FYI (if you're a parent to a teenager)
I have some information that might interest you.
Your teenage sons have raging hormones – so do your teenage daughters. So, for that matter, do your trans* and queer teenagers. So let’s start this letter by leaving off the gender-specific nature of some of these conversations, shall we? Adolescence is tricky enough without resorting to classifying people into a binary gender box that only works sometimes. Moving on.
The teenagers you are supporting as they walk through adolescence are facing massive amounts of information, are being forced to make decisions about social interactions that none of us are really ready for, and and they’re doing it under the weight of crushing hormonal change.
So what should you tell your young people about the degree and nature of the visual stimulation – the innundation of selfies – the sexualization of young people, both by themselves and by others? How do you help your young people navigate these treacherous waters and arrive at a place of self respect and respect of their peers?
You do not, Parents of Teenagers, do this by deleting your teenagers’ Internet connections with a one-strike-you’re-out policy. You do not do it by scrutinizing (or teaching your teenager to scrutinize) whether someone is wearing a bra in a picture. You do not do it by teaching them that calling out another person’s sexuality is ever appropriate. You do not do it by invading your young people’s privacy, online or off.
You do it through conversation – hours and hours of conversation that start with children before they turn five about what it means to be a boy or a girl. These early childhood conversations turn into adolescent conversations that openly discuss what someone might be trying to say with a selfy. Approach these images – all of them – as though they’re art hanging in a museum. Talk about composition, about lighting, about message. Respect what your young people have to say on the matter – they have opinions too, and those opinions are probably more important right now than your own.
See, the thing is, your teenagers spend more time in their own head than in yours. You cannot control what is inside their heads. Instead, you should try and get into your teenagers’ heads along with them. Hang out with them there. Understand what makes them tick without making them feel guilty about ticking in the first place. You’ll eventually learn the levers, the moments, the small openings, when an opinion or a thought from you can slide in and fit just right.
Sometimes raising teenagers is talked about as this time in your life where you have to have iron clad approaches to things, particularly to controlling your children. But that ignores so much of the potential joy of the experience. Jump on that train of joy and hilarity and absurdity. Have those conversations, have them in depth, and listen to the passion your teenager brings to them. Both of you will be better for it.
This post was inspired by a letter titled FYI (if you’re a teenage girl) going around right now from a mother to all teenage girls who is threatening to cut Facebook and other Internet ties between her sons and girls who post pictures of themselves without bras on. I call bullshit. I also call slut shaming, a shallow thought process, and a disappointing lack of commitment to conversation with her sons.
There’s another recent blog post, Seeing a Woman: A conversation between a father and son, that I really love. Some favorite quotes include, “It is a woman’s responsibility to dress herself in the morning. It is your responsibility to look at her like a human being regardless of what she is wearing.” and “A woman, or any human being, should not have to dress to get your attention. You should give them the full attention they deserve simply because they are a fellow human being. On the other side, a woman should not have to feel like she needs to protect you from you. You need to be in control of you.” This is, of course, the case regardless of the gender of the people involved, but the strength of the words is notable.
I regards to…
“It is your responsibility to look at her like a human being regardless of what she is wearing.”
Does this logic apply to this image?
Yes, Rey, absolutely! Every person. Every moment of every day.
What about that would make you think she’s not a person?
Silly, sure. Ridiculous, sure. Being a huge dork that she’ll maybe regret later? Sure.
But for you to want to dehumanize someone for something like that means you’re a lot less human than she is.
Grow up. Cause right now you’re tying with Miley and all you did is type. Impressive.
Uhm, what? Why wouldn’t it?
Here is a great resource for having those kinds of difficult, but so so important conversations with teens! It was written by youth for adults! http://www.100conversations.org/
Rey, if you can’t look at her as a human being in that photo, can you look at him as one? No double standard, right? How about looking at them both as pop culture entertainers who wanted to grab and hold the spotlight for a while (which they successfully did, judging by your fixation after more than a week)? If it bothers you, change the channel. If you have children, follow the guidelines of this fantastic article, and ask them how they feel about it. Perhaps it would be a great opening to talk about personal choices. Cheers.
