As mentioned in the introduction to this series of blog posts, I will be posting excerpts of chapters from Boys, Sex & Media with PDF links to the complete chapters. Use the blog tag “Boys-Sex-Media” to find all of the posts in this series. The excerpt of Chapter One is below. Click this PDF link to read the entire chapter.
“In our culture, sex is becoming more and more visible, and more explicit.” ~ Feona Attwood
It is hard to argue with this statement by Feona Attwood, a media and communications professor who studies sex in contemporary culture. The adjectives “explicit” and “visible” were well chosen: together they provide a very accurate summary of the current, sexualized state of our media and wider culture.
Greater openness about sexuality is not necessarily a bad thing. Positive, age-appropriate sexual materials, delivered in the right context, are especially good for teens trying to make sense of their emerging sexuality. Unfortunately, with producers and celebrities increasingly relying on twerk-and-grind imagery and excessive displays of skin to attract attention, much of the sexual content in today’s popular culture is both negative in tone and inappropriate for the ever younger audiences that encounter it.
It is not just the visibility and explicit nature of sexual content that is of concern, but also the implicit messages this content delivers about sex and sexual roles. Pop culture depictions of sexuality are dominated by stereotyped views of gender, traditional notions of male-female sexual relationships (known in academic circles as the heterosexual script), and sexual objectification of women. These three elements pervade the media aimed at adolescents and perpetuate some very harmful ideas about male and female sexuality. They also provide a foundation for the issues discussed in the remainder of the book, so I will take some time to define them here.
If we dig deeply enough into the negative messages in sexualized media, we can see that gender stereotypes are at their root.
When we are born, we have no idea what it means to be a boy or a girl. Traditional notions about gender, long-established in our culture and passed onto us by the adults in our lives, provide lessons in how to be “appropriately” masculine or feminine.
In most Western countries, traditional views of masculinity define boys and men as naturally rational, assertive, aggressive, tough, competitive, and possessing physical, mental, and social strength and power. This masculine ideal holds the highest value in our society. Boys and men might not follow its every rule, but it is the standard against which they are measured and to which they compare themselves.
Traditional femininity positions women quite differently from men. They are considered gentler and more emotional than men, passive, weaker, less assertive, and more inclined toward restraint and self-denial. (These attitudes persist despite societal shifts that show more women taking on the role of breadwinner, and more men acting less as provider and protector of the family and more as partner in life and parenting.)
These socially constructed ideals of masculinity and femininity tell teens what their response should be to their sexual urges and how they should behave in a sexual relationship: boys, as aggressive and physical beings, should pursue sex with lusty vigour and confidence; girls, excessively emotional and less tempted by carnal desires, should choose love and commitment over down-and-dirty sex.
A boy’s gender socialization begins early and often lays the groundwork for his future attitudes toward sexual roles and dating. The trajectory starts in the preschool and primary grades, when girls and boys receive very different messages about what their gender means, and continues to the pre-teen and teen years where lessons learned in childhood are reinforced in the media and culture that surround boys.
Consider the most basic aspect of childhood: play. While many girls and boys today are comfortable playing with a wide range of toys—girls with building toys, boys with kitchens and baby dolls—there is one particular type of imaginary play targeted to girls exclusively: “pretty play.”
This kind of play involves girls dressing up as princesses or pageant queens, putting on makeup, accessorizing with jewellery, pretending to enjoy a spa day, or playing with high-heeled, mini-skirted, often sexualized dolls that emphasize fashion and having the right look. The toys used in this kind of play place an emphasis on appearance that is absent from toys targeted to boys. A boy who dresses up as Iron Man or a police officer is doing so to play an active role, not to be admired or gazed upon as a princess or pageant participant might.
Unwitting adults add to the problem by complimenting girls, but not boys, on their appearance and making fashion and shopping a focus for their daughters but not their sons. The differences in treatment are not lost on children and can affect behaviour and attitudes. Many young girls develop a concern for appearance that boys of the same age simply do not. For their part, boys see the considerable effort girls put into being “pretty” and may begin to view that trait as far more important than the other attributes girls might possess, setting the stage for future evaluations of their female peers and the development of the so-called male gaze.
Another narrative that runs through the culture of young children is boy-as-hero. Many pop culture vehicles show males in the leadership or hero role, whether in the superhero genre itself, in male-dominated cartoon franchises, or video games. (The latter category includes one of the most egregious examples: Princess Peach from the Super Mario franchise, the damsel in distress who is in constant need of rescue by Mario.) Part and parcel of the male hero role is the diminishing of relationships. Unlike many female characters who worry over husbands or boyfriends, busy male heroes do not have time to think about love and romance. There may be nothing overtly sexual in the male hero and lovestruck female tropes geared to younger children, but they do reinforce stereotypical notions of men as less vested in their emotions and relationships.
Other stereotypes start young and can affect boys’ later sexual socialization. Stoicism is one of them. It is seen every time an adult exhorts a boy not to cry or tells him to “suck it up” or “act like a man.” The message is loud and clear. If you are a boy, you need to deal with your problems in silence; you do not cry or talk about what is bothering you. As boys enter their pre-teen and teenage years, this stereotype can be particularly damaging. Boys who are discouraged from talking about life in general may become reluctant to talk about matters sexual. In our rather uptight culture, sexuality is a hard subject for any young person to broach; being male just makes it that much harder. Male independence is another stereotype that comes into play here. Boys raised to believe they should never ask for help may refrain from asking questions about sex so they can maintain an air of self-sufficiency and prove they are man enough to figure out sex on their own.
Physical ideals are also rooted in stereotypes of men as strong and dominant. In recent years, there has been more emphasis on the perfect male form in our culture. This shift has had an impact on boys’ body image and their perceptions of what makes men attractive. Hint: a 6-pack is often part of the package.
As boys get older, they are introduced to another idea that is based in gender stereotypes but has a more direct impact on sexual socialization: the heterosexual script.
Read the full chapter in this PDF. Chapter Two will be published this weekend.