Skank-o-ween 2008: The Sexualization of Children

My 14-year-old daughter informed me that the many of the young teens in her school are dressing up as Sarah Palin for Halloween.  Given that she attends school in very blue Northern Virginia, I asked her if the girls were dressing up as Governor Palin because they thought she was “scary.”

“Oh, yes,” she replied.

Well, at least they'll be dressed conservatively.  A few less skankily-clad kids parading through the neighborhood. 

Yes, Cruella, it's Halloween, the time for costume makers to make their annual contribution to the premature sexualization of young children.

In recent years, the week before Halloween has brought an onslaught of hand-wringing stories about the overly sexualized costumes that continue to be marketed to little girls.  This year, from the Los Angeles Times to CBS's Early Show and NBC's Today, stories are focusing once again on the “disturbing,” “continuing” trend of costumes for little girls that are “too risqué.”

Some of the costumes available for the young daughters of America this year are named “Devilicious,” “Hot Stuff” and “Wicked School Girl,” according to a story from KOB-TV in New MexicoThe Bay City Times in Michigan reported that in a local costume store, the “sexy adult costumes are kept under wraps, but those small enough for the elementary set are hanging in rows, tempting as candy.”

The LA Times hung their skanky-costume story on the peg of a new book out by Professor Diane Levin, So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.  Levin believes that the sexualization of children that comes from myriad fronts in our current culture could lead to child abuse.  In the LA Times article she stated, “There could be (a connection to child abuse) – we need to learn more about this. The fact that women more and more are supposed to look like girls and that girls are supposed to look like women means there's a blurring of boundaries between what is a child and what is a grown-up.  These ambiguous sexual connections are going to make it harder and harder for men who have difficulty drawing those boundaries to make distinctions too.”

Levin went on to talk about kids “developing two boxes in their head: There's the pop culture box -- that's all the messages they're getting about what are the norms out there in the world, how they should look, what they should care about, what it means to be a girl or a boy, attitudes about violence, sex and consumption. And then there's the family/society box: From what's in this box, they learn what it means to be caring, connected, contributing members of society. Right now, the boxes are pretty much disconnected.”

That disconnect is very obvious is the costume aisles of many shops. 

However there's often a disconnect in the reporting on the ramifications of such a trend.  When CBS's Early Show tackled the subject the family therapist brought on to talk about consequences focused on the parents' right to say “no” to sexy costumes, but failed to connect the larger societal dots, as the Culture and Media Institute's Colleen Raezler noted in a recent column.

The truth is, the sexualization of children is a story with profound social ramifications and it should be addressed outside the confines of sexy Halloween costumes.  The media should report on the culture of sex aimed at girls and talk about the racks and racks of low cut tops and cut-down-to-there jeans that fill the malls across America.  Or TV shows like Gossip Girl which promote casual sex to their teenage audience. Or the sex-filled music lyrics found on iPods plugged into the ears of hundreds of thousands of kids. 

But the media don't want to tackle that storyline. Rather they'll focus on risque costumes for kids. Oh, and that scary Sarah Palin.


Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.