Around Halloween, we read stories about sexy witch or cat costumes, and the stories conclude that this kind of inappropriate attire aimed at girls would produce a desire to be sexy and such desires would lead to negative behavior.
On cue, Miley Cyrus' performance at the MTV Music Awards was greeted with shock that this former Disney good girl could become a faux hawk-wearing, phallus-sporting, twerking spectacle. Her performance produced a media frenzy of concern that her sexualizing behavior would lead young girls down the slippery path to promiscuity.
Now that holiday shopping is in full swing, the same worry extends to Bratz dolls and the like.
Sexual imagery in our pop culture has been said to cause everything from compassion deficit disorder, the desire to be sexy and dress like pop stars, engage in random sex and lead to a life of lap dancing. A key theme is that female children are somehow asexual by nature and thus, any evidence of sexual expression is proof that something has gone awry.
Over the decades, most-cited negative influences have evolved from novels to comic books and TV to rock and roll and rap to the Internet, and so the story of sexualization of young girls feels natural. The problem is that our popular perceptions are rarely supported by facts, and they divert us from more pressing issues.
Recent research in the U.S. and abroad shows that adult pre-occupation with the imagined dangers of sexual imagery turns kids off and does not accurately reflect their experiences. For the most part, girls do not buy into the imagery, but rather say they can enjoy a star's music, movies or clothes without wanting to mimic their behavior. Far more scary to children, studies show, is the impact of violent imagery.
Instead of becoming too sexy, too soon, young people feel forced to adopt confining gender stereotypes. Sporty girls talk about the pressure from peers and parents to dress and act in traditionally feminine ways. Boys who are viewed as too feminine or who show little interest in traditional forms of masculinity are ridiculed, often with homophobic slurs.
Girls who want to dress older do so not to draw attention, but to avoid it. They feel dressing in heels helps them look taller and "tougher," less prone to be "treated like dirt" and less likely to be bullied.
Young girls are ambivalent about sexiness. On one hand, they fear being curious, as it might lead to being called a slut. On the other hand, if a girl resists dressing or acting "sexy," she risks being the target of homophobic taunts.
A national survey in the United Kingdom found that as many as three-fourths of girls and young women in that country feel that sexism affects most areas of their lives, and they deal with sexual harassment on a regular basis. Boys who are heterosexual who desire more caring and romantic relationships with girls also face harassment.
Another major study with 10- and 12-year-olds also found that youth feel there is little, if any, adult support for them when they have to endure such treatment.
So parents, as you decide what gifts to put under the tree for your preteens, remember that in their world, it is sexism and homophobia rather than sexuality that they are struggling with.
Don't label girls who like Miley or Bratz Dolls as corrupt and dangerous. This is the same as a prosecutor blaming a rape victim for causing an attack by wearing certain clothes. Rather, talk to them about the pressures (gendered, sexual and other) they face in their daily lives.
Don't allow your anxieties about sexuality to be projected onto your children. Girls especially are prisoners of our projections.
This does not mean parents should be less critical of sleazy advertising. But if your daughter wants the new album by the latest Bette Noir labeled as "sexualizing" by the media, don't panic or worse, lecture her. Talk to her.
Learn why your kids want certain toys or dolls. If they are into a pop star who you find problematic, talk to them about this star's image, and ask them what they think about her or his behavior. Try your hardest to truly be curious and listen, you may be surprised.
A key finding in all the research on this subject is the need for better sexual and relationship education. A great resource for young people is Scarleeteen. If you are interested in the great work young people can do on media criticism, you might want to check out Spark Movement or the Black Youth Collective.
As you'll read, adults should be doing more to improve communication with children, so young boys and girls feel freer to talk to us about the pressures they are facing. And we also need to do a better job of not forcing kids into gender or sexual stereotypes.
Working to eradicate gendered pressures, sexual violence, homophobia and sexist harassment is not only a great gift for boys and girls, it is better for the world at large.
R. Danielle Egan, professor of gender and sexuality studies at St. Lawrence University, Canton, N.Y. and a psychoanalytic candidate at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. She is the author of Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of Girls and Sexualization (Amazon and at Polity Press).