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?