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Is There Hope for Girls “Gone Skank”?

COM prof’s new book explores sexualized adolescents

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Patrice Oppliger, COM assistant professor of communication.

Patrice Oppliger has three words to describe the trend of marketing makeup, sexy lingerie, and spa days for the prepubescent set: girls gone skank. It’s the title of the College of Communication assistant professor of communication’s new book, which explores what Oppliger calls the “self–sexual exploitation” of women.

She spent several years looking at the ways women were portrayed in the media — and the ways they choose to portray themselves, or their children, on the Web or in beauty pageants. Her conclusion? Even as women experience unprecedented social and professional empowerment, there is more sexual exploitation, and it begins at progressively younger ages. She speaks about Girls Gone Skank with BU Today.

BU Today: How did you become interested in this topic?
Oppliger:
I saw this tiny little girl, about nine, with those Juicy Couture sweatpants on, with the Juicy logo across her behind. I just wanted to stop her parents and say, “What are you thinking? Attention pedophiles, come look at my daughter’s ass.” Then I drove by a Hooters and saw this sign for kids eat free night. And I started thinking about girls and women and sexuality.

Then I started looking at a phenomenon like Girls Gone Wild and what’s happening to our culture: the feminist movement worked so hard to get us equal rights and advancement for women, and then these young women with so many opportunities are showing their breasts to get attention. It used to be men who were exploiting women, but now it’s women who are exploiting themselves. We’ve built this culture of getting attention any way we can — even if it’s negative attention.

How did it start?
There are several hypotheses. One is that it’s marketing — the fashion industry. For the older generation, dressing sexy was a way of rebelling against their parents, but now the marketers are selling the sexualized clothes to the children and to the parents, and obviously somebody’s buying them. I’ve talked to parents who say it’s hard to buy decent clothes, because so many of the options are booty shorts and crop tops. There’s a real pressure there for everybody to conform.

It also might be the millennial generation; there’s become an emphasis on kids and making them happy. So parents became more indulgent. There’s this idea of, “I want to give my children everything I didn’t get.” So if parents wanted to dress sexier younger and their parents didn’t let them, they let their kids do it.

You interviewed young women who’ve participated in Girls Gone Wild–style videos, mothers who let their daughters dress provocatively, and people at strip clubs. How do they characterize their behavior?
There was quite a bit of defensiveness in some women I talked to, who said, “It’s not that bad; we know what we’re doing.” Their justification is, “I’m just showing how liberated I am; this is my sexuality and I want to flaunt it.” I think it’s male attention. Things like the MTV spring break shows have generated this atmosphere that this is what girls should be doing.

But a lot of the attitude was, “Our generation’s OK, but it’s my younger brother or younger sister I’m worried about.” We also discussed MySpace pages — they’re really outrageous in a certain age group, 13 and 14, but when they’re 17 and 18 it’s not that bad any more. The older ones look at that behavior as something they did in high school.

Do you think that means they’ll get past this aggressively sexualized phase earlier?
I don’t know if they’re truly past it — I wonder what form it will take as this generation gets older. I think there’s always been a pendulum swinging back and forth — if you look at the 1960s, women weren’t wearing bras, and in the ’70s there was this sexuality of the disco era. But I think now the marketers are involved. In the past, it was coming from the women themselves, saying, “I don’t want to be put down by this patriarchal system.” But now there’s such a dictate from the fashion industry that it’s not even a rebellion. Wearing sexy clothes is not rebelliousness today.

And the manufacturers don’t really care — their attitude is, “What’s the next thing we can push on them?”

So is there any hope of turning the tide, or will the girls gone skank trend progress?
It’s interesting, because the research shows there hasn’t been a really big spike in teenage sexual activity, and teen pregnancy is actually down. Cheerleading outfits are getting sexier and female athletes’ uniforms are getting sexier; it’s so pervasive in all these different areas — but it’s going on at a time when women are dominating college admissions.

