It speaks volumes about a culture when a President, whom by all accounts is personally honorable, is forced to apologize to an attorney general for commenting favorably on her physical appearance, while, in the same week that same culture defends lace trim thongs for teen girls with 'Call Me' on the front and lace back underwear with the word 'Wild' on the back.
Welcome to America and it's increasingly bizarre relationship with women's sexuality.
Did President Obama mean anything nefarious when he praised California Attorney General Kamala Harris as "by far, the best-looking attorney general ... It's true! C'mon." I doubt it. Still, he apologized because, however innocent, it wrongly sexualized a woman who ought be judged entirely by her professional performance. Too many women are hired based on their capacity for window dressing with places like Wall Street apparently being some of the worst offenders.
But what is a more harmful transgression in the ongoing sexualization of women? A comment about a mature, brilliant, and fully grown female as also being attractive, or one of the America's most famous undergarment companies targeting teens with green-and-white polka-dot hipsters reading 'Feeling Lucky?'
Recently a teen girl came to see me. She had been sexually violated by a boy her own age whom she had considered a friend. After reporting the incident to the authorities, she wished to discover how she could recapture her innocence. "The world I inhabit is all about me and my friends being as sexually alluring as possible for the boys in our class. It felt good to get attention. I never believed it could end in something like this. Now I'll never trust a man again."
Now, granted, sexual assault is an extreme manifestation of the increasing sexual exploitation of young girls and, ultimately, regardless of the cultural factors, a man must never harm a woman, failing which he must face severe punishment. But have we no responsibility as a culture for the portrayal of girls as a boy's playing from an increasingly young age, and do we really believe that the growing degradation of women has no consequences?
Victoria's Secret PINK label, with its new Bright Young Things Campaign, is a particularly egregious offender. Now, I am no prude and I welcome beautiful and sexy lingerie for women. I want to live in a world where a wife is always attractive to her husband and vice versa (although men wearing lingerie is probably a step too far).
But for goodness sake, do fifteen year olds need thongs with the words "Call me" on the front? Do they need the words "I dare you" printed on their backsides? Or "Let's make out" printed on the most private parts of their bodies? Does any of this square with the message we're trying to send to teen girls that they should be valued for their minds before their bodies?
And lest the argument be made that the PINK line is only for college-aged girls, Victoria's Secret Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer made it clear that the PINK lingerie line seeks to reach a teen audience. 'When somebody's 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be? They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that's part of the magic of what we do at PINK,' he said.
As a father raising six daughters, I know that young girls are very attuned to the messages that surround them. My missive to my daughters is that I, their father and not some boy, is the one to love and validate them through their teen years. To seek approval and popularity from young men during their development years would only exploit their insecurities and vulnerabilities. But if they wait until there are adults they will have the inner strength to choose a man based on virtue rather than desperation. They will find a soul mate who respects them rather than a man who takes advantage (as if their father would ever allow that in the first place).
But it's everywhere. James Franco's new film Spring Breakers which I have not seen, is apparently so exploitive of teen girls, depicting them in the most debauched and degrading light, that even mainstream reviewers, not easily shockable, are shocked. Writing in Cinemablend.com, Sean O'Connell said, "Spring Breakers feels like the floor of a Tampa Bay strip club. It's sticky, slimy, dirty and has seen far more depravity and corruption than one should handle."
And why should any of this matter? Isn't it just part of the ongoing campaign on the part of the purity police to demonize the sexual revolution and keep our libidos in chains? But whatever your feelings about how permissive or repressed our society is, certainly not in the 60's, 70's, 80's ,or 90's was the sexualization of women this young. Noone ever dared depict teen girls en masse as slutty and intended primarily for sexual play. No, there was a line that was drawn. That's why porn is called Adult entertainment.
Not any more.
Writing in Slate Amanda Marcotte defended things like salacious slogans on teen lingerie by noting that the average American has sex by 17 and seven out of ten are sexually active by 19. Teenagers "need this time to experiment.... there's no harm giving teenagers a little freedom to do the growing up they need to do." But portraying teen sex as something utterly harmless flies in the face of the data retrieved by the National Longitudinal Survey or Adolescent Health which found about 25% of sexually active girls to be depressed all, most, or a lot of the time, while 8% of girls who are not sexually active feel this way. Suicide rates are also significantly higher for sexually active teens. And this is aside from the risks of pregnancy and STD's. Sex conjures up the strongest human emotions and it's intended for the time in our lives when we are mature and strong.
But while sexualizing teens did not rock her boat, Obama's comments about Harris deeply upset Marcotte. "It's a shame to have him undermine his enlightened policies with comments that highlight women's ever-present decorative duties--especially when we know for a fact that such remarks erode women's opportunities and even their own sense of deserving equality."
Surely logic would dictate that however misguided the President's comments they are utterly insignificant compared to the ongoing campaign to make our girls into sexually active women well before it is healthy or appropriate for them to be so.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, "America's Rabbi," is the international best-selling author of 29 books and the winner of the American Jewish Press Association's Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He has just published "The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering". Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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