Thursday, December 11, 2008

Troubled American teen girls mar women's progress

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Thursday, Nov. 20 2008
Troubled American teen girls mar women's progress
The historic promotion this week of Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody to the rank of
four-star general marked the latest in a series of feel-good firsts for
American women in the past two years. In the same race that culminated in the
election of our first African-American president, America witnessed a historic
presidential bid by Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and the nomination of
Republican Gov. Sarah Palin as her party's first woman vice-presidential
candidate. Although neither woman won, America's women and girls came to see a
female president as a plausible possibility.

Yet even as headlines about shattered ceilings have become ubiquitous, so have
reports about the dangerous and self-destructive tendencies of the next
generation of women. It seems that while American women are making great
strides in public life, our daughters are enduring agonizing struggles in
private.

Those struggles center mainly on sex and self-image. The Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention announced last spring that one in four American girls
aged 14 to 19 has a sexually transmitted disease. That estimate arrived on the
heels of a groundbreaking American Psychological Association report that
chronicled in devastating detail how our porn-saturated, hyper-sexualized
society pressures girls to market themselves as sexual objects and engage in
behavior that leaves them feeling ugly, worthless and depressed.

The despair of many girls today exceeds the bounds of the typical teenage
blues. A 2007 CDC report found that the suicide rate among pre-teen and teenage
girls has risen to its highest level in 15 years, with a 76 percent jump in the
suicide rate for girls ages 10 to 14. Although the vast majority of teenage
girls do not attempt suicide, many struggle with eating disorders,
self-mutilation, substance abuse, anxiety and depression.

In its report, the APA blamed these problems largely on a media culture that
assaults girls with sexually explicit TV shows, movies, music videos, ads and
magazines. That diagnosis drew fire from defenders of our oversexed
entertainment industry who reject causal links between teen entertainment and
teen behavior.

But a new study published this month in the journal of the American Academy of
Pediatrics reports more evidence of connections between the two. Researchers
from the RAND Corporation studied some 2,000 teenagers over three years and
found that teens who watched the most sexual content on TV — defined as
flirting, kissing, sexual innuendo and sex scenes — were twice as likely to
become pregnant or cause a pregnancy as those who watched the least
sexual-themed TV, even after accounting for other factors that influence teen
behavior.

As even the most casual channel surfer knows, sexual content — particularly
depictions of fetishistic, violent and extra-marital sex — is plentiful in
prime time. A recent Parents Television Council report found that during what
used to be considered TV's family hour (the first hour of prime time each
night) references on the five major broadcast networks to extra-marital sex
outnumbered references to marital sex by a ratio of nearly four to one. Not
surprisingly, many shows that teenage girls watch faithfully depict women as
little more than sexual playthings who neither demand nor deserve respect
beyond the bedroom.

A bizarre disconnect exists today between the smart, ambitious women who
dominate our public life and the sex-kitten know-nothings who dominate our TV
screens. It's true that Hollywood is not the only culprit in teen girls'
troubles. But an entertainment industry that constantly churns out Lolita-like
tween idols and celebrates sex appeal as the ultimate measure of a woman's
worth surely does little to prepare today's struggling girls to become
tomorrow's leading women.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St.
Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her website is
www.colleen-campbell.com.

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