I’m also wondering what Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign will mean in juxtaposition to this trend. This is a time in our history when we had the first serious woman presidential candidate, and lots of people were coming out of the woodwork to talk about the sexist attitudes that linger in this country — it was sort of an island in the midst of all this sexualization.

So these young women expect to get ahead, but at the same time, they’re using their sexuality to get attention in their social lives. I wonder if they will be able to separate the ideas that “this is me in my school, or workplace” and “this is me in my life.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.

30 Comments

30 Comments on Is There Hope for Girls “Gone Skank”?

  • Paloma Serra on 06.10.2008 at 6:26 am

    MEDIA

    This is a very interesting hypothesis, however I believe the media is a crucial factor as a cause for this “movement”. Perhaps worth mentioning is the type of role models teenagers have today. To take as an example celebrities increasing their fame purely through scandal. (ie Paris Hilton’ sex tape) The “issues” those celebrities go through are dramatically publicized until anorexia, sex tapes, drugs, rehab, etc become banal.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 9:38 am

    I wonder how much pornography might play a role in these events. Pornography is becoming so prolific and accepted in our society. I think it affects the way women and men view themselves and in turn has created a more sexualized society that affects the youth.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 9:39 am

    Sometimes I look at those young girls and I wonder if they’ll ever learn to value themselves -but I think there is hope for some of them. I was sexually active in high school for two reasons – because my parents didn’t want me to be, and because I thought thats what girls needed to do to get love. It was definitely not because I wanted to be doing it. It didnt turn out terribly, I’m fine now, but I just wish I had had a better understanding of sexuality, and most of all, myself. I think sex education is very limited. They tell them in school what diseases you can get from having sex, but as the previous poster said, people look at the Paris Hilton sex tape, or girls gone Wild, for example, and thats where they learn more about sex

  • K on 06.10.2008 at 10:06 am

    Incorrect Facts on Teen Pregnancy

    From last week’s Boston Globe:

    Data released last year by the Centers for Disease Control showed that the national teen pregnancy rate rose in 2006 for the first time in 15 years. In Massachusetts, the rate has continued to decline, but data released by the state in March showed that in 2006 a number of working-class communities saw an increase in teen birth rates.

    http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2008/06/06/gloucester_stymied_by_rise_in_teen_pregnancy/

    Link is to an interesting article that explores some REAL factors that affect teen pregnancy and sexuality. Blaming everything on “marketers,” “the media” and “sexy clothes” is a tired argument–it hasn’t helped so far. Books like Prof. Oppliger’s will continue to distract us from the real causes: lack of educational opportunities, insulated communities, absentee parents, a culture of acceptance or encouragement of teen pregnancy, or even sheer boredom. But I guess we can’t write a book called “Girls Gone Skank” about that.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 10:36 am

    RE: Media

    There was an article in the Globe a few months back about the perceptions that young girls have of celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, etc., which basically said that for all girls are dressing like them they’re not behaving like them. Yes, the media is a factor, but girls are not as easily influenced by it as we might think.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 10:54 am

    The media is just a symptom

    I don’t think pointing our fingers at the media as the root of this problem is the right thing to do at all. I think it’s so deeply part of our culture and belief system that the media is just expressing what we’ve made a reality ourselves. Like many things in this country, better public schools would help make kids and our future generations better off than we are.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 11:11 am

    We are sexual creatures, so its ok to show skin. I think the pendulum needs to swing back towards the female-empowerment intentionality, and not back towards a conservative attitude towards sexuality. Freedom is the most important issue here: free markets, free options, free sexuality. Men need to shoulder the responsibility for acting decent and appropriate around women who dress in ways that are naturally attractive.

