Sex Sells: Teaching Kids Not to Buy

In today’s digital age, sex and skin seem to be everywhere you look -- from fashion ads to T.V. shows and music videos. But one global goddess said she is making sure her image paints a different picture for impressionable teens across the world.

Rachel Lee Carter, an international fashion model, said she demanded her personal brand go opposite the ‘sex sells’ route after reaching her breaking point at age 25, when she began promoting modesty in an industry where baring it all is typically part of the job. Carter said she took control by telling her agency how much she was and wasn’t willing to show, and despite their concerns that her career would falter, Carter said her salary increased, her portfolio flourished, and she was crowned Miss North Carolina in 2009.

Modesty can resonate with teens, and baring it all on T.V. and in advertisements is losing its steam, Carter said, pointing to the sinking viewership of MTV’s young and controversial “Skins” as proof. Although the media is always pushing the envelope, not all kids are buying it, Carter said.

“Not all of society believes in that message of ‘skin is in,’” she said. “Not everyone is buying it.”

Diane Levin, education professor at Wheelock College in Boston and author of “So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and How Parents Can Protect Their Kids” (with Jean Kilbourne), said children today are growing up with two different compartments in their minds. One contains pop culture messages that seek to sexualize them, contribute to objectification and emphasize lack of relationship. The other compartment is for family and societal culture, where morals and lessons for growing up happy and fulfilled are stored.

“Most youth have both compartments,” Levin said. “But the pop culture one is getting bigger and bigger, and starting younger and younger.”

Emphasizing messages of modesty and morality can begin young, but parents must be realistic that pop culture will undoubtedly seep into their child’s life sooner or later. Making pop culture’s messages a lesson or talking point with your child rather than constantly saying “no” or shutting them down helps children to understand why certain messages are and are not acceptable, she said.

Especially given that the sex-sells mania doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

Levin said over her 20 years of studying media and commercial culture, sexualization has become more and more of a prevalent phenomenon, one that doesn’t seem to be backing down anytime soon.

“Starting from a young age ‘buy, buy, buy’ is what we are told we need to be happy, and being a ‘pretty object’ is how you judge yourself and other girls, and boys judge you on that too,” she said. “It makes how you look and not what you do the basis of self-esteem.”

Girls often struggle with this, Carter said, and end up being sexualized from a young age because of how they appear to others.

“They want to be fashionable, and I can’t blame them,” she said. “But, they are getting judged, their reputation is at stake, and they don’t know why.”

Although humility and modesty are not popular among today’s mainstream figures, they can be found according to Dr. Glenn Kashurba, of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry in Washington , D.C. Troy Polamalu, a football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is one example of this type of role model, Kashurba said.

“Anytime he talks he is quiet, humble and all about the team,” he said. “I am sure that when kids see that, it has some influence on them, as opposed to some loud-mouthed, egotistical person. It shows kids you don’t have to be that way to be a star.”

Media’s emphasis on sex continues to grow daily, but Kashurba said with behavioral therapy, marketers and parents can drive home another point to kids and consumers.

“Instead of trying to work on the ‘bad behavior’ its emphasizing things that are positive like academics or sports—anything that is pro-social,” he said. “You are able to block out the other, because you aren’t concentrating on that. If someone had an interest in that from a business standpoint—other things can sell too that don’t have a big emphasis on sex.”

Turning this trend around takes collaboration from all angles, Levin said, from the classroom to the dinner table.

“It’s parents talking to each other, schools being connected, at all ages and talking about all things. Then kids see this as connections instead of alienation, and they can develop other interests they feel competent and capable about,” she said.