M. Gigi Durham


On her book The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do about It

Cover Interview of December 05, 2008

The wide angle

There has been a great deal of public discussion lately about the sexualization of girlhood, from the provocative Bratz dolls for toddlers (described by Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker as looking like “pole dancers on their way to work at a gentleman’s club”) to the recent nude photographs of 15-year-old Disney star Miley Cyrus that ran in Vanity Fair.  Unfortunately, the debates are highly polarized, situating girls’ sexuality as either taboo and sinful or, at the other extreme, to be unquestioningly celebrated.  In truth, sexuality is a complex and serious issue, and the realities of girls’ sexuality lie somewhere between the two extremes.  In the United States, we have extremely high rates of teen pregnancy and STDs.  Our teen pregnancy rates are rising, and they are already the highest in any industrialized nation.  A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that one in four U.S. teen girls has a sexually transmitted disease.  A quarter of all girls have been sexually abused.  These statistics demonstrate that we are not providing girls with a safe, healthy or helpful sexual environment.  The conservative position denies them knowledge about their bodies, about contraception, and about real sexual empowerment that would involve setting boundaries and recognizing the responsibilities of sexual activity.  The liberal position takes a hands-off approach that disallows any critique of the profit-driven version of sexuality that proliferates in our culture to the detriment of girls’ progress and well-being.  We need to find a middle ground that offers a sensible, proactive, nonexploitative, feminist concept of sexuality.  This book attempts to open up a discussion that would result in such a formulation.

My interest in this topic began with my anti-violence activism in graduate school.  I was particularly interested in stopping sexual violence against women.  I began to be curious about whether the media played a role in women’s victimization, so I started analyzing representations of gender and sexuality in women’s fashion and beauty magazines.  From there, I began to question when it all started, and turned my attention to teen media.  After publishing numerous studies on the regressive and unrealistic messages in these media, I went out into the field to interview girls about how these texts were impacting their lives.  The Lolita Effect is the culmination of some 13 years of research on this subject.  Whereas my academic work has been published in scholarly journals, this book allowed me to draw on my previous experience as a journalist and write about complex topics for a general audience.