Twilight, tweens, and abstinence

Twilight Eclipse poster with Edward, Bella, and Jacob staring out vacantly at usSo you might have noticed the latest installment in the Twilight film series came out a couple weeks ago.
A lot has been written about the anti-feminist messages of the Twilight books and films. Stephanie Meyer wrote a very thinly disguised book about Mormon dating from a fundamentalist pro-abstinence perspective. Her books normalize gendered violence, present their young female protagonist as unable to think, defend herself, or even be a whole person without a man, and hammer home an abstinence message. And don’t even get me started on the anti-abortion, pro-sexual violence, pro-pedophilia mess that is Breaking Dawn.
These messages are being targeted at tween girls, Twilight’s intended audience (obviously its popularity has grown beyond this base). What makes this particularly disturbing is that Twilight is not an isolated product in the world of tween entertainment. It is part of an onslaught of pop entertainment subtly or overtly pushing an abstinence-only message from a Christian fundamentalist perspective. And I say abstinence-only to mean all that term has come to encompass in the the educational realm – not just the invisibility of information about safe sex, but also messages about normative gender roles – how boys and girls should interact in distinctly heterosexual ways that perpetuate male supremacy.
There is a culture war, and the abstinence-only side is winning. They’re successfully using entertainment media to reinforce and normalize the dangerous messages they’ve been teaching for decades.
The High School Musical films, also incredibly popular and intended for the same age group, are a milder but no less insidious take on dating that also comes from an abstinence-only perspective (these films were produced in Utah and a number of key players are Mormon). Abstinence is the default in these films. So is heterosexuality. In a musical theater-infused high school world the two characters who were assumed to be gay and lesbian by everyone I know who’s seen the movies end up in a straight relationship together. Thank goodness for Glee which, despite a lot of problematic content about race, gender, and ability has done a fantastic job with Kurt’s coming out. But is Glee reaching the young people who are most susceptible to High School Musical’s messages?
Because these films are not just isolated instances of abstinence pushing pop culture. Couple them with dangerous abstinence-only programs, which are publicly funded in high schools across the country. Add in Disney-managed pop stars wearing promise rings. Sprinkle in shows like The Secret Life of the American Teenager that completely erase possibilities like abortion. What we are left with is the same messages from schools and churches, and the entertainment young folks actually want to consume.
Abstinence pushers have saturated the tween market with their values. By using fun books, movies, music, and tv shows they’ve managed to make sure young folks, especially young girls, are learning the their gendered roles and not learning about sex even when they’re being entertained.

The messages about what makes an ideal man are incredibly disturbing. The fantasy guy options range from Troy in High School Musical, who we hilariously watch jump out of his truck and head to the other side to open the door for Gabriella in one seemingly endless shot in the third film, to the stalkery Edward Cullen, who regularly manhandles Bella and is seen as a hero for not killing (read: having sex with).
I believe young people are much more savvy media consumers than they are usually given credit for. And I personally really enjoy a lot of these products – I’ve enjoyed Taylor Lautner’s abs since he turned 18 on February 11, High School Musical’s a blast, and I have regular Taylor Swift sing-alongs with myself. I’ve written before about our ability to subvert pop art by reading new messages into it – I saw Eclipse with Miriam and Professor Foxy, and we enjoyed Bella’s speech at the end of the film about how she’s basically “transvampire.” But I worry about the twelve year old girl who’s only ever heard the message in Swift’s “Fifteen,” that her virginity is “everything she has.” Pop entertainment aimed at tween girls is a huge industry. When this market is completely saturated with dangerous messages about sexuality and gender roles that are also permeating schools, homes, and communities, where is that twelve year old girl going to find the alternative? When everything a tween consumes it sending one message about dating and gender roles it stops being something that can be critiqued and simply becomes fact, the norm. And this pop entertainment is reaching them at the age when sex starts to really be of interest and accurate information is needed. Websites like Scarleteen are an invaluable resource, but I think we have to admit that a tween’s favorite movie is a more broadly successful vehicle for getting a message to her than a website she has to find and where she has to actually read factual articles instead of angsty romance.
Alternative messages that are actually educational are rare. ABC Family’s 10 Things I Hate About You tv show had a great episode about sex. The lead characters explored their feelings and interactions with each other, got tested, and learned how to use a condom. Of course the show’s been cancelled. There is plenty of sexualized product aimed at this age group too, but where’s the Justin Beiber song about consent or equal gender roles?
The problem with the Twilights, High School Musicals, and Disney pop stars is that they all combine to present one view of the world, one take on how girls and boys should be. Alternatives do exist, but they’re not what’s winning the eyeballs and interest of young people.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • AThoughtyThought

    Thank you for this. I’ve gotten into more arguments than I’d like to admit about the chastity message in the Twilight series.

