One of the sadder news accounts I've read recently is this piece from the UK Telegraph. In a nutshell: Thirteen-year-old Chevonea Kendall-Bryan had been pressured into performing a sex act on a boy at school. He recorded their encounter on his cell phone and shared it with his friends. Leaning from the window of her house, threatening to jump if he did not delete the recording, Chevonea slipped, fell, and later died.
Obviously, there's plenty of blame to go around: The culture, technology, the absence of shared moral values, etc., etc., etc. But it's more fruitful to talk about solutions -- and they start with women being brave enough to be honest with young girls.
For too long, too many women who know better have become complicit in the sexualization of young girls because of some distorted, retrograde notion of feminism; somehow, we are failing to dispute the notion that young girls are "empowered" by being relieved of traditional notions of sexual morality. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as most intelligent women know -- and as Chevonrea's story emphasizes.
The bounds of sexual morality -- like most other moral laws -- end up protecting those among us who are most vulnerable to cruelty and exploitation. It is wrong to pretend that girls and young women are living in some kind of feminist paradise when they must navigate a culture that encourages them to risk the emotional, spiritual, and physical dangers of bad sexual decision making. And when women who know better play along, it's cowardly.
How galling that cultural or political elites celebrate and popularize sexualized behavior they'd never condone from their own daughters! Think of last night's Super Bowl half-time show. Anybody think Beyonce (or her husband) is going to encourage their own daughter, little Blue Ivy, to get up and "shake it" in an S-and-M-themed costume so that she can be ogled and objectified by millions of men? And then there's Michelle Obama, who tweeted that she was "proud of" Beyonce. Somehow, I suspect she and the President would be significantly less "proud" were one of their own daughters to behave that same way. Yet they have no problem sending the message to millions of other people's daughters that hyper-sexualized behavior is glamorous and cool.
This is the rankest hypocrisy. Mrs. Obama and Beyonce know better, and they could influence the behavior of countless young girls by encouraging them to see and value themselves as something more precious than simply a sex object. They could emphasize that dignity and self-respect are important parts of what makes a girl truly lovely and beautiful -- and more likely than "sexed up" behavior to inspire a man to want to "put a ring on it." And their example might just encourage other members of the liberal cultural and political elite to stop glamorizing behavior that is destructive to girls' long-term happiness, fulfillment, and self-respect.
If real change is to happen, girls must hear the same kind of explicit warnings that influential women in our culture, like Mrs. Obama, are willing to offer about healthy eating, exercise and smoking. Obviously, fathers and other influential men play an important role by showing that they respect and cherish women as people -- and that there are other ways than sex that will allow young girls to win the attention and approval of good men of all ages. But many men will simply live up (or down) to the standards that women set for them, and that's why this effort must begin with women themselves.
Sharing the truth about what constitutes real "empowerment" -- and encouraging girls to eschew the cheap, sex-centric version peddled by the culture -- begins as women's work, in the best sense of the term. To be effective, it must come explicitly from beautiful, happy, successful women, backed by the men who love them.