There are some illnesses associated with the phenomenon: A higher risk of breast cancer, due to increased estrogen exposure, is one. Early puberty also tends to result in adult shortness, which is relevant if you consider “being unable to reach the top shelf” a health risk. But the real “risks” of early puberty are social. Girls who undergo puberty early, the studies warn us, are bullied. They are depressed and have low self-esteem. They have a higher risk of substance abuse. They “experiment” sexually at an earlier age. And — this is key – they are more likely to be objects of sexual attention or abuse from adult men.

This, Wikipedia is happy to remind us, is “unrelated to pedophilia because the child has developed secondary sex characteristics.” Which is to say: It is “unrelated to pedophilia” in the same way that Kirsten Ostrenga’s rape at the age of fourteen was “unrelated.” Which is to say: Not unrelated at all. Adulthood is not a matter of appearance; it’s a matter of experience, decision-making skills, access to social power, social and intellectual development. We have age of consent laws because children don’t know enough or have enough power to give informed consent to sex. A seven-year-old with breasts can’t consent to sex any more meaningfully than a seven-year-old without them.

Meanwhile, boys who experience early puberty, according to one of the few hand-outs which touches on that subject, are “treated as leaders by their peers and are admired and looked up to.”

LZ Granderson’s “concern” for little girls in “whore-friendly panties” and Juicy Couture, Internet commenters’ “concerned” rationalizations for abusing Kirsten Ostrenga, our societal “concern” about early puberty, all add up to one distinct message: If you look female and sexual, you are fair game. When we want to “protect” little girls from the wrong clothing, the wrong online presence, the wrong stage of physical development, we really want to “protect” them from looking like women, and receiving the abuse that women get.

It’s good to treat childhood as a protected space. It’s essential to make sure that children are protected from sexual exploitation and abuse. But we are blaming the wrong people. If we want to protect children from adults, we should start with worrying about adult behavior. The behavior, for example, of a grown man who sees a little girl’s outfit, and chooses — or chooses not to — call her a “whore.”

Treating Girls Like Women: Sexualization and Precocious Puberty

Notes

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