Mommy, What’s a Blow Job?

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne
(Ballantine Books)

I really wish that when I was in preschool, my parents had told me that it’s okay to masturbate.

Yeah, that’s right – I’ve been masturbating since preschool. (Not continuously, smart ass.) At age 4, I polished the knob. At age 9, I tickled the pink. At age 12, I buffed the muff. And you can be sure that I developed a deep sense of shame and disgust about it almost as soon as I learned to understand language. I had no idea what it was or that it was related in any way to reproduction; my first and only lesson about it was that a) it was wrong, and b) I was the only human being on the planet sick enough to do it.

Which isn’t to say that sex education was absent during my childhood. I knew from a very early age what the word “sexy” meant. She-Ra was sexy. Strawberry Shortcake was not sexy. When the grown women in my life put on makeup and heels, they became sexy, and they stopped being sexy when they changed into jeans and T-shirts. In fifth grade, the girls in my class started shaving their legs, and I became painfully aware of my own coarse carpet of hair. My mom and I fought about it for weeks. She was (rightly) appalled that an eleven-year-old was gunning to take a razor to her legs, but unfortunately, her flat refusal only made me more determined to do it. See, I needed to do it. In a Southern California April, wearing long pants wasn’t an option, so it was either shave or endure teasing about my hideous gorilla-legs. The fact that my mom didn’t seem to understand only served to turn her into an opponent instead of an ally – someone I learned to hide things from throughout my entire adolescence.

By now, at least some of this story probably sounds familiar to you.

Diane E. Levin and Jean Kilbourne’s So Sexy So Soon seeks to address this very type of childhood experience: a complete lack of awareness about sex and reproduction coupled with a media-fed understanding of sexiness – that is, as one young girl in the book explains, getting boys to chase you and try to kiss you – that revolves around emulating TV characters and buying as many products as possible. It’s strange that our concept of attractiveness is contingent on spending money; indeed, as Levin and Kilbourne point out, sexiness and consumerism have fused together into one single phenomenon. You can’t be a consumer without being sexy, and you can’t be sexy without consuming. And kids are learning as early as preschool that it is imperative to be sexy at all times. It seems the authors had plenty of horror stories to choose from when compiling the book, which is brimming with tales of seven-year-old girls going on diets and fretting over how to get shirts that reveal their belly buttons, along with boys trying to make sense of “professional wrestling girl[s] with big boobies” and learning from TV that sex and violence are intimately connected. This atmosphere doesn’t only feed consumerism and hatred of one’s body; it also perpetuates rape culture. If girls are learning that boys are supposed to “chase you around,” and boys are learning that fist fights are how you solve problems, imagine how deeply these messages are imprinted by the time kids reach adolescence.

Now, as you may have already noticed, the title is a bit misleading. The book isn’t, as I initially thought, about borderline pedophilia – rather, it focuses largely on a phenomenon called “age compression,” in which children go through developmental stages earlier and earlier in life (like the seven-year-old feeling ashamed of her weight), and how the media both causes and exploits that phenomenon. Also, although the book is aimed at parents horrified at their kids’ fascination with Bratz dolls and Lingerie Barbie, most of the prescriptive elements in the book take the form of general media literacy training: how to encourage critical thinking, which types of toys to avoid, ideas for political action, etc. It’s extraordinarily useful advice, but it could have gone into any book on child rearing.

Furthermore, aside from a few mentions here and there of race and class issues, most of the book is heavily steeped in white, middle-class privilege. The advice they give on evaluating the TV shows your kids want to watch – recording them, watching them together, and talking about them afterward – is fantastic if you’re not working multiple jobs or night shifts. Urging you to develop a partnership with your kid’s school assumes that the teacher is going to take you seriously. And all the casual references to “dressing like hookers” aren’t doing sex workers any favors.