  • Phil on 06.10.2008 at 11:55 am

    future generations

    I also wonder about the future generations, and how the way the act NOW will affect the way they act as adults, wives, and husbands… take “sex & the city” for example. What a trashy show (and now Movie). This show used to only be on late nights on HBO (or some channel like that). Now it’s on everyday on easily accessible channels like TBS, and there’s a movie glamorizing the “skankiness” or woman. This sends a pretty bold message to vulnerable young woman: That it’s OK. In a time when infidelity is at an all time high, this is not good. These people will eventually be parents themselves… if they don’t respect themselves in a dignified manner, how will they ever be able to pass it on to their kids? And so the degeneration of a society will begin…

  • Michael Silverberg on 06.10.2008 at 1:13 pm

    Funny Stuff

    Shouldn’t women be in the kitchen?

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 3:40 pm

    Skany=Money

    I think much of the problem with women sexually exploiting themselves comes down to money. In a society where a woman earns approximately 77 cents for every dollar a man earns and the only jobs in which women early more money than their male counterparts are as fashion models and prostitutes, presenting oneself as “skanky” translates into more money. Many women are drawn jobs as models, prostitutes, exotic dancers, etc. for the financial rewards such jobs provide. Presenting oneself as “skanky” translates into cash. On the softer side, consider how women serving in restaurants or tending bar dress provactively to earn more tips or how many teenagers enter beauty pageants do so hoping that their physical attractiveness will translate into a college scholarship or lucrative modeling contract. Women who do not have access to educational opportunities and/or cannot obtain jobs to support themselves may present themselves as “skanky” to attract a man to support them. That may be their only option.

    In our society women are financially rewarded for their physical attractiveness. Until this changes, women will continue to sexually exploit themselves, whether consciously or unconsciously in order to survive.

    Also, while I agree that it is awful for parents to sexually exploit their children in such ways as purchasing clothing for them with provocative messages perhaps these parents are purely trying to transmit to their female children the message that this is how your survive in this culture. Unfortunately, that familiar 1950s refrain “your face is your future” is still too often the case for young women, particularly those without education or wealth.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 3:47 pm

    Sex & the City

    Someone mentioned that Sex & the City has gone from late night HBO showings to daytime TBS ones. While this may be true, it has also been greatly edited to lessen the raciness of the show because of the different viewers. Keep in mind that it also originally aired in the late 90′s, so not too much has changed in the last decade, at least.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 4:44 pm

    There needs to be a line drawn between children dressing sexually and adults. With children, there is no need for them to be sexualized, in both a biological/anthropological sense and within the context of society. What Juicy sweatpants for youth and even some female Disney characters do for young girls is to train them to be sexual even before puberty. For a woman to dress in a sexual way is their choice, and it may or may not be a form of liberal feminism, but a young girl should not be pressured into becoming sexual so soon. And yes, when a culture repeatedly dictates that sexuality is the norm for a child, it is pressure– whether it be the fault of Disney or Juicy Couture. Although the message may be different or veiled, it is the same– that women should be sexual, beautiful, and attract/keep a man to be successful.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 8:19 pm

    other contributing factors

    Girls are reaching puberty at earlier ages. This means that hormones are kicking in well before girls have the emotional maturity, life experience, or education to handle their sexuality. No wonder they make some confusing choices; they’re confused. It is interesting that with this changing biological trend and American culture’s focus on selling sex that we lack open communication and education around sex that could help girls feel empowered and secure with their bodies and sexuality.

    Many girls attempt to use their bodies to gain control they are lacking in other areas of their lives. This presents itself in eating disorders, self harming behaviors like cutting, promiscuity, substance abuse, or even excessive tanning. Helping girls feel confident in other areas of their lives can help them manage these behaviors.

    If we feel that these new ways of expressing sexuality are problematic, we should address the underlying issues, not the symptoms. If girls wanted to wear turtle necks and long skirts, clothing stores would stock more of them. If this behavior was disgusting to everyone, Britney Spears would not be rich. We vote with out dollars, and it seems that many of us vote “Skank.” If we are to change, it is the “why” not the “what” that should be addressed.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 10:41 pm

    re: sexual creatures

    Quote: “Men need to shoulder the responsibility for acting decent and appropriate around women who dress in ways that are naturally attractive.”

