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'Vixen' Sends Girls the Latest Mixed Messages

By Donna Britt
Friday, July 29, 2005

Even in a hypocrisy-steeped culture, some things stand out. The cover of a book purportedly designed to boost girls' self-esteem and convince them that dressing like sexy pop icons and sleeping around to get ahead are questionable choices features this:

A honey-colored hottie in a blond weave leaning back in a chair -- lips parted, eyes half-closed, cleavage rising from a minidress hiked up to her waist.

Of course, nobody is fooled. Karrine Steffans -- known by a nasty-girl nickname during her groupie-stripper-video "ho" days -- can write in her book "Confessions of a Video Vixen" that there are "better choices . . . than the ones I have made" even as her photo whispers, "I still choose to present myself as a body." She can write that a video dancer who sprawls "undressed over a luxury car while a rapper [says] lewd things about her" lacks self-esteem.

But Steffans's proud book-cover pose says, "Take me," despite her written message: "No one who values, loves or knows herself would allow herself to be placed in such a degrading position."

The book is just one more example of the mixed messages that America's girls are getting -- while millions of parents turn the blindest of eyes.

We tell girls that strong women "own" their sexuality as we glamorize pimps, men whose livelihood is dependent upon women who'll copulate with almost anyone. Our sexualized culture uses women's bodies to peddle cars, records, food, you name it -- but makes birth control and other basic information about how these bodies work difficult to obtain.

We say children should be protected -- and we show them videos in which apparent schoolgirls bump, grind and wriggle in ponytails and short, Catholic school-type uniforms.

If you think that only girls in urban or minority communities are confused, listen to clinical social worker Lisa Ferentz. Her private practice in suburban Pikesville, Md., is mostly middle- and upper-class -- and includes "11- and 12-year-old girls seriously grappling with being sexually active," Ferentz says. "They tell themselves, 'If it's not penetration, it's not sex.' So oral sex is not considered sex. And it's not just girls. I work with teenage boys who feel it's not manly if they're not sexually active at 13.

"In truth, no 13-year-old is ready for sex."

Or for much of what passes for culture these days. I learned about Steffans's book -- No. 7 on last week's New York Times nonfiction list -- through my friend Monife, who works with teens at a District high school. I asked Monife whether she would share "Vixen" with her students.

Please. Steffans "talks about regretting her lifestyle, but she glamorizes it," Monife says. "She brags about the celebrities she hung with -- no matter how badly they treated her. It's awful."

The book's real draw is its descriptions of Steffans's childhood abuse, stripping, drug use and the sex she's supposedly had with a daunting list of "delicious" celebrities including Vin Diesel, Shaquille O'Neal and Usher -- even a drugged-out Bobby Brown as her young son slept in the next room.

Reading it, it's hard to keep up -- or care. The whole sorry enterprise is easily dismissed, as long as you don't think about the girls for whom Steffans supposedly penned her story. Some of them will doubtless read it. Those whose parents or caregivers routinely explain modern entertainment's hypocrisy might see it for what it is.

What about the others?

Tanya Upshur of the District is a social worker and the single mother of two daughters, 9 and 14. Upshur knows what's arrayed against her as she seeks to raise girls who are "happy with themselves -- with the way they look in their natural state, who aren't materialistic, who don't think they have to wear certain clothes or drive a certain car."

As a family worker, Upshur meets girls who see video vixens as women "who should be admired -- they're on TV, they're getting attention, being driven around in expensive cars. . . . That picture doesn't tell you about the person inside -- what she's actually feeling, that she might be intelligent or paying her way through college. It doesn't tell you that women have more to offer than . . . exposed breasts or a big butt."

"The perception is that if you dress or act a certain way, you'll be taken care of."

To help her daughters avoid such perceptions, Upshur says, "I keep them busy" -- with piano lessons, dance, African drumming and competitive cheerleading, all of which show that "there are positive ways of expressing themselves."

"I want my daughters to know who they are," Upshur explained, "to look at themselves and know they are a creation of God. I don't see a lot of women on TV or even in society who know that, who can accept themselves the way they are, without a whole lot of changing or painting or pushing or hiking up."

But some nastiness is unavoidable, Upshur discovered. Recently, her eldest daughter confessed to being uncomfortable with some sexy moves that her city dance troupe was performing. Although unsettled, "she decided to go with it because she's part of that team," Upshur said.

Of course. She's a child. What worries me are grownups. We fret over the sodas and french fries our children ingest while allowing their consumption of sexual messages that they're far too young to handle. We're trying to be on the hip team.

Too bad it's our kids who lose.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company