Finally, the writing itself is often downright annoying. The phrase “caring relationship” comes up at least a dozen times throughout the course of the book. Do the authors think we’ll forget when sex is supposed to occur unless they pound it into our heads? (Furthermore, why aren’t we challenging the assumption that sex outside of a committed relationship is inherently bad? The book’s section on hook-up culture doesn’t deviate a whole lot from the hand-wringing of Laura Sessions Stepp; their premise seems to be that having sex with someone other than The One, or at least One of The Ones, will destroy you emotionally. Yes, hook-up culture as it currently exists is pernicious, but why not create a healthy, honest sexual culture based on respect and bodily autonomy instead of continuing to yell “Not yet! Not yet! Not yet!” at teens? As someone who, shockingly, has had sex outside of a caring relationship, I can tell you that it can go just fine.) To top it off, throughout the final chapters of the book, the authors cap arguments with random quotes from various famous people – Raffi, Mahatma Gandhi, Howard Beale, William James, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Mead, and child psychologist Kate Rademacher – in a hackneyed effort to lend gravity to their writing.

So, with that laundry list of flaws out of the way, what does the book do well? I found that the sample conversations between parents and children were the most enlightening; where most parents might be tempted to simply refuse a request (for a diet, for a toy, for a definition of porn), Levin and Kilbourne demonstrate alternate routes that let the child come to answers organically and ultimately work with parents, not against them, to form understandings of sexuality and sexualization. These conversations can also help parents avoid blunders like one described near the beginning of the book, in which a boy says he wants to have sex with his classmate and is roundly punished before anyone thinks to ask him for his definition of sex. Turns out he thought it meant giving someone a kiss. Also, even though the sections on media literacy don’t have a whole lot to do with sexualization, if you want to learn about the media’s effect on children’s creativity and sense of self, So Sexy So Soon is a good place to start.

Just make sure you do it fast. With its multiple references to a rabidly conservative government that’s no longer in power, So Sexy So Soon may be quickly becoming obsolete. It’s useful, though, for parents who want to develop a basic understanding of how a child’s mind works, so that they can become allies and not enemies as their kids navigate the sexual climate around them.


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21 Responses to Mommy, What’s a Blow Job?

  1. excellent post. it is quite refreshing that there are books out there that explain sex and explain how you can explain sex to children, rather than the books i was given when i was a child; you know the ones, about how sex is for mommies and daddies, and only in order to produce a child?
    i too was ashamed of masturbation without even knowing what it was. i’m not sure what exactly made me think that, but i think i gathered that genitalia was dirty from pieces together tv shows and my parents’ reactions to said tv shows…
    also, i’ve been anxious about how i’m going to teach sex to my future children, and it’s good to know that by the time i decide to have any, there will be some helpful literature for me to consult…

  2. AL says:

    when I was in elementary school, a 5th-grader brought a condom to school. I didn’t know what a condom was, so I asked my mom. I never got a straight answer, though. in my family, sex (and masturbating!) was cloaked in secrecy, which wasn’t really helpful to me or my sisters.

    the struggle between protecting young children from exploitative “sexy” things like Bratz, etc. and actually being honest with them about sex is an interesting one. I hope I’m wise enough to figure it out if I ever have a kid.

    it is a shame, however, that it’s only written for the white and privileged.

  3. Hugo says:

    I’ve been thinking about getting the book, worried about the whole Stepp-ford wife angle, and wondering if it was worth reading — and am very glad to have this review, which pushes me towards picking it up only for those suggested dialogues. I have a storehouse of my own from years of youth work, but am always happy to have more.

  4. Michael says:

    Always interesting to see reactions of small children to their experiences of masturbation — I had a very similar one but the question is if this happens before the child sees any mention of it in conversation (and is unlikely to understand media references) doesn’t this suggest the shame is to an extent inherent?

    On the other hand there are plenty of documented cases of foetuses masturbating in the womb..

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  6. Just Saying says:

    Anyone who has worked in a daycare will tell you, at naptime pretty much every 3 year old not interrupted will rub themselves to sleep. It is not sexual in terms of intercourse and reproduction. It is a physical release to enable nap time to occur. And then naptime is phased out by K, usually, and by then you certainly have been taught by your caregivers that touching yourself is not allowed. If not, your peers will instruct in your level of inappropriateness in no gentle terms.

    Shame in not inherent. It is taught, and taught quite young. And usually more harshly to girls than boys in my limited experience.

