Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Are American Kids Being Sexualized?

Sex is part of the human condition. We are instinctively fascinated by it and drawn to it. We think about it. We study it. We talk about it. We write and read books about it. We watch films about it. We use it to sell, and sometimes we sell it. It creeps into everything that has anything to do with our culture. But are we going too far? Two recent news items present an interesting perspective on this.

The first news item comes from Mike Stock, a legendary music producer. He’s handled people like Debbie Harry, Donna Summer, and Kylie Minogue. Together with two partners, he’s produced 100 top 40 hits and earned an estimated £60 million. So it’s pretty safe to say that this guy is not a prude. And that makes what he said recently all the more surprising. He claims that children are being “sexualized” by popular culture.

“The music industry has gone too far. It's not about me being old fashioned. It's about keeping values that are important in the modern world. These days you can't watch modern stars -- like Britney Spears or Lady Gaga -- with a two-year-old. Ninety-nine per cent of the charts is R 'n' B and 99 per cent of that is soft pornography.”
He went on to criticize Lady Gaga’s new single “Alejandro,” which features her dressed in a nun’s habit while simulating sadomasochistic sex and swallowing a rosary as semi-nude male dances perform mock homosexual acts. He also criticized Madonna’s new kiddy clothing range which features extremely revealing clothing, and Miley Cyrus for sexualizing her image. As an interesting aside, in the last few years, Disney has become notorious for making stars of young girls who then turn to sex as their careers fade. Take a look at this procession of recent Disney starlets: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Lindsay Lohan, Vanessa Hudgens, Mylie Cyrus and Justin Timberlake.

And Stock isn’t alone in his criticisms.

Yesterday, the nation’s leading group of pediatricians issued an extremely strong statement directed at pediatricians, parents and the media outlining the danger of the sexual messages kids are getting from television, the internet and other media.

They note that U.S. children spend seven hours a day or more viewing sexually explicit media. Seventy percent of teen shows contain sexual content, and “less than 10 percent of that content involves what anyone would classify as being responsible content.” They note an utter absence of a discussion of the negative consequences of having sex, such as contracting an STD. And they link this to the United States having the western world’s highest teen pregnancy rate and “an alarmingly high rate of STDs -- one in four children.”

Says Alan Delamater, the Director of Child Psychology at the University of Miami School of Medicine:
“The research shows us that the portrayal of sex in the media is really unrealistic. It's unhealthy. It doesn't consider the consequences of sexual behavior. This is what our kids are growing up thinking [that] this is what sex is about. To deny its impact is ignorant because there's so much knowledge of it at this point.”
Based on these findings, the pediatrics association recommends that physicians advise parents to cut down on the amount of time children watch television or roam the internet, and they recommend that children not be allowed to do this in the privacy of their own rooms. They also would like to see ads for erectile dysfunction drugs not be shown on television until 10 pm, and advertisers no longer use sex to sell products. Good luck with that one.

In any event, it’s rather clear that neither this group nor Mike Stock are doing the bidding of religious conservatives, yet they make many of the same points. So maybe it’s time that people stopped viewing this as an issue of religion or nostalgia or grumpy conservatism? Maybe we have hit a point where there is just too much sex in our culture?

Consider sit-coms. You would be hard pressed to find a sitcom today that isn’t primarily about sex. But think about the classic sitcoms of the past (those that continue to air today in syndication): “Night Court,” “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “Leave It To Beaver,” “WKRP,” “MASH,” “Barney Miller,” etc. . . . these just aren’t focused on sex. And then think about the internet, which has become the world’s most advanced pornography delivery system.

Now I’m not concerned about adult culture. What adults choose to entertain themselves with really isn’t any of my business, nor do I really care. And I normally don’t buy the “what about the children” argument either. Too often this argument is used as a way to turn pet peeves and irrational fears into bad laws. But in this case, I think the concerns are valid. Those little buggers are quite malleable, and maybe blasting them 7 hours a day with fantasy images of sex is not a great idea? I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see the connection between instilling bad values into children and those kids acting on those bad values. . . and we seem to have the pregnancy and STD statistics to prove it.

