Sexual at Sixteen


Words || Lina MacGregor 

‘A normal man, given a group photograph of school girls and asked to point out the loveliest one, will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them…’

So claims a middle aged Mr Humbert Humbert, who becomes infatuated with the impressionable Dolores in Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita. Dolores, ‘plain Lo in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock’ is thirteen years old. The book gained much controversy upon its eventual publication in France then the U.S, over the tale of Humbert and his obsession with the ‘nymphet’. His character is almost comical, likeable, yet the lust and control he expresses towards Lolita and her naïve submissiveness brings attention to an eerie truth.

Today, the young girl, like Nabokov’s Lolita, is manipulated to appear desirable. Sex sells, it embodies pleasure, success and attraction and thus invites the consumer to consume.

The female, a sexual commodity is used as a tool for profit. Sex as an image has infiltrated mainstream pop culture through social media. What was once hidden from view, such as pornographic films and imagery is now blasted on billboards, in magazines, in music videos and even on fashion runways.

Go back to 1993. Baring all, a fourteen-year-old Kate Moss debuts her first Calvin Klein advertisement as Marky Mark masochistically stands over her setting off a kind of iconoclastic flame to the ideal of perfect tits and a great ass that was demanded by the previous decade, in favour for le petite.

This drastic change in cultural ideal was burgeoned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the early 1980’s. Death, disease and promiscuity, were alternative views to the free love of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. But what does all this mean for us today? Put simply, it has blurred the lines between being sexual and being sexualised.

The notion of enjoying sex has been identified as strictly male, yet of course girls can be sexual in the same way that boys are. The female is sexually restricted, she is sexualized because she is encouraged to perform to be desirable to others.

Young boys are taught to understand and connect to their own desire, they are considered naturally sexual. Industries such as porn and fashion have glamorised the act of looking promiscuous as attractive and shamed for doing it.

Sexualisation is a performance. Popular pornography shows women tied, choked and submissive to men. Often these women do not explicitly decide on positions or the level of pressure. This deceives boys and girls of the reality of sex, which should demand consent and isn’t always so effective. Pornographic images of hairless women with a petite frame have seeped into the mainstream. Advertisements with women seductively rubbing their hair and body for herbal essences shampoo and runways featuring under-aged tall waifs are but some examples of influence.

One of the biggest events in pop-culture, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show makes use of a nineteen year old Taylor Hill wearing nothing but baby doll pink bra’s and angel wings, further encouraging the good girl/bad girl aesthetic shown in porn.


Notoriously, the fashion industry holds a long list of models below the age of 18 who gained success dressed in clothes targeted to older women. A ‘Lolita effect’ unfolds; young girls are draped in the designs made for the more mature, and older girls feature in pornography with girlish physicality. The young girl has become a pin up for attractiveness and style, but can she live up to these expectations herself? Does she even wish to do so?

There are unrealistic portrayals and mixed signals of what the girl should and should not do. A young girl, sexually active at age sixteen, contrary to social encouragement to possess a sexy identity, is often judged for her actions and tarnished innocence. But, girls are sexual beings, just as boys are. The character Lolita at first glance, appears to enjoy the flirtation and affection given from Humbert, and often discusses her sexual encounters with a boy met at camp, offering to ‘teach’ Humbert what she had learnt. Humbert, like popular culture, takes advantage of her sexual intrigue to fulfil his own sick fantasies. He profits from her naivety, by calling it ‘love’.

Another character, Mr Clare Quilty, is a playwright interested in showcasing younger girls, like Dolores, in his theatre. Quilty, portrayed as more insidious a character than the quiet Humbert is boisterous of his ‘collection’. He ‘can smell if you’re sweet, he likes sweet young people’ and so he employs schoolgirls as actors, who are encouraged to wear revealing yet ‘sweet’ clothing, are directed with sexual cues and given beautiful things as payment. These girls, Dolores included, are used and abused, but without their knowledge.

Society demands the young girl perform the submissive, stylish ‘nymphet’ because, if she is pretty, she will be loved and thus successful.

Even before the age of consent, girls as young as five are exposed to hyper-sexualized imagery, encouraging them, like Quilty and Humbert do, to be the modern day Lolita; ‘ninety pounds is all she weighs, with a height of sixty inches’ writes Nabokov. In the midst of this mainstream sexed aesthetic, there is almost no public discussion regarding the realities of sexual intercourse or masturbation.

Why is it that we advertise sexual promiscuity as acceptable for young girls and boys yet we do not provide adequate sexual education in schools? Ironically, our very understandings of how sex should look and should feel are in conflict with the reality. Because I’m almost certain the reality is not ten minutes of sweat and pleasure but rather one awkward encounter: a box of flavoured durex and lucky raspberry is first choice ‘to keep the relationship interesting babe’.

“Don’t cry, I’m sorry to have deceived you so much, but that’s how life is” says Humbert. The reality is that the young Lo has been manipulated into believing her worth is based on her sex appeal, and that must change. But this is also something that so many women have heard before, whether it is from bosses, or co-workers, even people we might regard as friends or lovers.

The paradox of the twenty first century Lolita is that she is too young to have sex, but never too young to wear it.