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 (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, 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 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.1
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 they spend with their parents. The same study determined that through the media alone the typical American adolescent encounters between 10,000 and 15,000 sexual references, jokes, and innuendos per year.4
Yet another study revealed that children are spending more time with the media than with any other activity except school and sleeping.23 The APA task force's report pointed to several facets of the media that contribute to sexualization, including the Internet, movies/television, music/music videos, and literature/magazines.1
Nearly 9 in 10 adolescents have access to the Internet, with about 75 percent of them having access at home. Most teens reported inadvertently stumbling across pornography online, often via unsolicited emails or misleading links.25 Social networking sites such as Facebook encourage youth to "describe themselves" on the Internet, and some girls utilize the opportunity to pose in provocative clothing and post notices of their "sexual availability".14
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.15 In a study that analyzed 81 primetime television shows, 84 percent of the episodes contained at least one incident of sexual harassment an average of 3.4 instances per program.12
Most of the sexual content on primetime occurs outside marital relationships, depictions of sexual consequences are rare, and gender emphasis lies on women's physical beauty and men’s physical strength. In general, "typical depiction of sexual activity has been classified as recreational rather than relational".4
Music and Music Videos
But even the frequency of sexual content found in shows and films takes runner-up to what’s filtering in on the radio. As of a study done in 2005, sexual content appeared more frequently in adolescents' music selections than in their television or movie choices.22
After Britney Spears ‘debut album hit the pre-teen scene in the late 1990s, her debut music video was not far behind. A few years before Spears' first video premiered, a study reported that as much as 81 percent of music videos contained sexual imagery.11
Literature and Magazines
Parents can install television filters and monitor their children's music purchases, but what about what's hitting them between the covers of their favorite books and magazines?
A 2007 study found that adolescents ranked magazines as a more important source of information than their parents, peers, or schools.25 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.9
They run between the scenes of television shows and crowd the pages amid the magazine articles, so what are advertisements presenting as they so frequently permeate children's lives? In longitudinal study that analyzed advertisements in popular women's magazines between 1955 and 2002, 40 percent of the ads featured women as decorative objects.18
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, 2004, p. 127)
According to an article that ran in Seventeen magazine 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".17
Skimpy outfits aren't the only products enticing teenaged consumers to crack 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".16
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 (Collin set al., 2004, p. 287). 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.1
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.1 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.2
Among older adolescents and young adults, satisfaction with virginity decreased as they increased their identification with sexually active characters in the media.3 While yesterday’s culture equated domestic qualities with attractiveness, today's society equates sexiness with physical attractiveness.27
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.10 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.26
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.10
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 years old versus 21 years old.5 More than one million teens get pregnant every year.13 Teenagers who are sexually active have more difficulty sleeping and are 6.3 times more likely to attempt suicide than their virginal peers.21 Among girls aged 11 through 17, the number one wish is to lose weight.19 Another study found an important link between body dissatisfaction and the onset of cigarette smoking among adolescent girls.24 And the list goes on from there.
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 that they agree with media's depiction of the female ideal. Either overtly or subtly, parents can express their support for movies, television shows, and advertisements that present harmful ideals to their children.
- Avoid self-criticism
Remember that 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 (Richter, 2000, p. 120).
- 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.6
One effective technique for diffusing the messages from the 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 their daughters encounter, there are other methods of defense. Technology allows parents to block particular programs of their choice. Also, when daughters perceive that their parents have an interest in what they do, where they go, and who they're with, behavioral risks associated with media can be avoided.
When parents encounter a behavioral choice or sexual attitude they are opposed to, 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.17 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.25
- 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" (Girls, Women + Media Project).
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".1
- Remember religion
Not only does increased spirituality increase mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, it also provides an important source of identity and purpose outside of what the media says. 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.1
Presented by the media with a society bent on 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 tells them to do so. 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.
- American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
- Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469-480.
- Baran, S. J. (1976). Sex on TV and adolescent sexual self-image. Journal of Broadcasting, 20, 61-68.
- Brown, J. D., & Lu, A. S. (2007). Sex, media impact on. In Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents, and the Media, 2, 753-755. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Centers for Disease Control (2004). Trends in reportable sexually transmitted diseases in the United States. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance.
- Chock, T. M. (2007). Sex in television, perceived realism of. In Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents, and the Media, 2, 758-759. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Collins, R., Elliott, M., Berry, S., Kanouse, D., Kunkel, D., Hunter, S., & Miu, A. (2004). Watching sex on television predicts adolescent initiation of sexual behavior. Pediatrics 114(3), 280-289.
- Cook, D. T. & Kaiser, S. B. (2004). Betwixt and between: Age ambiguity and the sexualization of the female consuming subject. Journal of Consumer Culture, 4, 203-227.
- Duffy, M., & Gotcher, J. M. (1996). Crucial advice on how to get the guy: The rhetorical vision of power and seduction in the teen magazine YM. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 20, 32-48.
- Frederickson, B. L., & Harrison, K. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women's lived experience and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.
- Gow, J. (1996). Reconsidering gender roles on MTV: Depictions in the most popular music videos of the early 1990s. Communication Reports, 9, 151-161.
- Grauerholz, E., & King, A. (1997). Primetime sexual harassment. Violence against Women, 3, 129-148.
- Kirby, D. (1997). No easy answers: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy.National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
- Kornblum, J. (2005). Adults question My Space’s safety. USA Today. Retrieved February 9, 2009.
- Kunkel, D., Cope, K., Farinola, W., Biely, E., Rollin, E., & Donnerstein, E. (2000). Sexual messages on entertainment TV in the USA. Children in the New Media Landscape, 155-158.
- Lamb, S., & Brown, L. M. (2006). Packaging girlhood: Rescuing our daughters from marketers' schemes. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Liebau, C.P. (2007). Prude: How the sex-obsessed culture damages girls. New York: Hachette Book Group USA.
- Lindner, K. (2004). Images of women in general interest and fashion advertisements from 1955 to 2002. Sex Roles, 51, 409-421.
- Maine, M. (2000). Body wars: Making peace with women's bodies. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books.
- Nichter, M. (2000). Fat talk: What girls and their parents say about dieting. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.
- Orr, D. P., Beiter, M., & Ingersoll, G. (1991).Premature sexual activity as an indicator of psychosocial risk. Pediatrics, 8(22), 141-147.
- Pardun, C. J., L'Engle, K. L., & Brown, J. D. (2005). Linking exposure to outcomes: Early adolescents' consumption of sexual content in sex media. Mass Communication & Society, 8(2), 75-91.
- Roberts, D., Foehr, U., & Rideout, V. (2005). Generation: Media in the lives of 8-18 year olds.Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
- Stice, E., & Shaw, H. (2003). Prospective relationsof body image, eating, and affective disturbances to smoking onset inadolescent girls: How Virginia slims. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 71, 129-135.
- Taylor, L. D. & Hansen, D. L. (2007). Sexual information, Internet/magazines and. In Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents, and the Media, 2, 763-765. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Ward, L. M. (2003). Understanding the role of entertainment media in the sexual socialization of American youth: A review of empirical research. Developmental Review, 23, 347-388.
- Wolf, N. (1991). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. New York: Anchor Books.