So is there a government answer to this? No, not in my book. But I think there is a cultural answer to this. I think having groups like the pediatricians taking a stand and talking to parents about these dangers is a good start. I think other groups should join them as well. More importantly, I think people need to realize that this is an issue that goes way beyond just a handful of religious conservatives or grumpy types looking to remake America in the “Leave It To Beaver” mold. And most importantly, people need to vote with their wallets -- the only kind of speech that is guaranteed to be heard. Stop buying the garbage and let the companies know of your displeasure. They will eventually change.


ScottDS said...

I honestly don't have much to add to this discussion, only to say I'm glad I don't have kids (yet)! And you know I also have no sympathy for the "Think of the children!" brigade but even I know Miley Cyrus pole-dancing probably isn't a good idea. But it brings up the age-old question of how does a pre-teen performer segue into more mature (not necessarily sexual) material without alienating or offending people...? (No, pole-dancing is not the answer.)

As for TV, I'm not a regular sitcom viewer and I do wonder where the 70% statistic came from (and what the group considers sexual content - there's a world of difference between a couple of teens necking and the Without a Trace episode with a teen orgy). But there are still plenty of shows today with little to no sexual content at all (The Office for instance).

On the other hand, as someone who's taking sketch writing classes, you just can't have characters do a PSA on unsafe sex every time they want to hop into bed. And unfortunately, too many parents don't pay attention to what their kids watch. You have groups that complain about certain shows but no sane parent in their right mind would let their kids watch them. (What seven year old is watching Gossip Girl? The one with the inattentive parents.)

As for the Internet, thankfully my parents never had this problem since I was already approaching my teen years by the time we got broadband. But if my brother and I were born ten years later, I don't know what my folks would've done. Password protect the computer and browsing only when they were home is what I assume.

Sorry for my tone in the first couple of paragraphs. It's a thin line to walk and I don't think a show that's geared toward adults should change because someone's kids somewhere might be watching it. But stuff like Gossip Girl and whatever the hell is on MTV nowadays... yeah, not so good.

USArtguy said...

It will take a cultural change and not a governmental one. While I appreciate the few secular groups that are coming around to join all us "religious nuts" in saying enough is enough, my opinion is we have the culture we have because religious people (and the morality we stand for) have been labeled as nuts. There is right and wrong, but that has been replaced with "if it feels good, do it" and "if it's popular, it must be OK" and "what's wrong for isn't wrong for me". Which leads to a rather vulgar but interesting example: if a man grabs his crotch in front of one other person near a window, he's a pervert. But if he grabs his crotch in front of thousands of people on a stage, he's a star.

While adults in America certainly have the privilege of entertaining themselves practically any way they want doesn't mean they always should. Shame has left the building.

LawHawkRFD said...

Mea culpa. You have my generation to thank for this. As one comedian said "We changed the world all right--we really f---ed it up." Speaking for the next generation, Marc Price ("Skippy" from Family Ties) said "because you guys had sex with everyone, I can't have sex with anyone." "Free love" and sexualization of everything sounded like a good idea at the time, but like so many of those ideas, we didn't see the dark side. Today, we're seeing it--in spades.

Writer X said...

Exactly. It's not a governmental answer; it's a societal one. Don't buy the garbage and be involved in what your children do/buy/watch. You can't stop everything (just like parents couldn't stop boys in my day of sneaking the occasional Playboy magazine) but you can be an influence and that's what's most important. Lady Gaga will be on VH ten years from now, in a "Where Are They Now?" program.

Side note: I was recently at a writers' conference where I asked young adult writers, "Would you let your kid read your young adult novel?" Less than half the writers attending (most of them published) raised their hands. So, it's good enough for your kid but not good enough for mine. Chilling.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, As I note, I don't see programs aimed at adults as the problem -- although when I was younger, those shows used to be on later in the evenings so that kids wouldn't stumble upon them. With the proliferation of latchkey kids, this was at least something.

