Once,slut was one of the most derogatory and insulting ephithets that could behurled at any woman...In today's world, however, both the term itself and thesexual promiscuity it signifies are embraced (Libeau, 2007, p. 12).
As younggirls seek to assert their own identities, they are inclined to look to womenthey admire in pursuit of lifestyles to mimic. Confronted with ambiguous ageboundaries and bombarded with popular cultural icons, a sexual pandemic isspreading as fashions trickle down into their closets and cultures (Cook, 2004,p. 210). Fueled by influential media and an overly provocative clothing market,today's young females are rocketing into adult behaviors at young ages, andmultiple risks are along for the ride.
Someparents raise voices of alarm at this cultural trend of young girls growing uptoo fast and may seek ideas for guiding their youth to embrace standards theyboth can agree on. In response to expressions of public concern, the AmericanPsychological Association formed the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girlsto research the issue. The task force defined sexualization as the occurrenceof one or more of four circumstances: when a person's value comes solely fromhis or her sexual appeal or behavior; when a person is held to a standard thatequates physical attractiveness (which is narrowly defined) with being sexy;when a person is sexually objectified; or when sexuality is inappropriatelyimposed upon a person (APA, 2007, p. 2).
Whilesome parents express concern over these issues, some are likely to wonder whyit is even an issue in the first place. Isn't it OK for their girls to be sexyand 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 theconsequences that almost always come hand-in-hand with trying to look sexy andhot at a young age. When a girl focuses too much on her physical appearance,she places her self-esteem, emotional and physical health, academicachievement, and sexual safety on the chopping block. And one of the primaryavenues she's taking to the guillotine is found in her everyday media choices.
In atypical week, the average adolescent spends more than 40 hours with some formof mass media|often more time than they spend with their parents. The samestudy determined that through the media alone the typical American adolescentencounters between 10,000 and 15,000 sexual references, jokes, and innuendosper year (Brown& Lu, 2007, p. 754).
Yetanother study revealed that children are spending more time with the media thanwith any other activity except school and sleeping (Roberts, Foehr,& Rideout, 2005).The APA task force's report pointed to several facets of the media thatcontribute to sexualization, including the Internet, movies/television,music/music videos, and literature/magazines (APA, 2007, pp. 4-5).
Nearly9 in 10 adolescents have access to the Internet, with about 75 percent of themhaving access at home. Most teens reported inadvertently stumbling acrosspornography online, often via unsolicited emails or misleading links (Taylor & Hansen,2007, p. 764). Socialnetworking sites such as MySpace encourage youth to "describe themselves" onthe Internet, and some girls utilize the opportunity to pose in provocativeclothing and post notices of their "sexual availability" (Kornblum, 2005).
Movies and Television
Liebau states itsimply: "American young people are hearing (and seeing) a lot of sex, everyday, 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 ornegative outcomes associated with such behavior (Kunkel et al., 2000, p. 157). In a study thatanalyzed 81 primetime television shows, 84 percent of the episodes contained atleast one incident of sexual harassment|an average of 3.4 instances per program(Grauerholz & King, 1997, p.143).
Most of the sexualcontent on primetime occurs outside marital relationships, depictions of sexualconsequences are rare, and gender emphasis lies on women's physical beauty andmen's physical strength. In general, "typical depiction of sexual activity hasbeen classified as recreational rather than relational" (Brown & Lu, 2007,p. 754).
Music and MusicVideos
But even thefrequency of sexual content found in shows and films takes runner-up to what'sfiltering in on the radio. As of a study done in 2005, sexual content appeared morefrequently in adolescents' music selections than in their television or moviechoices (Pardun, L'Engle, & Brown, 2005).
After Britney Spears'debut album hit the pre-teen scene in the late 1990s, her debut music video wasnot far behind. Dancing in the hallways of a school and clad in a sexed-up andskimped-down version of the standard plaid-and-button-up ensemble, Spearsparaded in her pigtails for her youthful audience's viewing pleasure. Otherstars followed suit. Afew years before Spears' first video premiered, a study reported that as muchas 81 percent of music videos contained sexual imagery (Gow, 1996, p. 156).
Literature and Magazines
Parents can install television filters andmonitor their children's music purchases, but what about what's hitting thembetween the covers of their favorite books and magazines?
