The Sexualization of Girls

Report Chronicles Damage Caused

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By Father John Flynn

ROME, FEB. 26, 2007 (Zenit.org).- An unhealthy sexualization is putting young and adolescent girls increasingly at risk, concludes a report published Feb. 19 by the American Psychological Association. Entitled "Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls," the study is the result of research on the content and effects of diverse forms of media: television, music videos, music lyrics, magazines, movies, video games and the Internet.

The task force also examined product merchandising and advertising campaigns aimed at girls.

"We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development," said Dr. Eileen Zurbriggen, head of the task force and associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a press release accompanying the report.

Sexualization causes difficulties at all ages, the report says, but adds that it is especially problematic when it happens at a younger age. Achieving sexual maturity for adolescents is not an easy process, the study acknowledges, but says that when young girls and teens are encouraged to be sexy, without even knowing enough about what it means, the process is further complicated.

Media saturation

The report cited a number of studies detailing the large amount of time spent in contact with the media. According to the data, the average child or teen watches three hours of television per day. However, when the total number of hours spent with all types of media is calculated, it turns out that children are exposed to some type of media -- television, video games, music, etc. -- for some six and a half hours a day.

One study carried out in 2003 reported that 68% of children have a television in their bedroom, and that 51% of girls play interactive games on their computers and video game consoles. Both girls and boys average about an hour a day on their computers, visiting Web sites, listening to music, frequenting chat rooms, playing games and sending messages to friends.

The American Psychological Association report observed: "On television, young viewers encounter a world that is disproportionately male, especially in youth-oriented programs, and one in which female characters are significantly more likely than male characters to be attractive and provocatively dressed."

A large percentage of music videos contain sexual imagery, and women are frequently presented in provocative and revealing clothing. The report also noted that female artists are presented in such a way that the main focus is not on her talent or music, but rather on her body and sexuality. Thus, the report concludes, viewers receive the message that success comes from being an attractive sexual object.

Regarding the lyrics of songs themselves, the APA researchers lamented that there is no recent content analysis on their sexual content. In their report, however, they cited a number of examples of how the words of some recent popular songs sexualize women, or refer to them in highly degrading ways.

When it comes to the big screen, the report commented on the lack of female characters in the top-grossing motion pictures, and in G-rated movies. One study of the 101 top-grossing G-rated films from 1990 to 2004 revealed that of the more than 4,000 characters in these films, 75% overall were male, 83% of characters in crowds were male, 83% of narrators were male, and 72% of speaking characters were male. "This gross under-representation of women or girls in films with family-friendly content reflects a missed opportunity to present a broad spectrum of girls and women in roles that are non-sexualized," the APA report noted.

Dubious influences

Teen magazines are another important influence on young girls and adolescents. The reported cited a number of studies on the content of the magazines, and revealed that one of the central messages of the publications is that "presenting oneself as sexually desirable, and thereby gaining the attention of men, is, and should be, the focal goal for women."

It's difficult to assess the enormously varied content available via the Internet, but the APA researchers cited one study on sites that often attracts girls -- the fan Web sites of male and female celebrities. An analysis of their content found that female celebrities were far more likely than male celebrities to be represented by sexualized images, regardless of whether the site was official or produced by fans.

Advertising is another prime area where women are often sexualized. Moreover, the study notes that research shows that the tendency to display women in decorative or exploitative ways in ads is increasing. This has reached the point, it added, to where girls in seductive poses are being used to attract adult audiences.

Recently, a number of commentators have remarked that the toy market is also being affected by the trend toward sexualization. The APA researchers declared that they were worried when popular dolls for girls in the 4-8 age bracket are often dressed in sexually provocative clothing.

The same is happening with clothing. Girls at increasingly younger ages are invited to wear clothes designed to highlight female sexuality. Cosmetics are also being marketed to younger girls.

All of these influences combine to occasion a series of problems for girls. The APA report stated that sexualization is linked with three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.

The researches added that evidence also exists showing that the sexualization of girls, and the resultant negative feelings about their own body, ultimately may lead to sexual problems in adulthood. They said another problem is related to the idealization of youth as being the only good and beautiful stage of life. The current boom in anti-aging products and cosmetic surgery is a result of this imposed beauty standard.

Cell phone victory

Resisting the hyper-sexualization trend is not easy, but last week in Canada, decency won a round in the battle.

In January, Canada's second largest phone company, Telus, started offering pornographic photos and videos to customers. The Vancouver-based company was strongly criticized by Archbishop Raymond Roussin. "Telus's decision is disappointing and disturbing," he declared in a Feb. 12 statement.

In another statement published four days later, the archbishop of Vancouver accused the company of damaging society in its search for a share of the lucrative profits to be obtained in the porn industry.

The archbishop called for a pornography-free mobile phone service. He also declared that he was directing Catholic churches and schools to not renew their mobile phone contracts with Telus. In addition, he called on all Catholics and other concerned Canadians to contact mobile phone companies to express concerns over the proliferation of pornography through mobile phones.

On Feb. 21, Telus announced that it was canceling its "adult content" service. According to a report in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, the company said that it had received hundreds of complaints from customers.

Archbishop Roussin welcomed the move in a statement released later that day. "We are just beginning to fully appreciate how serious the issue of sex and pornography addiction really is," he commented.

Concern over the effect of popular culture was also expressed recently by Benedict XVI. In his message for World Communications Day, to be held May 20, the Pope noted the tendency toward the exaltation of violence and the trivialization of sexuality.

The Pontiff wrote: "Beauty, a kind of mirror of the divine, inspires and vivifies young hearts and minds, while ugliness and coarseness have a depressing impact on attitudes and behavior" (no. 2).

The Church has often been falsely accused of being obsessed with sex by the champions of modern culture. In truth, it is contemporary society that suffers from this obsession, while the Church continues to defend the dignity, and beauty, of the human person.