“FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)“* came up in my facebook news feed a lot yesterday. It’s being shared with such enthusiasm that I was eager to read it. I hoped its advice for teenage girls about their facebook activities would live up to the hype.
But instead, when I read it, my heart sank. Although the post is well-intended, the author, Kimberly Hall, makes a tremendous error: She places the responsibility for her teenage boys’ sexual desires on teenage girls, rather than on the boys themselves.
For example, addressing her sons’ female friends, she writes: “Did you know that once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it? You don’t want the Hall boys to only think of you in this sexual way, do you?”
Well, no. I’m sure that her sons’ female friends don’t want to be thought of only in a sexual way, considering that they are complex human beings with a range of feelings, ideas and interests. So why ask these questions? Doing so places the blame for her sons’ thoughts and desires squarely on the shoulders of the teenage girls they know–dodging the fact that boys are responsible for how they choose (yes, choose) to think of the girls in their lives.
I suspect that Hall’s post has gone viral because so many people are concerned with teenage girls’ self-presentation on facebook. We’ve all seen it: teenage girls trying to mimic the scantily-clad celebrities and models plastered on billboards and magazine covers. And naturally, people want to do something about it. After all, the implications of our media culture’s sexualization of girls is serious: As the American Psychological Association has noted, when girls learn that our culture values their appearances above all else about them, they may in turn learn to sexualize themselves–and the impact of self-sexualization on girls’ self-esteem and self-image is devastating. The damage of thinking of oneself first and foremost as an object can take a lifetime to undo.
Furthermore, once a photograph is online, it’s essentially impossible to remove it from the internet. So when girls place sexually provocative “selfies” of themselves to facebook, it’s a huge issue. For example, the photos can be used by bullies to shame the girls–and they can resurface years later, too, causing myriad problems in their lives.
But these are not problems that would affect Mrs. Hall’s sons. They would affect the girls themselves. Furthermore, the sexual double-standard in our society is so pervasive that any “sexy” photos the boys may post of themselves are unlikely to cause them similar harm.
We are living in a post-Steubenville world (which I wrote about here). We have seen graphic evidence of the results of the sexual objectification of young girls, and of the victim-blaming mindset–that a girl who presents herself in a sexy way “deserves it.”
Therefore, for parents like Mrs. Hall who are concerned about their sons’ well-being, their best course is not to focus on shaming girls and controlling their behavior.
Instead, we must teach our sons compassion. Help them understand that girls’ self-sexualization is prompted by a toxic culture.
We must teach our sons to always respect girls. Help them see them girls as complex human beings, like themselves–never simply as sex objects.
Our boys MUST be taught these lessons. They must know that when a girl engages in sexually provocative behavior, her behavior does not give boys a “pass” to dwell exclusively on the girls’ sexuality. Nor does it entitle them to expect sexual favors from girls, or to pressure them sexually in any way.
Contrary to popular opinion, boys are not animals. They can practice self-control. And yes, it takes practice. But if we focus on raising our sons, rather than chastising other people’s daughters, it’s possible.
*Note: I link to the cached version of Kimberly Hall’s article instead of the current version because several days after my post was published, she edited her blog post. One of her edits was to the sentences I quoted. A full discussion with more details may be found on my facebook page.
UPDATE, Sept. 6, 2013 at 9:40 a.m.:
Last night, I was a guest on CKNW AM Vancouver’s The Shift with Mike Eckford, chatting about my response to Mrs. Hall, raising compassionate sons, and the sexualization of teenage girls.
My segment is embedded below; just click on the 8:22 mark to find it.
Thanks for listening!
For further reading:
- There’s a great conversation happening about the original “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” post here.
- The APA’s report on the sexualization of girls may be found here.