. Even the more respected pop stars —those with actual acting or musical talent, like Scarlet Johansson, Keira Knightley, Avril Lavigne, Cheryl Crow—regularly strike clothing-challenged poses in magazines from Vanity Fair to Maxim to Playboy.
With role models like these, immersed in a culture where sexuality is tied to celebrity status and money, girls are conditioned to feel empowered whenever they are the sexual center of attention.
“At a party or wherever, to get attention, two girls will start kissing and then all of a sudden it’s like everyone is looking and all of the attention is on you. It’s like you’re on fire,” explained one 16-year-old girl interviewed for the documentary film, The Seduction, about middle-class girls who trade sex for luxury goods, drugs, and sometimes money.
To maintain that level of attention, many girls are transmitting nude or sexually explicit photos of themselves via cell phone. The practice is called “sexting.”
“It is a way to become famous at their school, because those photos are widely forwarded among students,” explains Joy Becker, a youth counselor at Planned Parenthood in Vancouver.
“I’ve seen everything from your basic striptease to sexual acts being performed,” says Detective Brian Marvin of the FBI Cyber Crime Task Force of Central Ohio.
Girls understand that the most valuable commodities are youth and beauty, both of which they possess. And they identify as sex objects because being a sex object is about being desirable, getting attention, and feeling powerful.
Twelve-year-old Maddison Gabriel made international headlines when chosen to be the face of Australia’s 2007 Gold Coast Fashion week. Although Gabriel’s agent says she will not model lingerie, photos of her in heavy makeup and bikinis are online. Gabriel’s mother, who has been criticized for participating in the sexualization of her daughter, has demanded an apology from Australian Prime Minister John Howard who, on a Melbourne radio station, said, “Catapulting girls as young as 12 into something like that is quite outrageous, and I am totally opposed to it.”
Gabriel’s mother’s response: “I believe the prime minister is getting very doddery. He does not know exactly what 13- and 14-year-old girls are like.”
Advertising and media feed off each other, generating a proliferation of images that are sexually suggestive or blatantly pornographic. These ads, music videos, video games, television shows, internet sites, and teen fiction then become guide-lines for acceptable teenage social behavior. Sexual imagery is such a normal part of teens’ daily lives that, regardless of family pressures, disapproving peers, or religious taboos, very young girls are influenced into dressing provocatively, acting sexy, and becoming sexually active.
Drunk, underage girls bare their breasts in Girls Gone Wild videos. T-shirts for girls read “Porn Star,” “The Rumors Are True,” and “I Know what Boys want” across the chest. Sweat pants have “juicy,” “yummy,” and “sweet” emblazoned on the backside. The current brand identity for girls is clear: “I am some-thing to be consumed.”
In a recent ad series for a Tom Ford fragrance, a naked model press-es the perfume bottle between her breasts (in a classic porn pose) and against her hairless crotch, barely covering her genitals. Victoria’s Secret model Marisa Miller poses for the 2008 Sports Illustrated music issue wear-ing nothing but an iPod. It is worth noting that in both the Tom Ford ads and the Sports Illustrated photos, the models’ pubic hair has been completely removed, a grooming practice that is ubiquitous in pornography and that has become increasingly common among young girls and women.
Gail Dines, a professor at Boston’s Wheelock College who explores how media images shape gender/racial identities and the role pornography plays in legitimizing violence against women and children, points out that content that was once considered hardcore pornography—images one might find in the pages of Hustler, for example—have been successfully mainstreamed by the advertising and music industries. American Apparel has made a multimillion-dollar name for itself by shooting very young women in gritty, Hustler-style poses, and Joe’s Jeans billboards are all porno-graphic in tone.
What every girl wants?
Girls are sent the message that they should be available for sex and skilled at it. Adorable magazine sent their teen subscribers a sex guide entitled 99 Naughty Tricks, including tips on French kissing and oral sex. Seventeen and Cosmo Girl magazines regularly offer sex advice, often without mentioning a relationship as the context in which the sexual contact might take place. Sex as recreation, sex as inevitable adolescent experimentation, sex as obsession are so pervasive that the editors of the recently released True Images: The Bible for Teen Girls (Zondervan) feel it’s essential to discuss oral sex, lesbianism, and “dream” guys along-side the study of scripture.
