There has been quite a bit of debate over the issue of the sexualization of children recently due to the report Letting Children Be Children having been released by the British government. While some were happy to see the government make recommendations for industries to curb their marketing of make-up and padded bras to young girls, others complained that the government should be more worried about children living in poverty. In fact, some suggested that anyone expressing worry about the sexualization of children is likely a middle class mother with too much time and resources on her hands and not enough to worry about. Some experts in the fields of sexuality and media studies have proposed that those who were concerned about the sexualization of children do not understand child sexual development or were afraid of it. I see this debate as a misunderstanding between parties who likely have a lot in common when it comes right down to it. Those who criticize the concern over sexualization are often attributing the fear of a young person’s sexuality to those parents and professionals who are opponents of sexualized media and marketing to children. As in the article referenced above, they seem to assume that if someone is concerned about sexualized media then they see children only as victims who need to be protected by parents.
This is untrue. The points made in the article above are valid, and I think most would agree that they bring forth important components that need to be considered. As anyone who has read my blog can plainly see, I promote teaching children and adolescents to actively critique media and make their own media. I see from my own experiences that often children do not know how to do this without some guidance, but I believe quite strongly that children with supportive interpersonal contexts can be very active media critics and consumer activists. Those I know who are opposed to sexualized products and media directed at children are not worried that children are showing an interest in being sexual. They are worried that children are being swept up in the bigger problem of our culture sexualizing females in general. I would argue that many of the mothers who oppose sexualized media and marketing are concerned because they have noticed this trend in their own lives. They can see that women are being promoted as valuable primarily for their physical appearance. These mothers know first hand how difficult this is to live with, and they don’t want this standard being pressed on their young daughters. As for calling concern over sexualization a luxury, I would point critics to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that as human beings we tend to put first things first, as it were. We are first concerned for our physical needs such as food, then safety, then once those needs are met we can begin to think about other things like relationships and self-esteem. The fact that these needs are at a higher level does not negate their importance in development.For an excellent, thoughtful article about this larger issue of the sexualization of females, check out Pink Stinks.
The key to discerning this debate lies in understanding the meaning of the term sexualization as used by its opponents. I use the term “sexualization,” based upon the definition in the American Psychological Association’s 2007 Report, to refer to sexuality as presented in the following ways:
- A focus on the primary worth of a person deriving from their ability to be attractive to others
- A focus on depicting females as objects for the sexual pleasure of others
- The exclusion of a comprehensive view of sexuality that places it into the context of one’s identity, emotions, and relationships
- The exclusion of a depiction of females as complex social, emotional and physical beings
This is the crux of the argument against sexualization, not just of children but of women as well. Females, both children and adults, are often depicted in the media as valued for their ability to attract others. This promotes the concept of being an object of another’s desire, rather than an agent of your own life. Through the use of images and narratives within advertisements, movies, television, music, and products developed for children and adolescents, the media industry has introduced children to the importance of physical appearance and sexual attractiveness at a very young age. Those of us who are seeking to curb sexualized media and marketing to children do not believe all media is evil. That is a simplistic understanding of our perspective. Instead, we see that the overall message that is sent about females is sexualized. Does this mean we hate media? Not at all. Does this mean we wish to call for more creativity and less lazy reliance on the adage “sex sells?” Yes, it does.
The complex, dynamic being of a female is lost when she is constantly depicted as an object for someone else’s pleasure. The beautiful and natural development of her sexuality within the context of her own identity, feelings, and relationships is lost when she is consistently depicted as someone who’s job it is to look good for the viewing pleasure of others.
Whether a female is 2 or 102, she is a complex being whose sexuality is her own. She is not simply an object to be viewed and appreciated. This is why I am against media and products that promote sexualized ideas to young girls. You may call me simple-minded if you like, but as a woman, I know how the pressure to look good at all costs has crippled some women in their own emotional development. As a mother and professional who has worked with children for many years, I see how this pressure is trickling down to even very young girls. I have previously shared many articles that support the idea that exposure to media that promotes the physical appearance of females over anything else does influence the way that children think about women. This is not an easy issue to study, because oftentimes parents do not want researchers asking their children about sexuality. But, the research field is growing. Many researchers are exploring this topic and with the publication of their findings, the fact that sexualized media and products affect children in a negative way is being supported. Please, don’t tell me that I can’t label “negative” things like thinking of oneself as an object, low self-esteem, depression, and so forth because then I am putting my value system on these children. Mental health practitioners have long considered these unhealthy.
I call the parties who argue the details of this to put down their swords and consider their common agenda. Both want what is best for children. Both want to promote positive and effective parenting skills. Both want to promote critical thought and growth in children. Most want to see a culture that does not define females by their physical appearance alone. It’s time to stop fighting and to start talking. That is how positive change will be achieved.