Why the sexualisation of girls hurts boys, too

NS November 10th, 2009

school boys

My interest was piqued by this post I read today, by Sandy at Baby Baby, about ‘shag bands’ and the sexualisation of young girls. As reported by the Times, apparently ‘shag bands’ are these plastic, colour-coded bracelets being worn by children as young as 8 (but mainly by teens), with each colour representing something sexual they’ve done or are expected to do if a member of the opposite sex (usually a boy, since mainly girls wear them) manages to ‘snap’ or break it.

Sandy expressed her dismay at the existence of these bands and used it as an opportunity to discuss the sexualisation of young girls. Though I wasn’t thrilled to hear of these bands and always welcome discourse on how our society sexualises girls and women, I was a bit doubtful that these ‘shag bands’ were the insidious items that they were made out to be in the media so I did a little digging.  A quick Internet search and I found this excellent article on Snopes about the ‘sex bracelets’ and rumours of other playground ‘sex coupons’ that have been around for decades, including the soda or beer can tab and the beer bottle label as items to be traded for carnal knowledge. You can read more about the legends here but the summary of the article is that we’re likely assigning too much significance to playground devices such as these, which are mostly rumour. Even where there is some truth in the meanings attached to the items, it’s more indicative of teenage explorations of desire and the appeal of abdicating responsibility for the sexual decisions they face, not of a sinister plot to actually trade or force sexual favours for trinkets.

So even though I don’t think the bracelets are actually being used in the way they’ve been portrayed,  I agree with Sandy when she says:

Advertising, magazines and television (particularly MTV) are taking away our children’s innocence. Girls are bombarded by airbrushed size zero models with fake breasts. This is not how most women look. This is not healthy.
The cult of celebrity is also damaging how youngsters view the world. There seem to be many children that believe just being on television is a worthy ambition. They want to be famous – no talent required. Even worse, they want to be married to someone famous. Being a footballer’s wife should not be an acceptable career choice.

I too look at how women are portrayed in the media and in advertising and find myself filled with despair. I too worry for the kids aspiring to be famous  for nothing in particular and without any kind of plan for an education or career. But then, at the very end, she says: “On days like this I’m glad I have sons and not daughters.”

Even though I know that Sandy meant no harm when she said it and was  just trying to express her frustration at the situation, I disagree strongly with the sentiment behind this statement. I hear a lot of parents of boys use this line whenever we talk about serious, scary issues that young girls are facing, be it negative body image, sexual objectification and exploitation, the pay gap, gender stereotyping,  rape, domestic violence or discrimination in the workplace. They feel, perhaps understandably, relieved that they won’t have to tackle these issues in the same way that they would as parents of  boys. The thing is, they should be every bit as worried about how to deal with all of the aforementioned problems as the parents of girls. Though framed in a different way perhaps, all of these issues need to be discussed with boys. In fact, I’d say it’s just as important for parents of boys to help them understand and combat these messages as it is for girls.

You see, the bombardment of “airbrushed, size-zero models with fake breasts” in the pages of magazines, on billboards and on tv isn’t aimed solely at girls, nor are they the only ones to see these things and internalise the messages within. Boys see those MTV videos, those beer ads, the covers of all those magazines with the celebrities and the models and their “perfect” proportions and they are getting a message too. It might not be screaming out to them “Lose weight! You’re not pretty enough! You need to be sexy to attract a man!” but something is being projected to them just the same, believe me. They are hearing things like “This is what the ideal woman looks like! Women are nice to look at but they’re a pain in the arse! You’re not a Real Man (TM) unless you notch up as many sexual conquests as possible!  No doesn’t always mean No, especially if she’s dressed sexy! You’re pathetic if you care too much about her feelings or express your own! You must assert your masculinity at all times or risk being labeled a ‘loser’ or a ‘queer’!” amongst many, many others. This is harmful. It’s harmful to young boys’ emotional and mental development and affects the way they view not only their own place in the world and their own sexuality, but that of the girls and women they know (or will know), too.

So not only should parents of boys (myself included in this group) be worried about these issues just as much as parents of girls, we should be talking about how to tackle these problems with the same urgency and seriousness that it holds for our daughters. The sexualisation of girls hurts boys, too, and it will never end until boys (who will eventually become men) become involved in the discussion. Only then can they become part of the solution. In fact, that may be the solution.

