The American Psychological Association has recently released a report from their task force, which has been studying the sexualization of girls, and the effect this is having not only on girls, but also on women and men. It’s a great report, and has some helpful information. Let me give a brief summary of some of the key points.
What is sexualization?
First off, what do we mean when we say that girls are “sexualized?” Here is how the report describes it …
Sexualization occurs when:
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy
- a person is sexually objectified: that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person
All four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualization. The fourth condition (the inappropriate imposition of sexuality) is especially relevant to children. Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualized.
But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.
This last sentence is important. The problem that often occurs in our society is that kids are bombarded with sexual messages in our media – especially online – that are not age-appropriate. The report talks about the various ways these messages are spread, which I won’t get into here.
The Negative Effects of Sexualization
This is also interesting – and telling. The results impact not only young girls but also college age and older women. Here is how the task force describes the negative effects – in several categories.
In the emotional domain, sexualization and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust.
Mental and Physical Health
Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.
Sexual well-being is an important part of healthy development and overall well-being, yet evidence suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences in terms of girls’ ability to develop healthy sexuality…Frequent exposure to narrow ideals of attractiveness is associated with unrealistic and/or negative expectations concerning sexuality. Negative effects (e.g., shame) that emerge during adolescence may lead to sexual problems in adulthood.
Attitudes and Beliefs
Frequent exposure to media images that sexualize girls and women affects how girls conceptualize femininity and sexuality. Girls and young women who more frequently consume or engage with mainstream media content offer stronger endorsement of sexual stereotypes that depict women as sexual objects.They also place appearance and physical attractiveness at the center of women’s value.
Impact on Others and on Society
The sexualization of girls can also have a negative impact on other groups (i.e., boys, men, and adult women) and on society more broadly. Exposure to narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness may make it difficult for some men to find an ‘acceptable’ partner or to fully enjoy intimacy with a female partner.
What can we do about this?
The report has a special summary with recommendations for parents. Here are two sentences that I think sum it up well: “You can teach girls to value themselves for who they are, rather than how they look. You can teach boys to value girls as friends, sisters, and girlfriends, rather than as sexual objects.”