    Sorry, but this is a two-way street. Going to class and work around (for example) a college campus with half of your bra-less bosom hanging out of a too-tight tank top, and sporting a miniskirt that ends an inch after your legs begin, with your thong sticking out of the top (hardly some male fantasy I’m cooking up – wander through the GSU around noon and you’ll see that every day), you are not going to be taken seriously by the men (and women) around you, and YOU have to shoulder the consequences of that appearance.

    If you don’t want to be viewed as a sex object, don’t display yourself as one. Despite what we all learn in grade school, people DO judge a book by its cover, and people DO judge you by the aura of “skank” that you portray when you dress the part. This is not an argument for ankle-length skirts and full-sleeved blouses – this is an argument that you should dress appropriately for your environment.

    When you’re showing as much breast and leg in class at 9 AM on a Monday morning as you did at the club Saturday night, your priorities are definitely not in order. If you are proud of your physical attractiveness, by all means, express it – but do it with a little tact, for cryin’ out loud. There’s a big difference between dressing as an attractive young woman who wants to look good and showing up to your morning Psych discussion section looking like you just came from a Maxim photo shoot.

  • Anonymous on 06.10.2008 at 11:25 pm

    Re: I wonder how much

    The availability of pornographic material should be restricted somehow. I agree with its affect on both women and men, and the way that they begin to “normally” interact; most young men and women who are sexually active or acting sexual have learned, unfortunately, from degrading pornography.

  • Anonymous on 06.11.2008 at 11:23 am

    re: pornography

    Good luck with that. People keep thinking of internet pornography as this big mega-corp sitting out there that you can somehow “stop”. Not any more. For every professional internet pornography site out there, there’s a dozen young misguided women showing themselves off on their webcams, or taking cell phone photos of themselves topless in a bathroom mirror, or letting their boyfriends video them – “Don’t worry baby, I won’t show it to anyone…”. The amount of “amateur” porn floating around out there is growing exponentially as the ability to serve up personal content grows, and the means to distribute it become more dispersed. Yahoo’s Flickr is practically an amateur pornography warehouse, and with bittorrent and other file sharing software, you’ll never be able to prevent people from passing it around. Anyone still remember the “BU Warren Towers Porno”? I heard the girl had to transfer out. For every Jenna Jameson out there, there’s ten of Miss Warren Towers. These aren’t drug-addled street girls getting roped into it for the money or any other “Porn is Evil” sob story – these are supposedly bright and privileged young women who do something REALLY stupid, and it will come back to bite them later in life. Remember ladies – once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.

  • Anonymous on 06.11.2008 at 7:57 pm

    I think the real problem is self-esteem for young girls. The media and fashion glorifies and builds up women with a certain type of look and clothing. Anyone seen dressing conservative is seen in a negative light. Girls who are already insecure as 13 and 14 year olds don’t feel they’ll gain approval from others if they don’t conform to these standards. A book using the word “skanky” in the title is not going to get us anywhere. It should be about empowerment and education, not about name calling or labeling girls who have much more to them than surface value.

  • Anonymous on 06.12.2008 at 6:27 pm

    I think the slightly controversial title is an eye-catcher, and perhaps this negative label of “skank” on a book title by a competent female author will cause girls to think twice about what they are doing.

  • Anonymous on 06.12.2008 at 6:44 pm

    Misplaced Values and Priorities

    Parents of young children today are so caught up in the materialisim and permissiveness exhibited in the media,children often mimic what they see and hear. The frivolous use of the word “freedom” has misguided a generation into slavery of sexuality. In my experience, some people never grow up and act like parents. If we look at the way the mothers dress, there will be no question as to why kids as young as 6 year olds wear suggestive clothing, i.e. huge words flashing across their behinds!!
    If children “let it all hang out” and parents don’t have the morals to guide their behavior, all of the education in the world will not stop this downward spiral. Parenting is not for cowards…permissiveness is either laziness, lack of self-discipline, apathy, or just neglect.
    The tides will change when parents and children alike take responsibility for their actions…stop blaming everyone else. Vigilance in what your children are doing, wearing, watching, etc. will pay off for us all.