  • Harriet

    I mentor a 15 year old girl and do my best to keep up with what she is into – difficult as this seems to change with the months :) But one show she does watch every week is The Secret Life. There is a HUGE abortion story line this season – while it is not perfect it has allowed us to have a more honest and open conversation about choice and what that really means. This week we will find out if the character will actually have the abortion. Being as it is ABC Family I highly doubt it but at least it has created some type of dialog.

  • idiotparanoia

    At least Degrassi is still around.

  • Athenia

    I don’t think there’s a grand conspiracy—but think it’s the problem of marketing older teens to younger teens. There’s become such a division and the only thing that separates Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus is their sexuality.
    On one hand, I don’t blame parents and tweens for gravitating towards abstience themes— most 10 to 12 year olds aren’t having sex or even thinking about it. This is why Taylor Swift’s Pretty Pretty Princess image appeals to the 11 year old more than Miley’s “untamed” image.
    What really upsets me is this whole notion as to why we have to market older teen/adults and the subsquent content to tweens.
    The Backstreet Boys and Nsync didn’t have to make virginity pledges to be popular.

  • lovelyliz

    To begin, I’m one of those people that read all of the books and watched the movies. It was kind of a guilty pleasure, to be frank.
    I saw Eclipse [sh, don't judge!] two nights ago. I don’t remember if this is from the book or if they just shoved this into the movie script, but during the last scene, Edward says something to the effect of “so, you’re doing this all for me?” and Bella disagrees and explains that even though it’s partly for him, this is the world that she wants to be belong to because it feels right and blah blah blah sparkly vampire kiss.
    I thought it was an important line because throughout the entire movie I was cringing a bit … but the last scene definitely made me feel a little better about what I was watching. And, even though I have a problem with the last book [it's just f***ed up, really] I don’t have a problem with the abstinence message entirely that is presented. In the film, Bella’s father tells Bella that if she is doing anything with Edward, they better be using protection. It’s a very awkward scene, but it’s a simplified version of “the talk” which she claims she’s already had. Even though I don’t like Bella as a heroine, I’m willing to overlook it because of all the man candy onscreen and the cheesy vamp romance.
    Another thing is point out is that when Jacob talks to Bella about how they could have been a possibility, he hints that they would have been able to have sex, compared to how she and Edward are not able to. Meyer also justifies this by saying he’s a supernatural being. This works for me. It’s mainly the brutal birth during the last book and the violence of the pack leader towards his girlfriend that disturbed me. Not every book is a feminist’s dream, and even though that bothers me, that doesn’t mean I want them to change the book around or make the film more politically correct [Though, I actually think they made this film a little more feminist-friendly IF I remember correctly]. Many friends of mine have read it and seen the movies. I’m sure there are people that take this seriously, but absolutely no one I know is holding onto their virginity or complacent about abuse or keeping their baby JUST because of Twilight.

  • Comrade Kevin

    I agree that these are all problematic issues. What I’d like to see are some statistics that correctly gauge the precise impact, so that those of us who advance proper sex education might know how to best focus our efforts.

  • Mighty Ponygirl

    You’re not going to get that, because any statistics on these subjects are going to rely on self-reporting, which is pretty much worthless as a tool for gauging impact.

  • cattrack2

    “There is a culture war …The High School Musical films…are a milder but no less insidious take on dating that also comes from an abstinence-only perspective (these films were produced in Utah and a number of key players are Mormon).
    Forgive me for making two points in one post AThoughtyThought & replying to you & Jos at the same time. First, while I don’t believe school based programs should teach abstinence only, I think its entirely appropriate–and maybe even commendable in light of the hyper-sexualized world we push tweens–that some pop cultural programs push abstinence only. There’s nothing wrong with abstinence. And I don’t know anybody who thinks sex by 10-12 yos is healthy.
    Second, this is not a culture war. That’s why we can’t find the sensible middle ground between liberals & conservatives–because we call everything a war.
    Last (but most important) for Jos, if we substitute “Jewish”, “Muslim”, or “Black” in the above sentence it would be unequivocally viewed as demagoguery and minority bashing. Theologically & culturally I couldn’t be further apart from most Mormons but there’s no reason to bash them just because you don’t like them. Just my 2 cents, this may not have been your intent but just thought you should know how it came across, at least to me.