How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, Jenna Jameson’s bestseller, is a favorite among girls (in spite of its unfiltered recounting of the degradations of her career), as is One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, an autobiographical account by teen writer Melissa Panarello, who loses her virginity, has group sex, sex with a married man, and sex with her math tutor, all before her 17th birthday. These are part of what Madeline Bunting of the Guardian newspaper calls “f**k lit,” a genre which also includes such titles as Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire.
In the preteen and teen book market, Gossip Girl, A-List, It Girl, and Clique are best-selling series about upscale teens’ sex lives, in which everyone has a T-Mobile Sidekick (marketed as “your lifeline to your social life”), a platinum AMEX, and coke-snorting parents who have extramarital affairs. In these books, where fitting in is the priority, even sex is about social positioning and status.
Gossip Girl has spun over to television, where the show’s pilot treats viewers to underage sex in act one, drinking throughout act two, and an attempted rape scene in act three. Other episodes include lingerie sleepover parties and girl-on-girl kissing. CBS’s Swingtown is another of the growing number of TV shows about wealthy teens: Its first episode features teens smoking pot and reading pornography, adults popping Quaaludes, and a threesome carrying on upstairs while an orgy unfolds downstairs.
The girls on these shows pay very close attention to the value placed on being “hot” and become addicted to the power that comes from granting or withholding sexual favors. If you want to know just how much things on TV have changed, only 13 years ago the show to watch was My So-Called Life, with Claire Danes playing teenager Angela Chase. Each week close to 10 million viewers watched “a decidedly middle-class girl whose grievances with the world were confined to an aching crush, the wish that her mother wouldn’t insist on well-balanced meals, and her belief that social studies ought to be less boring.” Angela wore baggy clothes, little make up, and had parents who were present.
Boys as predators
If today’s girls are encouraged to view their bodies as powerful tools with which to manipulate others, today’s boys are trained to view themselves as entitled to sex, whenever and however they want it. They are also being socialized to be sexual predators by a culture that glorifies pornography and “the pimp as player” image.
In the “lifestyle” promoted by Beverly Hill’s Pimps and Ho’s, a clothing brand that is all the rage with celebrities and teens, males refer to themselves as pimps and to females as “ho’s,” “sluts,” or “bitches.” The “P.I.M.P.” video by 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg has bikini-clad women—dollar signs hanging from their crotches—on leashes attached to diamond-studded dog collars. Further glorifying the profession, Rolling Stone magazine honored Snoop Dogg with the title “America’s Most Loveable Pimp.”
A sample of the lyrics from 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.”: “Bitch choose with me, I’ll have you stripping in the street/Put my other ho’s down, you get your ass beat.” Jay-Z’s hit song “Big Pimpin’” goes like this: “I thug ‘em, f**k ‘em, love ‘em, leave ‘em/‘Cause I don’t f**kin’ need ‘em/Take ‘em out the hood, keep ‘em lookin’ good/But I don’t f**kin’ feed ‘em.”
The pimp image has infiltrated mainstream notions of cool to the point where almost everyone is trying to capital ize on it. Inspired by his hit song “Pimp Juice,” Nelly introduced a two-dollar energy drink by the same name, packaged in a flashy gold and silver can. Incredibly, Nelly and the Fillmore Street Brewery, the company that makes the energy drink, recently launched the P.I.M.P. (Positive. Intellectual. Motivated. Person.) Scholarship. The application form states: “Students from all disciplines with no grade point average restrictions to compete in an essay and photography competition concerning how the student plans to ‘upgrade his/her life’ through education, hard work, creativity, heart, and philanthropy.” Students are encouraged to submit a photo of them-selves holding the drink.
