What could be cuter than dressing up little kids in adult formal wear and asking them to play out the rituals of adolescent courtship? A Chihuahua in a sweater? A sex doll designed to look and feel like a three-year-old girl?
It’s adorable to clothe our children in the accoutrements of grown-up sexuality and sexual behavior, and the pre-K prom gives us all that. With form-fitting cocktail dresses, pint-sized spa beautification days, time-consuming up-dos, and chauffeured rides for the young lady and gent, the pre-K prom glories in that time-honored adolescent tradition of getting all dolled up and pretending to be grown.
Parents watch as their dashing five-year-old men and radiant five-year old-women, toddling in their first pairs of pumps, climb into the rear-facing car seats (now holding up to 50 pounds!) in the back seat. Mom snaps pictures for Instagram while dad slips a lolly into the young man’s pocket and gives him a hearty slap on the back.
It’s cute because we imagine this kiddie cos play is merely a surface representation of adult sexual attraction, and that the kids are innocent to the fundamental perspectives on gender and sex roles that lie beneath painted nails and peep-toe shoes. But make no mistake: kids know what’s up.
Both Sides of Gender Insanity Entrench Stereotypes
While children may, for the most part, be innocent about sex, they are not innocent about what they are being told about their roles as boys, girls, and members of society. When we present children with a set of expectations and usher them into roles in which they may meet those expectations, we are presenting children the boundaries of their worth.
Pre-K prom sets a precedent as dangerous and demeaning to children as the progressive push toward raising children according to principles of gender fluidity. Both entrench the idea of hard, fast gender roles from which one must choose. Even the concept of the non-binary gender identity exists only in relation to a clear binary of male versus female.
How did we get from Boomer parents (like mine) indoctrinating me and my peers about complete gender equality to parents now demanding children comprehend and measure up to, either through adherence to or casting off, strict concepts of what men and women must be in our society? Our culture is so focused on gender identity as an essential aspect of self-actualization that, no matter our varying political stripes, we advocate for our children to express themselves in relation to gender, and pinpoint their location on the gender spectrum.
This process of gender identification is an expected aspect of contemporary development, and parents on neither side of the gender divide will let it happen without fighting for their own perspective through their children. But there is one thing both parents who advocate for non-binary gender expression and heternormative gender expression can agree on: the identity of male is expressed in a masculine way, and the identity of female is expressed in a feminine way. Both perspectives are shockingly conservative when it comes to what roles men and women are expected to fulfill in our culture.
Commodifying Children as Sexual Objects
Pre-K prom grooms youngsters for adult sexual behaviors. What we are actually doing when we instill these ideas of gender expectations in children is ushering them into the adult world of sexual expression. Pre-K prom packages children according to adult models of sexual attractiveness and commodifies that package. Children today have a lot more to worry about, both in and out of the classroom, than I did as a youth. They are judged on everything, from how well they hold a pencil to how long they can sit still to how well they perform their gender in adult formal dress.
Despite our overwhelming inclination to think of children as innocents, children have their own sexual lives relating to the existence of sexual organs in their bodies. These are not adult feelings, they are neither positive nor negative: they don’t involve shame, and they do not need to be boxed and packaged by adults. The result of this commodification of children as burgeoning sexual objects is that children are consumed as sexual objects. By presenting our children in the costumes of adult sexual actors and initiating them into the practices of societal sexual foreplay, we are inviting them to participate in the adult sexual world. Moreover, we are inviting adults to accept them into the adult sexual world. This is not a world in which children belong, and it is not a place in which adults should envision children.
When adults view children in a sexual context, their view of sex becomes confused. Our culture is full of these Lolita stories, in which the little girl is a tease, an instigator, a lure for the adult to succumb to his or her most base urges. Do we want our children to accept their place as pretty little sluts with batting eyelashes to be acted upon by adults who cannot control their desires to corrupt innocent flesh and be corrupted by it? Initiating children into adult sexual realms is what advocating for preschool gender identification—or non-identification—is all about.
Sexual Coming Out Replaces Coming of Age
On its surface, gender expression is something over which adults appear to give children control. But by leaving this the one area in which children can express themselves, we are demanding they express themselves according to gender roles. Much like the traditions of religious coming-of-age ceremonies, parents initiate young children into gender and sexual identity roles in anticipation of the inevitable coming-out determinations.
In our secular culture, coming out has replaced the religious coming-of-age rite. Coming out is an initiation into a society of peers. No longer simply the purview of those whose sexual attraction differs from heternormativity, now all children, no matter their deviation from or adherence to heterosexual tendencies, need to come out. Are you gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, cis, queer, gender-fluid, gender-normative, femme, butch? Then by all means, come out!
Lest we be fooled into thinking the plethora of sexual identity options gives more freedom to the youth of today, it is clear that each of these varying options brings with it a unique and defining set of values and expectations to which the identified youth must adhere. A political gender identity is not forged in the soul and released into a breathless world, it is manufactured in society and applied to those individuals who subscribe to, or are directed to subscribe to, that specific political gender identity.
This is why parents are starting the political gender identity indoctrination process younger and younger. We’ve seen the kerfuffle over a mom allowing her kindergarten-age son to wear nail polish. We’ve watched as parents follow expert advice to allow their elementary-school-age sons and daughters to undergo a physical approximation of daughters and sons. We’ve listened to Oprah direct fathers to accept their five-year-old, non-sexually-active sons as gay.
And now we see the heternormative parents fighting back with pre-K prom, forming their little offspring into femme Lolita sex dolls and masculine baby show pieces. Much like the parents who encourage their pre-K children to express their gender in non-heternormative ways, parents who encourage their pre-K children to express their gender in heternormative ways do the children a great disservice. Gender is not the holy grail of self-expression, it is merely a biological state of being. Our culture treats gender as though it is something that is greater than the sum of its parts, when in actual fact, gender is only parts.
Children do not need ball gowns, lip gloss, and masculine makeovers. Children need honesty. They have their own sexuality, and it has nothing to do with sex. Child sexuality has first and foremost to do with their own bodies, and the physical feelings those bodies generate. It has to do with curiosity about others’ bodies.
For children, bodies are ideas, not boxes or boundaries. The body contains infinite possibilities: it contains the mind, it contains the expanse and breadth of all human exploration. Do not box it just for the sake of cuteness, do not sell it to adults, do not package it. Give the children their bodies back.