Once, slut was one of the most derogatory and insulting epithets that could be hurled at any woman…In today’s world, however, both the term itself and the sexual promiscuity it signifies are embraced (Liebau, 2007).
As young girls seek to assert their own identities, they are inclined to look to women they admire in pursuit of lifestyles to mimic. Confronted with ambiguous age boundaries and bombarded with popular cultural icons, a sexual pandemic is spreading as fashions trickle down into their closets and cultures. Fueled by influential media and an overly provocative clothing market, today’s young females are rocketing into adult behaviors at young ages, and multiple risks are along for the ride.
Some parents raise voices of alarm at this cultural trend of young girls growing up too fast and may seek ideas for guiding their youth to embrace standards they both can agree on. In response to expressions of public concern, the American Psychological Association (APA) formed the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls to research the issue. The task force defined sexualization as the occurrence of one or more of four circumstances: when a person’s value comes solely from his or her sexual appeal or behavior; when a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (which is narrowly defined) with being sexy; when a person is sexually objectified; or when sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
While some parents express concern over these issues, some are likely to wonder why it is even an issue in the first place. Isn’t it OK for their girls to be sexy and hot? Isn’t it good for their daughters to be popular and attract boys’ attention? What’s the big deal? Truth be told, it is a big deal because of the consequences that almost always come hand-in-hand with trying to look sexy and hot at a young age. When a girl focuses too much on her physical appearance, she places her self-esteem, emotional and physical health, academic achievement, and sexual safety on the chopping block. And one of the primary avenues she’s taking to the guillotine is found in her everyday media choices.
In a typical week, the average adolescent spends more than 40 hours with some form of mass media – often more time than with parents. Through the media alone the typical adolescent encounters between 10,000 and 15,000 sexual references, jokes, and innuendos per year.
Yet another study revealed children are spending more time with the media than with any other activity except school and sleeping. The APA task force’s report pointed to several facets that contribute to sexualization, including the Internet, movies/television, music, and literature/magazines.
Nearly 9 in 10 adolescents have access to the Internet, with about 75 percent at home. Most teens reported inadvertently stumbling across pornography online, often via unsolicited emails or misleading links. Social networking sites such as MySpace encourage youth to “describe themselves” on the Internet, and some girls pose in provocative clothing and post notices of their “sexual availability.”
Movies and Television
Liebau states it simply: “American young people are hearing (and seeing) a lot of sex, every day, when they turn on the TV.” While low sexual inhibitions are portrayed as “carefree and glamorous,” there is a blatant lack of depictions of risks or negative outcomes associated with such behavior. In a study that analyzed 81 prime time shows, 84 percent of episodes contained at least one incident of sexual harassment, an average of 3.4 instances per program.
Most of the sexual content on prime time occurs outside marital relationships, depictions of consequences are rare, and gender emphasis lies on women’s beauty and men’s strength. In general, “typical depiction of sexual activity has been classified as recreational rather than relational.”
Music and Music Videos
But even the frequency of sexual content found in shows and films takes runner-up to what’s on the radio. In a study done in 2005, sexual content appeared more frequently in adolescents’ music selections than in television or movie choices.
After Britney Spears debut album hit the pre-teen scene in the late 1990s, her music video was not far behind. Dancing in the hallways of a school and clad in a sexed-up and skimped-down version of the standard plaid-and-button-up ensemble, Spears paraded in her pigtails for her youthful audience’s viewing pleasure. Other stars followed suit. A few years later, a study reported that up to 81 percent of music videos contained sexual imagery.
Literature and Magazines
Parents can install television filters and monitor their children’s music purchases, but what’s hitting them between the covers of books and magazines?
A 2007 study found adolescents ranked magazines as a more important source of information than parents, peers, or schools. The primary point of many articles, text, cover lines, ads, and photographs is to attract boys’ attention by looking “hot and sexy.” The world of magazines is “a place where sexuality is both a means and an objective, where the pursuit of males is almost the sole focus of life.
