Your generation was more into sexualizing young girls

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Remember that better time when college coeds frolicked on the quad lawn, safe from the eyes of older males, who were drawn instead to the allure of a mature woman? Indeed, doesn’t it seem like nowadays, in our Girls Gone Wild culture, we shove females into the sexual spotlight at ever younger ages? That’s what you’d conclude from the 50,000 alarmist results that a Google search for “+sexualizing +young” returns, in particular the recent panic over 15 year-old Miley Cyrus posing semi-topless for Vanity Fair. The cropped picture to the left is of Elizabeth Ann Roberts, who was 16 when she was photographed nude as Playboy Playmate of the Month — of January 1958.

On an intuitive level, though, we know that the culture must be more hostile than before to sexualizing young females — there would be no hysteria if it were acceptable. Plus, suburban housewives and city-dwelling cougars have never hogged so much of our attention. Still, let’s turn to three datasets that show the trend is, if anything, toward sexualizing increasingly older females in popular culture. We will look at data across the decades on beauty pageant winners, girls featured in nude magazines, and hardcore porn actresses.

First, take the winners of the Miss America beauty pageant, a competition determined mostly by how closely the contestant fits the ideal look of the time. A writer for the website Seduction Labs has already done an extensive analysis, so I took the age data from his work. Here is how Miss America’s age has changed over the decades:

It sure looks like Miss America is getting older — the ones from before 1940 are quite young — and this is true: Kendall’s tau for the correlation between year and age is +0.50 (p = 3 x 10^(-10), two-tailed). Admittedly, estimating the youth-obsession of each year with only one data-point — the winner from that year — is less desirable than averaging all contestants’ ages for that year, but the data are hard enough to come by that this is the best we can do.

Next, consider the Playboy Playmates of the Month, averaged for a given year. While the 1950s had fewer data, each year still had at least 7 data-points. Using 12 data-points to estimate each year should make us more confident in the results, shown here:

Again, the average Playboy Playmate is getting older: Kendall’s tau for the correlation between year and age is +0.44 (p = 3 x 10^(-6), two-tailed). The trend is clearly not linear, though, since there was a decrease in age at least from the mid-1950s, when the data begin, throughout the 1960s.

In response to a criticism brought up in the comments to the post showing that the popularity of blonds is recent, I’ve also calculated Kendall’s tau based on the raw month-by-month data-points, rather than yearly averages: it is +0.18 (p = 1 x 10^(-10), two-tailed). As I mentioned to the commenter, I think it’s more instructive to look at the year’s average since the Playboy people likely have a target girl in mind for the year’s subscription, based on the perceived demand. That is, the Playmates within a given year are comparable to the Miss America contestants for a given year — they are chosen to fill out a year’s run, and Miss April could just as well have been Miss December. Still, even by this perhaps overly stringent standard, the trend is positive and significant.

Finally, we look at actresses in hardcore porn movies. Collecting a representative sample of active females in a given year would be incredibly arduous, so instead I took famous actresses and determined how old they were when they made their first movie, and entered this as a data-point for the year in which they started making movies.

The lists I used are the AVN Hall of Fame, the XRCO Hall of Fame (which barely added anyone else), and a list of female porn stars by decade drawn up by the porn geeks at Wikipedia. I required each year to have at least 5 data-points; if there were too few, I merged that year’s data with an adjacent year (whichever had fewer data-points than the other choice), so that the data-sparse year is excluded and the beefed-up year is included. This mostly affects the 1970s and early 1980s. Here are the ages of first-time porn stars by year of their first movie:

There is no increase or decrease over time: Kendall’s tau for the correlation between year and age is nowhere near significance. There are several apparent upward and downward trends, though. This might be the only example of the 1980s and early 1990s showing greater progress by the declinists’ standards. I recently analyzed a large, representative sample of porn stars and found that their average age is 23, for what it’s worth. Again, that’s what we really want to see: the age of the typical actress for a given year.

Maybe girls enter at earlier ages in recent times but don’t reach their peak in popularity until they are in their early 20s. Another drawback of looking at age at first movie is that it ignores the recent popularity of “MILF” actresses — maybe it’s just that the variance in age is increasing. Admittedly, these pornstar data are not ideal.

