The Sexualization of Children and Adolescents

You never know when someone is going to wire a fig leaf to Michelangelo’s statue of David.

The statue, after all, depicts a mere adolescent, and folks are sometimes quite touchy about child and adolescent nudity, as events in the UK and Australia demonstrate. There seems to be a bit of hysteria, not limited to any one country, that equates mere child and adolescent nudity with the sexualization of children and adolescents. Such hysteria threatens to undermine realistic efforts to deal with the problem of sexualization.

The sexualization of children and adolescents seems to be increasing. A report released just over a year ago by the American Psychological Association found:

Virtually every media form studied provides ample evidence of the sexualization of women, including television, music videos, music lyrics, movies, magazines, sports media, video games, the Internet, and advertising….

In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized.These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.

The sexualization of youth has consequences. Those consequences are further reaching than many of us might suspect. From the same report:

Psychology offers several theories to explain how the sexualization of girls and women could influence girls’ well-being. Ample evidence testing these theories indicates that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.

Sexualization seems to cause girls to perform at lower levels in cognitive tasks such as solving mathematical problems. It undermines “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.” It has been linked to “eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression”. It is associated with sexual problems, such as a decreased use of condoms, diminished sexual assertiveness, and “unrealistic and/or negative expectations concerning sexuality” that may lead to problems with sex during adulthood. And it changes girls beliefs and attitudes about femininity and sexuality, leading them to tolerate — and even endorse — sexual stereotypes that depict women as sexual objects.

The report of the American Psychological Association (APA) was based on some 300 separate studies of sexualization. While anything is possible in science, it’s findings seem unlikely to be overturned any time soon.

Not long ago, a person who should have known better cited the APA report to me as evidence that Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of Miley Cyrus did Cyrus harm by sexualizing her. I find that miss-characterization of the report appalling. So far as I can see, the Leibovitz photo depicted a sexuality typical of 15 year old girls, such as Cyrus, and did not, therefore, indulge in sexualizing her. When we confuse any and all depictions of child or adolescent sexuality with sexualization, we are flirting with hysteria.

Moreover, the APA report makes clear it is not concerned with depictions of sexuality that are true to a child’s age or mental and emotional development. The APA report defines sexualization as any of four things. 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; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

In none of these conditions is it stated that sexualization occurs whenever a child or adolescent is merely depicted as having a sexuality appropriate to their mental and emotional development. Indeed, in my opinion, it just as much perverts and harms a child or adolescent to insist she have no sexuality at all as it does to insist she have a sexuality far too advanced for her.

Our sexuality is not everything. We are not entirely defined by it, nor can we be reduced to it and nothing else. Our sexuality is, however, an extremely important part of us since so much of our behavior is informed and influenced by it. We get into trouble whenever we embrace a sexuality that is inappropriate for us. An eight year old dressed like an 18 year old. An 18 year old admonished to be just as sexy and sexually confident as a 35 year old. Or anyone of any age told to deny their sexuality. These are all commonplace ways we are told to adopt a sexuality inappropriate for us.

Society needs to combat the sexualization of children and adolescents. Since so much of the sexualization is carried by the various media, one way to combat the problem might be to develop media literacy programs. Media literacy programs could help kids to understand and think critically about the messages they are getting. I doubt that such programs in themselves will be enough, but I think they are a start.

The sexualization of youth must be combated. But human nature being what it is, a great many people are at any one given time misguided, prone to fix the faucet when the water heater is broken. At least that’s how it seems to me. We have an increasing problem with the sexualization of youth in our societies. But is it really possible to fix such a problem by banning nudity, or by banning truthful, non-pornographic depictions of human sexuality?

References:

Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls

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6 thoughts on “The Sexualization of Children and Adolescents

  1. “Our sexuality is not everything. We are not entirely defined by it”
    That is how I look at it too and it disturbs me at times to see the obsession among young people, especially women, about their sexuality.
    I was taken aback when a 40 year old enrolling in a gym told me that she was doing it so her husband would not go in search of better looking women! I wondered what were the foundations on which their marriage functioned.

    The converse is equally true – there is n o need to be ashamed of one’s sexuality. When I was in my teens the adults in the house made it seem like it was somehow my fault that I had a well endowed body. I was always admonished to walk appropriately, dress appropriately so as not to attract attention to my body. That left a big scar on my psyche. Till date I do not know how to handle a compliment about my appearance and wonder if I look sluttish!! :P

  2. This is a great post. Thanks for pointing out the difference between nudity and sexualization. It is one of many misunderstandings about what sexualization is. (I’ll have to respectfully disagree about the Miley Cyrus photo, however.)

