Society has made an historical flip-flop in two paired values we hold about teenaged girls, especially aged 12-16.
In the old days, there was little wrong with a 32 year old man courting a 14 or 16 year old girl. As a citizen of the 21st century, I personally find it both distasteful and weird, a signal of an immature male adult. But in the old patriarchal days, the age difference didn’t matter that much. As recently as the late 1940’s, my Syrian grandfather—born and weaned in Aleppo—married off my 16 year old aunt to a man in his late twenties.
In those days, however, the sexuality of young girls was deemphasized, especially in middle and upper class families. Their dress was more modest. In some cultures, girls were educated separately or isolated from males of all ages. In some cultures, dates were chaperoned. For the most part, only bad girls manifested their sexuality.
Our attitudes about the normalization of adult-child marriage and the sexualization of young girls have both done a complete 180 over the course of the past century, not a sharp turn, but a slowly accelerating curve. Nowadays, we rightfully frown on sexual and romantic relationships between children and adults. From at least the 1970’s onward, there might exist some relationships between girls under 16 and boys between 18-24, but no gap as wide as 32 and 14, or 32 and 17 for that matter.
Yet American mass media sexualizes young women on a daily basis. No, change that to on a nanosecond-by-nanosecond basis. By the time a girl attains 14, she has been introduced to a wide array of clothes, cosmetics, toys, books, electronic games, advertisements and movies that reduce her and other young girls to sexual objects. Sexualization begins as early as four and five for girls participating in youth beauty pageants. Fulfilling or enhancing your sexual being unleashes a literal cornucopia of needs that products and services can provide, so it is a powerful tool for marketers and advertisers. As our consumer society has advanced, so has the sexualization of women—and men to a lesser extent—of all ages.
Through much of human history, the distinction between childhood and adulthood was not as stark as it has been in the 20th and the 21st century industrialized societies. Many children worked in prior centuries and there were few if any organized groups of or for children. Society in general was much less child-centered than today, for two reasons (if my memory of reading books on the subject has not failed me): Firstly, many children died in childbirth, which hardened people to death and caused them to invest less emotional energy in their children’s lives. Just as important, however, were the more constrained economic circumstances before the industrial revolution and then the great redistribution of wealth downward in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. As people have had more disposable income, they have gradually focused more of their expenditures on their children. A contemporary Thorsten Veblen would say that we are engaging in conspicuous consumption to demonstrate how much we love our children and how well-off we are. Children have joined—and perhaps started to replace—women on the fetishized pedestal of consumerism.
Today’s society has it three-quarters right. There should be a separation between childhood and adulthood. Societies in which children are protected and adults are expected to be responsible and independent corresponds to our developmental needs as primates with a long maturation process for our progeny.
In addition, open attitudes about sex, sexuality and sexual identity lead to healthier individuals and a healthier society. But while our advances towards a society accepting of everyone’s sexuality is positive, the market-driven sexualization of young girls is not. It forces young girls to be overly concerned with their bodies at a time of life when the body is rapidly changing and before their brains have developed enough to address the multiple sophistications of sexual relations in our complex society.
Additionally, we are seeing the lines between childhood and adulthood blurring over the past twenty years. Instead of adulthood being thrust prematurely on adolescence as in pre-industrial times, youth and adolescence have been extended into the twenties and the thirties, as more and more adults retain their entertainments and predilections of childhood. I’ve recited the litany of adult infantilization many times over the past few years, most recently a few weeks back.
Every year, more adults read Harry Potter and other adult fiction, watch movies about super heroes and fantasy worlds or about adult men—and now women—remaining adolescents, wear Halloween costumes to work, collect My Little Ponies and Legos, enjoy cosplay and participate in sleepovers in museums. Every year, more children remain at home or move back to live with their parents, often for economic reasons, but often also a sign of immaturity. All of these and many other cultural phenomena suggest that adults are thinking and acting more like children and that childhood is expanding to engulf part if not all an individual’s adult life.
The most telling sign that American society is becoming infantilized is that enough Americans voted for a 70-year-old infant with a child’s emotions, emotional needs, thought processes and level of education that a majority of Electoral College members could feel free to vote for him. Again, the dictates of consumer capitalism are to blame: it’s easier to convince a child to buy some shiny new, but useless, bauble than it is to convince an adult.
To be sure, our society has advanced to the point that victims feel they can come forward and identify their abusers. Coming forward of course discourages these creeps because they know in their hearts what they are doing is wrong and that, if made public, their actions will ruin their careers. Coming forward also prevents predators from becoming repeat offenders. The fall of Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey and all the other recently-outed prominent dirtbags gives us hope that we will soon have a society that is both non-sexist and non-sexually exploitive. That it came so soon after the election of an avowed sexual harasser and abuser only shows how much Americans were shaken by the results of the 2016 presidential election. All good.
But at the end of the day, the advances we have made in our mores through creating certain barriers between childhood and adulthood, having a more open society in sexual matters and now openly confronting sexual predators are corrupted and partial offset by our consumer-driven economy of conspicuous consumption that reduces all human experience to the buying of goods and services.