  • Honeybee

    Most 10 to 12 year olds aren’t thinking about sex?
    I think that’s what alot of adults want to believe, but I think it’s far from the truth.
    At that age I most certainly was, and was in fact masturbating almost everyday by that age. I knew about sex and while I wasn’t ready for the actual act I was interested in some of the activities that lead up to it and there was definitely a part of me that already wanted to do it.

  • lovelyliz

    And also, though I think the abstinence message is problematic, it is also problematic when promiscuity without precaution is shown in a positive light. There needs to be a balance. I’m all for having fun, but I’m careful about sexual decisions, which is what NEEDS to pervade mainstream culture.

  • Allegra

    This is why i will not willingly watch or participate in any of these aspects of media. I spend my time researching them and using them to better teach my students and friends and family about what is so dangerous about our media on women and their needs and feelings (men too). I think it is a mistake to even pretend that these movies, books and shows have a place in our media. Until their is balanced information out there and until there is actually comprehensive(easy to understand) information for tween age girls I do not believe that twilight, high school musical or any of these other shows should have any direct influence on culture. What is sadder is the middle age women who are promoting this and applying it to their lives and their daughters lives. We must continue to point out its flaws and spark conversation with young women who are interested in this stuff, they need other books and shows to entertain them… maybe books and shows that ask them to think for themselves and ask questions.
    This is not an easy topic but it is worth a lot of discussion. I believe their is a way to rid our media of this crap, but it will take having the ability to actually talk about gender and women and homosexuality and sex in ways that don’t marginalize or criminalize.

  • a.k.a. Ninapendamaishi

    I’m in a little bit of a grouchy mood this morning, so sorry for the bluntness, but has it occurred to you that maybe some of you have just grown up in a liberal black hole?
    I mean, I don’t entirely disagree with you, and I still don’t think pushing abstinence-only is a good message, but as I said before I think putting so much emphasis on that is putting the cart before the horse.
    In many, many places of this country, active teen sexuality IS a particularly dangerous thing for teenage girls. Places where it is not ingrained in boys’ minds from an early age that girls are equal and they need to respect them, pushing abstinence does act as a sort of protection for teenage girls. I know it’s a bit fucked up, but it’s true. My mom, for instance, is a middle-aged Catholic woman who has lived most of her life in the bible belt. When it comes to career issues and most issues she’s pretty feminist, but she surprised me by saying she thinks Twilight is more romantic than most modern-day teen romances. At first I argued with her, but then I decided to try and figure out why she feels that way.
    She thinks sending a message that it’s okay for teenagers to engage in sex is catering more to boys’ needs and is bad for girls. It’s because in her experience, that is the way things have worked… NOT because she thinks teenage girls don’t have a sex drive. It just made me think.
    I think about all of my friends who are smart and my age (mid-20s) and who are constantly having problems in their love life due to not getting what they want out of their sexual relationships, while it seems the boys are usually the ones setting the terms of the relationship. Open sexuality is not going to be gender-equal UNTIL society in general is gender-equal. I’m just not sure if abstinence-only messaging, especially when geared towards both genders, is what you want to be focusing on an the enemy. Because you’ll be alienating people who grew up in the parts of America where people promote abstinence in part because they do really believe it will help make girls happier. It’s not all about slut-shaming and fear of sexuality in the abstract, much as I wish things were that simple. It’s fear of things that happen in reality, with much prevalence in many places.

  • AThoughtyThought

    I’m unsure what you were responding to with what I said, seeing on how I didn’t really say much. My arguments about the chastity thing in Twilight was whether or not the message was there; I’ve met many a person who said I was being ridiculous for even perceiving there to be a message of abstinence-only/anti-choice etc.
    Also, there is nothing wrong with abstinence. Abstinence-ONLY and chastity are very different than abstinence. And no one’s talking about ten year olds having sex. Stop jumping to the extreme conclusion to make a weak point.
    Abstinence – choosing to abstain from sex.
    Abstinence-only messages/education – denying information to teens and preaching that their moral worth comes from whether or not they choose to have sex.
    Yes this was horribly simplified, but please understand the difference between 1) the only 100% way to avoid pregnancy and STIs and 2) heavy messages of guilt and morality being inextricably linked to sex.