One group that is trying to combat the corruption of children is the Children of the Street Society, a nonprofit concerned with the growing numbers of children being recruited into the sex trade. Cofounder Diane Sowden frequently visits middle school classrooms, where she minces no words in trying to raise awareness about the evils of recruiting, pimping, and prostitution. “when you wear a T-shirt that says ‘Pimping Ain’t Easy’ or use the expression ‘that’s really pimping’ to describe something you admire, you are promoting child molestation,” she tells the students.
She points out that shows like Pimp My Ride on MTV normalize and glamorize the idea of pimping to both kids and parents, and then she jumps to a real-life example to demonstrate just how abnormal and unglamorous the world of pimping and prostitution really is. She turns on the overhead projector, illuminating a photo of a pretty girl with long brown hair against a generic blue background. “This is my daughter Catherine,” Sowden tells the classes she visits. “She was recruited into prostitution when she was in grade 7, the last year that she was in school.” She explains that her daughter was a partier who was introduced to crack by a man in his 20s in their conservative, mostly white suburb. Catherine began selling her body to pay for her addiction and soon had a pimp—an all-too-common story and one the students can relate to.
Sowden believes that educating boys early may curb the demand side of prostitution. It may also make them more compassionate toward the girls and women who end up prostituted or in pornography.
But compassion is all too rare in young boys today. when two boys, 13 and 14, were asked for the purposes of this article how they became sexually active, their responses were alarming.
“From the time I was 11 my dad told me condoms come 12 to a box for a reason. He said I could have sex with a girl and then go off and have sex with a different girl,” Matt explained, adding that by the time most boys are 13, there is tremendous pressure on them to lose their virginity. “It’s like such a huge thing if you’re still a virgin by a certain age.”
Laughing, Kyle said that the fastest way to get laid is to say three magic words. “For most girls, if a guy says, ‘I love you,’ that’s enough for her to get naked and do whatever you want. Girls need to know the only time a guy is ever serious about telling a girl he loves her is when he’s at the altar or when he wants to get her panties off. They shouldn’t take it so seriously.”
According to statistics, boys don’t always use pretty words to get sexual with girls. In the United States, “youth constitute more than one in four sex offenders, and juveniles perpetrate more than one in three sex offenses against other youth.” Similar statistics hold true in Canada. “From 12 to 19 perfectly normal boys are turned into predators because no one is censoring their behavior. No one stands up to these boys and tells them that they will not be rewarded for taking advantage of a situation,” says Lee Lakeman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centers.
“Young men are competitive with each other,” explains Samantha Kearney, a former high school teacher and a counselor at the Vancouver Rape Crisis Center. “One of their games is to get a girl to agree to have sex with their buddies. we’ve had guys tell their girlfriend that she has to make herself accessible to all of his buddies.”
A disturbing trend
While most online predators are adult men between 30 and 40 years old, investigators are observing the emergence of a disturbing new trend. Teenagers are now being charged in cases involving the production and distribution of pornography.
In Hamilton, Ontario, a group of 9th-grade male and female students formed “The Safe Sex Club.” For two years, they met online after school via webcam and masturbated for each other. One of the participants said he did it because “I don’t have to worry about getting to her house. She doesn’t have to worry about getting to my house.” The teens used webcams to have virtual sex with a variety of partners.
Detective Constable Douglas Rees of Hamilton Police’s Child Pornography Unit became involved when one of the 16-year-old boys allegedly distributed images of his former girlfriend, also 16, engaged in sexual acts. The youth faces charges of possession and distribution of child pornography.
In May of this year, Alex Phillips, 17, of LaCrosse, Wis., was charged with possessing child pornography, sexual exploitation of a child, and defamation after he posted naked pictures of his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend from his cell phone onto MySpace. In Pennsylvania, state police were dispatched to Allentown’s Parkland High School in January to remove video and photos of two high school girls from the cell phones of at least 40 students. Thomas Hajzus, principal of Peters Township High School in Washington County, said three female students sent pornographic pictures last school year.
