Just how far along the slick slope of cultural decline have we slid? While you've been reading The Superficial and watching The Surreal Life, the American Psychological Association's Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls has been hard at work chronicling our sexed-up, dumbed-down culture. The results, cataloged in 72 titillating pages, are yet another worried take on the state of American girlhood.
To anyone engaged with pop culture, the alleged signs of moral descent will be familiar, from dated Kid Rock lyrics to oversexed Disney heroines. But in focusing on very young girls, the APA is innovating. Apparently, we've moved beyond the era of the tarted-up tween and into the day of the prostitot.
Thongs now come in kid sizes. "Pudgy, cuddly, and asexual troll dolls" have been traded for highly gendered "trollz." Even American Girl dolls, paradigms of porcelain chastity, are not immune. "American Girl's recent co-branding with Bath & Body Works," we learn, "may lead to product tie-ins that will encourage girls to develop a precocious body consciousness and one associated with narrowly sexual attractiveness." And let's not even get started on Bratz dolls, billed as "the only girls with a passion for fashion."
The report is short on numbers, but it's easy to be persuaded that 8-year-olds are dressing more like tweens, tweens more like teens, and teens more like 20-somethings. Which means—what, exactly? Kids ape their older peers, and they've never had more access to images of underdressed, clean-shaven celebutants. A sixth-grader in a short skirt could be gesturing toward sexual availability.
Or she could be seeking acceptance within a social group, signaling mastery over a shared culture. Are girls dressing for men, or for each other?
It's not a question the APA bothers to address. The authors present the thong crisis beside a litany of pathologies that sexualization might conceivably foster, from depression to addiction. The report skates seamlessly from low self-esteem to violence. Sex abuse "is an extreme form of sexualization," just a few steps away from Trollz on the imagined continuum.
You won't find them in the report, but hard numbers on the state of girlhood abound. The Guttmacher Institute, which researches sexual health, reports that the teen pregnancy rate in 2002, the latest year for which data are available, was at its lowest level in three decades. Between 1998 and 2002 the teenage abortion rate dropped 50 percent. In 2002, 13 percent of girls had had sex by age 15, down from 19 percent in 1995. Women are 56 percent of college enrollees. Girls have made such strides that conservatives in search of a cause (and an excuse to target feminists) have dubbed the reverse gender gap the "War on Boys."
Rape has plunged since the 1970s. The U.S. Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey estimated that 105,000 women were raped in 1973, compared with 30,000 in the latest survey. All indicators of sexual violence are down, and the decrease is most dramatic among younger women. In the last 12 years, according to the DOJ survey, sexual victimization rates have fallen 78 percent.
In isolation, those trends don't say anything particularly interesting about the purported connection between short skirts and violence. But rape stats in free fall should at least call into question the casual conflation of Bratz dolls and child abuse. If girls are more sexualized than ever, and if objectification leads inexorably to depression and violence, why don't the numbers reflect this descent? It may be that a passel of miniature thongs contribute to destructive behavior. But it's not obvious, and pointing at a bunch of fourth-graders in belly shirts does not make it so.
You could as easily tell the opposite story, one in which those thongs are the sartorial equivalent of grrl power. Prostitot culture could be the anti-rape, encouraging girls to take control of their sexuality before others do. It's not at all likely, but the narrative is no more divorced from reality, or bereft of explanatory power, than its APA-stamped counterpart.
Without any mechanism to explain how precocious taste in clothes turns to self-loathing, it's probably safest to assume that the kids' department at Nordstrom's and the darkest recesses of American culture exist a world apart. Girls, as they always have, will alternately embrace the novelties of girlhood and struggle against the mythologies of gender. Parents and soi-disant experts will continue to cluck their tongues. And while they're railing against the vagaries of fashion, they should avoid dressing their disapproval in the trappings of social science.
Kerry Howley is an associate editor of Reason.