The recent scandal over the “twerking” video provides an opportunity to reflect on our changing culture and values. Administrators from the school where the video was produced were understandably upset and chose to prohibit the participants from going to the prom and walking at graduation. The school was concerned about the message these students appeared to be sending to their peers and the online community.
A daughter’s high school years are anxiety-provoking for her parents, fueled by late night parties, revealing clothes and the constant background noise of crude, sexually charged music. Throughout history parents have been concerned that their daughters may be sexually exploited or harmed in other ways. Parents are disturbed by their daughters’ blatant displays of sexuality because they know men respond to them. However, each generation develops new standards and mores regarding sexual behavior. Those old enough to remember recall society’s response of horror to Elvis Presley’s gyrations. Some parents even forbade watching the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Because sexuality today is even more “in your face,” as anyone who watches reality TV or music videos can see, teenagers have become numbed to the potency of the sexual messages they exude in the way they dress and the way they act. They have developed a new “normal” and it is often disturbing to us. Teenagers will mouth the words of rap songs, seemingly ignoring the negative messages regarding sex, women and violence. The way many teenagers dress may appear extremely provocative, especially to adults who were raised with a different standard of what was sexy and what was sexual.
Psychological research has shown that we quickly habituate to events around us and then ignore them. People living next to a railway line or by the airport are initially bothered by the sound of the train or plane passing, but eventually they barely hear it. We are programmed to notice change and ignore the ordinary. In Muslim countries seeing a woman’s hair or perhaps her ankle is seen as sexually provocative because it is so often hidden. When mini-skirts first came out in the 1960s older people saw it as scandalous. Most women who wore the mini were following the fashion, not attempting to be provocative. Eventually the mini became the new normal. Someone wearing a “micro mini” skirt however would raise an eyebrow because it broke a convention. It suggested that the wearer wanted to advertise sexuality by wearing a skirt even shorter than typical. Habituation is good and bad; we can become accustomed to daily irritations, going on automatic pilot to save valuable brain capacity for other tasks, and saving our consciousness for important events. It can be bad, however, because we can drift away from our values slowly, over time, without noticing. As we become numb to sexuality the media raises the ante, perhaps by combining violence with sexuality to get our attention.
Teenagers who made the “twerking” video very likely did not fully understand its sexual nature. I would bet that if you asked them, “Did you mean to be sexually provocative?” most would say “absolutely not!” In fact they would be appalled to think that men watching the video could be sexually stimulated by their actions. Because they see it everywhere, teenagers have habituated to a high level of intense sexuality.
We, as parents, need to provide sensitivity training to our children about what is sexually provocative and what is appropriate behavior. Parents ultimately need to take responsibility for their children’s lack of judgment and they are the ones to determine an appropriate consequence. It is not necessary for these teens to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience in order for this event to serve as a learning experience. We believe the teenagers should be allowed to go to prom and to walk at their graduation. This is a wakeup call about where our society is going and our teen’s habituation to intense levels of blatant sexuality, and also to the fact that during these changing times we have to train our children about what is appropriate.
Richard Levak, Ph.D.
Joel Lazar, Ph.D.