  • Mashow

    I’ve seen the first two Twilight movies and while there may have been some abstinence messaging there, to the average tween girl who is watching the film, the more prominent message is that a relationship with a strong, attractive, and protective man is self-fulfilling and central to her well-being. If a girl were to be influenced by this over-arching message and did find her “prince charming,” well, her chances of remaining abstinent through her teens will be less than a tween who isn’t in a relationship at all.
    I find it ironic that while the media is busy preaching abstinence to girls, girls are simultaneously being bombarded with stories that are mostly or entirely focused on romantic relationships.
    And while girls are taught that she needs a romantic relationship but she also needs to remain abstinent, boys are getting quite a different message. I don’t remember any talk about abstinence in the Transformers movie, or any other blockbuster aimed at teenaged boys. And the relationship between the male hero and the females (when they occur) in these boy-targeted movies are always incidental to the plot. Moreover, the relationship messaging in this sort of media is usually no more complex than, it’s cool to have a hot girlfriend, and also, being a virgin is unmanly.
    If abstinence-only messaging is really about stopping teen pregnancies and protecting teenagers from growing up too quickly, then why is abstinence-only messaging only targeted at girls? It actually takes two people to have sex, so why target half only the population? And why tell girls that they need romantic relationships to feel fulfilled, but that having sex makes them a slut, while telling the boys that they may be having relationships with that they need to have sex to prove themselves “manly.”
    Abstinence-only is not about protecting teenaged girls, it’s about grooming them to be the custodians of sexuality and then setting them up to be the scapegoats in conversations about the declining moral fabric of society.

  • RES

    The problem is abstinence only actively harms girls. It makes them more unlikely to know how to use condoms and other birth control to avoid pregnancy.
    By teaching girls to always say no we make it harder for girls to express what they want sexually. By perpetrating the myth that girls must be the gatekeepers for boys sexuality they are blamed and shamed for choosing to engage in sexual activities.
    Finally by teaching girls and boys that sex caters to boys needs it is harder for both genders to idealize mutual satisfaction of both partners.

  • Aydan

    There is a culture war, and the abstinence-only side is winning. They’re successfully using entertainment media to reinforce and normalize the dangerous messages they’ve been teaching for decades… Abstinence pushers have saturated the tween market with their values.
    Now, I’m not a tween and haven’t been for nearly 10 years. However, I’d like to take issue with this part of the post. At college, I think I’m slightly less rare than a unicorn for being a 21-year-old virgin. I’m sure many of my peers would be appalled to know that I dated someone for 18 months and didn’t put out. (“But but but you went out with him twice! Or even once! Like, you OWE HIM sex!”) When I contemplate asking a guy out, I have to think, “Will he respect my decision to be abstinent until marriage or will he think I’m a frigid religious prude and just go ahead and try and coerce me?” From where I stand, messages of abstinence are absolutely not normal in the media, and they certainly haven’t saturated our culture.
    While I think the Twilight franchise is full of unhealthy messages about all sorts of things, it would certainly make my life easier if there were more abstinence messages in the media. It would make easier the lives of my friends who have made the same decision, though not always for the same reason. It might make easier the lives of girls and young women who are pressured into having sex when they really don’t want to. And while I agree that many abstinence-only programs are wrapped up in a whole lot of gender-roles fail (one commenter talked on her blog about a certain program in Texas which is horrific), I’m concerned with the implication that an informed decision to be abstinent is backward, stupid, or unfeminist. Sex-ed programs that lie to their students to try to scare them away from sex obviously do not promote informed decisions, but it seems that in feminist circles, the idea of making an informed decision to be abstinent– choosing what to do with one’s body!– is given brief lip-service at best. (Remember this post?)
    I’m not familiar with “High School Musical,” but I don’t think the most alarming thing about the Twilight franchise from a feminist point of view is its purported abstinence message*, and a lot of this post seems directed towards other things like gender roles. The focus on abstinence seems a little irrelevant here.
    *also, if I knew that having sex with my significant other could lead to us conceiving a super-fast-growing, hungry, cannibalistic baby that would eat its way out of me then, yes, I would see abstinence as an extremely great idea. No birth control has a success rate high enough to risk that.

  • jonathanbradley

    But I worry about the twelve year old girl who’s only ever heard the message in Swift’s “Fifteen,” that her virginity is “everything she has.”

    I wrote a post about this, and I hope you might take a look at it.

  • Athenia

    Key word: most, not “all”
    In the book, Forbidden Fruit, the author takes a look at the National Sex Survey (or something like that) which asked teens and tweens about sex—sexual activity and whatnot was pretty low for the under 14 set whereas once the kiddies hit 16, all hell breaks lose.
    Only 7% of the girls in the survey reported that they masturbate.
    So that sets us in minority unfortunately (and even if the survey isn’t 100% correct, I wager that we’re still in the minority)
    Moreover, I equate masturbation with abstinence–I still thought of sex (PIV) as something involving a married couple/someone you loved.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is–when you’re 10, you’re probably more interested in who is going out with who on Saved by the Bell rather than who’s banging who on True Blood.