Finally, we examine the popularity of beauty pageants specifically for teenage contestants. While I don’t have datasets to analyze, such as the annual TV ratings, there is enough information on them to get a rough picture. First, there is Miss Teen USA, the adolescent version of Miss Universe. It was created in 1983, reached its peak for ratings in 1988, and has declined in popularity afterward, to the point where it may not even be televised anymore. And second, there is Miss Teenage America, which was created in 1962 and was last televised in 1977. Judging by its corporate sponsorship and celebrity hosts, it must have been somewhat popular. There are other beauty pageants for teenagers, but they are not even televised, and so do not count as evidence of an obsession with youth. Rather, we see a shift away from throwing young girls into the purely sexual spotlight.

Since there are no huge long-term swings up and down in these data, as opposed to the cases of sluttiness and violence, all generations can say that they’ve improved over previous generations, or at least done no worse. If any generation is to be accused of sexualizing younger girls in popular culture, though, it is surely the older ones. It is true that the current culture does not value women over 30, but that has never been the case — just the opposite.

As with sluttiness, part of the declinists’ misperception may be due to fashion trends, such as even prepubescent girls wearing adult-inspired clothing. That’s hardly evidence of their being sexualized, though — no guy is actually looking at them as a sex object, and dressing like an adult doesn’t make you behave like one sexually. While it may be a bizarre fashion trend — though more bizarre than when pre-pubescents started wearing two-piece bathing suits? — it doesn’t reflect a sexualization of the young.

What’s causing this trend toward older sex symbols? Oh, I don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll get a bunch of half-baked ideas in the comments, so I’ll get the goofball ball rolling. Women are having their first kid later, if at all, so there’s a wider age range of females who haven’t ruined their figure by giving birth. Still, according to the analysis of Miss America winners at Seduction Labs, there are other trends: starting around 1960, winners became taller, less buxom, and less hourglass in shape, in addition to older. In short, the feminine ideal in popular culture has been worn down by the march of the masculine minxes. It’s a mistake to blame this on the women’s movement of the 1970s, though, since most of these trends began in the early-to-mid-1960s. Radical feminists were just jumping on the bandwagon and trying to steal credit for it.

Though it’s harder to measure, the manliness of these sex symbols’ faces has surely increased — go back and look at some of the Playboy Playmates from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. They look like girls, not butch transvestites (NSFW, obviously). I see this as a form of cultural decline, of course, but the declinists who decry our obsession with youth could not be more wrong.

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24 Comments

  1. OK, I accept the fact that there was never an Eden when Americans got married as virgins at 21 for girls and 25 for guys but….in the year 1958, when that 16-year old posed for Playboy (and don’t forget Lolita was published in 1961!!), what were the STD rates? Pretty low, I bet, including among blacks. What were the rates of out-of-wedlock births? Again, low – including among blacks. 
     
    Dismay over a breakdown in morality focuses on contrived things like this.  
     
    And yeah, I’m not ashamed to use a phrase like “breakdown in morality,” because dudes, that’s what I think it is. When 70% of kids in the black community and 30% of white babies are born to unmarried parents, I call that a breakdown in morality. 
     
    Flame away.

  2. I have to say, this picture is NSFW. My company is good enough not to have a diversity policy, so I can at least visit this site (thank God) but they’d surely draw the line here…

  3. OK, I will try: 
     
    Maybe people today lead a less stressful life than their counterparts in the earlier part of the last century, and they keep their looks longer. When I say less stressful I mean they have fewer children, smoke less, have better vaccines and health care etc.

  4. As I recall the WHR for Playboy centerfold models has also gone up since the 1950s. I wonder whether this is a result of more working out (today’s models surely spend a lot more time in the gym than tose from the 1950s), or whether it’s just almost impossible for someone older than 16 or so to have a ridiculously low WHR (like 0.55). 
     
