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End the Sexualization of Girls

by Mary Bailey

We’ve been reading accounts like these for years now: Toy stores carry dolls wearing black leather miniskirts, thigh-high boots, and feather boas aimed at 8- to 12-year old girls. Clothing stores sell thongs, some labeled "eye candy" or "wink wink" in sizes for 7- to 10-year old girls. Child beauty pageants encourage 5-year-old girls wearing makeup and false eyelashes to "flirt" onstage. Adult models resembling little girls wear sexy lingerie on TV fashion shows. Prime time TV repeatedly displays the sexualized image of JonBenet Ramsey, the murdered 6-year-old "beauty queen," even though she died 10 years ago.

None of this is child pornography, right? So, if it’s not against the law, why make a fuss about it?

One organization that is making a fuss is the American Psychological Association, specifically the APA’s Committee on Women in Psychology. In its "Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls," released February 2007, the evidence-based report summarizes "the best psychological theory, research, and clinical experience addressing the sexualization of girls via media and other cultural messages."

Sexualizatization differs from healthy sexuality, notes the APA. Healthy sexuality involves mutual respect between consenting partners. It fosters intimacy, bonding and shared pleasure. By contrast, sexualization occurs when:

1) A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appearance or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics. Here, the report is concerned with the imbuing of adult sexuality upon a child.

2) A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness, narrowly defined, with being sexy. A specific and virtually unattainable physical appearance is defined as being sexy for women and girls.

3) 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. Sexuality is valued over other more relevant characteristics, such as girls’ athletic abilities.

4) Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person, especially a child. For example, when adult models who resemble girls pose in a sexy way, their sexual objectification blurs the distinction between adults and children and thereby sexualizes girlhood.

Being sexualized in one’s youth is a serious matter, the report says. One of the important tasks of adolescence is to develop a sense of oneself as a sexual being. Today, our culture is imposing a prescribed sexuality onto girls, even before they know what it means to be sexual, or to have sexual desires. They are being imbued with an adult sexuality, making them seem appropriate sex objects and sexually available. And they still have yet to learn how to make rational and responsible decisions about sexual pleasure and intimate relationships.

Who or what is responsible for this state of affairs? Why does our society tolerate it? As you might guess, the report’s answer is multi-layered. Society itself is one contributor by suggesting, through the media and other cultural messages that the sexualization of girls is normal and good. So too, family and friends often treat girls as -- and encourage them to be -- sexual objects. And in turn, the girls themselves may treat and experience themselves as objects for sexual attention.

Girls develop their identities as teenagers. They model themselves on what they see older girls and young women doing. "There is no question that girls (and boys) grow up in a cultural milieu saturated with sexualizing messages," the report notes. It stands to reason that if girls learn that sexualized behavior and appearance are approved of and rewarded by both society and their peers (whose opinions matter most to them), they are likely to internalize these standards and engage in what the report terms "self-sexualization."

Consistent exposure to sexualized themes over time, the report stresses, can lead viewers to adopt particular perspectives about themselves and others. In this connection, the role of the media is of particular concern. Children and teens spend more time with the media than on any other activity except school and sleeping. This country's media, the report argues, are a primary delivery system for cultural values, not only in the U.S., but worldwide.

Help challenge the narrow prescriptions for girls in our culture through the following approaches:

1) Work through the schools to develop and implement media literacy training and tools for critical viewing.

2) Provide access to athletics and other extracurricular activities that encourage girls to focus on body competence instead of body appearance.

3) Urge your school board to address media, peer, and cultural influences on sexual attitudes and behavior in comprehensive sexuality education classes at the middle school level.

4) Organize a grassroots letter-writing campaign to confront sources of sexualized images of girls.

5) Encourage girls to develop their own media alternatives.

6) Encourage girls to work together in groups to publicly protest sexualization and to develop critical perspectives on how girls and women are sexualized.

The APA Women's Program report can be helpful in taking action.You can download the 65-page report from or request a mailed copy by calling 202-336-6044. You can also find excerpts and further info on the report in the May, June, and July 2007 newsletters of Montgomery County, Maryland's NOW, online at

Mary Bailey has been a feminist activist in Washington, DC since she helped organize the "Women's Strike" march on August 26, 1970.

Partner with Women in Need Around Globe

by Ann McLaughlin

Women are needed to help their sisters all over the world in areas such as domestic violence, child trafficking and the trafficking of women, micro-loans and livelihoods, as well as in helping to increase women's roles in emerging democracies, and in the media.

Because women's organizations are so new in many parts of the world, help from the outside in starting and maintaining a women's organization is often needed. In almost all volunteer positions, you partner as equals with your counterparts. You do not run the program, but you might mentor. You work together. It is truly exciting work, but you must bring solid skills to the table.

Right now the skilled workers most needed are:

1) Computer teachers to strengthen livelihood skills

2) Literacy teachers to compensate for women’s and girls’ neglected education

3) Seasoned psychotherapists to help resolve traumas from atrocities of war

4) People who can teach ways of generating income, whether that is teaching, marketing, hair dressing, auto mechanics or farming

We place an emphasis on the global South where the need is greatest, but there are volunteer possibilities with women's work all over the world.

If you are interested in any of the above international humanitarian volunteer possibilities, please send your resume (copied, not attached) to State your skill set in the subject line and write a brief intro. nGoAbroad matches skills, interests and goals with international humanitarian needs.

–Ann McLaughlin is the director of nGoAbroad

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Arriving at a Hyphen | The B Word |

Feminism in a Porn Culture

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