AAP: Sex education, as taught by Bratz dolls

October 12, 2008

Groans, gasps, and cries of disgust greeted many of the images shown at Saturday’s plenary presentation by Jean Kilbourne, PhD. But she wasn’t a dermatologist, or an oral surgeon, or any other doctor showing off wince-inducing injuries.

Groans, gasps, and cries of disgust greeted many of the images shown at Saturday’s plenary presentation by Jean Kilbourne, PhD. But she wasn’t a dermatologist, or an oral surgeon, or any other doctor showing off wince-inducing injuries.

Rather, she was showing ads directed at, and showing, young adults. Elementaryschool kids dressed like fashion models. Middle-schoolers wearing thick make-upand revealing clothes. Teenagers dressed in absolutely nothing.

These are images from the sexualization of childhood. Sexualization is the objectificationof someone into an item instead of a person. For example, Kilbourne showed anad image of a man and woman in bed: the man was covering the woman’s facewith a picture of a car.

The usual subjects – Bratz dolls, American Apparel and Abercrombie and Fitchads, “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” were brought up. But Kilbournealso brought up a “lingerie Barbie,” thongs and padded bras for tweensand even younger girls, and child-size “child pimp” and “childho” Halloween outfits. (“Child Ho” was available in sizes assmall as 4, but were already sold out.)

All of it speaks to a juvenile understanding of sex, of girls being objects formale sexuality. This is harmful to both sexes, and leads to an inability to developemphatic relationships. Its benefactors are the companies selling the advertisedproducts, Kilbourne explained. When “being sexy” is tied into wearing orusing or buying particular products at a very young age, feelings of inadequacycan lead children to be lifetime consumers of what is advertised as being thenecessary purchase to become sexy.

This is sexual education of a disturbing stripe, Kilbourne said, and needs tobe combatted by more appropriate sex ed in schools. But the Bush administration’sfocus on exclusive abstinence-only education says only “that sex can hurtor kill you.” Places with such limited education also have the highest ratesof teen pregnancy and teen STD infection. “Just say no,” Kilbournesaid, is an ineffective to solving the sex crisis as it was to solving the drugproblem.

To truly solve the problems, parents and educators need to counter the advertising with positive messages about proper, healthy sexuality. Pediatricians can do their part by speaking honestly to their patients, and to patients’ parents. This can be difficult, since many adults can’t speak honestly about sex to each other. Kilbourne’s Web site, www.sosexysosoon.com, may help providers.

But it’s necessary to counter a culture where clothing ads feature peoplewearing no clothes. One third of American girls will be pregnant. One quartercontract a STD every year. These are the highest rates in any developed nation,and our children need us to do better for them.