I think the real problem is that so much of what is aimed at kids has been sexualized. Take pop music. It seems that pop music has decided that the only way to get audiences is to be more sexually shocking than the last band. And these groups are aimed straight at teens and pre-teens, as aided by MTV.

In terms of sitcoms, you can still find some that aren't about sex, but most are. In fact, when I look at sitcom land today, I see a vast wasteland of two types of shows -- 5 friends who talk about people they've hooked up with, and the "modern family" with the dopey dad and the promiscuous kids. And even the cop shows have all turned to sex as a crutch -- that or serial killers.

I do agree that parents ultimately deserve the blame for not watching their kids, but I think "the industry" makes it very hard on parents because there are no lines of demarcation. Even the cartoon network (a personal favorite of mine) will run kids shows back to back with raunchy cartoons.

And then you have the factor that sex is used to sell everything, sex is used in every magazine, every song, and every television show. Trying to keep that from your kids without isolating them in a box is like trying to keep your kid from getting wet while you're swimming in the middle of the ocean.

As for writing, I agree with you that PSA's are not the first thought that comes to mind, and it is fantasy after all, but if they are reaching for kids, then they should accept that their model needs to change.

JG said...

I brought up a similar subject on facebook the other day. Watching kids' programs today amazes me. When we were little, the only "romance" in our kids' programs was Donald Duck chasing after Daisy Duck. Yeah, my parents tried a little harder than most to keep us insulated, for which I am very thankful. Innocence lost can never be found. But now it seems that anything "older" than Baby Einstein has some sort of romantic plot or subplot to it involving kids. Stop pushing first graders to have boyfriends and girlfriends and let them just be cowboys and princesses.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, I don't think you need to be religious to be bothered by this -- you just need to be a parent or to see the consequences. When I see pre-teens who dress like hookers out of the 1980s, who mimic what they've seen on television, and who are running up sexual statistics, then it's fairly obvious there is a problem.

That said, I think you're right that the religious view has been unfairly labeled as nutty. Whether you ultimately believe the dogma or not, religion still presents a very effective and time-tested set of moral principles that hold society together. I think the war on religion has done a lot of damage to our country by weakening this moral code and instead putting in place the idea of "if it feels good, do it" -- with horrible consequences for many people. That was the issue with "Murphy Brown" -- it wasn't the rich single mother surrounded by male friends who were going to help raise the child that was the problem. . . the problem was the message that being a single mother is no big deal. When people without Brown's level of support internalized that message, they ended up destroying their lives and dooming their kids to poverty and other social problems.

Excellent example about the hypocrisy in the culture by the way. It is telling that we revel in entertainment that we would consider criminal if done by someone not-famous. In fact, that raises a point I should write about sometime -- how television creates unreasonable expectations because people see what happens on television and they wonder why their lives aren't like that (e.g. the perfect dates, the attractive friends, etc.) when in reality, if you did half the things that happen on television, you would get arrested.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I wasn't going to say anything, but that is where the problem started -- the counter-culture. The message out of the 1960s was stop treating sex like it's anything more than breathing. And the results were predictable, except to the people who decided that was a good idea.

What's more, because they made this a political matter, they've made it hard to fix because they are unwilling to recognize the mistake and join "the other side" in fixing it.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Believe it not, I've seen others make that point. In the past few years, various actors and singers have admitted that they wouldn't let their kids see their work -- and these weren't people who are doing hardcore or purely adult work, these are people who work firmly in the PG-13 category.

To me, that's the beginning of the problem. If you wouldn't show what you are doing to your own kids, then what kind of jerk do you need to be to create that work and to try to sell it to other people's kids? That is seriously twisted. I would bet that if these people took responsibility for their own actions and cleaned up their works, that half the problem would go away.

It seems to me that the real solution here is the creation of a separation in the culture between adult and child-friendly, a distinction that has broken down.

Beyond that, parents certainly need to step up their involvement. When I was young, I remember people shaming their friends who took their kids to R rated movies -- movies that are easily PG today. Today, a great many parents let their kids get involved in things that would have been R or X back then, and they do so without a single thought that they are doing anything wrong.

