06/17/2010 08:22 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Media and the Sexualization of Children

Peggy Orenstein has a piece in this weekend's NYT Magazine inspired by the much talked about video of eight and nine-year old girls performing "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" at a national dance competition in Los Angeles.

I appreciate both her warning of the next big panic (all the kids of a certain age in my life live in small towns with limited TV access, so I only hear about things like Monster High when it's already a product on a shelf) and also her reasoned and thoughtful position on whether or not we should all panic about this stuff:

I might give the phenomenon a pass if it turned out that, once they were older, little girls who play-acted at sexy were more comfortable in their skins or more confident in their sexual relationships, if they asked more of their partners or enjoyed greater pleasure. But evidence is to the contrary. In his book, The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls From Today's Pressures, Stephen Hinshaw, chairman of the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that sexualizing little girls -- whether through images, music or play -- actually undermines healthy sexuality rather than promoting it. Those bootylicious grade-schoolers in the dance troupe presumably don't understand the meaning of their motions (and thank goodness for it), but, precisely because of that, they don't connect -- and may never learn to connect -- sexy attitude to erotic feelings.

Orenstein crystallizes this tension as a confusion between desirability and desire. At this age, given this particular performance, I think the characterization fits. It's hard to imagine that these young girls have a grounded complicated understanding of multiple and contradictory meanings of their performance. Those are meaning we as adults ascribe, and they're not yet adults.

But I'm not sure I would be ask quick to leap from what an eight-year-old experiences and what a 14 or 15 year old does. The psychologist Orenstein cites is suggesting that early experiences like this lead to confusion later in life. That probably does happen for some young people, but not all of them. It's important to remember that the experiences aren't always the culprit, or at least that the experiences don't define themselves. When we look at that video and pity those girls for the life of gender and sexual confusion we assume is ahead for them, we're doing exactly the same thing as when we say that people who have ever been incarcerated are doomed to a life of violence and poverty, or people who have been sexually assaulted are doomed to a life of fear and an inability to experience sexual pleasure. These experiences do touch us and make us who we are. But they don't do it alone.

I'm with Orenstein when she focuses on what we can do ("Better yet, tell it to your daughter: she is going to need to hear it.") but I worry about the slippery slope of social science research that too often treats gender and sexuality as static phenomenon, and young people as doomed to a fate only an adult can devise for them, or save them from.