The other day I saw a little girl—probably no older than 6 or 7 years old—dressed in a vinyl leopard-print miniskirt, a skinny hot pink tank top, and platform shoes. She was holding the hand of a woman who appeared to be her mother, who was wearing jeans, an oversized t-shirt, and running shoes. The mom looked like a tourist. The little girl looked like a hooker.
It’s not news that children are being sexualized at younger and younger ages or that marketers see the youth population as ripe to exploit. Recently Victoria’s Secret’s PINK brand came under fire for allegedly targeting teen girls in its ad campaign for “Bright Young Things”—an underwear line whose bikini panties say things such as “call me” on the front and “wild” on the back.
The media ran with the story of girl exploitation, and nearly 40,000 people signed a petition against Victoria’s Secret. The feminist blog Jezebel did some investigative digging and found that the source of the outrage was an article on The Black Sphere, an extremely conservative website. The author was Amy Gerwing, a pro-life, antigovernment advocate. In her piece, “Victoria’s Secret is coming for your Middle Schooler,” Gerwing linked the sexy underwear campaign to a host of problems facing girls, including anorexia, sex trafficking, bodily mutilation, and sexual promiscuity.
Slate magazine’s Amanda Marcotte hit back, scoffing at the protest. Her post, “Victoria’s Secret Sells Sex to High School Girls. So What?” called adults delusional for denying the sexuality of teenage girls and underscored the obvious fact that girls can be smart and ambitious and also inclined to wear sexy underwear.
Point well taken.
But missing in the debate—at least I didn’t catch it—was any broadening of the conversation beyond conservative scolding and liberal retort. Where were the challenges to marketers’ inappropriate targeting of young girls that affirmed healthy female sexuality? Where were the questions about possible links between marketplace values that celebrate unrestrained self-interest—and which measure human worth by the bottom line—and the weakening of civic values that historically have put limits on commercial profit, especially when it comes to children?
Progressives have something to contribute to that larger conversation. Unfortunately, they often stay silent when the controversy has to do with sexual matters, especially when conservatives have already made their voices heard. There are good reasons to be wary of speaking out: Progressives don’t want to give ammunition to right-wing calls for “moral decency” that simultaneously condemn healthy sexuality for girls and women. They don’t want to sound like prudes. And they don’t want to step on free speech.
Even so, progressive women and men need to add their voices to the conversation. First of all, these are issues that concern them. Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on worrying about raising their kids in an overly commercial and sexualized culture. And many progressives, similar to many conservatives, worry about how to shield their young children from degrading messages. Reasonable people on both sides of the aisle want to instill in their children a sense of self-worth that isn’t measured by possessions or what society deems sexy.
Beyond personal concerns, however, progressives need to enter the conversation for another reason: They can often link flashpoint controversies to broader policies of deregulation that, along with the worship of an unfettered free market, give free rein to the corporate exploitation of children. Progressives can point to an uncomfortable truth for conservatives: Despite their rhetoric of valuing and protecting children, their deregulatory policies consider kids fair game. When it comes to junk food advertising, for instance, conservatives seem more worried about a “nanny state” than about helping reduce the sharply rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes. When it comes to mobile apps that allow companies to collect kids’ personal data and send it to third parties without parental knowledge, conservatives are more likely to take the side of business and stick up for unregulated commerce than for the safety of children. These discrepancies need to be given attention.
It’s never easy raising kids, and in some ways, it seems to be harder than ever these days. That’s why it is important for progressives to speak to the many challenges facing families and to assert without hesitation the fact that children have the right to grow up—and that their parents have the right to raise them—without commercial assault.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.