They run between the scenes of television shows and crowd the pages amid the magazine articles, so what are advertisements presenting? In a longitudinal study that analyzed ads in popular women’s magazines between 1955 and 2002, 40 percent featured women as decorative objects.
Abercrombie and Fitch, a clothing store for pre-teens and teens, riles concerned parents with advertisements featuring models wearing little more than their birthday suits. One ad depicted a naked young woman in the arms of a naked young man, and another showed a young man wearing low-rise jeans positioned so far down that little was left to the imagination. With so much focus on bare skin, it begs the question, where are the clothes these models are selling?
Buying into Sexy
Twenty-year-old Maggie wants guys to notice what’s inside without having to reveal too much of what’s outside…But is that possible? (The Art of Modesty)
According to an article in Seventeen in June 2004, Maggie’s “unique” style consisted of wearing “Gap skirts or vintage dresses” and choosing tankinis over “skimpy bikinis.” While it is commendable that Maggie’s story was printed in the magazine, the article did not exactly cast her style choices in a positive light. In the words of one author, Maggie’s decision was “treated as noteworthy at best and maybe even freakish.”
While Maggie hangs out on the “freakish” end of the spectrum,” Abercrombie and Fitch is busy marketing thong underwear for 10-to-16-year-olds with slogans such as “Eye Candy,” “Kiss Me,” and “Wink Wink.” A spokesman for the company shrugged them off as “cute and sweet.”
Skimpy outfits aren’t the only products enticing teenaged consumers to open their piggy banks; even the toy shelves are replete with opportunities to buy into sexy trends. Bratz dolls are marketed in bikinis, sitting in hot tubs, mixing drinks and standing around observing the “Boyz.” Bling Bling Barbie comes dolled up in a micro-miniskirt and plunging, navel-baring silver tank top. FAO Schwarz sells dolls clad in high heels, fishnets, garter belts, and bustier.
So what’s the harm in all this? The truth is, young people have a tendency to model the characters they observe. In fact, teens who watch the most sex on television were found to be twice as likely to begin have sexual intercourse at younger ages than those who saw the least. The APA Task Force reported that when girls are exposed to sexual content and female objectification it can hinder their ability to form healthy sexual relationships with their marriage partners later in life:
A woman who has learned to fear negative evaluations of her body may be more focused on her partner’s judgments of her than on her own desires, safety, and pleasure (APA, 2007, p. 27).
Healthy Sexual Attitudes
Girls need not be sheltered from the reality of their sexuality; the APA task force wrote that healthy sexuality is related to greater intimacy in marriage, higher self-esteem, low levels of stress, personal happiness, and other positive benefits. Forming a sense of oneself as a sexual being is indeed a normal and healthy part of human maturation but danger occurs when this happens too soon and is fueled by the wrong influences.
Among older adolescents and young adults, satisfaction with virginity decreased as they increased their identification with sexually active characters in the media. While yesterday’s culture equated domestic qualities with attractiveness, today’s society equates sexiness with physical attractiveness.
One danger of viewing an excessive amount of sex-saturated media is a syndrome known as self-objectification. Self-objectification occurs when girls learn to think and treat their own bodies as objects of others’ desires. When a girl becomes self-objectified, she adopts a mental “third-person perspective” of her physical self and constantly assesses her body in an effort to conform to the perceived ideal. Besides lower self-esteem, another troubling effect of self-objectification is the adoption of negative attitudes toward the functional aspects of the body, e.g. breastfeeding, menstruation, sweating, etc.
What Else is at Stake?
Multiple other risks come as tag-alongs with the behavioral risks and impeded development of a healthy sexual attitude. One study points to over-sexualization as a contributing factor to why girls drop out of higher level math classes in high school.