In Montreal, a 21-year-old college student recently plead-ed guilty to sexual assault and child pornography charges. According to the Canadian Press, Simeon Boudreau lured 13- to 15-year-old girls whom he met in online chat rooms to his home and secretly filmed himself engaged in sex acts with them. He then tried to trade the homemade images for child pornography on an internet site frequented by pedophiles.
Could tech-savvy teens become the newest pornographers? “People have preconceived notions of who the offenders are,” explains Connecticut State Police Sergeant Andy Russell, head of their Internet Sex Crimes Task Force. “It’s not the middle-aged guy in the long coat hanging out near a school. Not anymore.”
Can anything be done?
It’s good for us to take an unflinching look at what’s happening in contemporary culture, but it’s only a start. we dare not stop here—neither head-burying nor hand-wringing is a viable option. So where do we go from here?
Is the church doing anything to counteract our pornographic culture? Isolated efforts exist, but in many ways, Christians have largely capitulated—we either stop at critique, turn our heads whenever possible, or become consumers of the stuff (uncomfortably perhaps, but uncritically).
In many ways the battle has already been lost—a whole generation of young people has been subjected to the most relentless barrage of lies about human sexuality. Our most effective tool now is to educate our children to be informed, critical consumers who speak out against corporate attempts to dictate their desires, who get angry enough to take their sexuality back from the pornographers. If enough of us join hands, we can envision a future where pornography is as socially unacceptable as smoking, taken as seriously by the health profession as obesity, and considered as damaging to the fabric of community as drug peddling or racial discrimination.
In addition to serving as professor of sociology women’s studies at Wheelock, Gail Dines is one of the founding members of Stop Porn Culture, a national antipornography movement. As a feminist in the academic world, she is a lonely voice in a sector of society that most often views pornography as a freedom-of-speech issue and sex work as empowering to women (in spite of all the research to the contrary). She is also a prophetic voice who is unmasking the “corporate pimps” who peddle and profit from our pornographic culture, to acknowledge the emperor’s nakedness, and to reveal the lies that threaten to make us both compliant and complicit.
What troubles her most is the growing sexualization of violence in popular culture (in advertising, video games, toys) —with women being the most common victims by far—and the increasingly violent turn the US pornography industry has taken in the last decade. Dines compares cultural degradation to environmental destruction: “There’s a point where it’s too hard to go back,” she says, “when people have become too robotic, have lost what it means to be human, and are thoroughly colonized by the corporate pimps. It has to stop, now. If we don’t do it, there is nobody else out there who is going to.”
The smallest voice can make a difference. Dines tells of going into a shopping mall one December with her son, who was 5 years old at the time. “Uh-oh,” she heard him say, and looked down to find him pointing at a window display that featured a manikin hanging, gallows-style, from a string of Christmas lights. Dines went straight to the manager of the store and asked that they take it down. The manager defended the display as “edgy” and “artistic.” Dines held her ground, saying, “I represent a group called the National Boycott Alliance, and I’m coming back here tomorrow with a photographer. If that display is still there, we’re going to photograph it and put you on our boycott list.”
There is no such thing as the National Boycott Alliance —Dines made it up on the spot!—but she knows that it’s all about profit and no store wants to be boycotted, especially before Christmas. By the next day the display had been dismantled. “I suggest carrying a clipboard with you when you shop,” says Dine, smiling but dead serious. “Managers are very afraid of clipboards!”
Will the church join hands with this growing movement, strengthened and enriched by religious and political diversity, to form a broad coalition to reclaim childhood and promote healthy sexuality?
This will involve, among other things, educating ourselves and others, holding ourselves accountable for the pornography we as Christians consume (and repenting), addressing issues of gender oppression within the church, telling those corporations that profit from pornography that we won’t stand for it (and boycotting them when they refuse to listen), collaborating with others who have the same goal, and using all our available means—even if it’s just a clipboard.
Sharlene Azam writes about teens. She is the author of Rebel, Rogue, Mischievous Babe: Stories about Being a Powerful Girl and Oral Sex Is the New Goodnight Kiss: The Sexual Bullying of Middle-Class Girls.