“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
― C.G. Jung
Newsweek, which has been wavering between being a print publication or an online-only entity, has just published a long, absorbing article by Abigail Jones called “Sex and the single tween.” The title, of course, bounces off of Sex and the Single Girl, Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 then-provocative treatise championing the idea that women should pursue economic self-sufficiency and sexual pleasure without depending on marriage to supply those things. Brown’s book and its spiritual descendant, Sex and the City (both the epochal TV show and the book of essays by Candace Bushnell that inspired it), exemplify and promote what we might call don’t-call-me-a-feminist feminism — the kind of female self-empowerment and quest for gender parity made possible by the women’s movement, yet distancing itself from intellectual ideology and hard-core political struggle because, well, they’re not as much fun. What’s fascinating and unnerving about Jones’s article is how much it says not just about pre-adolescent girls but about the impact of social media, sexual norms, and consumer culture on the rest of us.
The tween years are a period of learning and acclimation, yet the lessons of gender and sexuality begin much earlier. Forty-five percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls use lip gloss or lipstick, 61 percent wear nail polish (up from 54 percent in 2008) and 42 percent use perfume or body spray, according to a 2013 study by Experian Marketing Services. Those numbers jump when girls hit their early teens: 65 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds use lipstick or lip gloss, 84 percent wear nail polish and 78 percent wear perfume. And according to a 2009 Newsweek article, girls ages 8 to 12 each spend approximately $7,170 on hair, face, hands and feet during their tween years. Among 8- to 11-year-old girls, 46 percent like to keep up with the latest fashions and 35 percent think it’s important to wear “cool” clothes, according to Experian.
This desire to dress up is learned from parents, older siblings, friends, toys, magazines, books, computer games, apps, social media platforms, Disney characters, parent-approved celebrities, parent-disapproved celebrities, pop music, shopping malls, advertisements, billboards and more.
Marketers have turned preteens into consumers, but parents are the enablers, buying their children those tablets, toys and clothes. (To be fair, many parents hand down older models and keep the upgrades for themselves.) When it comes to fashion, clothing is sold at every price point. By the time preteen girls are teenagers, Abercrombie & Fitch – or whatever clothing line they prefer – is more than a brand; it’s a part of their identity.
Ashley would likely do well at Applike Couture. “Most girls my age are trying to find the happy medium: not too scandalous but they’re also getting in with the culture. It’s really hard sometimes,” she says. “On the weekends, people wear short shorts and inappropriate tank tops. I have, too. It’s just like, hard trying to fit in. If you don’t, they’ll say, Why are you wearing that instead of this? It’s hard to subject yourself to that.”
Isabella Rose Taylor, 12, of Austin, Texas, grew so frustrated with the styles available to her that she designed and launched her own clothing line, which she describes as girly with boyish charm. “There is a gap between clothes that are too young and too old for tweens,” she says. “A lot of girls are trying to be sexy and revealing because they think that’s cool. It’s just so our entire universe, and it’s hard not to be influenced by that. But I think that we can change it. I really want to show girls that you can just be whatever you want. You can be yourself.”
Ruby disappears into her bedroom in search of the crop top. Her room is a confection of maturing girlhood with the pink walls, polkadot curtains, countless photographs, a snow globe collection and handmade collages dedicated to newly discovered writers. Ruby admires Tina Fey, and wants to be a journalist and a comedian when she grows up. She joined YouTube when she was 8 years old, was on Tumblr by 11, Instagram later that year, and Facebook when she was 13. She also uses Vine, SnapChat and We Heart It.
“There is not enough monitoring in the world for the technology we have today,” jokes Kendra’s mom, Erika, who wears a light-green sweater, her black hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“Our kids are probably mentally and cognitively better prepared, but I think they’re not emotionally prepared for the world,” says Kimberly, Ava’s mom. Ava has an iPad, an iPod and a Mac computer and is into Disney celebrities and pop music. “The disparity between the two makes them even more emotionally immature. At some point it’s gonna really throw them.… They’re mature in many, many ways, but at heart they’re still 8.”
When I first interviewed Buckingham four years ago, she explained that parents were the gatekeepers, helping girls navigate popular culture, make good decisions, recover from bad ones and hold onto what remains of an authentic childhood. Two months ago, she had something very different to say: “Before, if you wanted to find out about sex or something innocuous – history, travel, whatever – you had to ask your parents. Now, you just google it.… It’s the pervasiveness of technology,” she says. “Parents have lost their role as gatekeepers.”
“People have this general, nebulous idea of girls as this mass of pink, selfie-taking, Kardashian clones,” Gevinson says. “And not only do I think that a lot of girls aren’t like that, but I also think the girls who are like that are maybe smarter than people give them credit for. For as much as there are a lot of awful messages sent out to girls at the moment, I think that they are better equipped to deal with it.”
Censorship, she argues, isn’t the solution. “You’re not helping a young person teaching them abstinence in the same way that you don’t help them by making sure they never, ever come across anything bad online. If you’re gonna have sex, this is the safe way to do it. When you use the Internet and find things that could be potentially damaging, this is what you do.”
For tween girls, having sexual knowledge is not the same as being sexualized, and the girl who understands the difference probably has a strong support system. If preteen girls are more capable of navigating their world than adults realize – if their new playground is online, on apps and on smartphones – should parents let children plug and play?
