The Lolita Effect

Lauren Mayberry | 08 Dec 2009

In the face of ever-increasing anxiety over the sexualisation of the young, two experts raise questions over how sexually influenced children actually are by the media.

In April last year, Vanity Fair came under fire over a series of photographs featuring actress Miley Cyrus apparently naked on a satin sheet. The then 15-year-old was reportedly confused and embarrassed by the pictures. This August, however, Cyrus performed at the Teen Choice Awards in denim hot pants, dancing around a pole atop an ice-cream trolley – an alleged send-up of American culture. Critics questioned the effect that continually presenting such sexually-charged imagery has on children's conception of sexuality and whether, given the young singer's impressionable market, this sort of schtick is ever acceptable.

Well, apparently it might be – if we give the kids lapping up the Lindsay Lohans a little more credit. Dr Gail Hawkes, sexuality expert at the University of New England, and Dr Danielle Egan, Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at St. Lawrence University, hope to challenge the assumptions surrounding children, media and sexual development, arguing that autonomous sexuality of children should be taken altogether more seriously. Their book, Theorizing the Sexual Child in Modernity, is due out in March.

Since Sigmund Freud discussed ‘infantile sexuality’ in his Three Essays, there has been relative acceptance that certain natural urges do exist at early stages. He discussed erotic zones outwith the genital area, proposing that the young recreate pleasurable sensations they have felt before, mixing instinct and aim. To a child, Egan and Hawkes propose, bodily sensations are the most real things they encounter. No shame should be inherent in their exploration. 28-year-old Egan has seen examples of this in her own day-to-day. “I was at a baby shower at the weekend, and this little two-year-old was sitting rubbing their belly skin,” she explains. The problem lies in assuming children understand sensual enjoyment in the same way that we do as adults, defining ‘healthy sexuality’ by adult parameters. “There’s no corrupt or perverse notion behind it. It just feels good, and there’s a curiosity,” Egan says.

Arguably the most famous representation of the precociously sexual girl in popular culture is that of Dolores Haze. The deliberately erotic 12-year-old provocateur, Lolita, in Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel, transgressed moral and legal rules. Lo is sexually curious, at times manipulative, but mostly, she is an impressionable young girl, taken advantage of by scholarly paedophile Humbert Humbert. The coquette’s heart-shaped glasses, depicted in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick adaptation of the story, have become an image emblazoned in the minds of parents across the Anglophone world.

What is it that manufactured and maintained this anxiety with such ease? M Gigi Durham’s The Lolita Effect is but one of a number of books proclaiming that myths are propagated to these nymphets by the new Humbert: the media. Durham argues that sexualisation of adolescent girls is driven by a culture eroticising children for profit, demonstrated by Bratz, Little Miss Naughty bra-lets and thongs for tweens. The book’s website advertises its product as essential for anyone “interested in nurturing girls’ advancement and life success”, using Nabokov’s faunlet as shorthand for inappropriately, unnaturally sexual girlhood.

Egan, however, is unconvinced. “There’s very little data to show, from Freud to Kinsey, that what you wear demonstrates the kind of sex you want,” the academic asserts. Young girls wearing t-shirts embossed with a bunny rabbit insignia, abhorrent as it may seem, does not mean they are inclined to earlier sexual activity. Such an argument, Egan says, confuses production of images with automatic consumption of their moral content. “You can’t just assume that because someone puts on a garment, their attitude will change. Unless you’re walking around with dominatrix gear on or something like that,” she jokes.

Although almost no-one is outwith the reach of advertising, recent research has proven that children engage critically with what is presented to them. “There is no data from the American Psychological Association which specifically shows automatic degeneration is actually taking place,” Egan warns. “We wanted to know where the ideas and knee-jerk assumptions had come from. There’s this idea that if kids see this commercial, the content and images will automatically be injected into them, like a hypodermic needle. The child’s agency is completely ignored.” During Nick Griffin’s recent appearance on Question Time, panelist Bonnie Greer highlighted the fact that bowing to objections against dissemination of the BNP leader’s opinions dangerously implied that the viewing public was unable to question that which was broadcast. Why, then, are children not given some of the same opportunity to analyse media for themselves?

The real issue, Egan and her Australian co-author claim, lies in the adult reaction. Proximity of the words ‘child’, ‘sex’ and ‘endanger’ give rise to cultural alarm. “There seems to be a panic over bourgeois girls and white, middle-class girlhood. People don’t want that girl to become the Britney Spears,” Egan says, explaining how society then refers to the transgressing young girls as trailer trash and ‘prosti-tots’ once they’re deemed to have lost sexual innocence. If children transgress the realms of our comfort, they are then somehow deemed outside the classifying protection of ‘childhood’.

Although, Egan argues, the moral outrage is partly due to misunderstanding, in a culture lacking sexual discourse in the home, assumptions are expedient, using the child as a vehicle to achieve social ends. “Children have been used to justify war, surveillance – anything which is convenient, without really considering the child themselves,” the New-York based academic says. Societal moves towards regulation of sexuality in the name of ‘protection’ are not new, as seen in historical attitudes towards lesbians, gays and bisexuals, and ethnic and racial minorities. These groups, however, were able to collectively resist assumptions about them – an opportunity which children do not have.

When asked for a solution to the current climate of confusion, Egan is uncertain. “I wish there was [one]. If there is one, I don’t think it’ll be an easy road. We need to talk to kids and get a better understanding of how they make sense of everything in their lives – sexual, and otherwise,” she concludes. The sexual is, after all, only one aspect of a child’s development, and it remains to be seen whether a more representative discussion will emerge.