Hypersexualization of young girls: What are the issues? Should we be worried?

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Does hypersexualization actually harm girls? The American Psychological Association maintains there is real cause for concern, but in the U.K. researchers find that there is “much less agreement on what the effects of the sexualization of culture, in general or specifically on children, might be.” (See “Letting Children be Children”.)

Many say that the real issue with hypersexualization is the objectification of girls and women. They propose that hypersexualization is not about sexuality but about sexism and about who holds the real power in our world. Objectified girls are being groomed to accept the passive role of object, whose main source of power is her appearance.

Pornography is a big part of the problem, according to some, such as the Réseau québécois d’action pour la santé des femmes. Soft porn images now abound and seem normal in pop culture aimed at teens and tweens.

And some say that it’s all about the bottom line, that, because ‘sexy sells’, the fashion and toy industries are targeting girls for new markets in the same way the tobacco and alcohol industries target adolescents.

And still others think that there is no real evidence of harm from playing with Bratz Dolls and little girls gyrating to their favourite Rap song, and that we are simply afraid of our children’s “legitimate” sexuality. By being so reactive, some think, we only end up shaming little girls for being naturally sexual.

The following resources explore these issues and look at the evidence.

Sexy sells: The marketing of girls’ sexuality
CWHN Webinar, 2013
Presenter Lilia Goldfarb of the Y des Femmes de Montreal looks at the connections between the sexualization of girls and the corporate marketing strategies of the industries that profit from this. She also looks at the health consequences of hypersexualization, and explores strategies to encourage sex-more positive notions of sexuality and empowerment among girls and young women.

Sexy Girls: Too Much Too Soon?
Lyba Spring, Network, 2013
Examines the evidence, as well as the lack of evidence, about how hypersexualization is affecting children. Suggests what parents and others can do to counteract negative effects of hypersexualized images of girls in the media.

Our Children's Enemy is Sexism, Not Sexualisation
Zoe Williams, The Guardian, January 24, 2013
Argues that hypersexualization is not about sex but about sexism and keeping girls bound to a submissive gender role. Proposes that current strategies to counter hypersexualization repress girls, and arise out of a conservative agenda to keep girls in their place.

Objects Don’t Object: Evidence That Self-Objectification Disrupts Women’s Social Activism
Rachel Calogero, Psychological Science, January 22, 2013
Report on a study of media objectification of women’s bodies. Suggests that “women who were primed to evaluate themselves based on their appearance and sexual desirability had a decreased motivation to challenge gender-based inequalities and injustices.” (Abstract only is free. Read an article on the study here.)

The Sexy Lie
Caroline Heldman, TEDxYouth@SanDiego, 2013
A TED Talk about the objectification of women in our society, including the hypersexualization of girls. Discusses how female objectification has escalated recently, and how to demolish the sexist gender paradigms underlying it.

Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of the Sexualization of Girls
R. Danielle Egan, Polity, 2013
Critically examines the debates about hypersexualization of girls. Argues that these debates are more reflective of adults’ anxiety about girls’ natural sexuality, than about the lives and practices of girls.

Damsel in Distress: Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games 
Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency, 2013
Part 1 of a video series on sexist images of women in video games. Explores how the Damsel in Distress became one of the most widely used gendered clichés in the history of gaming and why this image (trope) of women has been core to the popularization and development of the medium itself.

Sext Up Kids
Maureen Palmer, Dream Street Pictures, 2012
A film arguing that our hypersexualized culture hurts children and the pressure to be sexy is changing teen and sexual behavior in alarming ways. Shows how parents and educators struggle to help kids navigate puberty in a world where the line between pop culture and porn culture is increasingly blurred. 

Sexualisation of Children
Commissioner for Children and Young People, Australia, Issues Paper 9, March 2012 
Defines sexualization of children, argues for more research into its effects, and discusses how to empower parents to help their children develop a healthy body image.

MissRepresentation
Jennifer Siebel Newsom, MissRepresentation.org, 2011
A film arguing that mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America.

Letting Children be Children: Report of an Independent Review of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood
Reg Bailey, Secretary of State for Education, United Kingdom, 2011
Builds on the work of the Sexualisation of Young People Review (see below) and other reports on this issue. Calls forputting the brakes on an unthinking drift towards ever greater commercialisation and sexualisation, while also helping children understand and resist the potential harms they face.”

Sexualisation of Young People
Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, Home Office, United Kingdom, 2010
A literature review on the hypersexualization and objectification of girls and the hypermasculinization of boys, and how these phenomena perpetuate each other. Calls for large scale longitudinal studies to look at the effects on children.

Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls
Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, American Psychological Association, 2010
Explores the cognitive and emotional consequences of the early sexualization of girls and its impact on development of a healthy sexual self-image. Also includes resources for parents and girls, for developing media literacy and recommendations to the U.S. government on dealing with the issue.

Killing Us Softly 4
Jean Kilbourne, 2010
Updates Kilbourne’s pioneering film that helped develop and popularize the study of gender representation in advertising. Examines if and how the image of women in advertising has changed over the last 20 years.

It’s a Teen’s World: Wired for Sex, Lies and Power Trips
Lynn Glazier, Teensworld Productions Ltd., 2009
A documentary looking at how teenagers try to be cool, hip and popular in a sexually charged social world, and argues that sexual harassment has become commonplace and acceptable.

So Sexy, So Soon: The Sexualization of Childhood (Introduction)
Diane E. Levin, & Jean Kilbourne, Ballantine Books, 2008
Argues that the sexualization of children is having a profoundly disturbing impact on children’s understanding of gender, sexuality, and relationships. (This is the Introduction to the book.)

Sexy Inc. Our Children under the Influence
Sophie Bissonnette, National Film Board, 2007
Documentary dealing with the hypersexualization of our environment and its effects on young people. Psychologists, teachers and school nurses criticize how marketing and advertising target younger and younger audiences with sexual and sexist images. Suggests ways to counter hypersexualization and the eroticization of childhood.

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What can we do about it?