The Lolita Effect addresses the media sexualization of young girls. In the book, I draw a distinction between healthy, age-appropriate concepts of sexuality that should develop as children mature, and “sexualization,” the harmful and objectifying version of female sexuality that is propagated by the commercial media, fueled by marketing. The title itself refers to the set of myths about girls’ sexuality that circulate in the mainstream media and in our culture. These myths stand in sharp contrast to healthy, factual, progressive notions of sexuality that would be beneficial to girls and to society as a whole.
In the book, I identify the five main myths of sexuality at work in popular media targeted to teens and children and explain why they offer a distorted and unhealthy notion of sex to kids. The book is theoretically based, drawing on the work of the French scholars Roland Barthes and Guy Debord as well as on feminist scholarship, but it is written for a general audience. In a way, it is critical feminist media theory in the guise of a parenting manual. Each chapter ends with practical, realistic strategies that parents and other caring adults can use to talk to children and guide them through the rough straits of our media-saturated environment.
“The feelgood the Lolita Effect promises is a consumer fantasy, and it’s designed to be short-lived, because the Lolita Effect needs to fuel constant consumerism in order to support the interconnected web of industries, from diet aids to pornography, that depend on it.”
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.
The Lolita Effect promises girls that they can experience joyful sexuality and femininity, but only at a price: the price of conforming to the restrictive ideals it imposes on the entire landscape of female sexuality. So if a girl is not slender-yet-voluptuous, if she is “too” dark-skinned or light-skinned or freckled or birthmarked, if she is modest about flaunting her body, if she has a physical or mental disability, if she doesn’t strive to measure up to the imaginary standards of the imaginary male gaze, if she is concerned about violence in her life, if she thinks sex is not a commodity to be traded, bought and sold … then she’s out of luck, as far as the Lolita Effect is concerned.
The Lolita Effect is not an affirmation or celebration of girls’ sexuality, in all its diverse and blossoming forms. On the contrary, it is a restrictive, hidebound, market-driven set of impositions on girls’ sexuality. And it’s virtually inescapable, because it’s the only definition of girls’ sexuality that’s represented in the globally circulating mainstream media.
The feelgood the Lolita Effect promises is a consumer fantasy, and it’s designed to be short-lived, because the Lolita Effect needs to fuel constant consumerism in order to support the interconnected web of industries, from diet aids to pornography, that depend on it. So any sense of genuine, self-loving, unfettered sexual pleasure is inimical to it. It needs girls (and later, women) to feel the anxieties it generates about sex enough to spend exorbitant amounts of money in its pursuit. But it offers a façade of sexual empowerment that is a powerful lure. The Lolita Effect is a sexual Venus’ Flytrap, seducing unwary victims with promises of nectar, then devouring them.
The Lolita Effect has toxic side-effects that are manifested in girls’ everyday lives. From eating disorders and body image issues to dating violence, teen pregnancy, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, girls everywhere grapple with the fallout from the Lolita Effect. For some girls, the side-effects aren’t significant. They can move past them and experience fulfilled, potent girlhoods and adult lives. But for others, the impacts are significant, long-term and devastating. The Lolita Effect operates on a continuum, affecting some girls much more negatively and brutally than others. But no girl is immune to it.
By maintaining that sex and desirability are the prerogatives only of girls who conform to the restricted criteria of the Lolita Effect, a whole range of possibilities and potential joys are being implicitly denied to millions of others. And even for those who come close to meeting the Lolita Effect’s grueling criteria, the stress of measuring up surely makes it hard to enjoy a relaxed, pleasurable sexual experience. Even as it dominates, the Lolita Effect is actually antithetical to girls’ sexual fulfillment.
“The media define girls as one-dimensional creatures whose sole attribute is sexuality […] Girls are intelligent, creative, artistic, athletic, spiritual, community-spirited, and powerful. They need to be recognized as complex individuals.”
The Lolita Effect is intended to start a national conversation about girls’ sexuality, the media, consumerism, and culture. It’s intended to galvanize activism on behalf of our girls — activism against sexual exploitation of every kind, from mainstream media objectification to the harsh realities of child sex trafficking and child pornography. In a media-saturated environment, the book advocates for media literacy as a required part of the K-12 curriculum. The media define girls as one-dimensional creatures whose sole attribute is sexuality; my book celebrates girls as multi-dimensional beings with a great deal to offer. Girls are intelligent, creative, artistic, athletic, spiritual, community-spirited, and powerful. They need to be recognized as complex individuals whose value far exceeds sexuality. The response to the book has been heartening. Along with being reviewed in a variety of mainstream outlets, from People magazine to The Washington Post, it has generated reader response that indicates it is striking a chord in contemporary society. For me, the notion of praxis – linking theory to real-world activism, practice, and social change – is a vital part of my scholarly commitment. The Lolita Effect is effecting that crucial connection.
Dr. Meenakshi Gigi Durham is an associate professor in the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication. She has authored numerous articles on gender and sexuality in the media, especially regarding youth culture, for leading academic journals such as Critical Studies in Media Communication, Communication Theory, and Women’s Studies in Communication.