Where Has My Little Girl Gone?

Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein questions a book which places the responsibility of counteracting the dangers of sexual imagery firmly on the shoulders of young girls and women

, 9 June 2011

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“Padded bras for seven-year-olds, dolls dressed in high heels and pole dancing kits for kids” runs the blurb across the back. Enough to unsettle most feminists, especially a parent. And certainly we can’t possibly have anything to challenge from a book that’s all about teaching girls to question commercially-driven models of sexuality and helps them to become independent, confident women – can we?

Alas, it’s not that simple. Tanith Carey’s Where Has My Little Girl Gone? is a sadly conflicting publication, which tumbles together panicky accounts of tabloid-fodder ‘sexualisation’ stories with actually rather sound practical guides for raising healthy children with good self-esteem. The result is something that strays uncomfortably into both labelling girls as victims and victim-blaming territory.

Ultimately the existence of such a book seems to reinforce the system rather than shatter it.

The book starts with a massive shortcut, based on the argument that parents are worried and that’s enough, without examining whether this worry is really valid

Carey’s guide is split into three sections, with titles such as “Mum, Dad, can I have a nose job please? The rise of the X-Factor parent”. In fact that first section alone is deeply troubling reading for a whole number of reasons.

Firstly, because ‘sexualisation’ is never adequately defined. Carey evokes a mixture of age-inappropriate sexual awareness, and the objectification and commoditisation of women’s bodies. Certainly the latter are nothing new and arguably getting worse, if only in that they seem more shameless than ever, but conflating all these things – related though they might be – under one term is, as Laurie Penny argues, a “troubling piece of cultural shorthand”.

It’s true that often the examples given are disturbing, such as that of a seven-year-old pole dancer. But many are also of young adults – 18, or even 20 – who are women, not girls, and throughout the book there is the uncomfortable feeling of middle class women having a bit of a horrified yet titillated gawp at an isolated handful of extreme examples. They are, by the way, mostly taken from The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph or The Sun, which are not without their own problematic presentations of women and girls.

More importantly, the prevalence of such cases is not properly reviewed; indeed, how can they be in a publication which totals less than 200 pages? The book starts with a massive shortcut, based on the argument that parents are worried and that’s enough, without examining whether this worry is really valid. Here, I could easily repeat Jane Fae’s eloquent criticism of the Bailey review which just this week is courting massive media attention on this subject.

It’s certainly nothing new that messages about sexual and gender conformity are heaped on girls disproportionately to boys; still, there is relentless focus on parental fears over actually identifying the scale of the problem, whether it’s actually escalating and, crucially, whether children and young people as a group are actually absorbing the messages in the way we think they are.

The notion of boys being turned into monsters by porn and teaching girls to protect themselves from that seems not so far away from Nadine Dorries and her abstinence education for girls, making them the eternal gatekeepers of sex

As I was mulling over my review, I found myself having a very interesting conversation on Twitter about the topic of sexualisation with Dr Petra Boynton, who directed me towards some excellent links on the topic, including this Scottish Parliament report on sexualised goods aimed at children. It’s particularly interesting as it comes up with far less dramatic results and recommendations than the Home Office review on the sexualisation of children co-ordinated by Dr Linda Papadopoulos, which Carey frequently refers to (and Papadopoulos’ endorsement appears on the cover of Where Has My Little Girl Gone?). Furthermore, Carey never mentions the work of the Onscenity research group in this area, which tackles the topic without sensationalism.

But suppose Carey and co are right. Maybe the problem is growing. And if it’s not, there’s never been a shortage of misogynist, anti-woman, gender and sexuality conformist messages spewed at women of all ages. So, as parents, this book is exactly what we need, no? Err – no.

Papadopoulos’ report argues, among other things, that sexual imagery leads to sexual violence against women; it’s not a new argument and it’s not one many feminists would dispute. But automatically rushing to defend girls from it is problematic in all sorts of ways. Not only does it cast girls – and only girls – as victims, it then places the responsibility on them and their mothers (because despite a section on the importance of fathers, the book is aimed at mothers and all of the examples feature mothers) to offset this danger. The notion of boys being turned into monsters by porn and teaching girls to protect themselves from that seems not so far away from Nadine Dorries and her abstinence education for girls, making them the eternal gatekeepers of sex.

But shouldn’t any guide be for all children? If boys are being so appallingly conditioned by sexual imagery it is surely of paramount importance to train them in how not to be. That will certainly leave girls safer than before, and it won’t be by limiting or changing their behaviour, or trying to force an adult perspective on adolescent sexuality but instead by working to undermine a system that leaves women vulnerable to physical and emotional attacks solely because of their sex.

In fact, surely that – essentially feminism 101 – is what parents need to teach all their children?

