Kimberley Hall is a mom who wrote a blog post in the form of a letter to her sons’ female friends who were posting sexual pictures of themselves on social media outlets. This letter went viral. I posted it on my Facebook account and I have never received such a huge response to a post before, so I decided to look at this deeper and came up with 10 things I think we all can and must learn from what was said and what wasn’t said in Kim’s letter to teenage girls:
1.The sexual double standard (the belief that men should be sexual in multiple ways and women should not) is often difficult to notice (1). Here’s an example: He’s still a virgin? She already lost her virginity? Kim’s letter asked girls to stop posting sexualized pictures of themselves, but her post was full of pictures of her boys flexing in swim trunks. I regularly research the sexual double standard, and even I didn’t immediately notice this hypocrisy. She later apologized and re-did the post with pictures of her boys in clothes.
2.The sexual double standard has changed (2,3). The new sexual double standard is not the same as the old one. Today, girls are expected to refrain from sexual activity, but now they also have to be extremely sexually attractive and go to extreme lengths to prove it. It is not enough to be pure, elegant and ladylike, you also need to be damn sexy and sexually available to men without actually doing the deed. Yeah, not achievable.
3.We have a victim blaming culture and we are all guilty of it, even me. The reason girls sext and post sexy pictures of themselves online is because they are sexually subordinated and do not have as much power to claim sexual entitlement in our culture as men do. They first have to gain approval from men that they are worthy of sex through mens’ acknowledgement that they are f**ckable and legitimately hot. So, what do we do? We blame them for playing the game that we do very little to change.
4.The new sexual double standard has some pretty awful symptoms in the form of self-objectification and self-sexualization. In the context of a digital world where boys can objectify girls by watching pornography on their mobile phones in class, what is a girl to do? Well, some unconsciously decide “If I can’t beat ‘em, I can join ‘em.” Then they begin the process of self-objectification. Self-objectification is the act of treating yourself as an object instead of a subject. Another common response is to self-sexualize. A sexy selfie, plastic surgery of the genitalia and/or breasts, pole dancing, etc. are all forms of self-sexualization. Basically, anytime your self-worth is being measured by what you physically look like instead of what you can actually do with your brain or body is self-objectification. Anytime you are treating yourself as an object mainly for the purpose of sex, is self-sexualization. These processes aren’t always bad. For instance, it can be really fun to feel sexually attractive. Yet, research shows that self-objectification is linked to decreased sexual esteem (7), sexual satisfaction (7), sexual safety (7) and increased disordered eating (5), depression (6) and anxiety (6). Further, sexualization and objectification are becoming increasingly more pervasive, making it harder for girls to determine if they are actually expressing their sexuality by being sexual instead of just putting on a show for boys by acting sexual (4).
5.We are now so confused by and robbed of our innate sexuality, we sexualize everything. Sexualization is when you take something that is not overtly sexual and you make it sexy. For example, we do this a lot with food: Carls Jr. commercials, anyone? And we certainly do this with girls through making their toys and clothes sexy, etc. It is the fascination with the combination of innocence, purity and sex that is downright dangerous because it promotes the sexualization of girls which perpetuates sexual violence against girls (8).
6.We need to redefine female sexual liberation. We have a culture which combines self-objectification with self-sexualization, yet…what is this being packaged as? Liberation! 3rd-wave feminists are really into self-objectification as “liberating”. However, I always tell college students in my seminars, if it does not create more orgasms, it is not liberating! Therefore, it is important to remind female adolescents that taking sexy selfies does not lead to an orgasm for you, it leads to an orgasm for him, therefore it is not sexually liberating. In fact, self-sexualizing is only the other end of the same spectrum of Victorian-Era chastity, perpetuating an unrealistic standard which women can never truly attain and can only come close to if they have specific physical characteristics and are under a certain age. Further, the act of female adolescents and young adults sending naked pictures of themselves is still centering female sexual expression on men’s’ pleasure. I don’t think the girls who are targeted in Kim’s letter should be blamed for trying to fit in, but unfortunately, when we defend, excuse or label self-sexualizing and self-objectifying behavior as liberating for girls we enable that behavior to continue.
7.We need to support girls to foster their own talents and abilities in multiple areas of life, and encourage boys to support them too. I think Kim was really trying to do this. I really liked how she said:
“You are growing into a real beauty, inside and out. Act like her, speak like her, post like her.”
I also think she meant well in stating what she wants for her boys:
“There are boys out there waiting and hoping for women of character. Some young men are fighting the daily uphill battle to keep their minds pure, and their thoughts praiseworthy.”
