Winger said What?

14 Jun

I am not a nostalgist. Once in a blue moon I get depressed and wish I could be 19 or 20 again and wallow a bit. But, like everybody, I’m sure I’m remembering being 19 or 20 totally inaccurately. I’m sure I was as miserable then as anybody. And people who want to return to a “simpler time” are both vile and delusional.*

But I am deeply bugged by the saintification of kids. When did we cross the threshold into the land where everyone under 18 is a precious glass heirloom too fragile to be exposed to, well, anything? I mean, my college students mean other people when they use the word “adult.” When did this happen?

It’s true that the marking of change over time is often totally inaccurate and based in generalization, at best. So, to bolster my point, I present to you three items of evidence:


And I don’t mean the videos. I mean the songs themselves. The lyrics Can you imagine the tantrums in the mommy clubs about the sexualization of children if “Seventeen” came out now? In a world where this happens because some woman thinks that her children will be corrupted by walking past mannequins in a mall, I literally cannot imagine Winger’s “Seventeen” being anything but a relic.

I was fourteen when “Seventeen” came out. I was not damaged by it. Neither was anybody else.

According to a Guttmacher Institute 2006 report (pdf), the birth rate to women aged 15-19 in 1988, when the song was released, was 53/1000, with total pregnancy rates just over twice that (abortion and miscarriage apparently accounting for the difference). (Unless I’m reading this report wrong.) So, yeah, bearing Kip Winger’s child–or more likely, the child of a scrubby local approximation of Kip Winger who hangs around high school football games offering girls rides on his crotch rocket–would be pretty bad news. But every piece of information I can find contends that teen pregnancy has dropped dramatically since the late 80’s (anecdotal evidence seems to say so, too), and the report itself presents a substantial decline by 2002. Conversely, in this time of paranoia and abstinence education, in 2009 teen birth rates rose in 26 US states.

It seems clear to me that there’s something much more sinister going on than any logical attempt to prevent teen sex or teen pregnancy. The horror displayed at any acknowledgment of teens as sexual beings goes hand in hand with the pervasive sexualization of children by our consumer culture. Without it, stories about little girls in slutty clothes have little to say. And Bratz dolls don’t have a market.

The shock and outrage our corporate media so enthusiastically generate with stories about our poor, innocent children in a hypersexual culture present some danger. It’s when we shut up about sex–when we pretend, for example, that seventeen year old girls are not sexual beings–that we put the girls at risk. This is why abstinence education is an abject failure. But still: The heart of the problem isn’t sex ed. It isn’t media or corporations or consumers. At the heart of this dishonesty is a deep-seated need to divide girls into good and bad, the old virgin/whore dichotomy. If our daughters are virgins, they are good girls. If they are not, they are whores. Even girls who are victims of sex crimes have the responsibility laid at their own feet in rhetoric that tells girls if they don’t want to get raped they can never go out at night, can never drink alcohol, can never have impure thoughts. I read projects by eight of my smartest, most with-it students last spring that either said directly or implied that girls who “dress sexy” can’t expect to be respected by anyone, especially boys. The projects saddened, but did not surprise me.

We have now raised an entire generation that thinks that girls who wear short skirts are free for the taking. If a girl likes a song like “Seventeen,” she has to be a whore. There is no middle ground. We shun and we shame and we feign outrage. The whole time we’re lying to ourselves, and to the girls and the boys who are figuring out what it means to be sexual creatures, and what they mean to themselves and each other.

*What they mean by “simpler time” is “Get in the kitchen, bitch.” But that’s another sentiment, probably worthy of a post of its own, probably coming soon to a blog very near you.


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