"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Sunday, December 01, 2013

speak now #32: Children in Adult Bodies - The Taboos of Female Adolescence

This was my research essay for Gender Studies, in which I analyse the treatment of female adolescence in society and the media, with a focus on East Asian female adolescents in Anglo-Australian society.

Female adolescent bodies have been viewed throughout history as bodies of sensuality and fertility. Although the tradition of exploiting young women for entertainment and pleasure endures, in our society female adolescent sexuality and reproduction is rigidly regulated. The discourse surrounding adolescence and youth sexuality in our society constructs female adolescents as children with adult bodies; individuals with the desires and biological function of adults, but the treatment and lack of rights of children. This is especially evident in the discourse surrounding East Asian female adolescents living in Western society, in which cultural attitudes and racial stereotypes compounds the effect of the taboos and stigmas of female youth sexuality on how these individuals are perceived as sexual beings.

Although inherently connected, discourse serves to separate sexuality from female adolescence. Legally, the majority of adolescents are unable to freely engage in sexual expression. In Australia it is an offence to 'have sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 16 or to induce a child under the age of 16 to have sexual intercourse'; it is also an offence to 'have sexual intercourse with a child of over 16 but under 18 if he is in a position of authority to/over them' . The wording of these laws is implicitly gendered - the use of the male pronoun to describe the perpetrator of statutory rape assumes sexual aggression on the male part; and in our heteronormative society, a male perpetrator will have a female 'victim'. These laws, whilst preventing child sex abuse and reducing the number of non-consensual sexual encounters amongst young people, assumes that adolescents - especially female adolescents - are not sexual beings in their own right, but are rather 'induced' to have sex, especially by men 'in a position of authority to/over them'. Child pornography laws also prohibit the production and distribution of sexual images of children under the age of 18. Whilst these laws were created with the purpose of combating the spread of child pornography and the sexual exploitation of children, it results in adolescents persecuted for creating and spreading sexual images of themselves, and effectively erases an outlet for sexual expression for adolescents. These laws also result in the erasure of adolescent sexuality in Australian society and culture; in 2008 police seized exhibited photographs of nude female adolescents, and the images were denounced by Kevin Rudd as 'revolting' . This attitude could be attributed to society's desire to protect the innocence of children, but given the widespread presence and acceptance of images of nude infants, it can be read that this outrage is not sparked by the fact that a child is being sexually exploited, but a 'child' has a sexual body and therefore a sexuality. At thirteen, a female 'child' is thoroughly in the grips of puberty and most likely menstruating; but these biological facts are brushed under the table by patriarchal ideas of young female innocence. Childhood, in society and under law, is a sexless state that extends well into the sexual realms of adolescence - as Emily Maguire states, 'the urge for teenagers to have sex is not going to disappear'. The threat of criminal persecution has made taboo sexual interactions with people not of the arbitrary age of adulthood, and therefore stigmatises the inherent sexuality and fertility of these individuals. The discourse surrounding adolescence and sexuality reinforces the concept of female adolescents as vulnerably sexless children trapped in sexual bodies, and in need of protection from the 'adult' world of sexuality.

Female bodies are simultaneously the most sexualized and sexually oppressed bodies in our culture and discourse - the taboos of female adolescence is sharply contrasted to the hypersexualization of female adolescent bodies and the extensive presence of the voyeuristic male gaze in the media. This is particularly evident in the porn industry; in spite of child obscenity laws, the focus on female adolescence in porn is blatantly obvious - 70% of porn stars are female, and the most common female roles that appear in porn titles is 'teen' . Emily Maguire notes the emphasis on 'the sweetest youngest girls' and that porn 'infantilises the woman and emphasises her innocence'. Playboy features 'girls with fluffy bunny ears and short cutesy bios' because they are 'soft and unthreatening; the fantasy is to bend them to your will, to sully their sweet, blushing, cheerleader innocence'. A disturbing parallel in the attitudes in the porn industry and in the law can be drawn in Maguire's claim that porn stars are depicted as 'so darn sweet and naive that there is a sense of the man having corrupted her'. The sexual imagery of female adolescents is not restricted to the seedy recesses of hardcore pornography; a famous example of female adolescent bodies being used as sexual objects is Miley Cyrus, who appeared scantily clad in Vanity Fair at the age of fifteen and in a similarly sexualised photoshoot for Elle magazine a year later. Child obscenity laws makes this sort of depiction of actual teenagers an exception rather than a rule; however, this does not stop adult women masquerading as adolescents when they are exploited by the media. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist scholar and media critic, produced a criticism of GQ magazine when it released a sexually explicit photoshoot of Glee cast members in character as high school students . The use of adults to portray adolescents is common in Hollywood, as it is supposed to circumvent the many laws regarding employment and sexual depiction of children. However, it does not detract from the fact that as these adults represent and are commonly viewed as adolescents, and when they are sexually objectified it constitutes sexual exploitation of adolescents. A level of hypocrisy between the widespread use of sexualised imagery of adolescence and the many legal and social restrictions and stigmas of female adolescent sexuality is evident; female adolescents are restricted from free sexual expression, yet female sexual bodies can be freely exploited, especially if they are sexually mature adults masquerading as 'sexless' adolescents. The juxtaposition between the stigma and taboo of female adolescent sexuality and the treatment of female adolescent bodies in the media reinforces the concept of female adolescents are children with adult bodies; incapable of sexual expression, but capable of being sexually exploited.