Photo credit: exlow’s Flickr photostream, via a Creative Commons license

29 Responses to “Why the sexualisation of girls hurts boys, too”

  1. Charlotte says:

    Amen. Seriously, amen. You’re spot on again – have the talks that you’re having with your daughters with your sons too. Don’t exclude them from the education that they need to hear and have.

  2. Iota says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more.

  3. Very good points. I agree completely. It seems all too easy to focus on the affect all thee has on girls and forget that boys are impacted as well. I have met many boys with anorexia, their numbers are increasing, who have been just as affected, if not more so, than girls by air brushed images, the portrayal of perfect bodies in the media and the pressure for them to perform in all areas of life. Your post is a very valuable contribution to this issue. Made me stop and think.

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by RaisingBoychick: RT @thenoblesavage New blog post: Why the sexualisation of girls hurts boys, too http://bit.ly/4Du7CG // Oh hell yes!…

  5. We’ve noticed that there is a distinct difference in men who hit teenager hood before or after Kate Moss and their realistic or unrealistic views of what a normal woman should look like

    I totally agree that this problem affects both our sons and daughters – and that its AWFUL and I wish I could find a way to avoid my daughters having to deal with this

  6. mothership says:

    Great points, and I agree wholeheartedly with all of them as a parent of children of both genders. Another thing to consider is that boys are affected not only directly by these messages in the ways that you so saliently point out, but will also be indirectly affected by them by having as mates not equal, strong, healthy partners, but broken, frightened, obsessive women. Neither side will know how to fix the problem.
    Not a good look.

  7. Aly says:

    Excellant post! As a mother of 1 son and 2 daughter I appreciate you bringing this our attention.And may I just what a sad, sad, state of affairs that these young people are being subjected to this media bombardment.And who on earth started the bands? I was really shocked to read about that.Thanks for sharing.

    My Hodge Podge Life

  8. Oh our poor boys! There are so many confusing messages out there for them, that the least we can do is help them grow up to be responsible adults. Otherwise, we’re just teaching them that women are little more than sex objects/domestic doormats. Not to mention body issues being just as serious a matter for them – anorexia and unnecessary cosmetic surgery are both on the rise for men. Thanks for a thought provoking post, and now I feel a little more armed when anyone says, ‘Oh well, it will be easy for you in a few years when we’re locking up our daughters’.

  9. Megyn says:

    that is sooo true! I totlly agree!

  10. Trish says:

    This is such a great post, I’m tweeting, blogging and facebooking it and sending it to all my parent-friends and contacts. Thank you for saying it all so succinctly and sensibly and without a hint of the kind of hysteria that the papers use to whip us all into a panicked frenzy that makes people look away and think ‘it’s all too hard.’ It’s not. It just requires regular chats with your kids about the images they see on television and in magazines. Thank you.

  11. Thanks. Yes, it’s true, that this culture damages boys and their perceptions of reality, and anyone who pulls the ‘thank god I have a boy not a girl’ misses that, and frustratingly seems to sort of throw their hands up in the air rather than saying ‘Actually *I* have the responsibility to raise boys to be men who care about and respect women as equals – it’s on MY head to change culture by raising boys with a sense of responsibility, awareness and respect’.

  12. Excellent stuff, as always, and I have a post brewing on a similar subject. Not prompted by ‘shag bands’ but by the shape of cartoon characters, chiefly some my son sees like Firefly in Spiderman cartoons. She is drawn ridiculously, but I suppose the men are also drawn as fantastic specimens. I was thinking from my son’s point of view, thinking that it is teaching him what to expect women to look like, and a therefore putting pressure on women to live to these expectations. Not great.

  13. SandyCalico says:

    You’re absolutely right. In fact, in the draft of my post I wrote ‘I know The Noble Savage could put this better’ and you did!
    I agree that it is equally important to tackle these issues with our sons.

  14. Spot on. All these things affect boys too. And teenage boys have other problems – I believe they are more likely to become involved with drugs than girls. That’s probably what worries me most about my little boys, hard though it is to think of it now.

  15. Emily O says:

    A very good post, I also agree with what you’re saying. I worry about this and I have two boys. Pop videos frustrate me – especially the ones where some R&B or rapper bloke has lots of impossibly proportioned women hanging off him. I don’t let my sons see those now (and they’re too young anyway) but one day they will and I worry about the message they’ll get from them. Probably the message you spell out so well here.