  3. @ Usha: Great comments! I too grew up feeling shame for my sexuality. Not from any source in my home, but from the small town I grew up in where at that time sex and sexuality were considered dirty.

    @ Lisa: Thank you for your kind words! If I’m wrong about the Cyrus photo, then it won’t be the first time I’ve been wrong about something. :) I just try to call ‘em as best I can.

    By the way, what you’re doing there at Parents for Ethical Marketing is fascinating.

    Welcome to the blog!

  4. I have friends who have two daughters. My friends are decent people who live good lives. They love their girls and only want them to be happy.

    As a male, I wasn’t all that comfortable when at about 11, the first daughter appeared with a well displayed rack to put it crudely. I was fully aware she was just a child, but I also knew her appearance could attract the wrong kind of attention.

    The thing is, she really is an innocent child who’s doing nothing more than wanting to have a certain look which we the adults have created in those who are famous.

    Equally the Mum is an innocent person, not the least bit worldly, so to her the whole appearance was not something she’d see as anything other than pretty or fashionable.

    I guess what I’m saying is, it’s the observer who has the problem, it was me who looked and saw a sexual image, the parents and the child were just enjoying emulating what they see non stop in the world, without realising us screwed up people are out here in our droves.

    I’m mature and responsible enough to see through the initial image, and it’s this capability many more adults need to be concerned about, rather than the appearance of innocent children regardless of what they wear or how they appear.

    Join me in getting our minds above our navels.

  5. Thanks for sharing the article and yes, sexualisation of children is harmful to any child and I say as parents, caregivers and sensible people, we do need to control what our children see or hear from media. That is not all, we do need to discuss with them too rather than keeping it all taboo (you know something like a media literacy program talk which happens at the dinner table). Sex is everywhere in media and advertising but we have the power to take a stand against child sexualisation starting at home.

  6. This is a bit off-topic, but I’ll come to the punt further on.
    I have been in a discussion on a certain American site. In one of my reactions I used the F-word. It wasn’t to provoke, it just slipped out during writing and actually it literally had to with, well, the subject F-fing. (The topic was about Afghan men who take to young boys because unmarried women are absolutely taboo for them. Until they marry one. Which most Afghans on a worker’s pay simply cannot afford. Afghan men are the most frustrated male animals in the world)
    I got censored. My F-word was replaced for ‘have carnal knowledge of’ and the sermon was: ‘we don’t want to shock 13-year old readers with vulgar words, or their parents.’

    In the first place this wasn’t a suitable site for 13-year olds to begin with. Not even with their parents sitting next to them. So I couldn’t resist to put the moderator in his place:

    “Minors will be shocked by the F-word, OK. And your euphemistic alternative will be harmless, because meaningless to them. Right?

    Did you know that all the vulgar English swearing and blaspheming Europeans practise these days, they picked up from an American, world-dominating music and movie industry? I don’t blame you personally for that, but just the same…”

    The United States of America, no sarcasm meant, are great, colourful, exiting and innovative in all fields. But in moral sense they are also quite schizophrenic.

    Which brings me on-topic. This post is about adolescents. At 15, Miley Cyrus was very young, but it’s an age where girls are undeniably sexually blossoming. You know the reactions to that: ‘SCREAM! Mentally and morally she’s still a child!’ Well, she was a child in the sense of (lack of) experience (I suppose, I’m not familiar with Miss Cyrus private teen-life). But her physical needs were adult.
    A dilemma, right? The threshold syndrome.

    But Miley’s ‘pornographic nude posing’ is nothing. There’s the phenomenon of Purity Balls. Christian based, of course.
    “Yes Daddy, I will stay a virgin until I wed.”
    “Yes Daughter, I will stay pure in mind and stay faithful to your Mother.”
    The girls making these vows range from 15 to 6 (!) years old.
    It even goes so far as that Daddy promises his sweetheart ‘not to use pornography.’
    Let me guess: the present the parents give their little queen of the Purity Ball is a vibrator called ‘Ken’?

    I’ll risk going to hell by viewing a nude pic of a 15-year old Miley Cyrus over being a spectator at a Purity Ball. It’s far less creepy.

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