All posts by Rachel Simmons


Is the Answer No? Ask for it, Anyway

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One of the most important skills we learn as girls is the ability to ask without knowing the outcome: to apply for an opportunity we might not get, to raise our hand even if we don’t know the right answer, to ask for what we want even if the answer will surely be no. Yet when it comes to friendship problems, too many of us don’t say what we need because we worry we’ll hear the word no.

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The Single Ladies Dance Outrage & the Crisis of Girls’ Sexualization

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Last week’s spectacle of eight and nine year old girls gyrating to “Single Ladies” is still eating me. And to be honest, I’m still not exactly sure why.

What’s the big deal here, really? Isn’t this just another grating example of girls’ sexualization, fodder that seems to arrive weekly? And who cares if some little girls want to try some big girl dancing? As one of the girls’ parents told Good Morning America, the outfits are “actually no different than when kids are going swimming — they go in the swimming pool with a bathing suit. These kids are going to a dance competition and they’re wearing dance costumes in front of a dance audience.”

So, like, isn’t this the same thing as getting a pedicure with Mommy or tottering around in her spiked heels?

No and no. Thrusting your pelvis, crouching seductively and shaking your butt like a stripper are inherently sexual acts. And if their bodies didn’t make the point, the clothing surely did. This wasn’t just dancing – it was erotic dancing.

When it comes to growing up, sexuality is a sacred part of the developing self. While almost all of us experiment sexually, should seven year old girls’ first experiences be quite so explicit and public? It’s one thing to try on your mom’s heels, and it’s quite another to do it for an audience. As a You Tube commenter wrote in the girls’ defense, the kids don’t even know what they’re doing. Exactly — that’s the point and my concern.

Let me be clear: the sexual part isn’t the problem – girls are sexual creatures from the get-go. The problem is that these girls are adopting an expression of sexuality that isn’t really theirs. It’s not discovered or sought out in response to internal desire or curiosity.

Moreover, the dancing introduces girls to an experience of sexuality that is being defined for them by a media conglomerate. It’s a product sold by the constellation of financial interests that stand behind Beyonce. These are hardly people invested in the safe and healthy development of girls’ sexuality. And the girls are a ways off, cognitively and developmentally speaking, from being able to look critically at the media they’re mimicking.

The Single Ladies debacle set off a pandemic of parent judgment, but sexuality educator and author Dr. Logan Levkoff calls foul. “What disturbs me is that this was made public, and in turn, has created the perfect storm of hypocrisy. In our own homes, we laugh off girls’ burgeoning sexuality. In public, we scream and yell and finger wag. (Both are incredibly problematic.)”

The sexualization of girls cuts girls off from authentic desire and emotion by pressuring them to regard themselves as objects, and encouraging sexuality as a performance for others. In their 2007 report, the American Psychological Association (APA) concluded that early sexualization of girls is linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. The APA defines sexualization as when:

• a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
• a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
• a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
• sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

Only one of these conditions must be present in order for sexualization to occur.

So I’m thinking about these very talented girls, and what it was like to get up on that stage and do that routine. The roar of crowd approval (and the resulting You Tube frenzy) was no doubt a thrilling rush. Was it only about the dancing? If those girls had done a rip-roaringBalanchine suite, would it be viral You Tube material? The attention teaches them a destructive lesson: be sexy and be valued. All at the age when, speaking to GMA, they have lingering baby talk in their voices.

The irony is that dance is actually a powerful vaccine against sexualization. Dance can tether girls to their bodies and emotions in transformative ways. In March, I watched the young women of the Roots dance troupe move in front of over 300 high school girls. I have never seen women own their bodies the way they did. It was clear that they danced first for each other and themselves, and then for the audience.

They were no less erotic than the girls in the Single Ladies video, but they were erotic on their own terms. They were erotic in the sense that the late, great Audre Lorde defined, using a “power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.” This kind of erotic exists on “a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.” This kind of erotic “is not only a question of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”

During the Q & A that followed their performance, the Roots troupe explained to the girls that music video dancing is just one way to be sexy. The kind of dance most publicized is the one that flush record companies can bankroll — so it’s the only one most girls see.

And that’s the real problem for me. Girls are being sold a narrow idea of sexuality and the erotic that is based primarily on how you appear to others. This kind of dance is about being seen and consumed first and foremost, and less about what comes from within.

We have become desensitized to sex, just as we have to violence. Kids’ elastic bodies and intrepid physical risk taking make them capable of extraordinary athletic feats. But just because you can wrap your leg behind your ear doesn’t mean you should.

For more information about girls’ sexualization:

So Sexy, So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect their Kids by Jean Kilbourne and Diane Levin.

The American Psychological Association Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls (2007)

Sexualization Summit in NYC (do something about it!)

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“Talk to Strangers:” Is the New Chat Craze Dangerous for Girls?

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“Talk to strangers:” That’s the tag line for Omegle, a website where girls can text chat with random people they’ve never met. Omegle and Chatroulette, which allows users to video chat with strangers, have become explosively popular with teen girls, and I’ve asked some girls I respect to weigh in on the new chat craze.

