Pussycat Dolls creator Robin Antin is the worst thing to happen to teenage girls in a long time. For proof, look no further than The Search for the Next Doll, the reality-TV show she hosted last year. One of the episode's themes was confidence, and one of the best ways for the young women to acquire some, in Antin's view, was to strip to their skivvies and "dance" in glass cages. Nothing like preparing the youth of today for tomorrow.
The truly hurl-inducing scene of Antin, purveyor of all things slutty, teaching girls that gyrating in lingerie equals self-assuredness shows up in Sexy Inc. Our Children Under Influence, a documentary by Montreal filmmaker Sophie Bissonnette.
The film, coproduced by the National Film Board and the YWCA Montreal, includes everything from video clips of Nelly Furtado ("Promiscuous Girl") and Britney Spears ("I'm a Slave 4 U") to comments by psychologists and teachers about the impact of our sexed-up culture on youth. In essence, the film conveys how young girls want to be popular, and to be popular they have to be hot. They've been taught that their main value comes from their looks, not their brains, talents, achievements, goals, or aspirations.
No wonder, then, that fishnet stocking-clad Bratz dolls are coveted and thongs and spaghetti straps are cool.
Sexy Inc. served as a jumping-off point for discussion about our hypersexualized society at a Week Without Violence seminar presented by the YWCA Vancouver in October.
"The film shows the enormous pressure we see for very young girls to be sexy too soon," said Janet Austin, chief executive officer of the YWCA Vancouver, noting that one in two women in their lifetime will be subject to physical or sexual abuse.
Jan Sippel, the abuse-prevention coordinator for the Vancouver school board, spoke at the session of ways to counter the ubiquitous commercialization of sex and the objectification of women. One is media literacy.
"We need critical thinking around the media to give kids tools to understand and know what they're looking at," Sippel said. "They need to know those sexy images are trying to sell them something."
Another is responsible, safe Internet use.
"Porn is the second-highest-grossing industry on the Internet after gambling. Kids are going on-line to find it, plus are finding it accidentally," she explained, urging people to supervise children's computer use and limit screen time. "We need to be having honest conversations about just what porn is."
Then there is the need for sexual-health education that targets people of all ethnicities and cultures as well as immigrants.
"This is a strong plea," Sippel said. "The world isn't what it was in my day. We need adults to be willing to have those conversations with kids, to talk about healthy aspects of sexuality and to take every teachable moment to do so."
Last year the American Psychological Association released a report by its task force on the sexualization of girls. Holding young women up to society's stereotypes of women as sex objects does more than bolster the fashion, makeup, dieting, and plastic-surgery industries.
"Sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs," the study says.
According to the report, sexualization is linked with eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression in girls. It also has a broader impact.
"More general societal effects may include an increase in sexism; fewer girls pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; increased rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence; and an increased demand for child pornography," the APA report notes.
Although the Internet is a horror for parents wishing to shield their kids from porn, it's also a source of healthy, positive, accurate information about sexuality. Take SexualityandU.ca, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada's site about sexual well-being. It features sections just for teens on figuring out when you're ready for sex, who to talk to about sex, contraception, genital piercing, drug-facilitated sexual assault, and more.
The Canadian Association for Adolescent Health operates Youngandhealthy.ca, which covers everything from love and stress to sexually transmitted infections to emergency birth control. It also has a Facebook presence.
Seattle's Heather Corinna started Scarleteen.com in 1998 after searching in vain for sexual-education sites geared to young adults. Subtitled Sex Ed for the Real World, the site talks about things straight up, whether it's pain during sex, female ejaculation, why guys shouldn't be worried about the size of their penis—despite spam e-mails that argue otherwise—or why girls don't need to be freaked out about the look of their labia.
Among the excellent books available to help young people make sense of our sexually saturated world are Toronto-based media-literacy expert Shari Graydon's Made You Look: How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know (Annick Press, 2003) and In Your Face: The Culture of Beauty and You (Annick Press, 2004). In 2006, teen-model-turned-journalist Audrey Brashich wrote All Made Up: A Girl's Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty (Walker and Company).
The YWCA seminar also pointed out that people can contact the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council if they're concerned about explicit, offensive, or demeaning content they've seen on TV or heard on the radio. (A complaint form is available at www.cbsc.ca/.)
Too bad there's nothing people can do about certain song lyrics. Take these from the Pussycat Dolls' "When I Grow Up": "When I grow up/I wanna see the world/Drive nice cars/I wanna have boobies". Then there's this clever rhyme from "Buttons": "I'm a sexy mama/Who knows just how to get what I wanna".
Way to go, Robin Antin.