In my senior year of high school, I was asked to write a paper on any book from a small selection. I chose Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a book I had never read before, hoping it would have plenty of material on SparkNotes. I went to the bookstore to pick up a copy. On the back of it was a brief Vanity Fair review, only eight words: “The only convincing love story of our century.” Having only seen stills from the Kubrick film, featuring a scantily-clad Sue Lyon (only 14 years old at the time of filming) lounging around wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and sucking on lollipops, I didn’t know what to think.
As I read the book, I was disgusted. Not with the author himself—Nabokov described his protagonist Humbert Humbert as a “vain and cruel wretch” and condemned his actions—but with the reactions of the audience. How could Vanity Fair have gotten it so wrong? This wasn’t a love story; this was Go Ask Alice written from the viewpoint of the enablers. This was a 12-year-old child, just entering the age of curious fixation with her male classmates, being preyed upon and taken advantage of by an adult man. Dolores Haze, branded “Lolita” by the protagonist, is an immature and self-centered young girl at an age when she should be immature and self-centered. Humbert is enamoured with her, and marries her mother just to get closer to her. Every page waxes poetic about her body, her freckles, the youthful and brilliant aura that surrounds her and intoxicates him. He fantasizes about making love to her, the light of his life, and having her be by his side forever.
Except, you know. She’s a child.
After its publication in the 1950’s, Lolita set the literary world on fire, and it’s managed to hold on to us since then. But what’s more intriguing is the way the public took a satirical tragedy examining the mind of a twisted pedophile and turned it into an epic romance, placing the onus on young Dolores for her own abuse, or denying its existence as abuse at all. Even in 1959, novelist Robertson Davies described the theme as “not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.” Lolita became a classic, but its cultural presence took on a new meaning: Lolita went from being the oppressed to the oppressor, a prepubescent spider luring a middle-aged fly into her web.
In March, Kat von D came under fire for releasing a lipstick called “Underage Red.” Previously she was found guilty of naming lipglosses “Jailbait Blush” and “Pedophilia Pink,” and though she quickly defended herself with “it’s just a name,” the message remained: combining sex and innocent underaged girls is hot. Kat von D would never release a product called “Domestic Violence Red” or “Sexual Assault Sienna,” because who wants to think about drunk husbands beating or raping their wives while they’re doing a quick touch-up? That’s not sexy at all... but clearly, something about pedophilia or statutory rape is. Did you know that in Alabama, engaging in intercourse with a minor can land you anywhere between 10 years and life in prison? Now that’s sexy.
We have dozens of terms for these girls: nymphet, nubile, loli. The demand for girls in the pornography industry is running younger and younger every year. Society loves those big doe eyes and pillowy lips that symbolize youth and naïveté. Older women are changing themselves to appear more sexually available by looking "youthful", and older men are eating it all up. Girls are experiencing wolf-whistles and cat-calls at increasingly younger ages, and being targeted for sexual harassment long before they’re old enough to discover their own bodies. Ask any woman and she’ll have a story to share about her childhood experiences with older men. For instance, when I was in middle school, I distinctly remember walking down my street in the middle of a particularly hot summer, wearing shorts and an oversized shirt. A truck passed by and its male driver honked at me, startling me. This was the very first time anything like this happened to me. When Twitter user Zellieimani asked female users at what age they noticed they were being looked at sexually, most of the answers were under the age of 12. One user hauntingly wrote that a grown man had told her her pigtails were “handles” before she could even understand what it meant.
Humbert Humbert’s hebephilic obsession is extreme, but apparently it’s no longer the psychological nightmare it was in the 1950’s… now, it’s a trend.
Caught up in our own lust, we forget about the children we’re damaging. Children don’t get to consent to being used as sex toys, and they don’t get to consent to their innocence being sexualized, either. Pigtails and schoolgirl uniforms are typically associated with porn now. It’s time we start reminding people that there is nothing normal about objectifying children or childlike people. It’s not a healthy kink or a cute quirk; it’s perpetuating the idea that underaged girls are sexy, and encouraging grown men to prey on them. We enjoy making fun of adult women who put on baby voices and call their boyfriends “daddy,” but we’re not acknowledging the adult men that think it’s okay to see young girls as sex objects. Lana del Rey is a popular example of what I’m calling “sexualized infantilization:” her low, crooning voice transforms into that of a bubbling, innocent child as she sings about scandalous relationships with much older men, and the juxtaposition is startling.
It’s our responsibility to protect these girls. We have to transform the way they’re viewed in the media. We have to fight to keep them from becoming ashamed of their own bodies, from blaming themselves for their own harassment, from being harassed in the first place. It’s healthy and natural for children to explore their own sexuality, but it’s traumatizing for an adult to get in the way of that. Over half a century ago, Nabokov described a man who let his own desires come before a child’s wellbeing and painted him as an outlier. Now, Humbert's desires have transcended into the norm, and it’s at the expense of our young daughters and cousins and sisters. We have to spread a new message: we have to protect these girls, because many of us were these girls.
Maya Mutter resides in eastern Canada. Aside from her work with Project Consent, she is an avid writer, traveler, and comic book reader who hopes to inspire young girls to overthrow the current patriarchal system and remake it in their own beautiful, rebellious images. You can reach Maya through her email or Twitter.