A 2007 study found that adolescents rankedmagazines as a more important source of information than their parents, peers,or schools (Taylor & Hansen, 2007, p. 764). The primary point of manyarticles, text, cover lines, ads, and photographs is to attract boys' attentionby looking "hot and sexy." The world of magazines is "a place where sexualityis both a means and an objective, where the pursuit of males is almost the solefocus of life (Duffy & Gotcher, 1996, p. 43).
They run between the scenes of televisionshows and crowd the pages amid the magazine articles, so what areadvertisements presenting as they so frequently permeate children's lives? In alongitudinal study that analyzed advertisements in popular women's magazinesbetween 1955 and 2002, 40 percent of the ads featured women as decorativeobjects (Lindner, 2004, p. 415).
Abercrombie and Fitch, a clothing store forpre-teens and teens, riles concerned parents with advertisements featuringmodels wearing little more than their birthday suits. One ad depicted a nakedyoung woman in the arms of a naked young man, and another showed a young manwearing low-rise jeans positioned so far down that there was little left to theimagination. With so much focus falling on bare skin, it begs the question,where are the clothes these models are selling? (APA, 2007)
Buying into Sexy
Twenty-year-oldMaggie wants guys to notice what's inside|without having to reveal too much ofwhat's outside...But is that possible? (The Art of Modesty,2004, p. 127)
Accordingto an article that ran in Seventeen magazine in June 2004, Maggie's"unique" style consisted of wearing "Gap skirts or vintage dresses" andchoosing tankinis over "skimpy bikinis." While it is commendable that Maggie'sstory was printed in the magazine, the article did not exactly cast her stylechoices in a positive light. In the words of one author, Maggie's decision was"treated as noteworthy at best|and maybe even freakish" (Liebau, 2007, p. 78).
While Maggie hangs out on the "freakish" endof the spectrum," Abercrombie and Fitch is busy marketing thong underwear for10-to-16-year-olds with slogans such as "Eye Candy," "Kiss Me," and "WinkWink." A spokesman for the company shrugged them off as "cute and sweet" (Cook &Kaiser, 2004).
Skimpyoutfits aren't the only products enticing teenaged consumers to crack opentheir piggy banks|Even the toy shelves are replete with opportunities to buyinto sexy trends. Bratz dolls are marketed in bikinis, sitting in hot tubs,mixing drinks and standing around observing the "Boyz" (Lamb & Brown, 2006,p. 116). 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 tobegin have sexual intercourse at younger ages than those who saw the least (Collinset al., 2004, p. 287). The APA task force reported that when girls are exposedto sexual content and female objectification it can hinder their ability toform healthy sexual relationships with their marriage partners later in life:
Awoman who has learned to fear negative evaluations of her body may be morefocused on her partner's judgments of her than on her own desires, safety, and pleasure(APA, 2007, p. 27).
Girls need not be sheltered from the realityof their sexuality; the APA task force wrote that healthy sexuality is relatedto greater intimacy in marriage, higher self-esteem, low levels of stress,personal happiness, and other positive benefits (APA, 2007, p. 26). Forming asense of oneself as a sexual being is indeed a normal and healthy part of humanmaturation|but danger occurs when this happens too soon and is fueled by thewrong influences (Arnett, 2000, p.470).
Among older adolescents and young adults,satisfaction with virginity decreased as they increased their identificationwith sexually active characters in the media (Baran, 1976, p. 65). While yesterday'sculture equated domestic qualities with attractiveness, today's society equatessexiness with physical attractiveness (Wolf, 1991, p. 9).
One danger of viewing an excessive amount ofsex-saturated media is a syndrome known as self objectification. Selfobjectification occurs when girls learn to think and treat their own bodies asobjects of others' desires. When a girl becomes self-objectified, she adopts amental "third-person perspective" of her physical self and constantly assessesher body in an effort to conform to the perceived ideal (Frederickson &Harrison, 1997, pp. 182-183). Besides lower self-esteem, another troublingeffect of self objectification is the adoption of negative attitudes toward thefunctional aspects of the body, e.g. breastfeeding, menstruation, sweating, etc(Ward, 2006, p. 148).
What Else is at Stake?
Multiple other risks come as tag-alongs withthe behavioral risks and impeded development of a healthy sexual attitude. Onestudy points to over-sexualization as a contributing factor to why girls dropout of higher level math classes in high school (Frederickson & Harrison,1997).