  • Anonymous on 06.15.2008 at 10:45 am

    I think that another, larger problem is that kids in America are being shown how to show their sexuality in a really provocative way. Our American culture, which we label as the “role model of democracy and freedom” is, in relation to sexuality rather hypocritical. Americans have the idea that they are the freest people in the world, and thus also some of the most liberal.

    With sexuality, that’s not the case. Our society has very strong taboos regarding sexuality and kids these days have begun to rebel against that. The problem here is that Americans view the topic as taboo, we don’t educate our children openly about sexuality and thus they choose to use it as the main weapon of rebellion. The second problem is that the fashion and media industry has capitalized on this and run with it, making it cooler and acceptable, if not expected.

    If we want our kids, and also the teenage and even college generation to abandon this view of sexuality and this inclination to exploit it in order to seem older and more mature, then we need to address both problems.

    A) We need to be more open about sexuality in our culture, offer informative sex ed classes and teach our kids how to be comfortable and confident with their sexuality while at the same time being in control of it, not flaunting it as a means of gaining attention or appearing to be in control. When we lessen the taboos on sexuality and view it as the natural and acceptable thing that it is, we will allow our kids to be open about it and they in turn will not feel the need to use it as a tool for breaking boarders and shocking their parents.

    B) We need to stop the popularity of the sexuality-flaunting trend by addressing the clothing companies, commercial companies, and media companies that encourage such action for financial benefits.

  • Anonymous on 06.16.2008 at 3:00 pm

    This issue isn’t really THAT extreme. There have always been, and will always be, women that take it “too far”… just like there have always been, and will always be, women who are prostitutes/strippers/etc. Someone said men need to shoulder the responsibility of acting decently around sexy women… which I think is absolutely true. But these are the same men who pay money for prostitutes, tip more attractive waitresses and bartenders more money, and go to strip clubs. In fact, strippers have been known to make hundreds to thousands a NIGHT. I find that to be absurd. Men are visual beings and like to look at sexy things, and go to these extremes to do so! Most people who look at pornography are also male. In a male dominated society, women use sexuality as a powerful tool … they can say “no,” when men have a hard time keeping it in their pants…women even “withhold sex” in marriages and relationships. Try doing that with a woman…ha! Men still dominate this society, and some women do what they have to do, if to excess.

    Then there’s the rest of us…the girls walking around BU. I’ll say I always dress well, every day. I dress up, ask any of my friends. I wear heels and pretty clothes, for sure. For me, it’s because I enjoy it. I like clothes, and I’m very feminine and embrace my femininity. But you can be sexy and classy at the same time…you do NOT have to show it ALL. Girls, wear a bra. ALWAYS. PLEASE. I DON’T CARE HOW SMALL YOUR BOOBS ARE, YOU LOOK LIKE A SKANK IF YOU DON’T. Get a skirt that covers your ass and underwear. Don’t wear pants that are so tight you can’t sit. Let your boobs have some coverage. A good friend of mine (at BU) has a saying…he says, “I’d rather imagine what you’ve got under there and like it, than know what you have and be disappointed.” Think about it.

    Also, leggings and hard tails ARE NOT PANTS. WAY TOO MUCH INFORMATION.

    And men…if you see a sexy woman, please do us all a favor and keep it to yourself. Don’t treat her like a piece of meat. It’s not attractive or charming and makes you look like an ass. It does not make us wanna get in bed. STOP IT. Be a freakin gentleman. Try not to imagine her naked. Christ.

