SLU Professor's Book Challenges Childhood Sexualization Myths

CANTON – A new book written by a St. Lawrence University professor cites research showing that widespread sexualization of girls in our culture, which most have accepted as fact, simply doesn't exist.

Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of Girls and Sexualization by R. Danielle Egan, professor of gender studies at St. Lawrence, was recently published by Polity Press. It was released abroad in March and in the United States on April 9.

“Studies show this conclusion is simply untrue, as are claims that sexualization leads to depression, promiscuity and compassion-deficit disorder, and robs young girls of their childhood,” Egan said. “Yet such stories make for compelling media coverage.”

Egan’s inspiration for the book came in 2007, when she and Gail Hawkes, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New England, were researching sexual protection movements in the 1800s. About the same time, a report on sexualization was released in Australia.

“I was taken aback by the continuities I found between the pamphlets produced by purity advocates between 1860 and early 1900 and a report written over a century later,” Egan said. “I was equally intrigued by the differences.”

“The topic of sexualization seemed to be everywhere – governmental reports, academic reports and numerous popular texts,” she added. “Like many anti-sexualization advocates, I was and am disturbed by the abundance of sexist and sexualized media representations, but I was wary of how the issue was being translated and transformed into a movement that pathologized girls through a kind of monkey see, monkey do logic – a logic which had little empirical backing.

“Why is our culture so attached to the idea of young people being on the verge of corruption? Why do we forward such a paradoxical conception of young people – on one hand all children are completely innocent and on the other they are suspect, sexually promiscuous and dangerous? This book is an attempt to answer these questions.” 

The publisher says, “Becoming Sexual begins with a simple question: Why does this discourse feel so natural? Analyzing potent cultural and historical assumptions, and subjecting them to measured investigation, Egan illuminates the implications of dominant thinking on sexualization. The sexualized girl functions as a metaphor for cultural decay and as a common enemy through which adult rage, discontent and anxiety regarding class, gender, sexuality, race and the future can be expressed. Egan argues that, ultimately, the popular literature on sexualization is more reflective of adult disquiet than it is about the lives and practices of girls.”

Becoming Sexual was named “Book of the Week” by the Times Higher Education Reviewon February 28, has been featured in The Guardian (UK) and has been reviewed in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Egan co-authored the 2010 book, Theorizing the Sexual Child in Modernity, with Hawkes. She authored Dancing for Dollars and Paying for Love: Exotic Dancers and their Regular Customers and co-edited Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance, both published in 2006. She has published numerous articles in scholarly journals, is a co-editor of the Palgrave Series, Critical Studies in Gender and Sexuality, and serves on the editorial board of the journals, Sexualities and Sexuality and Culture.

In 2007, Egan presented the Piskor Lecture at St. Lawrence titled "Between Angels and the Pathologically Prurient: Moral Education and the Production of Childhood Sexuality." A faculty member at St. Lawrence University since 2000, she won the Maslow Award, a peer-nominated teaching award, in 2005. Egan is a graduate of Goucher College, earned a master’s degree at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and a Ph.D. at Boston College. She is a psychoanalytic candidate at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.