And if sexual content in media does indeedincrease sexual activity at younger ages, the physical and emotionalconsequences of such a trend are nothing to be ignored. The younger a femaleis, the more likely she is to contract an STD|twice as much at 13 years oldversus 21 years old (Centers for Disease Control, 2004, p. 3). More than onemillion teens get pregnant every year (Kirby, 1997, p.1). Teenagers who aresexually active have more difficulty sleeping and are 6.3 times more likely toattempt suicide than their virginal peers (Orr, Beiter, & Ingersoll, 1991,p. 145). Among girls aged 11 through 17, the number one wish is to lose weight (Maine, 2000, p.31). Another study found an important link between body dissatisfaction andthe onset of cigarette smoking among adolescent girls (Stice & Shaw, 2003,p. 133). And the list goes on from there.
Ideas for Parents
What can parents do to help their teens steerclear of these influences? Here are some suggestions:
Parents,through their words or actions or lack thereof, can implicitly teach girls thatthey agree with media's depiction of the female ideal. Either overtly orsubtly, parents can express their support for movies, television shows, andadvertisements that present harmful ideals to their children.
Rememberthat your children hear what you say about yourself. One study showed thatgirls whose mothers use "fat talk" about their own bodies were at a greaterrisk to develop eating disorders (Nichter, 2000, p. 120).
- Beinvolved in everyday life
Childrenand adolescents actively select and interpret television content and assess itsreality by referring to their own experiences and knowledge of the world. Ifthey are taught to view the content as unrealistic, then the media's influencewill be limited (Chock, 2007, p. 758).
Oneeffective technique for diffusing the messages from the television isimplementing a practice known as media co-viewing. According to the APA taskforce, when parents actively comment on and discuss the content in shows theirchildren are viewing, it can alter the messages their children receive.
Whileit is virtually impossible for parents to co-view and intervene with any andevery form of media their daughters encounter, there are other methods ofdefense. V-chip technology allows parents to block particular programs of theirchoice. Also, when daughters perceive that their parents have an interest inwhat they do, where they go, and who they're with, behavioral risks associatedwith media can be avoided.
Whenparents encounter a behavioral choice or sexual attitude they are opposed to,they need to actively and effectively communicate to their daughters that suchactions are not acceptable. Many parents are too reluctant to criticize sexualtrends or attitudes because they fear being accused of being judgmental (Liebau,2007, p. 9). If teens are seeking sexual information in a sex-saturated world,they are going to find it|but parents can largely influence and filter whatinformation they receive and how they receive it (Taylor, 2007, p. 764).
Medialiteracy training programs such as the Girls, Women + Media Project (http://www.mediaandwomen.org/)teach girls to view media critically and aim to create "active interpreters ofmessages rather than passive consumers" (Girls, Women + Media Project).
Acampaign launchedby Dove in recent years turns a critical eye on popular media and insteademphasizes "real beauty." Their Web site (http://www.campaignforrealbeauty.com/)provides multiple resources and videos to aid in promoting healthy self esteemamong young women. One video urges parents to talk to their daughters "beforethe beauty industry does."
Participationin athletic activities can provide a buffer against media's narrow portrayal offemale identity by focusing on physical competence over appearance. Accordingto the task force, being a part of an athletic team not only provides a senseof identity and worth, but it also provides girls with a chance to "develop aself-concept founded on what they can do rather than on how they look" (APA,2007, p. 37).
Notonly does increased spirituality increase mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, it also provides an important source of identity and purpose outside ofwhat the media says. Additionally, the sense of community provided by areligious congregation helps girls avoid loneliness if their parents are notalways available, thus keeping them from turning to media for companionship (APA,2007, p. 38).
Presented by the media with a society bent ona narrow focus of female identity|one consisting of hyper-sexual attitudes,little clothing and widespread promiscuity|young girls are taught to emulateadult behaviors sooner than their natural pace tells them to do so. Theinfluence of the media and provocative clothing fashions enable them to speedup their sexuality and slow down their inhibitions. Such trends are not withoutnumerous consequences: Multiple studies have shown that behavioral risks (e.g.early sexual activity) and impaired development of healthy sexual perceptionsare common among young women exposed to over-sexualized media. Early sexualactivity brings with it a basketful of complications that impact physical,emotional, and mental health. There are several ways in which parents canintervene and combat the media's sexualized grip on their daughters. Theover-sexualized society has its talons in the shopping malls and oozes itsinfluence through every facet of the media, but parents can and should take anactive role in its influence within their home and in the lives of theirdaughters|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.
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