“There’s a question in child development about whether all of this social media will change the way we think normal development should be,” says Selter. “Either one of two things will happen. We see that it doesn’t really affect it, or we’re going to have to rewrite some of the theories about social development and reconsider what social development will look like in the age of social media.
“The framework is lagging, and I think it will only begin to evolve as we have more data. Based on older models, we’ll end up with a lot of self-centered, narcissistic people who can’t tolerate it when things don’t go their way. I hope not, but the jury is still out on that one.
“I don’t know what the long-term effect will be on these kids,” says Selter. “I don’t think anyone does.”
These are issues and ideas I don’t think about all that much because I don’t have kids (an article like this reinforces my gratitude for that). But I don’t want to cocoon myself in a bubble of ignorance or avoidance because this is the world I live in, and I need to think about these things. Check out the article yourself here and let me know what you think.
This spring I will be conducting a workshop for gay men called “THAT’S AMORE! — Creative Rituals for Intimacy and Connection” at Easton Mountain Retreat in upstate New York.
For busy, active adults in committed relationships, it’s often amazingly difficult to make time to enjoy each other’s company in a relaxed and intimate way. Professional responsibilities, family obligations, and housekeeping get the attention they demand – but what about exploring and growing together, erotic play, Quality Time For Us? For single guys, it’s relatively simple to organize fleeting sexual encounters in the monosyllabic parlance of social-networking apps (Top? Bottom? Hung? Stats?), but negotiating the steps that lead from a quick hookup to a sustained, mutually satisfying relationship can be mystifying. In this weekend retreat for gay men, participants will gain instruction and practice in creating simple, elegant, and fun ceremonies intended to foster intimacy and connection.
We’ll begin with practical instruction on the rudiments of creating ritual space: using sacred objects, formulating intentions, making time commitments. Rituals can be simple outlines for intentional actions, devised on the spur of the moment, that employ whatever is at hand and finish up in 10 minutes – or they can involve elaborate preparation and go on for hours. We’ll experiment with many variations over the course of a weekend. Each day we’ll explore ceremonies based on verbal communication and physical touch as well as the creative use of music, words, photography, movement, touch, meditation, food, and the natural environment.
The program is intended for single or partnered gay men who would enjoy spending a weekend in a structured environment that supports the quest for authentic love and affection. My intention is for each participant to leave with not only tools for connecting more deeply with other men but also a greater appreciation for yourself as a lover.
The workshop will begin at dinnertime Thursday April 24 and end at lunchtime Sunday April 27. The cost for the workshop is $495-695 (depending on your choice of accommodations).
Here’s a video of me talking a little more about the program. For more information, or to register for the workshop, go to Easton Mountain’s website here.
Belgian-born sex therapist Esther Perel is an expert on the subject of sex, intimacy, love, and desire in long-term relationships. The author of Mating in Captivity and the subject of a very smart and widely-circulated TED talk on desire, she was recently interviewed by Mark Leviton in The Sun, an excellent literary magazine renowned for its in-depth Q-and-As with remarkable thinkers.
I’m a tough customer when it comes to speaking and writing in this field, I suppose because these subjects are near and dear to my heart, and I hate the amount of misinformation, bad advice, and stale thinking that goes out under the rubric of relationship counseling. But Perel passes my bullshit-detector with flying colors. I found myself completely engrossed in this article (“A More Perfect Union”) and in agreement with her almost every step of the way. I particularly like the way she talks about fantasies and also how she addresses the subject of parenting in contemporary life. Since I’ve quoted those passages online already, I’ll offer an excerpt here in which she talks about the subject of infidelity:
I don’t abide by the perpetrator-victim model of infidelity, in which the cheater is criminalized and the victim is given all the empathy. I also don’t believe an affair automatically means the relationship is bad. Here’s the usual view: If we, as a couple, have everything we want from each other, there’s no reason for either of us to go elsewhere. Hence, if one of us goes elsewhere, there’s something missing between us; infidelity is a symptom of a problem in the relationship.
That’s sometimes the case, but affairs often have more to do with the unfaithful individual than with the couple. People go elsewhere for sex not so much because they want to leave their partners but because they want to escape who they themselves have become. They are looking for parts of themselves that they’ve lost because of the relationship. But many adulterers are reasonably content in their marriage and monogamous in their beliefs. In my experience most have been faithful for ten or fifteen years before they’ve cheated.
If you see adultery only as a symptom, you sometimes take good relationships that have worked well for decades and make them look like failures. I don’t think that’s right…
I’ve seen couples in which I’m convinced there’s an affair going on but no one wants to talk about it. I’ve seen couples in which one person keeps asking the question and the other keeps denying it, or one keeps dropping hints and the other doesn’t want to pick up on them. I’ve had clients who are resisting having an affair, and others who can’t talk clearly about their marriage because they are intoxicated by an ongoing affair and everything else pales in comparison. Or they are irritable and don’t want to go home because of their guilt or because they don’t like their partner at the moment. Other clients might want to be in the relationship, but their partner has Alzheimer’s and can’t recognize them, and they need a way to rejuvenate themselves so they can spend an hour every day with their partner at the nursing home. I hear about kinds of infidelities that never existed before now, but infidelity itself is timeless. At all four corners of the world, at any moment, someone is either betraying a beloved or being betrayed. Infidelity: historically condemned, universally practiced.
You can read the entire interview online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.