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May 5th, 2008
02:58 PM ET

Eyes on Miley’s bare back, not on the big picture

The photo of Miley Cyrus in the June 2008 issue of Vanity Fair taken by Annie Leibovitz that has everyone talking. (Annie Leibovitz exclusively for Vanity Fair)

The photo of Miley Cyrus in the June 2008 issue of Vanity Fair taken by Annie Leibovitz that has everyone talking. (Annie Leibovitz exclusively for Vanity Fair)

Faye Wattleton
President, Center for the Advancement of Women

The Miley Cyrus debate was bare in more than one way. Arguing over whether the 15-year-old’s Vanity Fair photo spread constitutes a blight on wholesomeness or a publicity stunt competed with Rev. Wright as last week’s hot topic.

Celebrity pundits vented their shock on the airwaves, and in newsprint and blogs, while “experts” offered parents tips on how to discuss the consequences of bad decisions, in this case resulting from Miley’s nude back. 

Missing from the commotion was the glaring opportunity to confront the double standard for girls’ sexuality with a healthy discussion about responsible sexual development among our adolescents.

Britney Spears caused a similar controversy with even more revealing photos during her early teen years. Americans reacted in collective horror when Brandi Chastain, in exuberant victory after scoring the winning goal against China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, removed her shirt to reveal her sports bra to a worldwide Olympic audience.


Today, with the U.S. continuing to lead developed countries in the incidence of teen pregnancy and one out of four teenagers infected with a sexually transmitted disease, the evidence is clear that the public dialogue about sexuality continues to be dominated by pop culture. The time has long passed to change the equation.

There is an important sexual dimension to wholesomeness that’s being left unaddressed by parents, educators and the media. Human integrity isn’t about casting moral judgments; it’s about knowledge as the foundation for the exercise of personal responsibility. At the beginning of the 21st Century, we should finally leave behind the hypocritical morality of the Victorians to face up to the incontrovertible reality that sexual development is inherent to human life. Yes, even Miley Cyrus is a sexual being.

The Bush Administration and Congress have bowed to political pressure from the right wing to advance taxpayer support for abstinence-only “sex education.” The problem is that that is not responsible education about a fundamental element of development – sexuality. We delude ourselves into believing that just saying “no” will dampen sexual precociousness. And then along comes a naked adolescent backside and we slide backward into sanctimonious rebukes, instead of seizing the opportunity for a teachable moment. Our children deserve better.

Sexual development starts before birth and stays with us to the grave. It requires educated parents and a supportive community. When talking to children about sexuality:

Remember parents are their children’s primary sexuality educators. Start in early childhood and give as much age-appropriate information as possible.

  • You don’t have to know it all. In today’s Internet age, parents can find answers to most questions.
  • Use media characterizations to highlight the positive aspects of sexuality and talk about the risks of sexual activity.
  • Share your own stories. Children need to know that their parents are sexual beings.
  • If you’ve avoided ongoing discussions, it’s never too early or too late to start. Let your children know how to access education and health resources in your community.
  • Experience is not a reliable teacher. Seize the teachable moment. Knowledge is the power for responsible decisions; our children’s future is at stake.

Filed under: Faye Wattleton
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Missy

    After all the drama with Britney Spears and her sister, I foolishly thought there might be one person out there who didn't get sucked into the Hollywood BS but I was wrong. It's sad that Miley has chosen to grow up far faster then she really is. We are all sexual beings but can't we allow kids to just be kids without exploiting them?

    May 6, 2008 at 12:08 am |
  2. Eric

    I think this whole discussion is stupid! Who cares about that kids back anyway.. i just think its all blown out of proportion and the media is a joke they should try to report on some real issues maybe huh, what an idea but i guess this story sells more than real news.
    in closing get a life all of you.

    May 5, 2008 at 10:34 pm |
  3. Genevieve M, TX

    I don't why the media keeps on claiming that the Miley Cyrus photo is risque. The media people who are making such a big deal about this sound like a bunch of "pearl clutchers".

    If you think about it, she is showing as much skin as if she were wearing a swimsuit. There are a lot of swimsuits (besides bikinis) that have an "open back", but are still otherwise "one-piece".