  • Anonymous on 06.18.2008 at 5:45 pm

    Agreed, Wholeheartedly

    I think that this is a huge problem in our society today, and am thankful that someone is stepping up to address it. We as a society have devolved considerably over the last decade or so, and it is at this very low point that almost anything goes. That’s not to say that people aren’t entitled to express themselves, because that’s what this country is supposed to be all about.
    However, children are children. They’re not adults, and while they are allowed to express themselves, they are not fully aware of what the consequences may be. Acting like an adult, dressing like an adult, they have no concept of what comes with that. They’re still malleable and, well, young. Dressing them as miniature prostitutes and the like is completely inappropriate. They’re children for a reason, the experience of childhood is supposed to be one of innocence and learning, not ‘what halter top shows off my training bra best’.
    I know that when I have children someday I will not be adhering to the wardrobe guidelines of today for young girls, if they are still as outlandishly revealing as what is in fashion now. I don’t care if it makes them unpopular, either, they’ll be thanking me in the long run.
    There is a fabulous South Park episode, ‘Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset’ which addresses this issue perfectly.

  • Anonymous on 06.26.2008 at 5:55 am

    Question: if she says women are exploiting themselves by flaunting their body parts, don’t men do the same? Isn’t this another form of women getting their rites and making public expression of sexuality for women as acceptable as men?

  • Anonymous on 06.26.2008 at 7:16 pm

    Searching for love and "cool"

    It’s not new that teen and pre-teen girls try to dress older or in a sexy manner. Young girls always have gone through the stages of identifying who they are and what is right for them, and trying on personas. But the conditions surrounding those stages have changed — the “ammunition” for them to choose a far-too sexy image (sleazy clothes that accentuate their bodies or convey sexuality. Such clothing available for a younger market), a more sexualized mass media, Peter Pan-parents who don’t want to appear uncool, and a general fear of appearing judgmental or prudish. What is going on in the heads of the girls is the search for love and acceptance, either by boys, peers, or what they see as “society.”
    But what in the world is going on in the heads of those parents who think it darling to dress their six year old girls like beauty queens, or who think it’s hip if they allow their twelve to fifteen year olds to dress suggestively?
    About seven years ago our children’s principal made a comment about the costumes and movements for a dance routine by sixth grade girls for an elementary school talent show. The moves were suggestive, the outfits tight and revealing (on blossomed bodies), and the song fairly explicit. The mothers were insulted that it was even questioned. “They are just trying to show they are as good as the professionals. This is the standard.” How sad that their children have to compete with adults, and not just be twelve-year-olds.

  • Anonymous on 01.18.2009 at 1:00 am

    The article reminds me of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, a book that came out two years previous to this one. Not to suggest this author is ripping Levy off (because the sexualization of children is a common and crucial feminist argument), but Levy’s book is an easy, insightful read. If this article interests you, check out some of Levy’s youtube interviews.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMlaYe1fOoQ&feature=related

  • john h. oppliger on 01.25.2009 at 10:56 am

    Patrice

    As a professor in a teacher education program, I agree with Patrice.

  • Anonymous on 03.14.2009 at 10:23 pm

    you need to relize you cant judge a book by its cover i may be a 16 yr old girl but us girls arnt scared to be how we wonna be and were wat we wonna were. there is nothing wrong with beening your self just causes yous old people dont were there clothes and us teenages dont have to or doesnt mean we wont you to judge us cause as we see it you only have one life to live so live it up why you can.

  • Gynocomastia on 11.07.2009 at 5:11 pm

    Exploitation

    “It used to be men who were exploiting women, but now it’s women who are exploiting themselves”

    Wow quote of the day – maybe the feminist movement has made things “too easy”?

    If a woman can make a very good living by being a glamour model then why would she try to become a doctor..?

    Maybe some of you think because shes wanted to be one since she was a little girl? Not with “juicy” on here behind i don’t think she would. Parents have a HUGE part to play.

  • Troubled Girls on 08.10.2010 at 5:34 am

    Programs for Troubled Girls

    Troubled teenage girls have various helpful options to overcome behavioral, emotional and psychological problems. Struggling girls can join summer camps, boot camps, therapeutic schools or wilderness camps to get safe recovery from distressing issues.

    http://www.troubledteens.net/Teens-Resource/Help-for-Troubled-Girls/index.html

  • Robert on 08.10.2010 at 5:39 am

    Girls help

    Girls take care of your self.

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