Porn and the Sexualization of Teenage Girl Media

The sexualization of childhood has been a topic of concern since television advertisements came into existence. Initially, children’s programs and ads were geared toward all children of a certain age, but eventually, it split into two distinct groups: girls and boys. Once this division began, it only strengthened with time, and today we have toddler girls playing with make-up and other accouterments meant to enhance physical appearance. Hand in hand with that, it seems, came the evolution of the wholesome, teenaged heroine to the sexed up, scantily clad vixen.

It’s not that sex wasn’t addressed on teen shows of the past, but it was much more about addressing the inevitable arrival of sex into our lives and less about the glorification of hook-up culture that we see today. It isn’t necessarily the realistic portrayal of the sexually charged environment of teenaged life that is troubling, but the paring down of female (and male, in many cases) characters to revolve around their sexual identity that is problematic. When examining female characters on shows geared toward teenage girls pre-Internet pornography and those that followed the rampant exposure to sexually graphic content, what has changed is exactly that: female characters have become less complex, less goal driven and family oriented and more boy crazy, sexually obsessed, vapid shells. In the wake of Internet pornography, even those female characters with some development outside of their sexual identity still have sex as though it’s no big deal. Shows about sophomores and juniors in high school will pick up with characters whose lives already feature regular sex even though their characters are only actually 15-16.

If Hollywood cast actresses of appropriate ages, the intense sexualization of female teenage girl media would become more apparent. In the ‘90s, before Internet pornography, when a female character was supposed to be 14/15, the actress hired to play her would be that age. Melissa Joan Hart was 14 when she started playing 14-year-old Clarissa Darling, Mayim Bialik was 15/16 when Blossom first aired, and when Saved By The Bell first came on, back in the 8th-grade years with Miss Bliss, Lark Voorhies was 14 when she played a 14-year-old Lisa Turtle. These shows featured long term relationships and didn’t shy away from talking about sex, but in a way that was realistic. The teenagers weren’t necessarily having sex, but they were experiencing the hormones, questioning if they were ready for different things much like actual teenagers. In Blossom, for instance, there are two memorable episodes that deal with sex. In one, she is trying to decide if she’s ready to take things to second base with her long-term boyfriend. She examines the situation from every possible angle, telling the viewer that sex is a responsibility, and shouldn’t be taken lightly, and her final decision is never revealed. It stays private, which is a pretty good lesson as well. In the other, she goes on a date with an attractive guy who hits her when she doesn’t get into the backseat of his car with him. She goes to the police, and the episode takeaways are 1, don’t do anything you’re not ready for, and 2, nobody has the right to try to force you into anything or to put their hands on you. Most of the episodes, however, don’t even touch on sex, because there is a lot more to a person, and to growing up, than sex.

In a post-Internet porn world, however, things are very different. In shows for “teenagers” (which, let’s be honest, are generally consumed by primarily female audiences) sex is everywhere. In this world, where sex sells and sexiness is absolutely required, grown women get cast to play high schoolers, thus giving young female audiences impossible body standards to live up to, as well as making the sexual nature of the shows seem less creepy. In Pretty Little Liars, for instance, it doesn’t immediately seem weird that 16-year-old Aria is having an affair with her at least 23-year-old teacher, because Lucy Hale, the actress, is 21 in the first episodes of the show. The actor portraying her teacher is only 24 in the first episodes, so there’s not actually much of an age gap between them. The affair seems sexy and clandestine and romantic, rather than like child sexual exploitation. When considering an actual 16-year-old though? Yuck. The other Liars follow this trend as well: 16-year-old Spencer is played by 25-year-old Troian, so her affair with a grown med student doesn’t seem unnatural; and the other three most frequently seen 16-year-old girls are played by actresses who are 21, 22, and 23, respectively. The only one who is age appropriate is the girl you don’t see much of until later seasons, when she was actually the age they were portraying. Her character has romantic involvements with grown men in flashbacks, and the feeling of those flashbacks, when you see an actual 15-year-old girl interacting with a grown man, is significantly more unsettling than the older actresses with the same man. On top of that, despite the same grown male characters having repeated affairs with young teenaged girls, they aren’t painted as predatory, and part of the reason they are able to get away with that is that the actual age of the actresses makes people forget how old the characters are actually supposed to be. This compounds even further because, like in most shows, 16 lasts longer than a year, so these actresses are aging as they remain portraying 16-year-old girls in all sorts of sexual escapades. It is not the epicenter of the show, but it is frequent, casual, and generally with grown men. Pretty Little Liars isn’t the only show with this problem: most shows about 16-year-old girls (they all seem to start around junior year, and slowly go from there) feature actresses who are, seemingly at the youngest, 19, and more often than not in their early twenties. There is a HUGE difference between a 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old woman, and it’s even more disconcerting when the show requires them to be 16 for 2,3, or 4 years.  That means that most representation of teenage girls on television shows for teenage girls are portrayed by grown women because a young twenty-something is much easier to sexualize than a 14-year-old girl. Thanks to our pornified culture, it’s suddenly not OK for girls to play characters their own age, because they don’t have the bodies of grown women, and if anyone ever has doubts that this is why older actresses are cast in these shows, they only have to take a look at the family type sitcoms that are marketed more at parents: the teenaged daughters in those are played by age-appropriate actresses much more often, because those shows aren’t about selling sex to teenagers. It’s created a weird situation where people think high schoolers look like adults in their young twenties, which is confusing and damaging for everyone. Even the high schoolers who see their classmates every day and would theoretically understand that real young teenagers don’t look how they do on TV spend massive amounts of time trying to sexualize themselves and their peers as a result of pornified media.

In the real world, most of us are much more than our sexual identities, and young to late teenage years is when a lot of us figure out what those things are. We should know who we are before we give it away to someone else, otherwise, how can we really understand what we’re giving away? With the onslaught of graphic sexual content and unfettered internet access most teens enjoy today, oversexed teenagers are a real issue. We shouldn’t hide from talking about sex and teenage years, but neither should we cultivate a world where we normalize the sexualization of teenage girl media, and by extension, the teenage years. Yet, with the normalization of hardcore pornography, that’s what we have: teenagers that are oversexualized by themselves, by their peers, and by the world. When sex is portrayed as akin to English homework in media, kids are less hesitant to have sex, but that doesn’t mean they are really ready for it. Instead, we have entire generations of kids having sex who don’t, and can’t, understand the difference between sex and intimacy until it’s too late.  

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