APA Task Force Condemns Sexualization of Girls
> 2/20/2007 2:11:09 PM

In a press release made public yesterday on their website, the American Psychological Association announced the publication of the report from the organization's Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. The report itself is a sprawling yet comprehensive assessment of several hundred studies, and it offers a commentary, blistering at times, of the damaging effects that the sexualization of girls can and does have on young women themselves primarily, but also on their families, young men and on society as a whole.

As they write in their report, the Task Force says sexualization occurs when:
  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
Their review of the literature found that sexualization can be extremely damaging not only in the way girls view themselves currently, but also to their overall development as individuals.

Sexualization may be especially problematic when it happens to youth. Developing a sense of oneself as a sexual being is an important task of adolescence, but sexualization may make this task more difficult. Indeed, Tolman argued that in the current environment, teen girls are encouraged to look sexy, yet they know little about what it means to be sexual, to have sexual desires, and to make rational and responsible decisions about pleasure and risk within intimate relationships that acknowledge their own desires.

That is just one sample from a very large and thorough document. The task force makes it point quite clearly, and offers a number of suggestions for creating positive change. First among these is working through the schools throught media literacy programs that would teach younger children to more effectively navigate our highly commercialized world while making them more aware of the messages that they are constatnly being bombarded with. We've mentioned this before with regards to internet safety, but these same techniques and educational pushes could help counteract the negative outcomes of sexualization that the APA addresses. They also suggest more support for athletic programs and extracurriculars that will help foster more opportunities for positive personal interactions and character building, as well as support for comprehensive sex education.

The task force's other suggestions focus on the families of young women, who play the most important role in ensuring that they grow to be healthy individuals with strong appreciation and understanding of their own sexuality. They also point to alternative media sources and activist groups as strong possibilities for actively combatting this sexualization.

In their story on the report, USA Today spoke with an NYU professor who provided a counter-balance to the APA's agressive attack:

Ann Pellegrini, an associate professor at New York University who writes about the sexual politics of American childhood, and who was not associated with the report, says she is concerned about what she calls "the panic" about the sexualization of children.

"Not that I would deny there is this aggressive marketing to children, but there is a deep moralization around it," she says. "I do think girls and women are still profoundly objectified when it comes to sex, but there may well be some things that look like objectification that are being experienced by girls and young women that feel empowering."

While this criticism of the task force's report is fair, the overwhelming sense is that any "empowerment" is drastically offset by the myriad of potential negative consequences that the group lays out. Never does the task force take an overly alarmist standpoint, demanding changes while threatening readers with a generation of unhealthy women. Instead, they make rational, reasoned arguments supported with copious amounts of research. At times they may overreach, but do so only in ther service of a point which has been long, long overdue in being made this completely.

As with many of the undesireable parts of our culture or society that are bemoaned by one group or another, this trend toward sexualization can, in all likelihood, be traced back to roots planted firmly in the market. Bratz dolls receive a lion's share of the focus in the USA Today write-up, and while it's hard to argue with the condemnation that the task force levels at that product in particular, the company that makes them can and does fall back onto their trump card of "They sell well." The same can be said of any number of the magazines, television shows, clothing lines or websites that the report mentions--they might be reprehensible in their sexualizaiton of girls, but we still pay money for their services.

We must arm young women with the knowledge that will help them face this cultural barrage, yet emerge into adulthood without the level of dysfunction this report focuses on. Beyond that however, we must vote with our wallets in support of positive images and representations of women and girls in culture. And at the same time we need to stop paying money for those things that present negative and demeaning stereotypes. The APA's task force would probably argue that it's too late, that these images and ideals are too firmly implated to change that dramatically. But the other option is to give up, and if their report is only partially correct, that is not an option any one should actually consider.


Although I agree with most of the research reported by the APA, I have to say that I also side with the counter argument given by Ann Pellegrini. The media does indeed objectify women and provide images of beauty that should not, but in some cases do become the center of a woman’s or young girl’s values. However, there are a lot of factors influencing this effect. Most people, even young kids are aware of the fact that, except for the news, most, if not all, even reality shows are scripted and are not real. With this in mind, parents and peers, have a lot to do with the “sexualization” of girls. Hence, I feel the report puts too much fault on the media. A person can only apply this view on physical attractiveness, sexual appeal or behavior to his or her own life, if that is what everyone in their surroundings has taught them to do. If a young girl, for instance learns that due to her good looks, she gets the response she wants from her peers, she will then assume that this a very important and valuable characteristic. In a way, a situation like this, although problematic, can be like professor Pellegrini states, be an “empowering” experience. A girl internalizes a sense of power among others and since this is constantly proven correct, she in turn feels more confident and has higher self-esteem.
URL: http://forensicpsyc.blogspot.com/
Posted by: CG 2/26/2007 12:51:46 PM

From the report: "Adult women may suffer by trying to conform to a younger and younger standard of ideal female beauty. More general societal effects may include an increase in sexism; fewer girls pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); increased rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence; and an increased demand for child pornography."I was curious what they uncovered about the link to the increase in child pornography. It turns out that out of their hundreds of references, they only have one reference to a possible link (B. Paul). The author also admit the weakness of data on this matter: "When specifically considering child pornography, however, almost no experimental research has been conducted."So how is it that in their executive summary that they mention such claims so confidently? In my opinion, this hurts the credibility of their research a little. I'd be curious if all eight of these authors are women (many appear to have feminine names) because they might be unknowingly writing with a bias.
Posted by: TG 6/17/2007 11:15:51 AM

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