03/04/2012 11:50 EST | Updated 05/04/2012 05:12 EDT

Girls Under Pressure: A Story of <i>Sex't Up Kids</i> and "Sesame Street-Walkers"


My older daughter reads the newspaper daily. "Mom," she said yesterday, "a girl in California died after a fight with another girl."

"What was it about?" I asked her. My daughter didn't know, she didn't get it. The story was too bizarre in her eyes -- and I'm glad because, as I found out, the girls were fighting over a boy. At school. They were in grade 5. A friend of theirs, Maggie Martinez, described the fight to KNBC, "They took off their backpacks, and they put their hair in a bun, and then that's when they said 'go.'"

I am thinking about the mother's grief; I am thinking about my own children. Joanna Ramos, the child who died, was the same age as my younger daughter. My other daughter, the news reader, is 13. But educators who are concerned about sexual pressure on girls have found they have to start talking to kids even younger than mine -- grade four at the latest. Nine. Not even in double digits.

Maureen Palmer is the director of Sex't Up Kids, a documentary that aired last week on CBC's Doc Zone. She says:

"If you're in grade 5, you idolize the kids in grade 8. The marketing industry has shrewdly capitalized on this innate childhood yearning to 'be like the big kids,' and there's even an acronym for it: KAGOY -- Kids Are Getting Older Younger. So marketers design clothing and toys that appeal to 11-year-olds whose big sisters are 16, who emulate Rihanna, Britney... and the Kardashian sisters."

Take just one example: the popular new "fashion" doll, Monster High, comes with a thong and revealing clothes. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate my Daughter, calls them "Sesame Street-walkers."

Toddlers And Tiaras is a reality TV show about pre-schoolers in pageants. They are dressed like adults, complete with makeup, salon tanning, and fake teeth to cover up their baby teeth, and taught to grind their little hips as they dance. Last fall, a scandal broke out over a three-year-old dressed up as Julia Robert's prostitute character in Pretty Woman. The common response from these pageant moms is that it's the viewers' problem if they are turned on. Of course -- who's going to dispute that? But what about the people who find it only "cute"? There is nothing cute about teaching little girls that their value lies in sexual display. And what is sexual display if not an advertisement for sexual performance? These pageants are extreme, but there is a direct line between the perceived cuteness of a three-year-old dressed as a hooker and the pressure on every girl today.

Already wise and weary at age 15, the teenagers in Sex't Up Kids talked about sending private photos to their boyfriends. They were mortified when those photos of themselves in bra and panties or topless were sent all around the classroom, all around the school, all around the Internet. They just were doing what they'd been taught to do by TV, YouTube, magazines, their friends: "be cute," which has become code for "be sexy," which means show your stuff. And then they'd been shamed for it.

I want my daughters to feel good in their skin. I want them to enjoy their bodies. So far, it's worked. I've sheltered them as much as I can by having one TV in the house, no cable, no computer access except for school research until grade 7 and limiting their web time after that. As a result, their interests are wide-ranging and they're more confident than many of their peers. But I'm not so naïve as to think that they're immune to or ignorant of what's going on all around them.

Next year, my older daughter starts high school. The girls in Sex't Up Kids talked about facing pressure to agree to anal sex in high school, which has replaced oral sex in popularity among boys whose ideas about girls are formed by Internet porn. Yes, most boys from the age of 11 to 18 use their smartphones, iPods and computers to watch porn. Many of those boys say what they really want is the same kind of romantic tenderness that girls want. But what they think girls want is what they see sex trade workers do online with tears and screams.

IGirl is a workshop for nine to 12-year-old girls offered by sexual health educators in B.C. It provides girls with tools to handle the "the multimedia pressure-cooker they'll soon encounter." But few schools have programs like that, and they're needed for boys, too. The issue isn't only sex: every human being deserves love. It's up to us to teach our children what it really is. Our girls and our boys deserve that.