  7. L. G. says:

    I’ve always been a fairly small person, both height and weight wise. The only time I’ve ever put on a significant amount of weight was just before puberty, which I understand is pretty normal. My mom, on the other hand, freaked out. She took me, at the time an eleven year old, along to her Weight Watcher’s classes and having me get up on the scale in front of the other women there.
    I don’t think I need to tell you that I’ve had some pretty vicious body image problems since then. I was anorexic in highschool, and though I know my BMI is both healthy and steady, I still have trouble regarding myself as ‘thin enough’ to be considered attractive.

    So it’s good to hear that, despite flaws, there is a book that addresses these kinds of topics for parents. I don’t believe my mom ever considered that her actions could be damaging, and was instead thinking of her own constant dieting problems as a young woman. She didn’t do any research about normal patterns of development, and as I was the oldest of her children she hadn’t had any previous experience to inform her. She also shamed me vociferously and publicly for my weight and appearance, so there’s a definite possibility that this adversely effected my younger siblings’ body images as well. :\

  8. Ruchama says:

    When I worked at a summer camp one year, with 5-7-year-olds (plus some older developmentally disabled kids), we were told in training that if we see a kid touch him or herself, we should just say, “(Kid’s name), inappropriate.” we used that same sort of phrasing for various other things — kids getting into other kids’ personal space, kids using inappropriate language, and so on. It was meant to be a way to quickly tell the kid to stop it without making a big deal out of it. And kids do need to be taught not to masturbate in public, but it can be done as “that’s a private thing” without making it shameful.

  9. Lauren says:

    I documented one of our many sex talks here — this was probably the most significant talk we’ve had over the years. Now we’re at a point where E is starting to develop crushes and all the baggage that goes with it — primarily the shock and embarrassment that goes with finding out someone likes him.

    Now, when I was his age I remember being far more sexually conscious than he seems to be, as in, wanting to feel sexually attractive, concern with being fat, playing “goose” with the boys on the playground, and all that. I get the feeling though that his school has an altogether different culture that sort of minimizes these kinds of growing pains (I’m assuming — my friends’ kids outside of this school system seem to be more entrenched in it).

  10. Isabel says:

    Urging you to develop a partnership with your kid’s school assumes that the teacher is going to take you seriously.

    Hmm. While I agree with you that this is more likely to happen in schools with relatively wealthier pupils, I actually think this advice can be useful for the non-economically privileged. In my experience working in a school in a very low-income neighborhood, a lot of the teachers really wanted to form partnerships or bonds with the parents of their students but the parents just never came in. I don’t blame them for this at all – maybe they’d had bad experiences at another school or with another teacher, maybe they didn’t speak English, or didn’t speak it well, and didn’t think that could be accommodated (we did have a couple of bilingual teachers), or maybe they just didn’t have the time/energy/etc. But, it is also possible that some of them just didn’t think about whether it might be beneficial or not, etc. So I agree with your statement, but I still think this could be helpful advice for non-economically privileged parents (though maybe less so in the context of the book, from what you’ve said).

    This book sounds very interesting. I especially like the anecdote about how no one asked the boy what he thought sex was. My default response to little kids who do things like call each other “faggot” or “gay” or insult each other by saying “go have sex!” is to ask them what they think that means. Usually they can’t give me any sort of response, and I tell them that if they don’t know what a word means, they shouldn’t be using it to hurt people. But I don’t always respond to this sort of situation in a way I’m satisfied with, so I’m definitely interested in advice in that direction.

  11. chingona says:

    when I was in elementary school, a 5th-grader brought a condom to school. I didn’t know what a condom was, so I asked my mom. I never got a straight answer, though.

    I remember being about that age – 9 or 10 – and hearing something somewhere about oral sex and asking my parents what it was. They said “If you don’t know already, we’re not about to tell you.” So I went to the library and looked up sex in the World Book Encyclopedia and read the entire entry to no avail. That is, it didn’t tell me anything about oral sex, though I did learn a lot of other stuff. I do rather tremble to imagine what I might have learned, however, if the same thing had happened in the days of Google. I will do my best to answer my kid’s questions myself.

