Society has to stop treating celebrity kids like sexually mature adults

Cute? Or predatory?
Cute? Or predatory?
Image: YouTube
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This past Sunday, Tyga and Kylie Jenner essentially confirmed their long-rumored relationship via Tyga’s new song and accompanying video “Stimulated.” In the fairly explicit song, Tyga brags about having sex with a much younger woman: “They say she young/ She should have waited/ She a big girl, dawg, when she stimulated.” While not technically naming Kylie, it’s not exactly a leap to divine the true meaning of the lyrics. Tyga, a 25-year-old father of one, has known Kylie Jenner and her family since she was eleven-years-old. There have been multiple reports of them vacationing in Paris and a social media trail dates their relationship back to before she turned 18.

While many in the media—especially the celebrity media—has treated the story as racy gossip, a grown man having sex with a minor isn’t romantic, cute or “scandalous.” More broadly, the Kylie-Tyga saga is an example of the way society continues to perpetuate the sexualization of child celebrities, packaging them for our consumption and entertainment with little thought to the emotional repercussions.

According to Debra Merskin of the University of Oregon’s department of journalism and communications, magazines and newspapers have played a significant role in the sexualization of children, both regular and famous. In 1993, for example, The New York Times published a fashion spread called “Lolita is a Comeback Kid” featuring grown women dressed as adolescent girls.

But this blurring of the lines between adulthood and childhood is particularly apparent in the way celebrity children have been photographed and displayed. In 1981, a 15-year-old Brooke Shields starred in an instantly controversial Calvin Klein ad. Her line? “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.” In 1999, a 17-year-old Britney Spears was photographed for Rolling Stone lying on a bed in a bra while cuddling a purple Teletubbie. Nine years later, 15-year-old Disney princess Miley Cyrus was photographed in Vanity Fair suggestively wrapped in a silk bed sheet.

The message is clear—when it comes to famous young women (and men) the normal rules about consent and sexuality don’t apply the same way. It’s okay for Brooke Shields to flirt with the camera because she’s “acting,” for example. Never mind the fact that she’s the age of the average sophomore in high school.

Granted, the societal problem is nuanced by intersectional issues of race. Celebrity children of color are arguably at risk of hypersexualization at a much younger age than their white counterparts, and for different reasons. At just nine years old, satirical site The Onion called Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt. At just three, Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy Carter was the subject of an equally off color joke on Hulu’s Difficult People: “I can’t wait for Blue Ivy to be old enough for R. Kelly to piss on her.” The difference in the aforementioned cases is that the hyper-sexualization of black celebrities does not seem to stem from a sense of desire, as in the cases of Brooke Shields or Britney Spears. Rather, these comments are designed to ridicule.

Perhaps, we gloss over the potential consequences of exploitative or predatory behavior because actors by nature must slip between different personas, creating a dehumanizing wall between the public and the private aspects of their lives. In this context appearance, personality and even age can seem like a construct.

But money and fame do not beget advanced emotional maturity. In some cases, the nature of childhood stardom—in which young celebrities grow up isolated and potentially vulnerable—may make abuse worse. As former actor Corey Feldman detailed in his 2013 memoir Coreyography, both he and Corey Haim were sexually abused by older men who assured them that such relations were normal in show business. According to psychologist Dr. Denise A. Hines and sociologist David Finkelhor, both adolescent girls and boys who engage in sex with adult men may be looking for emotional and financial security they are not receiving at home.

Statutory rape—sex between an adult and a minor—is a complicated problem from both a cultural and legal perspective because participants generally argue that the sex is consensual. It may take years for the true toll of such relationships to reveal itself. But that’s why it’s so important for the adults in the room to step in when cases occur. This means critics should be making sure Tyga’s “Stimulated” is not played on the radio and push back when he makes excuses in the press. “She seemed old for her age” is simply not a valid argument when it comes to sexual consent.

Yes, celebrities are selling products. They become brands and commoditize themselves, often with incredibly lucrative results. However, we cannot consume an adult celebrity in the same way that we do a young boy or girl, whether or not they tell us it’s okay. Tyga is not simply “chasing controversy” with “Stimulated,” he’s bragging about having sex with a high schooler. The fact that this high schooler happened to grow up in the public eye is irrelevant. If anything, the pressures of being a young celebrity make the entire situation all the more dangerous.