How Did We Get to Steubenville?:Talking to Boys about Girls
This is the first post in a series on Talking to Boys about Girls.
I’ve never been to Steubenville. But, I am a Buckeye. I was born at The Ohio State University Hospital and I graduated from The Ohio State University. I imagine Steubenville is a lot like many other Midwest towns. Along with boasting the production of frequent college football champions, the Midwest is one region that boasts higher church attendance than most regions of the country. I wonder if the Steubenville boys who were convicted of rape in March 2013 went to church? If they did, would they have heard anything at church that would have helped them make different choices? Most of us are aware of the media oversexualization of girls (if not, I recommend So Sexy So Soon). What messages are boys getting in Sunday School and Youth Group to counter the media messages? Recently, at the Northwest Ministry Conference I spoke to youth leaders about how to talk to boys about girls. As a mother of four strong, fun-loving and smart daughters, I’m concerned about the rape culture and what our faith communities are doing about it. Before I share some ideas of what youth leaders (and families!) can do, I’d like to share a story of how this oversexualization is not just happening outside the church building.
When he picked her up from Sunday School, the teacher pulled my husband aside. The teacher was concerned about her attire. That warm summer Sunday she was wearing an ankle-length, light blue spaghetti-strap dress that came with a lace, cap-sleeved short jacket, which she had decided not to wear. Her teacher told my husband he thought her bare shoulders were a problem and that she should cover up in the future. She was five years old.
When we found each other in what’s called “the mallway” on our way out of our mega-church, my daughter seemed a little less excited than usual to tell me about her Sunday School craft, which definitely needed explanation. At this stage of our parenting, we had to divide and conquer in order to get all our kids picked up in our large church. My husband picked up the two older girls from Sunday School, while I headed to the nursery to gather our baby and toddler. After we found each other in the mallway, my five-year-old came and clung to my side as her younger sister ran to greet her daddy.
She was not usually the clingy type, so I knew something was up. She hung her head, as if in shame, as I stroked her curls and shot my husband an inquisitive look. My husband offered, with a slight tone of exasperation, an explanation for her downcast demeanor, telling me what the Sunday School teacher had said. I tried to hide my annoyance, not really knowing what to think and wondering when bare girl shoulders became a problem. I put my hand on her bare shoulder and it seemed as if the shame spread from her to me in one great surge, submerging me into my own pool of fear and shame. Unfortunately, my annoyance and shame suddenly got misdirected and I curtly asked my little girl, “What happened to your jacket? Why didn’t you wear it to church today?”
How would you respond in this situation? How would you respond if this happened at age 7 or age 10? What about age 13 or after your daughter had begun developing breasts and hips? Who decides when and whether showing a little skin is a problem for girls? Who told this 40-something-year-old, male Sunday School teacher that bare five-year-old girl shoulders were a problem? Who was it a problem for? The five-year-old boys in the class? Or the teacher?
When I was five, I was still taking baths with my four-year-old boy cousin and nobody thought twice about us being naked together in the tub at grandma’s house. There was an innocence and almost asexuality about our preschool bodies. Even after entering elementary school, most boys and girls did not look at or think of each other in objectifying ways. Sure, I had a crush on a boy in second grade and thought he was cute, but our language for those experiences is much different than the language children use today. Our interest in others different from us was marked more by the normal curiosity of developing children who are trying to navigate difference and what it means to be a boy or a girl in the world. One of the primary developmental tasks at that stage, from three to six years, is to acquire information about the world, self, body, and gender roles.
Today, by the time our girls and boys reach the age of 9-10, they are likely to have already been exposed to many images of sexualized girl bodies. From the 10″ Bratz fashion dolls wearing fishnet tights, which are similar to but outsold Barbie dolls in 2006, to the video that went viral in 2010 of seven-year-old girls dancing to Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” dressed in sexy lingerie and gyrating in ways that mimic sexual intercourse, the sexualization of girlhood has become pervasive.
“Increasingly over the past 10 years, we’ve seen an escalation in the sexualization of young girls,” says Deborah Tolman, professor of social welfare and psychology and founding director of the ASAP Initiative, which does research and analysis of sexuality for action and policy. “There’s an inappropriate imposition of sexuality on young girls, and, as girls enter adolescence, they’re learning to sexualize themselves,” she says. Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne are deeply worried about the price children pay for the sexualization of their childhood. “Girls and boys constantly encounter sexual messages and images that they cannot understand and that can confuse and frighten them. A narrow definition of femininity and sexuality encourages girls to focus heavily on appearance and sex appeal. They learn at a very young age that their value is determined by how beautiful, thin, ‘hot,’ and sexy they are.”
The primary message communicated through the media is that women exist for the pleasure and consumption of men – they are objects to be possessed, owned and used to fulfill male needs, desires and dreams. Unfortunately, adolescent boys are one of the largest target audiences for some of the more extreme versions of this message as illustrated in the Media Education Foundation documentary film, Dreamworlds 3. Unfortunately, boys and young men who attend church and go to youth groups are not immune from the influence of these dreamworlds.
Oversexualization and objectification of women and girls in the media has been met with response from the church – and the most common responses are the intensification or adaptation of modesty doctrines. An intensification of modesty doctrines teaches girls to cover up their sexy bodies, because the media is right, their bodies are sexual and therefore dangerous for boy’s visual consumption. The subtle message is that they should be ashamed of their bodies and that they are responsible for boy’s and men’s lustful looks. Emily Maynard, a Portland blogger writing for ChurchLeaders says, “I don’t think dressing according to a set of modesty rules will ever stop another person from lusting.”
An adaptation of the modesty message is the “modest is hottest” and the Live31 ideals. The Live31 ideal says, “I’d rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria’s Secret model.” One of the expressions of the “modest is hottest” ideal that I find quite disturbing is the frequent declarations of young pastors about how hot their wives are and how they married out of their league. This too oft repeated praise of pastor’s wives, while likely intended to honor their wives, unfortunately reinforces the media message that a woman’s worth is in her attractiveness or sexuality. What about all those girls who don’t fit into either the media ideal of the hot chick, or the church ideal of the “modest is hottest” Proverbs 31 woman – do they have any chances at love and marriage? And is romantic love, marriage, childbearing and serving a husband the highest ideal for women so that we should organize ourselves around making ourselves attractive – either according to the media standards or the church standards – in order to be a true woman?
While teaching our girls to dress appropriately in unassuming ways is important, strict modesty rules and the “modest is hottest” message are doing more harm than good by setting up equally unrealistic and unattainable ideals and are merely the flipside of the media objectification of women. As Sharon Hodde Miller notes in her Christianity Today article on modesty, “The Christian rhetoric of modesty, rather than offering believers an alternative to the sexual objectification of women, often continues the objectification, just in a different form.”
I often wonder, what is the root of all this objectification of women? Is it the remnants of ancient cultures treating women as property for millennia? Is it the influence of TV and print media in the context of capitalism that uses sex to sell everything? Is this oversexualization and objectification of women and girls a new thing or is it just a new instantiation of an old, old story replayed on the stage of women’s lives today?
On April 26-27 I will be joining others at Bold Boundaries in Chicago to discuss friendship between men and women and will participate in a Roundtable on Modesty, Beauty, and Friendship. I have a lot of questions about how we talk to our girls about boys and how we talk to boys about girls – both in our private spaces in our homes and our public spaces of Sunday School and Youth Groups. In my next blog I will continue to wrestle with these questions about how we, the people of the church, often continue the objectification of women and offer some ideas on what we can do to change.