On Monday, September 20, in conjunction with "Love Your Body Week" at Loyola University New Orleans, women's studies and mass communications scholar Dr. Gigi Durham presented a free, public lecture, "The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It." Highlighting several points discussed in her book of the same title, Durham discussed the five myths that comprise the female-plaguing phenomenon she has coined "The Lolita Effect." The five myths are, in summary, a set of media messages that offer misleading representations of female sexuality and the female body.
The lecture began with the presentation of several alarming statistics that illustrate the real life consequences caused by the five myths of "The Lolita Effect":
- Women account for 90–95% of all cases of anorexia nervosa and 80% of those who struggle with bulimia nervosa. (Source: National Institute for Mental Health)
- In a study of 13 Northern California schools, 35% of third grade girls (average age 8) reported wanting to lose weight while 24% reported dieting to lose weight.
- The use of diet pills, powders or liquids to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight is higher among women in grades 9–12 than it is among young men of the same age group.
- There has been a 600% increase in womens' death rates from lung cancer since 1950. (Source: Recent surgeon general’s report)
- Smoking among girls and young women increased dramatically during the 1990s. From 1991 through 1999, smoking among high school girls increased from 27–34% percent.
- Over the last 20 years, lung cancer has become the leading cause of death among women, showing a nearly 400% increase since 1989.
In pursuit of the roots of these unsettling realities, which paint a bleak picture of a population of American women suffering from issues stemming from poor body-image and a resulting, disturbing decrease in healthy, self-nurturing choices, Durham turned to the media.
“Market research indicates that children and teenagers are major media consumers. Teens, in particular, get most of their information about sex from the media. They turn to the media for information about sex far more than they do their parents, their teachers or even their peers,” said Durham.
According to Durham, recent studies have shown a direct correlation between teen consumption of media containing high levels of sexual content and teen sexual activity. Those who were exposed to sexy media were more likely to exhibit sexual behaviors, including teen pregnancy. Levels of teen pregnancy are rising, and a study done by the Center for Disease Control in 2000 showed that one in four teenage girls had a sexually transmitted disease.
“What we can see from this is that girls are not getting the information, understanding or confidence that they need to control their sexual lives and make decisions that are good for them,” said Durham. "I looked at a huge amount of media that target girls, in particular girls and children, and what I saw, over and over again, was that these certain myths of sexuality kept coming up over and over again.”
Durham continued on to explain the five myths of “The Lolita Effect”:
Myth #1: If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
“This very simplistic formula that the more you take off the sexier you are is really negating all these other complicating factors that make up human sexuality. It’s putting girls in the position of having to display their bodies usually for the male gaze, for boys to look at and arbitrate and judge. It puts girls in a more vulnerable position in part because this myth comes in the conditional: IF you’ve got it, flaunt it,” said Durham.
Myth #2: “It” = The body of a sex goddess.
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And what is “it”? “It” is basically the anatomy of a sex goddess. If you’ve got the anatomy of a sex goddess, then you can flaunt it. And we all know what that particular anatomy involves; a completely unrealistic and completely unattainable body; extremely slender, tight as a tick, no flab anywhere, and yet extremely large breasts. Which is a body not found in nature. Nobody comes to that body naturally,” said Durham.
Myth #3: Pretty babies.
“The younger a girl is, the sexier she is. And we’re seeing this message reiterated over and over again in the media,” said Durham. To better explain how the media sends the message of the “pretty babies” myth, Durham cited the following examples:
- The pole dancing kit, marketed by British retailer Tesco, features a little plastic pole, a child size garter belt and fake money to tuck into it.
- A photo published in Vanity Fair, a widely circulated, gender-neutral magazine with equal rates of male and female readers, featured a very young, flat-chested female posing erotically for a Louis Vuitton ad.
When Durham asked lecture attendees how old the girl looked, a male member of the audience estimated her to be ten years old.
“Ten or eleven," Durham agreed, "and yet, she’s being presented as a legitimate object of sexual desire. She’s a very young girl, clearly underage, probably hasn’t even reached puberty yet, and she’s in this extremely eroticized pose. And this is not from some child porn magazine. This was in Vanity Fair. And there was no public outcry about this, no protest," Durham continued.
She cited that one in four girls, and one in five boys in the United States are thought to have been sexually abused.
"Given the really high rates of child sexual abuse, are these media actually helping in terms of a growing problem with child sexual abuse? This is something I really have to question,” said Durham.
Myth #4: Violence is sexy.
Durham cited an observation made by masculinity scholar Jackson Katz, pointing out the common timing of female murders in many contemporary slasher films; the killer often strikes at the most erotic moment, when a female has just removed her clothing or is in a sexual (and vulnerable) position.
“The point is that right when you’re average teenage boy is highly aroused by this scene, that’s when the violence happens. So that connection between arousal and violence is reiterated in these kinds of media. We need to be questioning whether these media are actually creating an atmosphere in which this type of violence is supported and normalized,” Durham probed.
Myth #5: What boys like matters more than what girls like.
“We see this particularly in media aimed at young girls. It’s constantly telling girls that all the ways in which they have to think about sexuality is aimed at pleasing and attracting the male gaze or attracting boys. It never goes the other way, what a boy can do to attract a girl, or there’s never anything there about what girls want. What about girls’ sexual pleasures? What about girls’ desires? What about girls’ boundaries? There’s never anything about that. There’s this whole missing discourse about girls’ desire,” said Durham.
To illustrate her point, Durham presented covers of popular teen (girls’) magazines which featured titles such as "Get Him to Notice You," "How Far Must a Girl Go to Get his Attention?," and "How to Become His Girlfriend."
Even in light of the absurdity of some media messages regarding female sexuality, Durham remains adamantly opposed to censorship. Her approaches to the problems presented by media misrepresentations regarding female sexuality and the female body would be, in a sense, just the opposite. She advocates a dedication to increasing open, public discourse about female sexuality and the female body, encouraging and teaching media literacy and raising awareness, all of which she believes would be steps toward debunking some of the factors at play behind the nationwide crisis that has yielded rising numbers of teen pregnancy, STDs, negative body-image, mental illness, and hazardous behavior among young girls and women.
“As a feminist, as a women's studies scholar and as an advocate for girls and women’s rights, I believe that these myths are preventing us from truly understanding, respecting, and yes, loving our bodies,” Durham said.