  12. This reminds me of The Lolita Effect that came out last year, also about the media’s sexualization of little girls, though it doesn’t have the spin of how parents can talk to their children. My two cents is that when a child is old enough to ask, they’re old enough to be told the truth, albeit in an age appropriate way.

  13. pastfirst says:

    An excellent article. I know exactly what you mean.
    I have 3 teen-age kids and hopefully I’m doing a better job than my parent’s did. I openly discuss everything, sometimes to the point of embarrassing them with my openess.
    My mother didn’t even prepare me for menstruation so I cried hysterically and thought I was bleeding to death.

  14. Sarah says:

    Oh god, I know exactly how you feel about thinking that you’re the only one masturbating. When I was younger people would ask if I had any secrets. And I’d always say yes, but there was “one secret that I’d NEVER tell”. And it was the masturbating. I have masturbated since I was like 2, or as far back as I can remember. I remember the shame and guilt I’d feel after I was done. I don’t know when I stopped feeling the shame, probably around puberty when I realized that other people did it too.
    But I absolutely will tell my future son/daughter that it’s normal when they do it. I will tell them anything they want to know actually, as long as I feel like I can say it in the right way, and that they will receive me in the right way.

  15. Maria P. says:

    Ahh, masturbation… I think my mother not mentioning it (other than a comment about washing one’s hands after “touching [the] crotch”) was one of the best things that she could have done for my sexual development. I remember being horrified when I learned from a classmate (in 4th or 5th grade) that “normal” sex (PIV, natch) was completely different from masturbation. He puts what where?! That sounds awful!

    Abstinence only folks? I didn’t have anything to do with males until I met an insanely wonderful person in my last year at university. I could have my sexual satisfaction any time I wanted, 100% pregnancy/STD/angst-free — why would I bother trying to be sex-ay and hawt for teh boys?

    But on the subject of girls being pressured into being hawt, I cringe when I have to compliment one of my kindergarteners on her My First High Heels. A lot of gender stuff works differently here in Thailand, but heels are non-negotiable. (Well, for middle- and upper-class folks.) Hey, get started early enough and you’ll become like my coworker who can’t even wear flat shoes any more!

    Argh. If I ever have a daughter, I hope I’m able to give her the critical awareness to avoid this kind of ridiculousness.

  16. Kaninchen says:

    Yeah, my mom — a shitty parent in many, many, many ways — got masturbation exactly right. Her only comment to me was to point out that it was something I should do with the door closed. I have no idea where she got it from; her mother has a pathological fear of closed doors. And no respect for other people’s boundaries, which I think is the general case of the specific thing about doors.

  17. Ruchama says:

    I remember in fourth or fifth grade, a boy on the playground at recess started shouting, “I have a boner! I have a boner!” I had no idea what that meant, so when I got home, I asked my mom. My question interrupted her in the middle of a phone call, but I guess she decided that her 10-year-old daughter asking about boners was important enough to ask the friend on the phone to hold on for a minute. She gave me a short explanation — something like, “sometimes, the veins in men’s penises get more blood, and that makes the penis hard,” — and I responded, “You mean like an erection?” My mother, really trying not to laugh, responded, “Yes, it’s another word for erection,” and then went back to her phone call. Afterwards, she asked me where I’d heard those words, and I told her (“boner” from the kid on the playground, “erection” from a “what’s happening to your body” book I’d read), and evidently decided that my questions weren’t really anything to be concerned about.

  18. I told my kid, when she was very young, that 1) one could not touch one’s genitalia in public, and 2) you should not tell anyone else that you did. Those were the rules.

    Obviously, I was saying what WAS acceptable, by telling her what was not.

    Later, she thanked me for that. Probably one of the few things I got right!

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  21. Larone says:

    I learned about sex when I was 11 I had heard the word mentioned before but had never had any interest in knowing what it was up intil the point I started masterbating also at 11 any way I learned about sex from a collection of encyclopedias that we had in our living room I would stay up at night and read them for fear that my parents would stop me and I would get In trouble for reading something “bad”.

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