Perfect reply, FS!
The best response yet to the whole Mrs. Hall thing.
While I think the “Seeing a Woman” post is a really nice corrective to that slut-shaming post by the “Christian” mom, I also think it’s a little too PC to be realistic or helpful. (I much prefer yours, and yours is in tension with his.)
Yes, men should see women for the full range of who they are, and not just as clothes or bodies. On the other hand, this is coming extremely close to chastising people (in particular, men) for being physically attracted to this woman but not to that one, which is a ridiculous position. Sexual attraction is not an equal-opportunity force. We all — men and women — prefer physical traits that catch our eye and erotic imagination more than others. (My average height and slim build, for instance, are a big turn-off to a good number of women who only feel strong attraction to taller, more muscular men. I don’t take that as a judgment about my worth as a person.)
No person should be reduced to his or her physical traits, but, fundamentally, our bodies are objects in the most literal sense of the word. Feeling physical attraction to someone with a particular body shape, hair, eye color or shape, mouth, etc., is, in fact, being attracted to a physical object, and this kind of “objectification” is an integral part of most people’s experience of romantic/sexual attraction. That kind of attraction is superficial, to be sure, and anyone who stops there or makes physical appearance the most important quality of others’ attractiveness is a moron. But it’s possible to send a message to men about women’s worth (as so much more than objects of desire) and how they should be granted complete autonomy to dress and behave how they choose without also shaming men for not finding every single woman equally physically attractive, or finding some physically attractive but not others.
When I came up in the sex activist community in the SF Bay Area in the 80s and 90s, a favorite aphorism was that “sex and sexuality cannot be fit neatly into little boxes.” In other words, sex is a big, confusing, powerful force that often breaks out of the convenient categorical limitations we sometimes would like it to obey. I think we would do well to remember that principle, even in these sorts of discussions, and find a more nuanced way to teach men to honor women as whole people without shaming them for feeling physical attraction.
I agree entirely, Greg. And yes, my approach is somewhat in tension with the Seeing a Woman post. But it’s one of the better perspectives I’ve read, and I think mainstream USA who are largely uneducated on the more interesting/nuanced/expansive aspects of sexuality might be able to read and relate to it. It feels accessible to a large population, so even with my underlying issues with it, I think it’s still worth sharing.
Sexuality is an amazing force. We can sit back and be amazed, but controlling it is way outside of our capacity. I wish more parents could acknowledge this fact!
Greg, the Seeing a Woman post actually predates this post and the other one mentioned in it by two weeks, so it’s not really a ‘response’. Just wanted to make sure you were aware of the difference in the posting dates.
Applause! Thank you so much for this balanced article!
Thanks, Jay, I’m glad you appreciated my approach.
LOVE it. Glad so many of us responded so quickly to this! Here’s mine: http://sexwithtimaree.com/2013/09/05/fyi-youre-not-helping/
Love it, Timaree! Thank you for your link!
I couldn’t disagree with you more. Name calling and shouting at the top of your lungs, “I am right and you are wrong!” is childish. Mrs. Hall is entitled to her opinion and she is definitely shining a light on sexuality of teens. Not shaming young ladies…who should be shamed if they are taking selfies in their underwear.
I’m not entirely certain where you got name calling out of my post, Amy, and posting something on my blog is certainly not shouting at the top of my lungs. Mrs. Hall is entitled to her own opinion, no doubt about it, and I am entitled to disagree with her. I shine the light on the sexuality of teens all the time – and I do it without shaming anyone. Shame is essentially unhelpful in supporting children and teenagers to become strong, moral people (regardless of their gender). There are far more effective ways to go about this process.
