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Organizing for Change

Sexualization of Young Girls and Women

When Sexuality Equals Power

A clever advertising tactic is to manipulate the message that many feminists have tried to promote: Girls have the power to be anything and to do anything they want. It’s not surprising that in what author and activist Ariel Levy calls “raunch culture,” advertisers and other media have reinterpreted this idea. In a male-centered culture, where female athletes gain praise and recognition when they pose in Playboy and pop stars focus first and foremost on how sexy and attractive they are, this girl power gets translated into a distorted message that tells girls they can wear anything they want and no one can tell them otherwise.

In this interpretation, power has nothing to do with character or achievement but instead equates to the power of sexual attraction. For tweens and teens navigating this landscape, the pressure and expectation to be pretty, thin, and sexy can become an all-consuming task. Levy aptly observes: “Adolescent girls in particular—who are blitzed with cultural pressure to be hot, to seem sexy—have a very difficult time learning to recognize their own sexual desire, which would seem a critical component of feeling sexy.”4 The notion that performance of sexuality equals power and control is particularly perilous for girls navigating their way to adulthood.

APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls

The APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, formed by the American Psychological Association, issued a report in 2007 (updated in 2010)5 addressing the omnipresence and damaging effects of sexualized images of girls and young women in every media format studied, including advertising, television, movies, music videos, music lyrics, magazines, sports media, video games, and online.

As expected, the images and depictions of women presented reflect a narrow—and unrealistic—standard of beauty that serves to undermine women. And, according to the report, sexualization has a host of negative psychological consequences for girls and young women—it affects their “cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs” and harms “girls’ self-image and healthy development.” (See Chapter 3, “Body Image,” for more discussion.)

The report also took an important step in identifying the components of sexualization, noting that it 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
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person

Raising Voices , Sharing Stories

In response to this widespread problem, feminist and youth groups are promoting their own positive messages about sexuality tied to thinking critically about media representations of girls and women. New Moon Girls is both a magazine and a moderated online community for girls ages eight and older. Designed to help girls develop healthy body image, the site features articles on girls changing the world, stories about arts and culture from around the world, and a safe and moderated chat room where girls can express themselves and share ideas. Girls can also create and share their own artwork, poetry, and videos through the site.

Dedicated to the health and well-being of girls and young women, Hardy Girls Healthy Women is a nonprofit that works to give girls opportunities to explore new interests and build alliances with other girls. The organization trains adults who work with girls in second to twelfth grade and develops programs that encourage girls to think critically about media depictions of women and recognize and address unfairness. On the website, a program participant named Beth says: “When I see an ad that is selling women instead of the product, I recognize it. When I hear a sexist comment, I recognize it. And when I feel the need to speak my mind, I do, and without feeling out of line.”6

Geared toward an older demographic, Name It, Change It is a nonpartisan organization that works to end sexist and misogynistic coverage of women candidates in the media. The site has exposed sexist comments by radio hosts, pundits, bloggers, and journalists that undermine women candidates and leaders.

Finally, if you’re tired of stories that misrepresent girls and women—or leave us out of the picture entirely—visit Women, Action & the Media, also known as WAM! This organization aims to change the narrative by connecting and supporting media makers, activists, academics, and funders working to advance women’s media participation, ownership, and representation. Among its many offerings is an active and informative Listserv that welcomes students as well as professionals.

SPARK Summit Sparks Action

In October 2010, Hunter College—in partnership with the Women’s Media Center, Hardy Girls Healthy Women, Ms. Foundation, and numerous other educators and organizations— held the first-ever SPARK Summit (sparksummit.com) to counter the increasing sexualization of girls in the media.

SPARK in this instance stands for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge. Speakers tackled a wide variety of issues, including the marketing of padded bras and thong underwear to little girls, the passive or hypersexualized roles of girls and women in TV and films, and the link between self-sexualization and low self-esteem in teens. More than three hundred people attended the summit, with hundreds more participating online.

At the Women Media Center’s action station—dubbed “Changing the Conversation/ Amplifying Your Voice”—girls created their own video journalism, submitted posts to WMC’s blog, and reported on incidents of sexism through the WMC’s Sexism Watch campaign. Some girls went on to be featured on NPR and CBS, in The Huffington Post, in El Diario, and in other media outlets. As one speaker at the summit explained, the focus wasn’t antisex but, rather, antiexploitation. Women and girls need to think critically about the messages they’re receiving and “take sexy back”—in other words, reclaim their sexuality in a healthy and positive way.

Excerpted from the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. © 2011, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.


4. Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (New York: Free Press, 2005).

5. American Psychological Association, Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf.

6. Image box on the Hardy Girls Healthy Women website, www.hghw.org/news/spark-summit-pushing-back-sexualization-girls.


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