    May 5, 2008 at 8:42 pm |
  4. Carol B., Virginia

    Re: Special "K" – You seem to be a big fan of mediocrity. Anyhow, maybe you need to get a grip. Nobody is expressing extreme outrage, just stating an opinion. It's too bad when people have such a vested interest in celebrities they don't know. As to your plea of "HELP!!!" there are many counselors who will gladly help you.

    May 5, 2008 at 6:45 pm |
  5. Knut Grossmann

    HELP!!!
    When will this hypocrisy end? I don't believe for one second that those who express outrage over these pictures can live up to thir own standards.

    May 5, 2008 at 5:54 pm |
  6. Carol B., Virginia

    Hmmm... What was even more inappropriate than a teen wrapped in a toga was a incestuous- themed photo of a girl sprawled over her mullet -domed dad wearing a wifebeater. Nothing says "trailer park" and "pawning your kids for cash" than that. Annie was slumming it to photograph a questionably talented teen for profit. Her parents are liars who approved the photo session and waited for public approval or scorn before they issued a statement. See what happens when 'youngins are the breadwinners? Parents need to talk with their kids about all phases of decision making, whether sexual or otherwise. It doesn't mean that all your kids will listen to you or not make serious mistakes, but that's your job. It's a good feeling when most kids (grown or not ) are doing well, but you always worry about the one that is struggling. Why are you using a "backwards country folk" analogies to make a point? Why not raise the bar and admit that most teens are a bit more complex and sophisticated than that. Not everyone lives in the swamplands.

    May 5, 2008 at 5:43 pm |
  7. Jim, Las Vegas, NV

    Who is Miley Cyrus, and why is she newsworthy?

    May 5, 2008 at 5:18 pm |
  8. Karen

    A few decades ago, when I was Miley's age, we posed for far more sexy photos than the Vanity Fair one behind on the hoopla. Her photo was a classic pose, tastefully done, and nothing to be ashamed of. The MEDIA is the one making a big stink about it.

    May 5, 2008 at 4:37 pm |
  9. anonymous

    I am too a teenager (15), so i know that when most teenagers feel insecure and in need of attention, they do silly things. I do not think that it is the fault of the parents of Miley Cyrus, I think that she should take blame. Parents shouldn't shadow every move of their child, because that's when a kid revolts. I think that some things, the kids should take fault for. I see this type of vulgarity in my everyday life, but Cyrus shouldn't have acted this way, because she sets examples for many kids. Miley Cyrus knows that she is a role-model for so many you kids, and she shouldn't do anything crazy. In the end, she is in fault, not the parents.

    May 5, 2008 at 4:27 pm |
  10. Judi, Washington DC

    So, what are you implying with the above? That we teach our children to say “Yes”? Is this the right sexual education, then? You are right that we all are sexual beings, besides, that is the way we all came into this world, but advising young people to forget about physical control, go out and experiment and have multiple partners in the guise of the false protection call condoms or birth control pills is also not the way to go, especially when we have different kinds of STD out there that these protection still do not shield one against such as AIDS, syphilis (yes this painful road to death is still alive and well), herpes (very much incurable), etc.

    Now you see, when all is said and done we still come back to square one, which is, for one’s emotional and physical health, simply saying “NO” until the right person comes along i.e. of course, after marriage (not co-habitation), which is the more fulfilling and happier way, and how it is meant to be.

    Jdi
    Wash. DC

    May 5, 2008 at 4:08 pm |
  11. Larry

    The only pic I saw that seemed weird was the one where she is posing somewhat provocatively with her dad; seemed kinda FLDS to me; yuck

    May 5, 2008 at 3:50 pm |
  12. Kelly

    I totally agree with this discussion of the importance of sex education. The problem I have with the Miley Cyrus photo is the idea that women, even young women, have to be naked to be considered beautiful or sexy. There's far too many examples of female celebritites posing nude or nearly nude in order to show their sexy side. There's new mother's who pose nude to show that you can be a mom and be sexy, there's female athletes who pose nearly nude to show that a women can be athletic and sexy, and there's former child or teen stars that pose nude to show that they're all grown up. A women doesn't have to be naked to be sexy.

    May 5, 2008 at 3:47 pm |
  13. carmen

    The question I have is what parent would first of all send their 15 year old daughter to a photoshoot of this type and then would allow the picture to be published? The parents or guardian should be accountable.

    May 5, 2008 at 3:33 pm |