What’s wrong with slut-shaming? Seriously. Sluts (of any gender) SHOULD be ashamed. Sex is powerful stuff. Slutty behavior weakens human connection and cheapens what should be a powerful affirmation of life and love. While I have talked to my kids since they were tykes about appropriate behavior and positive friends, I am actually in favor of so-called slut shaming. Sluts and my kids are not going to hang out on my watch. And by the time they leave home they will have a view of sex and of social connection in general that will be positive, powerful and beautiful.
It’s a good question, Jennifer. I don’t have a post on this specifically yet, but you’ve gotten my wheels turning. It’s clear to me from my conversations with so many friends and strangers today that plenty of them have this exact same question and I need to answer it in a public forum. Until I’ve gotten that post up and running, I hope you’ll take a moment to read over the following articles on the issues with slut shaming. They’re good, and they address the issue generally, if not your question specifically.
Define “slut,” please? Perhaps you have a different definition than what most people mean when they say “slut-shaming.”
Slut-shaming involves shaming a female for being sexual, for having sexual feelings or thoughts or acting on them in any manner that stems from herself. (You can’t say “sluts of any gender” because we all know men are not called sluts. It’s like saying “mothers (of any gender) shouldn’t…”)
I know it’s possible that iS what you meant, but I strongly suspect it isn’t. It’s not impossible for women to be, well, bad people. There are women who are manipulative, just like there are men who are. There are women who use sex to HURT other people, just as there are men that do. I suspect that’s who you’re referring to when you say “slut.” That’s not what the fight against slut-shaming is about, though.
(p.s. I haven’t read the articles Dr. Karen Rayne linked to yet, so I apologize if I’m being redundant.)
I agree so much with what you said here! I have been reading with interest all of the responses to the original FYI letter. I appreciate that the author of that original letter wanted to teach young women (only) to take more care of how they are perceived by others, but it made me sick to my stomach – especially when I saw it cross-posted by SO MANY people – that the onus of all responsibility for all sexual thoughts and behavior apparently rests exclusively with 16 year old girls. Whew! So glad I’m no longer a 16 year old girl!
I particularly love your comment about how men are not called sluts. They are manly or gods or awesome or admirable or any number of positive things, while women who express sexuality (or, heck, just have female genitalia) as sluts. Yay for double-standards! Except not.
The concept of slut-shaming causes so many problems in our society. Girls and women are constantly told that their only worth is based on their appearance and, by extension, their desirability, so it is natural that they would explore that. I don’t agree with it and am grateful to have been brought up to believe otherwise (and lived a very sheltered life away from much pop culture), but to pretend like it doesn’t exist and/or not talk about it helps no one. Celebrities shouldn’t be role models for anyone, but the reality is that, inexplicably, they are. People are fascinated by their glittery existence, and teen years in particular are so full of confusion, hormones, changing relationships, and a myriad of other challenges, and I think many find comfort in looking to society for guidance. Unfortunately, most people aren’t famous for being generous, kind, intelligent, or respectful, so what they see is sex, drugs, and rock and roll. This is not new to Millennial Generation, no matter how much people like to claim “in my day” and “kids today.” Teenagers have always been interested in sex and in attracting others through their sexuality. It’s only been relatively recently that 15- and 16-year olds were still considered kids, and their bodies certainly don’t seem childlike to them.
Slut-shaming IS NOT about shaming women who have acted in a shameful manner (whatever that means, since it’s pretty obvious we’re not going to agree). It’s about shaming ALL girls and women for having sexual selves and wanting to explore them. It’s about praising men for being sexual and punishing the women who are the objects of their desire and their partners (willing or not) in sexual acts. Slut-shaming is protecting sexual abusers while punishing the girls and women they abuse. Slut-shaming is saying “boys will be boys” when acting on base desires but vilifying women and girls who do the same. Slut-shaming is treating males and females completely differently for acting in the exact same manner, or, worse yet, punishing women for things men have done to them.