    Overall I agree with you though. Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roman Polanski – these guys and their involvement with teenage girls aren’t some product of modern culture. And while Lewis’ marriage to his 13 yr old cousin was scandalous even at that time, something like that would be unthinkable today.

  5. One possibel explanation for the increasing age of beauty contestants and playboy playmates is the trend towards a prolonged youth in our society; look at stars from the 1930s through the 1960s. A man or woman in his or her 30s looks substantially older than a perosn of similar age today.

  6. The increase in living standards might have something to do with this; George Orwell once remarked that a more youthful appearence was one of the key demarcaters of social class in Britain, with a middle aged Upper class individual nearly always looking younger than a working class person. Perhaps this Uper class tendency has simply spread more evenly throughout the population.

  7. Increase in living standards? Those 20 year olds in 1950 were born in 1930 and survived the great depression. Average life span in the United States was 69 in 1950, as opposed to 78 in 2006, according to Gapminder. In time of famine a higher body fat percentage is popular because it’s not as easy for poor people to obtain. It’s hard to remember that America was once a place of famine, because, well, I had Grandma put away. Today, with America’s food surplus dropping prices around the world the only skinny poor people in the US are crack addicts. A well toned figure means you can afford a gym membership. One of the drawing attractions of my workplace is its on site gymnasium and workout rooms. (I leave my cubicle and waddle past it several times a week.)

  8. First of all, in the past the culture was a whole lot less sexualized period. To name only one example, porn is way more mainstream now. Whatever sexual images or ways of dressing that were out there may have featured younger girls, but those images and ways of dressing were a _lot_ tamer than the images put out today. 
     
    Second, people may have been more comfortable with teenage girls being at least somewhat sexual because those girls were often getting ready for marriage at 18 or 19. Since the teenage years were a prelude to matrimony, not a career, people were pretty realistic that these young girls were going to be trying to attract husbands at that age. 
     
    Combine the two, much less sexual imagery on an absolute scale and a more respectable goal, and it is not unreasonable for people to be upset with the sexually provocative images and dress of young girls.

  9. Just because pornographic materials were more undercover doesn’t mean they were any less “depraved”. Look up Tijuana bibles sometime for a taste of what the people of the 1920s-1950s were looking at/passing around under the school desks ;) 
     
    Playboy replaced them, and was a lot less explicit – but only because it wasn’t black market. 
     
    As the stuff became legal, it adhered to community standards more, so it ended up tamer.

  10. First of all, in the past the culture was a whole lot less sexualized period. To name only one example, porn is way more mainstream now. Whatever sexual images or ways of dressing that were out there may have featured younger girls, but those images and ways of dressing were a _lot_ tamer than the images put out today. 
     
    Is that true that it was less prevalent? According the to General Social Survey, a huge national poll conducted every year, the percentage of Americans who’ve seen an x-rated movie within the past year goes up and down somewhat, but has stayed within roughly 15 – 25% of the population, from 1973 to 2006. Granted, this only tracks if they’ve seen an x-rated movie at all — maybe there are more people who’ve seen *lots* of porn recently. Still, about 75% or more haven’t even seen one. 
     
    Also, 1973 is about the earliest time you even could see an x-rated movie, so for pretty much the entire history of porn movies, they haven’t increased much in popularity. 
     
    Playboy’s peak circulation was in the early 1970s, when there was a smaller population, so the fraction of the population reading it is even smaller than absolute circulation would suggest. 
     
    It’s only Wikipedia, but their entry on the history of pornography suggests that there was quite a bit of softcore, hardcore, and nudie stuff going around at least since the turn of the 20th century (and explicit, cheap prints going back further). Neziha mentioned tijuana bibles: 
     
    http://tijuanabibles.org/cgi-bin/hazel.cgi?action=home 
     
    My impression of the past is that it was a lot seedier — maybe not smalltown life, but that’s not overrun by debauchery now either. Think of how clean and pure New York is today compared to the 1920s through the 1980s. Or look at Berlin! 
     
    http://archive.salon.com/sex/feature/2000/11/22/weimar/index.html 
     
    I haven’t done a lot of research here, obviously, but I don’t think most people who claim the past was less sexualized have either. 
     
