One doesn’t expect to find the phrase “whore-friendly panties” in an article about eight-year-olds. Still, there it was: Smack dab in the middle of LZ Granderson’s April 19 column for CNN about over-sexualized clothing for little girls. It wasn’t the only uncomfortable bit of name-calling in the piece; in addition to the big W, Granderson employed “prostitute,” “tramp,” and approximately eight thousand squirm-worthy comments on the “sexiness” or “hotness” of pre-pubescent children. (This week, in fun sentences to take out of context: “Their daughter was the sexiest girl in the terminal, and she’s not even in middle school yet.”)
But it was the “whore” moment that stood out. Granderson’s points — that young girls are being encouraged to dress in ways that would be sexually provocative in adult women — weren’t wrong in and of themselves, or even terribly controversial. In a world that sells junior-sized stripper poles and high heels for babies, it’s reasonable to conclude that we’re conditioning young girls to perform a certain kind of femininity from a very early age, and it’s right to be concerned for them. But when one drops the “whore” bomb in the middle of an essay about small children, that doesn’t sound concerned. It sounds misogynist. It demonstrates that the problem isn’t the kind of sexuality these girls are being trained to perform, or how that might affect them as adults. The problem is just that they look, you know. Like whores.
Granderson’s column exemplifies a worrying trend. It’s undeniably true that girls are encouraged to sexualize themselves at early ages, and that this can harm their developing sense of self. But our cultural sense of responsibility is deeply skewed. We condition young girls to aspire to an extremely restrictive standard of beauty and sexuality from almost the day they come into the world. We surround them with sexualized images of women, and tell them that these women have special value. And then, when little girls start behaving or dressing like those beautiful, desirable, special women — when they engage in the very childlike activity of imitating their role models — we condemn the girls and their parents for the fact that some adults might choose to exploit or violate them.
Consider Rolling Stone’s recent profile of Kirsten “Kiki Kannibal” Ostrenga, a teen web celebrity known for posting provocative and sexualized glamour shots. Ostrenga was raped, punched in the head by strangers posing as “fans,” subjected to numerous death threats, sexually harassed by adult men, and apparently stalked. In one troubling incident, threats to “kill her cat” were followed up by her cat’s sudden disappearance.
The comments on the article are vicious. A representative sampling: “Every time she’s back online, something worse happens. It’s a clue, Mom. Do you want her to die or what?” Or: “the first thing I thought after reading this article is that the dumb little girl has even dumber parents.” Or: “If Kiki really did get raped, you ALL allowed it to happen. You let a ‘drunken’ guy STAY in your house. Not only that, but if you’re insecure enough about someone LOVING you that you LET them rape you. You should have no complaints.”
The gallery of Ostrenga’s underage photos — in panties with sexy slogans, apparently topless, or in lingerie — is deeply squirm-inducing. And yes, one does doubt her parents’ judgment. But the number of people willing to suggest that murdering a kitten is a disproportionate reaction, as compared to the number of people who are willing to blame a woman for her daughter’s rape or even her potential death, is chilling.
Granderson’s column and the piece on Ostrenga were published at around the same time as a lengthy USA Today article on a phenomenon called “precocious puberty.” It turns out, an increasing number of girls really do grow up too fast these days — and not because of their parents’ permissiveness. Young women are simply hitting puberty at earlier and earlier ages. Approximately 15% of girls today reach puberty before the age of seven. One of the young girls profiled in the article started growing pubic hair at age six.
Doctors are uncertain as to precisely what causes precocious puberty: Body weight, environmental pollutants, and genetic differences have all been floated as possible causes. One expert recommends saving your child from the ravages of early puberty by not putting any plastic in your microwave. The phenomenon has been getting a substantial amount of press ever since it was first observed, in 1997. But, although boys experience precocious puberty too, almost all of that press has focused exclusively on how it affects girls. And the standard tone for articles about those girls is concern verging on panic, despite the fact that the actual health risks of the phenomenon are unclear.
There are some illnesses associated with the phenomenon: A higher risk of breast cancer, due to increased estrogen exposure, is one. Early puberty also tends to result in adult shortness, which is relevant if you consider “being unable to reach the top shelf” a health risk. But the real “risks” of early puberty are social. Girls who undergo puberty early, the studies warn us, are bullied. They are depressed and have low self-esteem. They have a higher risk of substance abuse. They “experiment” sexually at an earlier age. And — this is key – they are more likely to be objects of sexual attention or abuse from adult men.
This, Wikipedia is happy to remind us, is “unrelated to pedophilia because the child has developed secondary sex characteristics.” Which is to say: It is “unrelated to pedophilia” in the same way that Kirsten Ostrenga’s rape at the age of fourteen was “unrelated.” Which is to say: Not unrelated at all. Adulthood is not a matter of appearance; it’s a matter of experience, decision-making skills, access to social power, social and intellectual development. We have age of consent laws because children don’t know enough or have enough power to give informed consent to sex. A seven-year-old with breasts can’t consent to sex any more meaningfully than a seven-year-old without them.
Meanwhile, boys who experience early puberty, according to one of the few hand-outs which touches on that subject, are “treated as leaders by their peers and are admired and looked up to.”
LZ Granderson’s “concern” for little girls in “whore-friendly panties” and Juicy Couture, Internet commenters’ “concerned” rationalizations for abusing Kirsten Ostrenga, our societal “concern” about early puberty, all add up to one distinct message: If you look female and sexual, you are fair game. When we want to “protect” little girls from the wrong clothing, the wrong online presence, the wrong stage of physical development, we really want to “protect” them from looking like women, and receiving the abuse that women get.
It’s good to treat childhood as a protected space. It’s essential to make sure that children are protected from sexual exploitation and abuse. But we are blaming the wrong people. If we want to protect children from adults, we should start with worrying about adult behavior. The behavior, for example, of a grown man who sees a little girl’s outfit, and chooses — or chooses not to — call her a “whore.”