Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Impact of Over-Sexualization of Girls

In 2007 the American Psychological Association issued an eye-opening report that scares me, as the father of four little girls. It is entitled the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. The report is research-based and gives a good overview of the impact over-sexualization of girls has had on our culture and on girls/women. I recommend a full reading, but have provided highlights below, along with a bit of further commentary. From the intro:
There are many examples of the sexualization of girls and girlhood in U.S. culture. Toy manufacturers produce dolls wearing black leather miniskirts, feather boas, and thigh-high boots and market them to 8- to 12-year-old girls (LaFerla, 2003). Clothing stores sell thongs sized for 7– to 10-year-old girls (R. Brooks, 2006; Cook & Kaiser, 2004), some printed with slogans such as “eye candy” or “wink wink” (Cook & Kaiser, 2004; Haynes, 2005; Levy, 2005a; Merskin, 2004); other thongs sized for women and late adolescent girls are imprinted with characters from Dr. Seuss and the Muppets (e.g., see children/cat.shtml) (Levy, 2005a; Pollett & Hurwitz, 2004). In the world of child beauty pageants, 5-year-old girls wear fake teeth, hair extensions, and makeup and are encouraged to “flirt” onstage by batting their long, false eyelashes (Cookson, 2001). On prime-time television, girls can watch fashion shows in which models made to resemble little girls wear sexy lingerie (e.g., the CBS broadcast of Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show on December 6, 2005). Journalists, child advocacy organizations, parents, and psychologists have become alarmed, arguing that the sexualization of girls is a broad and increasing problem and is harmful to girls (Bloom, 2004;“Buying Into Sexy,” 2005; Dalton, 2005; Lamb & Brown, 2006; Levin, 2005; Levy, 2005a; Linn, 2004; Pollet & Hurwitz, 2004; Schor, 2004). 
The Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls was formed in response to these expressions of public concern. In this report,we examine and summarize psychological theory, research, and clinical experience addressing the sexualization of girls.We (a) define sexualization; (b) examine the prevalence and provide examples of sexualization in society and in cultural institutions, as well as interpersonally and intrapsychically; (c) evaluate the evidence suggesting that sexualization has negative consequences for girls and for the rest of society; and (d) describe positive alternatives that may help counteract the influence of sexualization.
Reading about the impact that the rapid sexualization of girls has on them saddest part of the report. Here are just a few of the findings:
Ample evidence indicates that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.
The next quote was surprising to me:
Taken together, the work on the cognitive and physical decrements associated with self-objectification suggests that sexualization practices may function to keep girls “in their place” as objects of sexual attraction and beauty, significantly limiting their free thinking and movement in the world.
In other worrds, the evidence shows that when girls are objectified in the culture, they tend to over-sexualize themselves and suffer the consequences by not living up their full potential.

A side-note - one of the things that has shown to be a great help in this is seperating girls and boys in school (the Catholic Church has known this for millenia).

Another finding:
Research also links exposure to sexualized female ideals with lower self-esteem, negative mood, and depressive symptoms among adolescent girls and young women.
The study also states the negative impact on men and boys - esp. in regards to what porn does to them and their concept of women. You can imagine it isn't good. If girls and women are seen exclusively as sexual beings rather than as complicated people with many interests, talents, and identities, boys and men may have difficulty relating to them on any level other than the sexual.This could dramatically limit the opportunities boys and men have to interact intellectually with girls and women, to compete with and against them in sports or games, to create art or make music with them, to work together for higher causes (e.g., volunteer work or activism), or to enjoy their company as friends.
I do not agree with every conclusion in the study, however. They advocate "comprehensive sexual education" among other ways of battling this phenomenon, which seems to play right back into the heart of the problem - teaching sexuality from a "they are going to do it anyway" attitude.

They do cite "religious/spiritual practices" as well as athletics, extracurricular activities and education as ways to help change the culture - I agree with all of these. They also highlight working through the family. I think this is the key.

Without strong family bonds, our culture will continue to over-sexualize girls and the problems will get worse. The APA's report, while not perfect, is a step in the right direction and will at least get some professionals talking about and advocating for change.

Read the entire report here.


curmudgeonloner said...

Keep fathers in the home, kill your TV, don't buy these products, send the kids to sex segregated Catholic schools or home school them. No one will protect your kids for you. The only solution is for people to take matters into their own hands.

Brother Mark Menegatti OSA said...

Two years ago I took a course in Sexual Ethics. Many people seemed to be convinced beyond a doubt that overcoming our "sexual hang-ups and sexual repressiveness," has helped our society to be better off. I ended up doing my final presentation on this study, because it seemed to suggest the opposite. There was a time, I have heard, that people were not formed to have a healthy sense of their sexual selves because their sexuality was ignored. I wonder, because nowadays, you are measured as a human being almost exclusively in terms of the sexual. How sexually attractive am I? Have I had enough sexual partners? Has it taken you this long to lose your virginity? I can't wear this, it will make me look unattractive like my grandparents. The pressures and voices of young people, the pressures from the media, the adults, and peers in their lives seems to be more constricting to human freedom, and this study only give credence to that basic intuition that I have had for years. Thanks for highlighting this study again, it has not gotten quite enough attention.
And again, There are things that we can and should disagree with, because we have something in our Catholic tradition to offer which is considerably more solid anyways.

Paul Cat said...

Don't for get about the hyper sexualization of breast cancer.