The discourse that constructs female adolescents as children with adult bodies is particularly evident in the treatment of young women of East Asian heritage living in Anglo-Australian society. The manner in which Asian women are depicted in Western popular culture is painfully limited and harmful; poet Rachel Rostad speaks of 'a long tradition of turning Asian women into a sad fetish' in which Asian women are either sexualised, like Madame La Parte in the Bond film Thunderball, or reduced to a simplistic love interest, like Cho Chang in the Harry Potter franchise. Bitna Kim's study of 'Asian fetishism' amongst white men revealed that white men perceived Asian women to be more 'submissive and obedient' than white women; another study reveals that Asian women are commonly perceived as being 'submissive, man-pleasing sex kittens'; or, more palatably, of having 'great personalities'. Female adolescent Asian bodies are easily infantilised; the average Vietnamese woman stands at 10cm shorter than an average Anglo-Australian woman and 20cm shorter than an average Anglo-Australian man  , and this combined with smaller secondary sex characteristics can result in Asian adolescent women to appear childlike. A common misconception amongst white men as revealed in Kim's study is that Asian women 'believe westerners are superior to Asians'; this myth of a submissive Asian woman helplessly attached to a white man is rampant throughout popular culture, featuring in the opera Madame Butterfly and the musical Miss Saigon. This kind of infantilism and sexual objectification of the submissive Asian woman is not exclusive to the cultural insensitivity of Hollywood. The kawaii (cute) and ero-kawaii (erotic cute) style of manga/anime is extremely popular in Japan, and has crossed over into pornography with roricon, or Lolita porn; animated pornography which sexualises female childhood and adolescence.. From this, we can gather that there is a contradiction in the way in which Asian women are depicted and perceived by our society; as sexless, but sexually appealing because they are constructed as childlike in eroticised and fetishised bodies. Gail Dines discusses the treatment of Asian women in pornography, stating that Asian women are 'childified - they are presented as naive, innocent, and lacking any adult agency'. Dines also draws a connection between the eroticisation of Asian female submissiveness and colonialism, as the depiction of Asian female adolescent sexuality is not only governed by the discourse of patriarchy and sexism, but also of colonialism and racism.  There is, of course, a taboo against sexualising child or childlike bodies, and also a taboo against mixed-race relationships; Asian female adolescents combine and eroticise these stigmas, and encourages these taboos to become more socialised and acceptable to mainstream popular culture. The treatment of female adolescents as children with adult bodies is particularly evident in the depiction and perception of East Asian women living in Anglo-Australian society, as the discourse surrounding East Asian female adolescence is informed not only by the taboos and stigmas laid down by the law, but also the complex power dynamics of cultural stereotypes, racism and colonialism.

Female adolescent bodies belong to legal children; unable, in the eyes of the law, to consent or actively participate in the 'adult' world of sexuality and reproduction. This is contradicted in the excessive sexualisation of young women in the media; resulting in female adolescent bodies being constructed as inherently sexual, but belonging to sexless people - legitimising, therefore, exploitation and the erasure of female adolescent sexual agency from our society. This exploitation and erasure is particularly evident in the treatment of the East Asian female adolescent, who is constructed through pornography and popular culture as the archetypal child with an adult body.


Dines, Gail. Pornland: how porn has hijacked our sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.
Maguire, Emily. Princesses & Pornstars: sex, power, identity. 1st ed. Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 2008.
Kim, Bina. Asian female and Caucasian male couples: Exploring the attraction. Pastoral Psychology, 60, 233-244, 2011


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