What is "sexualization"?
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In 2007, the American Psychological Association presented a "Report of the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls." This task force was formed in response to an outcry by parents, child advocacy organizations, psychologists, and journalists who noted that the sexualization of girls by the media and others is an increasing phenomenon and is harmful to girls. Not surprisingly, in study after study researchers found that women were far more likely than men to be portrayed in the media in a sexual fashion. And importantly, of all women, young ones were targeted the most.
According to the Task Force Report, sexualization occurs when:
1. A person's value is determined solely by his or her sexual appeal or behavior;
2. A person is held to a standard whereby only physically attractive people are deemed to be worthy sexual beings;
3. A person is sexually objectified—that is, a person is viewed only as a "thing" for another's sexual use; and/or
4. Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
Sexualization is hazardous to our daughters. It degrades them, it causes problems with their long-term self-esteem, and it can even dupe them into thinking of, and treating, their own bodies as simply objects of other people's gratification. This latter phenomenon, known as "self-objectification," has been fully documented in a significant number of adolescent, and even pre-adolescent, girls. Not only can this problem result in severe emotional turmoil for a girl or woman, it can also serve as the primary reason why she engages in risky sexual behavior.
Sometimes the sexualization process can creep up on us without our realizing it. For instance, consider a
nationally known brand of dolls that is targeted to youngsters and includes such things as heavy make-up, miniskirts, fishnet stockings, and provocative expressions. Or consider a famous line of dolls that now comes in a "bling-bling" style complete with a halter-top and go-go boots. Or think about a chain of stores that promotes dressing up for young girls, but includes costumes that seem designed for a Las Vegas showgirl. Are these consumer items just innocent make-believe for our daughters, or do they sow harmful seeds in their minds? Ultimately, you have to decide what's right for your daughter. But do so with your eyes wide open.
What does an adolescent think sex is?
One way that the sexualization of girls has crept into our society is through the re-definition of what acts constitute sex. I think it's safe to say that when we were growing up, oral sex was definitely considered sex. But nowadays, oral sex is portrayed as being a harmless, pre-sexual form of physical contact between boys and girls. As a result, more and more girls are performing oral sex on more and more boys at younger and younger ages.
Some counselors and sexual behavior researchers estimate that about half of all students engage in oral sex by the time they reach high school. Moreover, they believe it's not uncommon for some students to begin this practice in seventh grade. At one school in Virginia recently, the principal learned about an "oral sex party" that took place outside of school with approximately 25 middle school students. Many of these students were on the honor roll.
Local newspapers reported that once the principal found out about this "party," he notified the girls' parents
so that they could take action. But the school took no action to notify the boys' parents so that the boys could be counseled or disciplined. When interviewed anonymously, the girls cited several reasons for their participation in this oral sex party. Specifically, they said they did it because they wanted to be accepted by the larger group of kids, because they liked the boy and wanted to please him, and because it was a way to experiment with a sexual act that wasn't really sex. (And interestingly, these middle schoolers thought of oral sex exclusively as having a girl perform fellatio on a boy, and not as having a boy perform oral sex on a girl.)
Are girls engaging in sex at a younger age?
What's clear from these statistics and stories is that girls are becoming sexually involved with boys at younger and younger ages. That means they're doing so before they're really prepared to deal with the physical, as well as emotional, repercussions. (Remember, if your daughter engages just in oral sex, it's true she can't get pregnant, but she most certainly can get a sexually transmitted disease.) One author who wrote about this topic recently said that parents assume that their child will start experimenting with sex at the same age as the parent did. Judy Mann said one good rule of thumb in this newly sexualized age is to subtract four years from that time, and then to begin discussions about sex with your daughter at this earlier age.
When it comes to talking to your daughter about sexual peer pressure, you really don't need to take a different approach than the one you use when discussing other types of peer pressure with her. You know the drill— emphasize to her that if her friends are genuine, they'll accept her for who she is and won't try to force her to do things she doesn't want to do. But be mindful of the fact that when it comes to preparing your daughter to actually resist peer pressure, your actions will make far more of an impression on her than your words.