So there is plenty of blame to go around.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I agree. I've seen a good deal of kids programming in my time and it's becoming increasingly sexual. When you saw a show aimed at kids in the past, the idea of kiddie-romance just never came up. Today it's always in there, even in cartoons. It's like they're writing for adults now rather than kids.

Tennessee Jed said...

good points all, and yes I fall in with those that blame parents rather than government. Hawk, no question our generation was way too permissive. Generation "me" was all in for "if it feels good do it" and "sex, drugs, and rock'n roll."

That said, part of the phenomenon, is that in entertainment, there is a continuous need to go a little further, push the envelope just to get noticed so to speak. Part of it is, as you get older, there is literally nothing left to thrill. You have seen it all. So much of the blatant sexuality is just too boring for me. However with 2 grand children aged 11 and 7, I exercise my God given right to worry about them.

Rome is the only other society I can think of so brazenly sexual as ours. We may be ripe to be conquered.

Certainly I don't advocate going back to Lucy and Desi in twin beds, but if we ban cigarette smoke, why not erectile dysfunction, particularly since it was problemspecifically developed by the drug companies so they could sell you Viagra.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I like that, you're God-given right to worry!

I think you're right that the problem is more one of creep than intent, in that it's really a matter of a million different artists trying to stand out and the best way to do it is to keep pushing a little further each time. That's going to be very difficult to undo because you're fighting the tide. But if people did vote with their wallets, it could be changed.

Rome does often come to mind, but I don't think I accept the analogy because the problem with Rome was that the whole society had turned corrupt and indifferent. Our culture is parallel in many ways, but our people aren't. Americans remain industrious, patriotic, concerned and energetic. In other words, we as a people are not as corrupt as our entertainment would have us believe -- a chunk of us are (the statistics bear that out), but not the vast majority.

Patti said...

as one with nieces that beg their mommas for inappropriate low cut shirts and too short every-things,i can report with certainty that our children are being sexualized. and i think you are absolutely right that parents have to vote with their wallets. and to parent. period.

that being said, i don't think this is anything new. the biggest twist in all of this is preteens and up have way more disposable income and information (internets!) than i ever thought of at their age. and i know lots of divorced parents who allow more than they would have if the marriage had endured.

still, i shudder when i see young girls looking years older than they are.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, I get the same cringing feeling when I see little kids who dress like teenage hookers, and the parents who let them.

You might be right about the disposable income and the internet. When I grew up, money was scarce -- paper route and an allowance, not enough to spend lavishly. And we didn't get much information other than what we saw in school. There certainly wasn't an MTV before I hit my teens to tell us how the rest of the world supposedly lived -- and even then it was tame when it started.

Di said...

As the parent of a 13 year-old daughter and a 10 year-old son, these are issues I think about an awful lot these days. I could write pages of my thoughts and experiences. I won't. Parents need to be parents, not BFFs. Society doesn't have to be prude and pretend sexuality doesn't exist but it can be decent. Girls can make the transition from girlhood to womanhood without pole dancing. It would be nice if channels like ABC Family actually provided a family-safe programming line-up rather than shows geared toward teenagers that make me cringe just at the content of the commercial for the programs.

AndrewPrice said...

Di, I think you're absolutely right about parents needing to be parents and not best friends with their kids. The kids of the parents I know who tried to be best friends turned out pretty poorly. . . and still were rarely friends with their parents. But the kids of the parents who acted like parents may not have liked them when they were younger, but they have all become friends now and definitely appreciate what their parents did.

I also agree about things like the Family Channel. They don't show the R rated stuff, but a lot of what they show would be PG-13 at best. And you're right about the ads. I've particularly noticed that with horror movie ads. When you're watching something that is PG or G rated and an ad suddenly comes on for "Brutal Death 5", you wonder how any kids watching the show will take that and how the network can justify putting that ad on at that particular time. Plus, things like the Viagra ads never stop.