First, a bit on how these sites work: sign on to Omegle, click “text” and a message pops up that says, “You are now chatting with a random stranger. Say hi!” Chatting starts out relatively innocuous, though in the five times I tried, most “strangers” wanted to know if I was male or female, or told me if they were (they were all male). You, or your partner, can always disconnect at will.

Chatroulette works pretty much the same way, except instead of a text that pops up, it’s a video. You allow the website to turn on your computer’s camera, and you’re off.  You can easily switch to chat with another user by clicking “stop” or “next;” so can your partner. In the five times I tried as I was writing this, I got two masturbating men (with tight shots of their exposed genitals), two men’s faces, and one man who texted “baby like China sex.”

Did I mention a ton of teen girls frequent this site?

What Girls Say

Girls say the sites can be fun and entertaining. You can pretend you’re famous or look for the celebs who supposedly use the sites, ask silly questions, or save random conversations to laugh about with your friends later. You can meet people in cool places, too. “I’ve made some really great friends through [Chatroulette], especially people from France.” AW, 16, told me. It’s been, she added, “110% beneficial to my French grade.” Many girls go on Chatroulette in groups, adding to the fun factor.

All the girls I asked thought these websites could also be dangerous for girls. JS, 15, says Omegle is “greatly misused” by girls. “It teaches girls to hide behind their computers and say whatever they want.”

Girls had a lot to say about the creeper factor on both sites. GK, 17, says, “Chatroulette has a fine line between funny and a good time to creepy and borderline pedophile. In my experience there were many guys that I encountered, mostly older by themselves or with a friend. The first thing they ask is if they can get anything, such as a girl to expose herself or something with no strings attached. This is entertainment for them and some girls think it’s just as entertaining to go along with it.”

On Omegle, says JS, “almost half the time you log onto the site, the first thing the stranger you get connected to says ‘slutty?’ Sometimes you disconnect and try again, but almost all the time my friends play along. They pretend to be a person they either wish they could be or someone demeaning, like a ‘slut,’ something they know guys like. It completely lowers your self-esteem as a person and makes you feel worthless. No one will act like themselves on these sites.”

What I Think

I understand the appeal of both of Omegle and Chatroulette. That said, I worry that the sites further loosen the social rules about what you should and shouldn’t say to another person – at the exact moment when young women are developing their communication skills. Unlike chatting with people you know, you really can say anything here, and there truly are no consequences. You can be cruel, or just unkind, or sexually explicit, and none of it really matters.

While it’s fair to point out that you can have fun and keep it clean – no sexually transmitted infections, etc. – I’d bet chronic users might be picking up a different sort of nasty ailment: You get a little too accustomed to serving up your unfiltered thoughts. The easier it becomes to shoot from the hip on these sites, the easier it’ll be to do it with people you know. Don’t like a yucky convo on Omegle? Click “next.” Not so much in real life, though.

This desensitization makes it easy not just to say anything, but do anything. Among the very few girls I spoke with for this blog, one told me she had met a guy on Chatroulette and sent him an explicit video of herself (and regretted it later).  Which is the thing about Chatroulette and Omegle: when it gets sexual, you’re sexting with a stranger, so it feels a whole lot easier to do.

In a recent blog about the website Formspring, I argued that Formspring took cyberbullying to a new level (and low) by making it appear consensual. These chat sites do something similar for sexting, making it “safer” because there’s virtually no chance of a peer or relative finding out.

Chatroulette isn’t all about sex, but there sure is a lot of it. When you log on and face a man’s exposed genitals, it’s like a porn reality show. In fact, the only difference between what you’re seeing and a real porn film is production value, plus the fact that this one might talk back to you. Add that to the site’s video game feel — it actually refers to itself as a “game,” and you can click “new game” to start to “play” – and you’ve got an experience in which users are totally desensitized to what they’re seeing and doing.

Girls are hardly passive users. Many say that using Chatroulette in groups often results in girls daring each other to flash people on camera, or write or say sexual things.  That, says GK, “is where it turns bad.” Is this peer pressure 2.0? Nothing wrong with a little Truth or Dare, but the stakes seem a lot scarier here.

“Personally,” wrote AF, 17, “I think [Chatroulette] is a little unsettling so I don’t use it.” Unsettling is indeed the word. When I used the sites, my heart rate increased uncomfortably; even though I knew I couldn’t be “found,” I still felt nervous about being seen. I also felt a surprising twinge of rejection and even hurt when people disconnected from me.

AF thinks these sites are okay as long as girls stay smart. She advises girls to remember that “people are probably going on with the intention of upsetting the other ‘stranger’” and not to take anything you hear too seriously. “Keep in mind that it’s in the spirit of fun. If [a girl] is confident and down to earth, she’ll hopefully know to let any trolling remarks roll off her back – but if she has low self-esteem or is very sensitive, she may make a choice that may be bad.”

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Is Hooking Up Good for Girls?

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As a relationship advice columnist for Teen Vogue, I get a lot of mail from girls in “no strings attached” relationships. The girls describe themselves as “kind of” with a guy, “sort of” seeing him, or “hanging out” with him. The guy may be noncommittal, or worse, in another no-strings relationship. In the meantime, the girls have “fallen” for him or plead with me for advice on how to make him come around and be a real boyfriend.

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