However, she phrased it in a way that is shameful to girls. It would have been great if she acknowledged the pressure girls feel to prove they are sexy and assured those girls she was doing everything she could do as a mom to raise boys who recognize girls’ interests, talents and knowledge above their looks. She almost did with this statement:
“Those posts don’t reflect who you are! We think you are lovely and interesting, and usually very smart. But, we had to cringe and wonder what you were trying to do? Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to say?”
I also think her message about what she wants for her sons:
“I hope they will be drawn to real beauties, the kind of women who will leave them better people in the end. I also pray that my sons will be worthy of this kind of woman, that they will be patient – and act honorably – while they wait for her”
is a vast improvement from the typical “boys will be boys” stance that I see parents take all too often.
8.We need to hold boys and men accountable for their actions, they are capable of not acting on sexual impulses. Yes, Kim was borderline victim blaming and slut shaming, but let’s look at what she is doing right. I come across too many parents in the sexual education seminars I host that have no clue what is going on with their kids online. So, I applaud her efforts of monitoring her sons’ online behaviors. Her letter (and I’m assuming conversation with her sons) is a much better alternative to having no conversation with your children about self-objectification or sexualization. Yet, she is missing the crucial point of why this is going on and therefore, is in danger of passively perpetuating the cycle in others of blaming girls for the sexual behavior of boys. This Christian mom wrote a response to this letter emphasizing the importance of holding boys accountable for their thoughts and behaviors.
9.Post-pubescent adolescents are sexual and most engage in sexual activity. All mammals become sexually active after puberty, which is what puberty is for. However, post-pubescent humans are usually not mentally or emotionally capable for the ups and downs of sexual relationships. However, keeping them from having sex only works for a small population of adolescents (9). Therefore, we need to equip adolescents who choose to have sex with the proper tools to carry out safe, healthy and pleasurable sexual experiences. We can do this while also supporting adolescents who choose not to have sex. Even though we are embarking on new territory, there is a new shift in academia to identify factors that not only reduce risky sex in adolescents but promote healthy sex (10).
10.We need comprehensive and evidence-based sexuality education that includes media literacy in every single middle school and high school. The problems mentioned above are complex and not being explained to our youth. Indeed, we are scared to even teach them basic biology about their reproductive system, while 93% of boys start viewing pornography online during adolescence (11). There are way too many barriers to making comprehensive sexuality education happen right now. Although, things are improving. I do the best I can by hosting seminars with teachers, parents, college students and community educators, with the hope that the above information will get to the adolescents who truly need it. However, I need your help. There are several resources on my website www.meganmaas.com such as the SPARK movement, in which you can utilize to get a conversation going in your house, school, church, or other organization. Feel free to contact me for any materials or references for any of the information provided above.
1.Milhausen, R. R., & Herold, E. S. (1999). Does the sexual double standard still exist? Perceptions of university women. Journal of Sex Research, 36(4), 361-368.
2.Hyde, J. S., DeLamater, J. D., & Hewitt, E. C. (1998). Sexuality and the dual-earner couple: Multiple roles and sexual functioning. Journal of Family Psychology, 12(3), 354.
3.Tolman, D. L., & Diamond, L. M. (2001). Desegregating sexuality research: Cultural and biological perspectives on gender and desire. Annual Review of Sex Research, 12, 33-74.
4.Tolman, D. L. (2005). Dilemmas of desire: Teenage girls talk about sexuality. Harvard: University Press.
5.Calogero, R. M., & Thompson, J. K. (2009). Sexual self-esteem in American and British college women: Relations with self-objectification and eating problems. Sex Roles, 60(3-4), 160-173.
6.Grabe, S., & Hyde, J. S. (2009). Body objectification, MTV, and psychological outcomes among female Adolescents1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(12), 2840-2858.
7.Schick, V. R., Calabrese, S. K., Rima, B. N., & Zucker, A. N. (2010). Genital appearance dissatisfaction: Implications for women’s genital image self-consciousness, sexual esteem, sexual satisfaction, and sexual risk. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34(3), 394-404.
8.American Psychological Association, T. F. O. T. S. O. G. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. APA Talk Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
9.Santelli, J., Ott, M. A., Lyon, M., Rogers, J., Summers, D., & Schleifer, R. (2006). Abstinence and abstinence-only education: a review of US policies and programs. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38(1), 72-81.
10.Tolman, D. L., & McClelland, S. I. (2011). Normative sexuality development in adolescence: A decade in review, 2000-2009. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, 242-255.
11.Sabina, C., Wolak, J., & Finkelhor, D. (2008). The nature and dynamics of Internet pornography exposure for youth. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(6), 691-693.