I think organizations like television networks need to rethink how they separate kids programming from other programming. They should rethink their whole approach.

Tam said...

I fail BIG TIME when it comes to limiting my kid's tv time, but I think it clearly affects his behavior. He just has a more lazy and defiant attitude when he spends more time "plugged in." I think I reached a tipping point with him today and we are having an "off week" except for when I am working. (I work online...I'm working right now! How about that! Getting paid to read and comment here!) I also notice that he is brighter and happier and more helpful when we are involved in more constructive activities, even if we are just playing cards together. Wow..what a concept. And that doesn't even touch on the sexuality thing! Just a general cause-effect of media influence.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, Don't get me wrong because I love my television -- it offers so much and asks so little -- but I think your insights are absolutely right.

I've noticed that I feel much more lethargic when I watch a lot of television. And studies have actually given us the reason for this. It turns out that television is an entirely passive activity, i.e. your brain just receives the signal without much processing. So most of your brain goes to sleep when you watch television. They've found that an hour of television can actually lower your IQ (temporarily) by 10 points. That's pretty significant.

That's why people tend to feel groggy or tired after watching too much television.

That also means that all the hopes people had that television could be used to teach kids appear to be misplaced.

Cool -- getting paid to read Commentarama! Talk about an ideal job. :-)

rlaWTX said...

I agree that the separation between the adult and children's worlds is gone. And even if the "more adult" shows were on later, how about when they go into syndication...

And as for ABC Fam - pshaw on the "Family" claim. I was flipping some night this week and stopped to see what was on (my cable has the enlightening description of "Programmimg" on certain channels - I guess I need to break down and get a real cable box). I think It was that "Secret Lif of the American Teenager" - ya know the one where she gets pregnant but they are all still sleeping around anyway - and the conversation was that some girl's boyfriend had told her dad that they were having oral sex. The scene flipped between dad going bonkers ata mom who knew and the embarassed daughter and the boyfriend talking to his ex-girlfriend about the dad flipping out: "isn't it better than having real sex?" and then ex-girlfriend boasting that they had had REAL sex and then admitting that she did like oral sex (with new BF?) just not with him.
I was on the channel for 3-4 min TOPS!!!!!!!
yeeeeeesh! it was bad enough when "Friends" had those discussion - between techinical grown-ups, geared toward supposed-to-be-grownups.
Don't know what the answer is and if we are too far along the road to go backwards???

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I have seen similar programming on the Disney Channel, and this is exactly the kind of programming that should not be on a channel aimed at kids.

I don't think it's too late to change for one reason: history has shown that culture and morality are never settled and never move in one direction only. In other words, throughout history, morality has swung back and forth from more moral to less moral. Things have been classified as taboo and then removed from the list and later put back on. Since none of this is permanent or destined, I don't think it's inconceivable at all for the pendulum to swing back. In fact, people should be concerned that the more the pendulum swings in one direction, the greater the swing back -- which isn't great either.

In the end, I have faith in average people to do the right thing, even if the sellers of our culture won't. Hopefully, average people will take a bigger role in shaping our culture and reasonable boundaries will be drawn again.

Ed said...

It's interesting that someone in the music industry would make this claim.

Good article and good comments.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed. I think it adds credibility to his point that he's a guy who has done this and obvious didn't have a problem with it before. So I think that's very telling.

CrispyRice said...

Interesting article, Andrew. I agree with Writer X that we need a societal answer, but unfortunately, I see the media continuing to cater to the masses. And the masses aren't interested in being parents, as Di said.

As an aside, I had a tv in my room when I was 11. (A little B&W model that I bought with my money from my newspaper route.) I don't think my parents thought twice about it, but there is NO WAY I would let my (hypothetical) 11 year old kid today have a tv in their room. No way.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I had the same thing. But back then, there were only four channels and you didn't get anything like you get today in terms of programming -- Star Trek, game shows, and the occasional G rated movie.

I think you're right about the media, they go where the money is and the money is with the path of least resistance. Still, hopefully guys like Stock are an indication that things may be changing.

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