ABC news recently featured a story about “Pure Fashion,” a U.S. faith-based program that leads 14-18 year-old girls “through an eight-month course in which they are encouraged to ‘dress in accordance with their dignity as children of God.’” The eight month course ends with a “‘purity preserving’ fashion show.”
The obsession with, monitoring of, and handwringing over girls’ (sexualized) appearance is of course not new, but this particular iteration comes from an ironic source: a fashion model and former Miss Georgia, Brenda Sharman. Sharman may be preaching “purity” but she also understands that her message will be considered more hip if she can dissociate from conservative and/or mainstream culture. Hence, Sharman is on a mission to reframe “pure” girls as “radical” girls:
“The idea with Pure Fashion is very countercultural,” said Brenda Sharman … “It takes a girl who is brave and gutsy…This is not for the weak and wimpy girl … to say, ‘I’m different, and I’m going to preserve my innocence and virginity,’ that’s a girl who’s radical!”
The problem is, radical, counter-cultural movements are supposed to challenge and pave new ground. In contrast, the leaders and proponents of Pure Fashion look to conservative established models for their inspiration. They are mothers, fathers, and church leaders who are deeply disturbed by the sexual displays (assumed to be impure) of their unmarried daughters. This may be a radical backlash to signifiers of sexuality or the de-coupling of sexuality and reproduction, but it’s not radical.
Concerns about sexually expressive girls and women is common amongst groups whose cultural and religious norms privilege men and/or believe that men and women have naturally different physical capabilites and personalities. As Shari Dworkin and I argued in a recent article,
“(c)ultural and religious traditions that privilege men always require intense regulation and surveillance of girls’ and women’s sexuality. In these contexts, the moral and social ‘worth’ of girls and women is based on their sexual availability, creating a good virgin-bad whore dichotomy. This tradition is thriving in many aspects of U.S. culture, including the movement for abstinence-only education, virginity pledges, purity ball, and so on” (Lerum and Dworkin, 2009b).
It is clear that “Pure Fashion” can be added to the list of cultural institutions that support a hierarchical segregation between “virgins” and “whores.” For example, one mom who sent her daughter to “Pure Fashion” expressed her desire for men to look at her daughter in the same way that she looks at her daughter, as “pure and beautiful and innocent”:
“I don’t want her to be distracted by men. So I kind of don’t want men to look at her at all, not notice her,” Tina said. “But I recognize that they will, so I just want to make sure they look at her in the way that I see her, which is pure and beautiful and innocent.”
But conservative religious parents aren’t the only one sounding the alarm horns; many feminist and feminist-leaning academics and professionals are also concerned about sexy and sexual girls. This is because mainstream media appears to create the opposite problem of conservative religion: that is, rather than telling girls and women that their worth is based on their lack of sexual availability, the media appears to “tell” girls and women that their worth is based on their widespread sexual appeal and availability. They may leave God and purity talk out of it and they may not send their daughters to Sharman’s fashion reeducation program, but secular, feminist, and academic critics are still dismayed by girls who dress “sexy.” Indeed, it has become common for people across lines of politics, religion, and profession — at least in the US — to shake their heads in dismay over the increasing “sexualization” of girls, women, and of culture. This perceived shift in mainstream US culture is almost uniformly seen as harmful, something to critique and work against. It is in this cultural context that the American Psychological Association formed a task force on the Sexualization of Girls and wrote a highly publicized report (APA Task Force report on the Sexualization of Girls 2007). (See below for the APA’s definition of “sexualization”).
In contrast to the APA task force and conservative religious groups, we think it is a mistake for scholars and activists to automatically assume that sexualized images and appearances are harmful to girls and women. We critique the methodological, empirical, and epistemological foundations of this argument in great depth in a recent article (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009a), but here I focus on just one point: how the concern about “sexualization” misses the boat on sexual health. While the APA task force briefly discusses what they consider to constitute “healthy sexuality,” we argue that the term “sexual health” is much more useful for social justice, feminist, and public health scholars/activists:
… we suspect that an ideological gulf may exist between the APA’s (2007) concept of healthy sexuality and the more widely recognized concept of sexual health. For one, the APA’s version of healthy sexuality seems to rely on the existence of a sexual partner: (‘‘intimacy, bonding . . . shared pleasure . . . mutual respect between consenting partners,’’ p. 2). In contrast, the concept of sexual health is often explicitly tied to a rubric of individual sexual rights (some of which may apply to both children and adults). Originally developed by the World Association for Sexual Health and now widely recognized (and modiﬁed) by other organizations including the World Health Organization, the concept of sexual rights may include the right to sexual pleasure (not necessarily with another person), the right to emotional sexual expression (including self-sexualization), and the right to sexually associate freely (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 259).
We further argue that “(s)ounding the alarms on sexualization without providing space for sexual rights results in a setback for girls and women and for feminist theory, and is also at odds with the growing consensus of global health scholars (Lerum & Dworkin, 2009, p. 260).
While the APA task force report virtually ignores sexual health, statistics about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are widely embraced and utilized by conservative religious groups. The following quote comes from Brenda Sharman, director of “Pure Fashion”:
“If you are too steamy in your bikini, you will become a part of a statistic,” Sharman told a roomful of 40 girls at the Atlanta conference. “By the age of fifteen, 76 percent of teens are involved in a sexual relationship. What do we expect, really, when so many girls have displayed their bodies to the world? … For the first time teen girls have the highest gonorrhea rate in the nation, teen boys have the second. Approximately 400,000 teens have abortions every year. And according to UNICEF, half of all new HIV infections occur in young people 15-24.”
Of course, Sharman’s use of these statistics is alarmist and conflated (e.g., the UNICEF statistics are GLOBAL, reflecting more about conditions of access to contraception, early marriage, and/or extreme poverty than whether or not a girl has access to a bikini!), but it is also clear that conservatives are using them to shore up a particular theory of sexuality (i.e. bad things happen when girls get sexy). For critical scholars of sexuality, justice, health, and inequality, these statistics illustrate points and questions around a very different set of assumptions. We leave these interpretations to the conservatives at our own peril.
The APA task force defines sexualization as a condition that occurs when a person is subjected to at least one of the following four conditions:
- 1) a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics,
- 2) a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy
- 3) a person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making, and/or
- 4) sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person (APA Task Force, 2007, p. 2)
- American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls 2007. report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Egan, R. Danielle and Gail Hawkes. 2008. “Endangered Girls and Incendiary Objects: Unpacking the Discourse on Sexualization” Sexuality and Culture.
- Egan, R. Danielle and Gail Hawkes. 2008. “Imperiled and Perilious: Exploring the History of Childhood Sexuality” Historical Sociology.
- Gill, Roaslind. 2009. “Beyond the ‘sexualization of culture’ thesis: an intersectional analysis of ‘sixpacks’, ‘midriffs’ and ‘hot lesbians’ in advertising. Sexualities 12, 2, pp. 137-160.
- Howley, Kerry. 2007. Invasion of the Prostitots: Another moral panic about American girls. Reason.com. July 1.
- Lerum, Kari and Shari Dworkin. 2009a. ‘‘Bad Girls Rule’’: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Commentary on the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.” Journal of Sex Research 46, 4, July–August, p. 250.
- Lerum, Kari and Shari L. Dworkin. 2009b. “Toward an Interdisciplinary Dialogue on Youth, Sexualization, and Health.” Journal of Sex Research 46, 4, July–August, p. 271.