    Since the teenage years were a prelude to matrimony, not a career, people were pretty realistic that these young girls were going to be trying to attract husbands at that age. 
     
    That sounds plausible. Again, I’m not trying to argue whether it was good or bad, only whether or not what the declinists say is true — and it’s not.

  11. To carry on the chorus, the teenage bride theory does seem to carry a lot of weight ; prior to the 1960s, people were a lot franker about what constitutes a woman’s aesthetic peak; Hence, the need to put a young girl on display, as it were, during her prime. Modern day society goes to rather extravagant lengths to persuade itself (SEX AND THE CITY, etc.) that a woman in her 30s can effectively compete with women in their late teens and 20s.

  12. Trajan23, that is because most entertainment is by and for women. Selling them fantasies that they’re still hot and desirable as a 20 year old at age 40 or older. 
     
    One of the publicity stills for the Sex and the City movie has Sarah Jessica Parker, in some ridiculous dress, looking stringy, with an “in-love-with-herself” look on her face, being gaped at in awe by a bunch of much younger, hotter women passing by on the sidewalk. 
     
    That is the fantasy. 
     
    I’m shocked no one has commented on the most OBVIOUS reason for the increase in ages for Playboy Centerfolds, Miss America, and most particularly porn stars. 
     
    What happened in the 1980′s to drive up the ages so dramatically? Why, Ed Meese, his commission on pornography, crusades against porn in Congress and the media, and the infamous Traci Lords incident (she worked as a porn star while way under 18). Thus the incentive for porn makers to choose women who were never in doubt as to being well over 18. 
     
    Similar pressures being brought to bear (obviously not as extreme) on Miss America and Playboy would also skew things, far from demand, but rather from a legal liability standpoint. 
     
    You can’t discuss American culture without discussing how legal penalties shape things. I doubt men stopped liking hot young chicks, and got preferences for older women, rather penalties for providing anything even hinting of that nature were so severe that every provider played it safe. 
     
    Certainly the evidence suggesting that in teen pregnancies, the fathers were about 6.7 years older on average (IIRC, don’t have the cite, just working from memory here guys) does not indicate a preference for older women.

  13. What about the increasing masculinity? I wonder if that’s a result of feminism or of greater male immaturity… I remember when male nerds used to fantasize about cheerleaders instead of nerd chicks…

  14. whiskey - 
    I believe (not 100% sure, however) that there is a “safe harbor” for pornography producers. If they obtain certain forms of identification from actresses and maintain records thereof, they won’t be subject to prosecution if the ID turns out to be false and the actresses underage.

  15. rather penalties for providing anything even hinting of that nature were so severe that every provider played it safe. 
     
    I kind of doubt that — they were just forced to keep records of age, and it’s not like it’s easier to keep records for older vs. younger females. They still produce materials themed around schoolgirls, coeds, etc., and the phrase “barely legal” appears in many titles. 
     
    Guys really do seem to go more for older females than they did before. 
     
    I wonder if that’s a result of feminism or of greater male immaturity
     
     
    Remember the details — these trends started in the early 1960s, about a decade before feminism became visible, let alone powerful. How do you measure male immaturity? (Aside from doing a principal components analysis on a database of GNXP contributors and loyal readers.)

  16. Reminds me of what John Derbyshire said about Lolita. It’s one of the few examples where our society has gotten more socially conservative.

  17. Uh, ever hear of the Hays code or the even stricter censorship on television. You couldn’t even say the word “pregnant” on TV. 
     
    Elvis’ dancing could only be shown from the waist up. And now we have Dirrty being blasted into livingrooms everywhere. 
     
    In my own lifetime, I can remember even during my undergrad years almost no one in polite converstion would admit to watching porn. There was none of this stuff about coming up with your porn name or whatever. 
     
    Porn consumption went way up with the introduction of videocassetes, where you didn’t have to go to some sleazy theatre.

  18. Porn consumption went way up with the introduction of videocassetes, where you didn’t have to go to some sleazy theatre. 
     
    I already presented nationally representative data showing that’s not true. Anyway, this deserves a post of its own.

