Youths sound off on sex, advertising and athletes

July 26, 2005

DURING THE Summer Olympics in Athens, the eyes of the world were focused on Baltimore's Michael Phelps, and sometimes it was because his swimming suit rested so low on his hips, it looked like there might be a wardrobe malfunction at any moment.

Phelps' remarkable body is on display again, both at the swimming world championships in Montreal this week and in a new advertising campaign for Speedo, maker of swimsuits.

In one of the fashion-style photos for Speedo, Phelps is again wearing swim gear that gives new meaning to the expression "hip-hugging." But he has a date in this photo shoot, and her bikini bottoms are lower than his, if you can imagine.

She is tugging them off.

I agree with Charles Barkley that athletes are paid to play sports, not to be role models for children. Parents are supposed to be role models for children.

So when Phelps was tagged with a drunken-driving charge last November, I was dismayed by the "tarnished role model" nature of the public reaction. Michael Phelps is not responsible for raising members of the next generation, their parents are.

The only apology he owes, I thought at the time, is to his mother for putting at risk a life she no doubt holds more dear than her own.

I asked Phelps how he felt about shooting the sexy new ad campaign, and, though it was a conference call and I couldn't see his expression, he seemed to stumble a bit over his theory that ads like this are good for swimming.

"It was awkward. But it was more fun than anything," he said. "It grabs more attention from the average Joe who knows nothing about swimming. That's the kind of guy who will see the ad with a very attractive girl in it."

He chalked up the photo shoot to the wide variety of life experiences eight Olympic medals have made possible.

I asked him how his mother felt about the photo, and he laughed and said, "She's cool. She goes with the flow."

It is up to parents, not Phelps, to put sexuality in the proper context for their children. But athletes today are moving so easily between physical strength and physical love in these kinds of ad campaigns that it is confusing.

It is confusing for everybody, but I think it is especially confusing for kids.

One of those kids, a student at Park School, brought the ad to the attention of Deborah Roff- man, who teaches human sexuality there and at a number of private schools in Baltimore.

She showed it to her seventh-graders during the last days of school, and it sparked lots of discussion. Roffman asked them to write their views in letters and many of them were addressed to Phelps, but not mailed because time ran out on the school year.

"It was the culminating discussion of the school year," said Roffman. "I asked the students, `How do you see the values we have been talking about all year reflected in this ad?'

"I asked them if it was a character issue for Michael."

The letters the students wrote are fascinating.

Many of them start out with a kind of free will argument: Michael Phelps is free to choose to do this kind of ad without any comment from us.

But some of them quickly reveal the confusion kids have about the sexualization of their sports heroes.

"I do not think it is right for us to write critical letters to Michael Phelps for his ad ... because, first of all, we do not know if he was made to do it. ... ," wrote one male student.

"Even though he treated a woman like a sex object, he is also sponsored by Speedo and they could of made him do it," the letter continued.

Another young man wrote, "with all the sex in the media these days you could at least help to stop that from going on by not doing it yourself."

Another, who signed off as "a confused student," said the reason he thought this ad was a big deal is because Phelps is a "role model for millions of children worldwide" and he might be influencing them "to take bikini pieces off of women."

There was a note of feminist indignation in one of the letters. A female student wrote, "she is taking her clothes off, but I don't see you taking your clothes off."

Remember. These are the smart kids, the aware kids. The ones who have spent a semester in a seventh-grade course titled Human Sexuality, discussing it not only in terms of relationships and intimacy, but also in terms of how popular culture influences the values, relationships and decisions made by young people.

"One of the reasons this popular culture is unhealthy for children is that we tell them that ethics and morals are important and they apply to a lot of things," said Roffman. "But not sex and relationships."

For Phelps, I am sure this photo shoot was nothing more than a walk on the wild side for a young man who has spent years simply sleeping, eating and swimming. But it is also about the sexualization of sports and the role of money.

A number of students wrote that Phelps had done the ad for the money and any of them might have done the same thing.

"Is that the nature of the message?" Roffman asked. "That it is all about money and everything has a price?"

Wrote one young girl: "I wasn't surprised that he did that. I think once everyone gets famous they start to do things like what he did."

There was one student who, I think, saw the unexamined way our society uses sex to sell, whether it is bathing suits or the sport of swimming.

"Did you have second thoughts about taking part in the ad," asked a female student, "or have you not thought about it at all?"

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