And if sexual content in media does indeed increase sexual activity at younger ages, the physical and emotional consequences of such a trend are nothing to be ignored. The younger a female is, the more likely she is to contract an STD: Twice as much at 13 versus 21. More than one million teens get pregnant every year. Teenagers who are sexually active have more difficulty sleeping and are 6.3 times more likely to attempt suicide than their virginal peers. Among girls aged 11 through 17, the number one wish is to lose weight. Another study found an important link between body dissatisfaction and the onset of cigarette smoking among adolescent girls. And the list goes on.
Ideas for Parents
What can parents do to help their teens steer clear of these influences? Here are some suggestions:
- Watch what you say
Parents, through their words or actions or lack thereof, can implicitly teach girls they agree with media’s depiction of the female ideal. Either overtly or subtly, parents can express support for movies, television shows, and advertisements that present harmful ideals to their children.
- Avoid self-criticism
Remember your children hear what you say about yourself. One study showed that girls whose mothers use “fat talk” about their own bodies were at a greater risk to develop eating disorders.
- Be involved in everyday life
Children and adolescents actively select and interpret television content and assess its reality by referring to their own experiences and knowledge of the world. If they are taught to view the content as unrealistic, then the media’s influence will be limited.
- Media co-viewing
One effective technique for diffusing the messages from television is implementing a practice known as media co-viewing. According to the APA Task Force, when parents actively comment on and discuss the content in shows their children are viewing, it can alter the messages their children receive.
- Keep a watchful eye
While it is virtually impossible for parents to co-view and intervene with any and every form of media, there are other methods of defense. V-chip technology allows parents to block particular programs of their choice. Also, when daughters perceive their parents have an interest in what they do, where they go, and who they’re with, behavioral risks can be avoided.
When parents encounter a behavioral choice or sexual attitude they oppose, they need to actively and effectively communicate to their daughters that such actions are not acceptable. Many parents are too reluctant to criticize sexual trends or attitudes because they fear being accused of being judgmental. If teens are seeking sexual information in a sex-saturated world, they are going to find it but parents can largely influence and filter what information they receive and how they receive it.
- Online resources
Media literacy training programs such as the Girls, Women + Media Project teach girls to view media critically and aim to create “active interpreters of messages rather than passive consumers.”
A campaign launched by Dove in recent years turns a critical eye on popular media and instead emphasizes “real beauty.” Their Web site provides multiple resources and videos to aid in promoting healthy self-esteem among young women. One video urges parents to talk to their daughters “before the beauty industry does.”
- Extracurricular activities
Participation in athletic activities can provide a buffer against media’s narrow portrayal of female identity by focusing on physical competence over appearance. According to the Task Force, being a part of an athletic team not only provides a sense of identity and worth, but it also provides girls with a chance to “develop a self-concept founded on what they can do rather than on how they look.”
- Remember religion
Not only does increased spirituality increase mental, emotional, and physical well being, it also provides an important source of identity and purpose. Additionally, the sense of community provided by a religious congregation helps girls avoid loneliness if their parents are not always available, thus keeping them from turning to media for companionship.
Presented by the media with a narrow focus of female identity, one consisting of hyper-sexual attitudes, little clothing, and widespread promiscuity, young girls are taught to emulate adult behaviors sooner than their natural pace. The influence of the media and provocative clothing fashions enable them to speed up their sexuality and slow down their inhibitions. Such trends are not without numerous consequences: Multiple studies have shown that behavioral risks (e.g. early sexual activity) and impaired development of healthy sexual perceptions are common among young women exposed to over-sexualized media. Early sexual activity brings with it a basketful of complications that impact physical, emotional, and mental health. There are several ways in which parents can intervene and combat the media’s sexualized grip on their daughters. The over-sexualized society has its talons in the shopping malls and oozes its influence through every facet of the media, but parents can and should take an active role in its influence within their home and in the lives of their daughters because the laundry list of risks is certainly worth avoiding.
Written by Katie Hawkes, Research Assistant, and edited by Sarah Coyne and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
Adapted from the Website Forever Families. For references, see original.