Everyone who knows me knows how obsessed I am with Vladimir Nabokov’s classic Lolita. It battles it with Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence for the distinction as my favorite book of all time, and it’s the first (and sometimes only) title I suggest when asked for book recommendations.
Following narrator Humbert Humbert’s eloquent and seductive language as he tells the story of his love for precocious Dolores Haze leaves you rabidly turning the page, only to leave you feeling like you need to wash your hands after reading what he’s done. So it came as a huge surprise when I went on Tumblr and saw post after post talking about how Humbert and Dolores were the ultimate OTP, or #RelationshipGoals.
Except, Lolita is not a love story. Nabakov’s novel chronicles the theft of a young girl’s innocence and joy by an obsessed pedophile who kidnaps and serially rapes her for most of her adolescence. The man is deranged, and strips Dolores of her humanity by renaming her “Lolita” in his account- effectively creating a whole new persona for the scared child he abused to remove himself from the harm he inflicted. Humbert is written as an unreliable narrator, and you’re not supposed to take any of his claims of mutual romance or Dolores’ sexual precociousness seriously. If anything, these claims are meant to make his retelling of their story all the more disturbing.
With the recent rise of the “Daddy Kink,” Lolita has seen a resurgence online, with teenage girls “identifying” with Lolita’s character, since she’s portrayed in Humbert’s story as a young seductress with a taste for older men. Even Lana Del Rey likens her character in her ‘Born to Die’ album to Lolita due to her too-early exit from childhood and involvement with much older men (which is a narrative that is based on Elizabeth Grant’s actual life story). Even Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines “lolita” as “precociously seductive girl,” showing how deeply the misreading of Nabakov’s novel has permeated our culture. It is this same perversion of innocence that makes “slutty schoolgirl” a popular Halloween costume and pornography trope.
As media became the focus of many studies and further investigation, a disturbing trend of sexualizing young girls has been written about at length, and its effects have been summarized in a report published by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Young Girls. Girls pick up messages from media and popular culture about the social capital associated with sexual behavior or provocative appearance, and this leads to risk-taking behaviors, self image issues, as well as anxiety about social acceptance by peers of the opposite sex. Young girls who make their sexual debut too early due to abuse or coercion tend to have lasting psychological scars that impair attachment later in life.
And these messages aren’t just seen in teen idol music videos or magazines, but even in schools. Dress codes have gained a lot of attention in recent years due to their outrageous and overtly sexist nature, but there’s a key element that is often ignored. Dress codes usually call for girls’ shoulders to be covered and shorts to reach a certain length so as to not “distract” the boys in their schools, but these codes often include considerations for male teachers as well. As if the not-yet-legal bodies of middle and high school girls are so provocative that they’re being viewed in a sexual context by the men in the school meant to be a safe space for them. Like it’s the responsibility of a 14 year old girl to make sure the adult man she trusts as her teacher doesn’t experience hebephilic fixation on her body.
Last year, a Twitter hashtag and Reddit conversation asked women to recount the first time they were catcalled. What was shocking was that most of these women cited their first incidents around the onset of puberty, around ages 11-13. In a study conducted by Cornell University on street harassment, 84% of women recall being catcalled by adult men between the ages of 13 an 17. The first time I remember being catcalled was when I was 12 years old. A man walked passed me in the mall and told me I “looked good enough to eat,” despite the fact that I still had the body of a child- as I had not yet developed breasts or hips at that age.
Former Ohio mayor Richard Keenen plead guilty to the rape and molestation of a 4 year old girl, claiming that she was a “willing participant,” despite the fact that she was a toddler. It’s actually a common practice for pedophiles to blame their victims for being “too provocative” or “sexy,” despite varying stages of sexual and emotional maturity as a means of justifying the abuse.
The primary issue with the Lolita Effect and the cultural sexualization of young girls is that it thrusts sexual responsibility for the behavior of adult men on children, forcing them to carry a weight they are both psychologically and physically unable to bear. By prematurely projecting sexuality onto young girls we effectively implicate them in their own sociosexual trauma- making us as a society are no better than Humbert Humbert himself.
La Nouvelle Romantique