I agree that EVERYONE should be waiting to have sex until they’re more mature. Hormones are not a conducive to making good decisions, and teenagers aren’t particularly known for being great planners or thinking about consequences to their actions. However, it’s pretty unusual to hear about a boy being kicked out of the house, locked in his room, or disowned by his family for having premarital or teen sex, though I can personally think of several girls who have had that experience.
Well, I read the post and I have to say I was not impressed. The tone was that girls (GIRLS was the word used) have the right to attract any sexual attention they want and anyone they wouldn’t hook-up with shouldn’t be giving them attention. 1st) GIRLS are not mature enough to handle the emotional attachment that comes with sex- and they DO get emotionally attached. Female humans are biologically hardwired to invest in a sexual relationship. 2nd) It’s patently absurd to supppose that men won’t look. There will hopefully be only a few males that a girl is dressing to attract but ALL of the men she encounters are going to look. Heck, WOMEN look at good looking guys! What naivete to suppose that “decent” men won’t look! Of COURSE they will look, but the decent ones won’t ogle her or act on her slutty invitation. I will continue to rail against “prosti-tots” with the word “juicy” plastered across their 8 year old rear ends; and teenage girls going to school in tops that barely hold their boobs in paired with shorts that show their cheeks when they walk. It is, frankly, shameful. I had never heard the term before I read your post but I actually approve of slut-shaming. I’d like all of my children to go to school and hang out with girls who respect the potency of human connection. I would like parents and educators to enforce a dress code that is conducive to learning what’s in the textbooks not what’s between the sheets. That class should come later in adulthood; when all the parties are mature enough to handle the minefield of intimate relationship.
I look forward to your take on the topic.
I understand where you’re coming from, Jennifer. But I still think it’s an approach that doesn’t lead to healthy adult sexuality. I will try and get a post up about this in the next week or so.
In the meantime, I want to be clear that sexualization of girls (8 year olds in juicy underwear, for example), is a horror. But it’s not the 8 year old who needs to be talked to about that, it’s the companies that produce the products and the adults who provide them to children.
We live in a society that constantly sexualizes girls and women, then shames them for being sexually active. Go figure. In the past year or two I’ve become very glad that I don’t have a daughter to try to steer through this mess, and that I’m too old and happily married to worry about it affecting me. But when I see stories of girls raped at school parties and photos passed around long before police are called, I realize that ‘slut shaming’ is not the solution. Especially not when the shame is reserved for one party and not the other.
I am not a parent, I am an aunt to two nieces and three nephews. I’ve had more direct conversations with the girls than the boys, mostly because they all have good parents and my intervention wasn’t at all necessary. Shaming would not work with any of those teenagers, direct communication would (and it has). I look back at my teen years and wish that my parents had employed direct communication with me, in advance, for a wide variety of topics. Sadly, that wasn’t how our family worked and I found myself in many situations I wasn’t prepared for. C’est la vie. Today’s teens are bombarded with media and peer pressure in a way I wasn’t. I can’t imagine that passive parenting works in this situation. Mrs. Hall had one thing right, the way she and her children talk about social media, it’s a shame she had so much else wrong.
Slut shaming and rape culture are cut from the same cloth of disdain for women. The idea that women are weak on the one hand, yet dirty, sexy temptresses that force men into bad behavior on the other. It’s sad that men perpetrate this horrible image onto us, but it’s devastating when women do it to each other.
Sorry for the ramble…
Never apologize for a contribution like this, FS! Not a ramble at all.
As a recent and avid reader of your blog, I really agree with your blog I have to say I completely agree with you. I’m a younger step mom so maybe that makes it easier for me to relate to teens. But the one thing I have discovered is that the more you listent and value what they have to say, the more they will open up to you and seek your guidance with the challenges of young adulthood. Our 3 girls are 16, 13, and 10 and so far they all know they can talk to me about anything. The major issues in our house revolve around my husband who is not nearly as open and non judgemental as I am, which presents alot of challenges to me as I try to help the kids navigate their worlds. Thank you Dr. Rayne for all of your work in this area and validating my own beliefs. Claire
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