  16. andrea says:

    as always, you make great points and i couldn’t agree with you more. sadly, teaching kids to understand the difference between what is portrayed in the media and entertainment industry as “real” and what is actual reality has become a big job for parents and other adults. i rest assured knowing that you and TNH will do your best to help the noble children differentiate between the two.

  17. geekymummy says:

    Super post. I think that this is a huge part of parenting boys. All the good men I know had strong mothers who taught them to respect women, and often sisters too. I take a bit of pride that my own younger brother is respectful to women (his wife credits my sister and I with this too!).

  18. To join in the chorus, I couldn’t agree more. Like you, I don’t think the items are significant in themselves. What they tap into is another matter. I have one of each so the ‘thank God I have boys’ only goes so far – how he treats his little sister is going to be pretty fundamental to how she sees herself growing up and the images both of them are bombarded with are quite hair-raising.

  19. Thank you, this is an excellent post and I am sending on via Twitter and Facebook also.

  20. I agree completely that boys experience a lot of pressure – even now I’m noticing that No 1 Son has ridiculously high expectations of beauty (Megan Fox is apparently ‘not attractive’), and at the age of 11 one boy seemed to have a string of ‘girlfriends’. I think the bracelets are probably a playground trend – and isn’t it the supreme irony that they feature in the TV ad for the cervical cancer jab?! As far as I can make out sex ed at No 1 Son’s school is pretty thorough though (he brought home a very graphic diagram the other day).

    With the culture of celebrity/quest for fame I think what’s evident is that it’s often the parents who are pushing their kids towards careers in the limelight, either because they’re living vicariously or there will be riches along the way. This kind of thing is of course as old as the hills, just more in-yer-face in the current climate.

  21. TheMadHouse says:

    I couldnt agree with you more and I though alone the same lines last night when I was writing my posts too – http://themadhouse-themadhouse.blogspot.com/2009/11/childhood-innocence-lost-or-mum-behind.html great minds and all that

  22. Dan says:

    Damn, I wish I was that eloquent (or is that elephant?).

    Great post and a lot of food for thought.

    As for the bracelets, I agree that it’s probably an urban myth. But the assault on children’s self identity by poipular culture unfortunately isn’t

  23. Jane says:

    Great blog post. It was Dan who put me on to you. We seem to have a culture that is set on damaging the pysche of our young girls and boys. I would not wish to go back to a regressive starched society that never talked about sex but we’ve seemed to have missed getting to a post patriachal world where both men and women would be treated with respect for who they are not for how they match some aribtary stereotypes.

  24. jen says:

    and then there’s also the ridiculous sexualisation of boys, which is harmful to both sexes as well.

  25. You’re right on the money when you reveal the hidden messages to boys in those blatant messages to girls. It’s not enough that we teach our boys to disconnect from their feelings and naturaly tendencies to empathize and sympathize, but we also encourage them to devour others sexually, politically, and athletically. If they don’t fit that bill then they are left behind, bullied, or teased.

    If I could do one thing as an omnipotent being, short of saving and feeding everyone, I would wipe out advertising in all its insidious forms. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that one could argue that advertising is a mirror to already existing mores and beliefs, but honestly I think it just perpetuates the absolute WORST parts of any culture.

    Until then, I’m going to encourage my son(s) to be as critical of sexual messages about girls as I would any daughter.

  26. Anji says:

    Hell to the yes. This is a more eloquent version of what I say when people tell me “As a feminist, you must be glad to have a boy!”

  27. NS says:

    Thank you everyone for all of your wonderful, insightful comments. I wish I could respond to them all individually but I’m up to my eyeballs at the moment so I hope this will suffice. I appreciate your feedback, as always. :)

  28. A Free Man says:

    Your equation of shag bracelets = peeled beer bottle label is a good one. I don’t know how many beautifully peeled beer bottle labels I presented to girls in high school and I can guarantee you I left high school a virgin.

    Anyhoo, the matter at hand. I think you make a valid point, but I also think it’s different with boys. Different issues. Yes, we need to teach them that being a real man has little to do with what you see on the television, but I think I can handle that. The sexualization of little girls is much more insidious and even though I always wanted girls, I don’t know if I could have handled that. So, if you’ll permit it – and yes I know it will get under your skin – I’m glad I have boys.

  29. 1234 says:

    We had shag bands when I was in Junior school (I am now 22) but I had got the impression that they had died out.

    Obviously no one ever did anything, but we did spend a lot of time trying to run away from boys trying to snap the bands!