The authors of the book “So Sexy So Soon,” Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne, answer questions about how today’s sexualized culture affects kids as young as 7 years old, and they offer tips on how parents can address this with their children.
Q: Hasn’t the “sex sells” mantra in advertising been around for a long time? Why is it a particularly important issue nowadays?
A: Although it is true that sex has been used to sell products for a very long time, the sexual images these days are far more graphic and pornographic than ever before. Sexual images are also used to target younger and younger children, and we are seeing the harmful results in their behavior.
Q: You say the “sexualization of childhood” affects boys, as well as girls, negatively. Can you expand on this?
A: Boys learn to see girls as objects and judge and value them by how they look and how “sexy” they are. And boys are taught to conform to a very narrow definition of masculinity — being tough and invulnerable and aggressive. This can make it very difficult for boys to become men capable of having positive, caring, and connected relationships. This is a very high price to pay.
Q: Among girls, self-esteem is so tied to looking and dressing “sexy.” How can parents help their daughters feel good about themselves while setting rules for dress/makeup that are age-appropriate?
A: First, it is very important for parents to set rules for dress/makeup that are age-appropriate. Let children be children — let’s not rush them into adulthood. There’s no reason for 5-year-old girls to have makeover parties! We can help our girls develop a wide range of ways to feel good about themselves that go way beyond how they look. We can encourage them to use their bodies in healthy ways, such as in sports and play — so they learn to love and appreciate their bodies for what they can do, not just how decorative they are.
Q: How do parents really know what’s going on in their teens’ sexual lives? How do they encourage healthy relationships when everything around the teens encourages the opposite?
A: The best way for parents to know what is going on in their teens’ sexual lives is to have begun the conversation years before. When children learn at a very early age that it is safe to ask any question and raise any concern and when they know their parents will answer these questions honestly and respectfully, they are much more likely to confide in their parents when they are teens. These conversations shouldn’t be just about sex, of course, but rather about a whole range of topics — everything that concerns and interests children.
It is never too late to begin, however. Parents can say to their teens that they wish they’d begun the conversation earlier but they are open to talking about anything and everything now. This doesn’t mean “The Talk” — it means many conversations, including brief ones, over time. These conversations should be about what constitutes a healthy relationship as well as about sex.
Of course, we should also do our best to model healthy relationships with our children, our partners, and with others in our lives.
Q: When should parents start addressing issues of sexuality with their kids? Is there a “too young” or “too soon”?
A: Actually, we need to begin when children are young — even at birth as we help babies feel good and experience pleasure from their bodies (which is not just about sex, of course). It is never “too young” or “too soon.” Children often ask questions, but parents also need to be proactive and create openings by commenting on things they notice. The information given should be age-appropriate, of course, and respectful of the needs of the child. And it should grow out of conversations rather than being conveyed as a lecture. What’s most important is establishing an ongoing, safe relationship with our children when they are young so that they feel safe asking about the big issues when they arise.