  • Surfin3rdWave

    I haven’t seen the Twilight films and don’t intend to, but I’m a bit miffed by the notion that abstinence itself is inherently anti-feminist. Many fictional characters have premarital sex; what’s wrong with the fact that some don’t?
    One of my best friends, who is a devout but tolerant Christian, had never had sexual contact and had never even masturbated until her wedding night. I think it’s nuts, but I think that it’s her choice. She’s never once tried to tell me that my (nonmonogamous, bisexual, cohabitating) lifestyle is wrong– and I don’t think I have a right to tell her that her conservative lifestyle is wrong.
    Voila- tolerance.

  • ShyFoxie

    I’m not so sure that in the song “Fifteen” everything meant her virginity. If you pair it with the video it looks more like she was very much in love with him and thought he was the one, but when she didn’t sleep with him, he changed his mind.
    “Everything” could easily mean that she invested so much of herself emotionally in him, that it felt like something had been taken when they broke up, as opposed to meaning that she slept with him.

  • marissafromboston

    i think that 7% you mentioned is way off. kids that age either dont really understand what theyre doing and/or dont call it that, or theyre lying about it because theyre ashamed. i dont believe that 7% for a second.

  • LindseyLou

    Every time I see such hysterical criticism of the Twilight series, I always wonder why the critics don’t give young girls more credit. They’re just books. Books based on an obvious fiction. Any girl that makes major life decisions based
    on a vampire novel has more problems than Twilight is responsible for.
    Furthermore, most of the people I know who like Twilight want to have as much sex with Edward or Jacob as they possibly can, so if there is an abstinance message, it ain’t working.

  • TabloidScully

    “They’re just books. Books based on an obvious fiction. Any girl that makes major life decisions based on a vampire novel has more problems than Twilight is responsible for.”
    You’re on a Feminist site known for criticizing all elements of life and culture. Including “just books.” If you feel this way, why are you reading, let alone commenting?
    Nobody is suggesting that girls are walking away from these books believing they’re going to find a vampire of their own. We are suggesting that they are reifying negative messages already in the status quo. “Twilight” didn’t originate them, but it sure is broadcasting them to a whole new medium.
    More important than the abstinence issue, these books are conveying a really bad idea of what a good partner ought to be. And if most of the people you know who like “Twilight” want to have as much sex with Edward or Jacob as they possibly can, it’s obviously that those messages are being received loud and clear.

  • Opheelia

    Abstinence, as long as it’s a choice made freely based on values you’ve explored and adopted for yourself, is kickass for girls and women, in the same way that safe sexual activity is when the choice is made under those circumstances.
    Reducing women and girls to their status as virgins is anti-feminist. At one point in this movie, Bella really wants to have sex and Edward refuses because they aren’t married and…
    (That was my typed version of a booming scary voice.) The message isn’t, “Hey, abstinence is right for me, so I want you to respect my choice, Bella.” The message is, “Having sex before marriage means that you just couldn’t CONTROL yourself and sacrificed your soul, the most important part of your human existence, in the process.”

  • LindseyLou

    I suppose what bothers me is the implication that a woman can’t both be a feminist and a fan of the Twilight series. I consider myself to be both, and I find the constant criticism and concern over the messages sent by Twilight to be very patronizing. Especially given that it is the same judgment I’ve always received because I’ve been a lifelong reader of so-called “smut” books.
    When I was a pre-teen, I read a ton of romance novels, including many from the 80s that featured overbearing, borderline-abusive heroes. I never once thought that those relationships were ones to be aspired to. I chalked it up to one author’s preferences. But nevertheless, I still enjoy those books. They’re cheesy fun.
    To me, Twilight is also cheesy, fantasy fun. In my opinion, the appeal of Edward and Jacob exists apart from their controlling nature; I think it lies in their supernatural abilities. It would be pretty fun to be with a guy that could do all sorts of things that other guys can’t do. Paranormal stories are a huge sub-genre in romance publishing for that very reason–there is a wide appeal for supernatural heroes. It is just another variation on the alpha hero. (This is the same reason why men with mortal powers, e.g., policemen, wealthy businessmen, aristocrats, etc, are also popular heroes.)
    Given my own views on why the boys of Twilight are attractive, I’m not eager to condemn all other fans for only liking the unhealthy aspects of the books. Especially given that these books are so inherently silly.
    And I continue to feel like criticisms of Twilight like the one above just treat young girls like they’re not intelligent enough to make their own entertainment choices. How many of us watch/read trash just for mindless entertainment? Real Housewives, anyone?

  • jonathanbradley

    Sigh. Evidently a href tags don’t work in these comment boxes.
    My link was to here: