It’s a well-known fact in feminist circles that our society sexualizes girls from a very young age – and that that’s fucked up.
From Brooke Shield’s infamous 1981 ad for Calvin Klein jeans to then ten-year-old French model Thylane Blondeau’s controversial 2011 Vogue photoshoot, the debate over girls being too sexy, too soon rages on.
In the meantime, attitudes towards men who pursue underage girls continue to be frustratingly lax on the whole.
Last year, 36-year-old James Franco tried (and failed) to hook up with a 17-year-old Scottish girl via Instagram. After a month of denial, he fessed up, joked about it, and more or less emerged unscathed with his career intact.
When a guy can nonchalantly poke fun at himself for almost committing statutory rape of a girl half his age, that’s probably a sign that we, as a society, need to be more vigilant and protective of our young women.
Because girls pick up on these social attitudes very early on.
In her book The Lolita Effect, M. Gigi Durham states that girls grow up understanding themselves as passive and boys as active as a consequence of pop culture. Children are taught that boys choose girls (and only sexy girls, at that), which compels girls to make themselves sexy as early as possible.
And people are catching on – and becoming increasingly freaked out by it – which is partly why many retailers have come under fire for marketing “sexy” products to young girls. Take Abercrombie and Fitch, for example, which marketed push-up bras and thongs to girls as young as six.
But just because people are starting to notice (and making a fuss) doesn’t mean that this is a new problem brought into cultural consciousness by “kids these days.”
Because while it’s easy to blame the digital age and the proliferation of sex as an advertising strategy, the cultural phenomenon of the sexy little girl has been around for quite some time.
And to fight it, we need to understand it.
So what is the Lolita complex? And what do we do about it? Let’s talk.
Nabokov Is Facepalming from the Grave: The Origins of Lolita
Lolita is a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov which chronicles the infatuation of its protagonist, 38-year-old professor Humbert Humbert, with 12-year-old Dolores Haze. He sexually pursues her after he becomes her stepfather, and “Lolita” is his private nickname for her.
Nabokov wanted the cover art to feature “pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details…and no girls.” He reaffirms this aversion again at the end of his description, stating, “There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.”
Yet the vast majority of publications of Lolita depict Lolita herself, often in various erotic poses.
That is, Lolita is widely misinterpreted as a classic tale of forbidden desire and sexual discovery, positioning Lolita as a teenage seductress, rather than an abused 12-year-old child.
Nabokov must be facepalming from the grave.
The iconic promotional images for the 1962 film adaptation, for example, showcasing star Sue Lyon clad in heart-shaped sunglasses and casually sucking a red lollipop, immortalized Lolita as symbolic of precocious sexuality. And while it’s important to note that Lolita is 16 in the film, rather than twelve, the fact of the matter is that she is still a child.
And voila: The idea of Lolita and the nymphet were soon interchangeable.
Not only can young girls be perceived sexually by adults, but the girls are (allegedly) actively cultivating such a perception, moving beyond innocent sexual curiosity and into deliberate sexual intent.
And thus, the cringeworthy phenomenon of society normalizing men openly celebrating their thirst for high school girls began.
Naughty Schoolgirls and the ‘Jailbait’ Myth: Defining the Lolita Complex
Having a Lolita Complex means that you have a penchant for finding young women or girls attractive. Even if you don’t seek out such relationships or pursue actual underage girls, you might still enjoy the fantasy of it.
Sometimes the age disparity can be a part of it, but the idea of the having authority over her can be erotic as well.
Think about how much various incarnations of the Lolita Complex have been normalized within the mainstream sexual Rolodex.
The idea of the naughty schoolgirl is a much celebrated and popular character for role play. The source of her sexiness is obvious: She’s supposed to be a naïve and innocent figure under strict rules, but deep down, has a wild side.
The naughty schoolgirl also coincides perfectly with jailbait. A girl described as “jailbait” threatens to tempt you into having sex with her despite the fact that she’s underage, also implying that her sexiness is so overwhelming that you’re willing to knowingly risk going to jail for breaking the law.
Even the word jailbait suggests the girl’s complicity in the seduction. “Bait” connotes the intentional setting of a trap. In this scenario, she’s supposedly well aware of her sex appeal and working to seduce you beyond your better judgment.
It’s always fascinating to me how much effort we put into imagining the agency of a minor when adults have something to gain. The girl who would be viewed as a child in any other scenario suddenly becomes calculating and scheming as soon as adult desire comes into play.
Having the fantasy of Lolita or acting out such scenarios with fellow adult partners is fairly innocuous within itself, but putting these fantasies into action with real life teen girls can have serious consequences.
How Ephebophilia Plays (And Doesn’t) into This
It should be noted that the way our culture promotes sexualization of teen girls is separate from having an attraction to teens in itself.
Ephebophilia is defined as primary or exclusive adult sexual interest in mid-to-late adolescents. Ephebophilia is often conflated with pedophilia, which refers to sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Many people mistakenly use pedophilia as a blanket term for anyone attracted to minors, which actually is incorrect.
Because we tend to associate pedo- and ephebophilia with abuse and predatory behavior, we think of these desires as immoral and unethical. However, merely having such attractions doesn’t automatically make you a bad person.
That is to say, in the case of ephebophilia, being attracted to teens isn’t the problem. Rather, the decision to actively pursue these desires creates potentially dangerous situations for those involved.
The sexualization of teen girls isn’t necessarily due to ephebophilia, but can instead be traced back to the fact that we live in a culture that freely encourages adult men (specifically) to lust after minors.
I’m willing to bet that the majority of men who thirst after high school girls don’t all just happen to have the same sexual proclivity. It’s a learned behavior and a product of our society.
As tempting as it might be to want to convince yourself that only a small group of people would actually take advantage of young girls (which is an unfair stereotype to begin with), it’s a much more endemic issue.
The Lolita Complex in Reality
Ultimately, the rationale for carrying out a Lolita Complex in real life on real underage girls boils down to two aspects: entitlement (men thinking that they deserve a girl who is young and sexy) and authority (men enjoying having power and influence over the girl and deciding that her sexiness either transcends or belies her age).
You’d think that age of consent laws would be pretty cut and dry, but the notion that physicality and early development invalidates someone’s age when they’re the object of adult sexual desire persists. And this belief has unsurprisingly created daunting and highly subjective hurdles for minor victims of sexual assault.
A 27-year-old man in Sweden was acquitted of raping a 13-year-old girl because she looked older than her age. Swedish assault laws state that the defendant must have reasonable grounds to believe that the child is under 15, the country’s age of consent.
I don’t know what looking “older than your age” even means. Newsflash: Girls can hit puberty as young as eight. Just because you’re physically mature doesn’t mean you’re mentally or emotionally mature. Apparently the fact that some teenage girls have curves gives wiggle room to rapists.
But the blame doesn’t stop with physical appearance alone. Some will go as far as claiming teenage girls use their charms to psychologically manipulate grown adults.
In London, a 16-year-old girl was accused of grooming her 44-year-old teacher after he raped her. It was ruled that he merely “gave way to temptation” in the wake of tragedy after his wife suffered a miscarriage. Meanwhile, her attempts to win his affection were categorized as stalking behavior.
I think I’m going to need to lie down for a good four months. Even if she did have a precocious crush, is it not the teacher’s responsibility as the adult and authority figure in the situation to determine right from wrong?
Such logic as criminal absolution sounds even more ridiculous in any other scenario. I could be upset over the death of my grandfather, but that doesn’t give me the right to rob a bank and keep the cash.
Adults don’t get to decide whether a child is psychologically mature enough for sex just because she makes them horny and happens physically fit the bill.
Let Girls Be Girls
I’m not going to claim that children are tainted by sex or that sexual desire destroys innocence or whatever we think an idyllic childhood is supposed to consist of. Actually, I’d argue that although sexuality and sexual desires aren’t a universal experience, sexual discovery is a fairly routine part of childhood.
Sexual curiosity and exploration is perfectly healthy for children. The key is that they should be free to explore this part of themselves with other children and people who are age appropriate for them.
No matter how mature a girl claims to be or how mature anyone else thinks she is, she’s still a child – and adults shouldn’t take advantage of her perceived precocity for their own sexual gratification.
Even if it’s in the context of a consensual relationship, the inevitable exploitation can leave lasting psychological scars. And even if she does appear to be a willing participant, remember that anyone under the age of consent can’t—well—give consent.
And to the men drooling over adolescent girls: Media messages are not a justification for your behavior. Teens are not blank canvases for your fantasies. Back away from the children and try dating women a little closer to your age.
Young girls have a slew of challenges to face without adults complicating things by using them for their own self-gain.
A girl is wonderfully complex with her own perspective. She’s still trying to sort herself out and figure out what she wants and who she wants to be. She at least deserves to be free to complete that process on her own time and on her own terms.
She is no one’s fantasy. She is no one’s Lolita. She’s her own person.
Erin Tatum is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s a feminist, queer theory lover, and television enthusiast living in Pennsylvania. She is particularly interested in examining the representation of marginalized identities in media. In addition to Everyday Feminism, she’s also a weekly contributor to B*tch Flicks. Follow her on Twitter @ErinTatum91.