In fairness, I must comment that the tips given are generally very positive and helpful. They encourage openness, praise and supporting girls to see their worth as more than their appearance. Some of the practical advice on safe use of technology is a good starting point for parents who do feel they need a helping hand – and don’t we all, sometimes? Interestingly, Carey claims that the methods are most effective during the key ‘tween’ years, despite the fact that the example she gives of her own children shows negative messages being bandied about long before that: three-year-old Clio announces “thin means you’re perfect!”

Dr Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain and Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender both suggest that actually parental influence is highly limited once children become part of an active peer group – at least in the context of gender conformity – which is a depressing thought. I hope, even while I doubt it, that Carey is right; and her father and I can be the defining influence in my child’s early life.

As a parent and a woman I appreciate that facing the enormity of an entrenched system of misogyny is overwhelming. It’s not surprising many are wondering what they can do, and are feeling distinctly powerless against a commercialised onslaught they’re told is coming for their kids. There is definitely a need for parents to be given guidance within the swirling maelstrom of sexist society, media panic and bad science, and certainly the culture of control over women’s sexuality is something any feminist strives to dismantle. I just don’t think a guide targeted purely at girls is the way to do it.

Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein is a mum, blogger, editor and charity online community manager. In the best traditions of the internet she loves technology, cats, reading and baking

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 10 June 2011 at 11:56 am

Tanith Carey’s book is in the same vein as Reggie’s pseudo report – keep focus on women and blame mothers for not protecting their children! We must never ever focus on how our male supremacist system operates must we? We mustn’t take a long hard look at how male supremacist system teaches boys it is their innate right if they choose, to dominate and control females must we? We mustn’t challenge how boys are socialised into what it means to be a man must we? Boys do not become ‘monsters’ because of porn’ rather malestream porn teaches boys male sexuality is all about males sexually conquering and subjecting females to any sexual act because females aren’t human but just men’s disposable sexual service stations.

Neither must we take a long and hard look at how popular culture in all its forms is bombarding girls and women with messages that the only way they can achieve ’empowerment’ (sic) is by turning themselves into men’s dehumanised sexual service stations. Don’t look at how malestream media 24/7 promotes women and girls as dehumanised sexualised commodities because that would mean challenging our male supremacist system. It would also mean recognising the media is not ‘neutral’ but is one of the central tools male supremacist system uses to reinforce male domination over women. Not forgetting media profits enormously by selling misogyny to women and girls as ’empowerment.’

Missing of course is media literacy because that is one very powerful weapon we can use to help pre-teen and teenage girls challenge the misogynistic messages they are bombarded with by media. Teaching media literacy to boys also challenges the women-hating messages boys are bombarded with, but media literacy alone won’t work unless we also go to root of issue and that is our male supremacist system. Patriarchy in other words – yes patriarchy because we still live in a male supremacist world and it is one wherein men continue to cling tightly to positions of immense socio-economic power and their views define what is and is not supposedly ‘truth.’

But it is always much easier to scapegoat the oppressed rather than the oppressors – which is why women once again are being blamed. Doubtless feminists will be blamed for ‘sexualisation of children’ (sic) but it is not children who are being sexualised – it is females of all ages including female babies. Who benefits? Why men of course because we must never hold men accountable must we? Media is owned and operated by men for men’s benefit and that is why sexualisation of women and girls is rampant. It is not little boys who are being turned into dehumanised sexualised commodities – it is girls and women.

Still keep the focus on blaming women who are mothers and supposedly have such immense power. Individual women can magically limit widespread misogynistic media messages can’t they? No need to demand radical change and an end to media’s continued portrayal of women and girls as males’ dehumanised sexual service stations.

Jackie Bather // Posted 12 June 2011 at 10:33 am

I share the feelings of unease concerning this book, for various reasons. As the parent of a daughter who has been raised on feminist principles, it does cause concern for myself, that the issue of sexualising young children is directed here at only at sexualising girls. It could be argued that in the current society which we have, the fact is , that girls and women are, in truth, objectified, not boys and men, therefore protection is needed for our female children. In the longer term, the next step is to radically change this structure but given the behaviour of many men, this could take some time.

Jackie Bather // Posted 12 June 2011 at 10:46 am

I omitted to say, in my previous comment, that my daughter’s father has always been equally committed to pro-feminist parenting and shares my concerns surrounding this issue.

Diane S // Posted 13 June 2011 at 9:06 pm

Really interesting review, Alex. Sounds like a disappointing book and an opportunity wasted. I’m not a parent, but I still see the importance of this topic as a feminist issue, and would have welcomed a book which discussed parenting (rather than just mothering) and its limits in the kyriarchy as a whole.

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