  19. I already presented nationally representative data showing that’s not true. 
     
    Follow the money.

  20. This is a very interesting report; although I feel that I bring to your attention that I have tried to use Playboy data before, and there’s a number of problems with it, which could possibly skew your results, and possibly render them inaccurate. 
     
    1. Wikipedia data on Playboy models often differs from data given on Playboy’s website (I assume this is because of transcription errors with one handed typing and not because Wikipedia editors have more accurate sources). 
     
    2) Various literary sources mention that Hugh Hefner insists on choosing the Playmate of the month for each issue himself, so the data could be more about just one man’s preferences, rather than a change in societal preferences. 
     
    3) According to Leif Ueland, models often don’t know their vital statistics. In his book about the search for the playmate of the millennium, he reports a story that when the girls were filling in their photo release forms; if they didn?t know their measurements, then the model coordinator would tell the girls to list their bra size, for both bust and hip measurement, and then just subtract 10″ for their waist measurement. 
     
    Hope this helps, 
     
    Jonathan

  21. Diana is correct about a breakdown in public morality. I can remember the first Playboy hitting the stands with Marilyn M. on the blanket in the altogether.  
     
    The explosion of technology & the complete collapse of the nuclear family because of the explosion of drugs & breakdown of the urban landscape were symptoms of this overall breakdown.  
     
    Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Tim Russert’s mentor, wrote at length about the downfall of the nuclear family & Tim’s memories of a warm & caring family seem a century or two ago. 
     
    The public sector has intruded into private lives & the family’s autonomy with disastrous effects. 
     
    When 70% of kids in the black community and 30% of white babies are born to unmarried parents, I call that a breakdown in morality. 
     
    No doubt about it.

  22. STDs were high in the 1950s. It might be fair to say that Americans have been sexually “immoral” for as long as they can remember………

  23. Remember that better time when college coeds frolicked on the quad lawn, safe from the eyes of older males, who were drawn instead to the allure of a mature woman? 
     
    I hope this is sarcastic… 
     
    That’s hardly evidence of their being sexualized, though — no guy is actually looking at them as a sex object, and dressing like an adult doesn’t make you behave like one sexually. 
     
    Are you really that sure of this? With girls under 10, and for the vast majority of the adult male population, I would agree. On the other hand, with teens? While it may be culturally unacceptable, I would have to say it does happen. I would have assumed that the highly discerning and often taboo-disregarding readership at GNXP would be aware of this distinction.

  24. The reason why the data sometimes differ between Wikipedia vs. Playboy’s official website and books is because Playboy doesn’t tell the truth all the time. They admit to Elizabeth Ann Roberts being under 18, because of the legal case, but they make it seem as if it was an accident and that she was nearing 18, when in fact she had just turned 16 and she told me that Hefner knew exactly how old she was all along. They pretend Cynthia Myers posed at 18, but she herself has repeatedly said in interviews and at her official site that she posed at 17 three months before her 18th birthday. 
     
    In fact there are a dozen more Playmates under 18 besides those two, and that’s just counting the American edition! 
     
    Linda Moon is passed off as an 18 year old by Playboy, then and now, but her photographer said she was 16. Another is Patti Reynolds, who was 8 months shy of her 18th birthday when her centerfold got published, based on her undisputed birthdate. 
     
    The most recent one seems to have been Penny Baker, who posed at 17 and was published in January 1984, just 3 months after her 18th birthday. Big magazines like Playboy require months of lead time, especially for important features like the centerfold, which are made well in advance of publication. 
     
    The Wikipedia data on Playmates is actually pretty reliable most of the time. I don’t know if its claim that Gina Goldberg was 17 when she posed in 1981 is right, however. 
     
    The current hysteria in the United States and Australia over “teen sexualization” is social engineering by totalitarian-minded people who deny the facts of nature, and it’s high time the debate was taken back from fanatics. Otherwise we’ll continue to witness the farce of big magazines pretending all their models and actresses are 18 or older (Playboy isn’t the only one that’s lying) and their subscribers pretending they dislike looking at women before midnight on their 18th birthday.

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