Hot or not? Can we imagine healthy, positive visions of teen sexuality?

Have you watched “Sext Up Kids,” CBC DocZone’s amazing documentary about how today’s kids come to understand their sexuality? Because if the answer is no, then you really should.

Why? Because this concerns you as a parent. Whether your kids are 3 years old, or 14.

I can promise you one thing: you will be shocked. I know I was, and I consider myself pretty well-informed about matters of teens and popular culture.

It’s true that narratives of teen sexuality have been pretty messed up ever since, well, ever since we can remember. Sure, there have been instances of genuine liberation (the availability of the birth control pill, Stonewall, Planned Parenthood, websites like, etc.), but the for the most part teen sexuality has been about navigating forces of repression (like the Purity Movement, for example) on the one hand, and overt hyper-sexualization on the other (like 15-year-old Miley Cyrus posing seductively in Vanity Fair).

But it’s different from when we were kids. The Internet has made pornography available to everyone, at any time. The CBC documentary points out that kids today are exposed to the kinds of hard-core sexuality that even adults might have found difficult to access only 10 short years ago.  This omnipresent sexuality (which has nothing to do with intimacy, romance or love) has crept into all spheres of our lives — and our kids’ lives — from a very young age. Thong underwear for seven-year-old girls. T-shirts for tweens that read “Future porn star.” Underwear for little girls that say “Eye candy.” Voluptuous, barely dressed female video game characters and avatars entertain our boys.

Even Dora the Explorer was redrawn to lose her childish proportions and resemble the slinky pre-teen that dominates this new aesthetic.

One high school girl in the CBC documentary explains “Everyone is looking at porn now. There’s no romance at all.” And though one researcher says that in her studies of teen sexual yearnings, most do genuinely want that romantic connection, they just don’t understand how to get there. It just isn’t modelled in their cultural narratives.

The hyper-sexualization of our culture teaches boys that they just need to get as much (normative, heterosexual) sex as possible. And according to a researcher in Sext Up Kids, it teaches girls that they only have two choices: “to be f*ckable* or invisible.”

Wow. That got me, as a woman and a mom of three daughters. Then I started thinking about the possible alternatives to hotness or invisibility as cultural frameworks for our girls (and the boys who are also learning how to look at girls).  Surely there are other positive, healthy sexual alternatives out there.

So I turned to Google. And the world of academia. I asked some respectable cultural critics. And I put it out there on the Twitterverse.

I’m glad I did. I learned that true alternatives are few and far between. There is some truly interesting work about teen sexuality coming out of the LGBT communities. Amazing to see, but still unfortunately a sexual ghetto when it comes to straight tweens and teens. There are examples of subversive and creative resistance from alternative communities like Goths or environmental/ Mother Earth-type communities.

Writer Debra Tolman describes the work of researcher Carla Stokes, who writes about some teen girl communities simultaneously resist and comply with the dominant ways of understanding teens sexuality:

She found portraits of “Freaks” who resisted good girl scripts but performed hypersexual Jezebel scripts and “Virgins,” who resisted those scripts but described themselves as “sweet” and “nice,” reflecting proper norms of denying sexual feelings.

In other words, often in trying to be subversive or resistant, these girls just end up reinforcing the same stereotypes.

And the kicker is that these girls are mostly learning about how their own sexuality is really about servicing boys (thank you President Clinton!). Check out the titles of articles in teen girls’ and women’s magazines – it’s all about pleasing men in bed, not about female pleasure at all. Many report that sex is like work, or performance and that it is often painful or uncomfortable because they aren’t even aroused themselves.

That struck me as so terribly sad.

Aside from top-down initiatives in opening up teen sexuality (like Planned Parenthood or, whose work I wholeheartedly endorse), I came across the girl-fueled website/ movement called Spark (Sexualization Protest Action Resistance Knowledge). This intergenerational movement, co-founded by community organizations and academics, engages girls as activists in learning/ developing positive, healthy versions of their sexuality. There is a media literacy component (check out their engaging online video-magazine called Miss Representation), and they encourage girls to set up their own Spark chapters  at school to spread the word.

What else is there? I’d love to hear from readers who’ve come across different ways of reading or experiencing teen sexuality (girls or boys) that challenges the Hot or Invisible choices that currently dominate the mainstream. Please feel free to send links to YouTube videos, blog posts, online communities, novels, artwork, video games, music, etc.

French theorist Michel Foucault observed that for all the obsession our culture has with sex, we really don’t talk frankly about it at all. This is particularly true for our tweens and teens. I’m hoping to put together a list of places online that parents and tweens/ teens can go to change this.

*My use of asterisks on key words isn’t out of prudery; I’m trying to avoid these terms becoming search words that bring people to this website.

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