Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

Sexualization and Boys: Inside the Pressure Cooker

This is an important question for us to ask. We’ve talked about how viewing yourself as an object and focusing on your value only in terms of your sexual attractiveness can impact girls. But what about boys? Do the messages that they get about women and girls have an effect on them?

Some of the most interesting conversations that I’ve had recently were with middle school boys about this topic.  They say, in no uncertain terms, that the pervasive sexual images and depictions of women and girls do impact them.

What they tell me is that it does three things:

1. Confuses them about how they should act toward girls. They get mixed messages, be polite and respectful but then again “it’s good for a girl to be hot.” As an adolescent male, how do you handle both of those messages? Is it polite to comment upon a girl’s “hotness” or how they their body looks? Or is that disrespectful?

2. Encourages them to make choices about the girls they choose to spend time with in a different way. Boys say, “I really like this person, she’s fun and smart and we have a great time together. But….nobody else thinks she’s pretty or hot. People will make fun of me if I hang out with her.”  Boys believe that their own social value is closely linked to their ability to be romantically involved with girls who are viewed as highly attractive and sexy. Even 5th grade boys when asked why they liked a certain girl that they were “going out” with said things like, “She’s hot.” They didn’t mention if the girl in question was nice, fun to be with, had interests in common with them, and so forth. Their primary criteria was physical attractiveness.

You might argue that many grown men are even using this as their criteria for a partner. I would say that of course we all need to be physically attracted to our partner. But there is much more to it than just that person’s perceived level of sexiness. Above and beyond all of that, we must like being around them. That’s the message that these boys are missing in our culture that focuses primarily on a woman’s value being in her appearance. Boys are not getting the idea that pretty isn’t all there is to a female.

3. Alienates them when they’re not at a stage where they’re ready to be in a romantic relationship. It’s very natural for a young adolescent boy to be fairly uninterested in having a romantic relationship with a girl just yet. He often wants to hang out with friends of both genders. But, he consistently gets the message that his prime focus should be on getting a girlfriend. It’s hard to deal with this difference in his own wants and the pressures that he feels from others. Many boys that I talked with said that they would “go out” with girls just because they felt that they were supposed to. Some even found themselves involved in physical relationships at a level that they were uncomfortable in. My guess is that the girls in those relationships were also uncomfortable. Both were responding to perceived social pressure to be physically and romantically active in ways that aren’t necessarily developmentally appropriate.

So, yes, the sexualization and objectification of females in the media does impact boys.  What can we do to help our boy see things differently?

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14 comments on “Sexualization and Boys: Inside the Pressure Cooker

  1. Phillip
    October 10, 2011

    It is amazing at how spot on you are! People might not like to admit it, but this is sadly a transparent truth that is out in the open, if you allow yourself to open your eyes to reality.

    I would like to add that it only gets worse as you get older. Number 1 only gets more complicated and number 3 continues to add more and more pressure. I would say Number 2 gets better depending on the life path you choose and the people you surround yourself with.

    The work you are doing so desperately needs to be done; you are going to change the world, if not in a huge way, in a case by case way! …The adolescents you work with are lucky to have you!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 10, 2011

      Philip, thanks so much for your response and your encouragement. I appreciate hearing your perspective as a man on this issue. And you are changing the world too, my friend!

  2. Crystal Smith
    October 10, 2011

    I think the first step toward helping boys see things differently is what you’ve done right here–talk about the issues they face. Once we get the conversation going, more solutions will be generated. I also think, as awareness of the ways gender stereotypes affect boys increases, more of us can start young with boys and present them with healthy images of females and males from the pre-school age onward. Hopefully, by doing so, we can give them a strong foundation from which to question and challenge the images they see in magazines, music videos, and movies in the middle school years.

  3. Jennifer Shewmaker
    October 10, 2011

    Great comment, Crystal. I think you’re right in saying that having open conversations with kids about gender stereotypes and sexualization is the number one thing we can do to help boys learn to cope. Offering them the chance to challenge those sexualized ideas with trusted adults is a huge step forward.

  4. Shawna
    October 10, 2011

    There needs to be honest and healthy (frequent) conversations with our youth of both genders about what is appropriate and what is perceived by our society. For instance, I think it’s a good idea to talk to our middle schoolers about why middle school seems so chaotic and drama-heavy; that is, because everyone’s hormones have gone (for many) from a level 0 to a level 10 in 60 seconds! This being the case, there is no need for relationships to be so heavy since everyone is still trying to figure out what and who they are supposed to be (based on trial and error, I think). Allowing our adolescents to try on different personalities-with appropriate boundaries in a safe environment (our homes) will help funnel all of that hormonal energy into positive decisions.

  5. Cherry Woodburn
    October 11, 2011

    Excellent, important post. I agree with Shawna, Crystal and Philip. Parents need to be more aware of this. I’m not sure they think about the sexualized images very much, particularly related to the impact on their sons.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 11, 2011

      Cherry, I also see that many parents don’t see this as an issue for boys. It’s important for us to think about how to help boys navigate sexualized media as well.

  6. lindat
    October 11, 2011

    jennifer – this was a really great post and fits with so much of what i see and encounter in work with young people. I would really like to follow this up with you as I was recently at an event where the main thrust was that sexualisation is not having any potentially negative impacts and those that say it is are actually anti-young people and pretty much anti-men. I do not subscribe to this idea but it would be good to make contact.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 11, 2011

      Linda, I have also heard this perspective. It seems to come from the belief that anyone who is against the hyper sexualization of women, which is primarily focusing on them as objects, is against healthy sexuality. That couldn’t be further from the truth for most people I know who are fighting the sexualization of women. In fact, our point is that girls and boys need to understand sexuality in a healthy, integrated context rather than having this objectified view of females consistently presented to them.

      I’ve heard some of this coming from sex educators, which I think is strange, given that sexualization is hardly a healthy perspective of sexuality. It seems like it would be beneficial for both groups to get together and talk more openly about where each is coming from. In my post Sexualization: Is it a real problem? and in my Why Media Matters Series I take on some of these ideas by showing what the research, at least from the field of psychology, tells us about how sexualized media and even media in general impacts kids. Feel free to email me if you’d like to share which event it was and which organization, I’d love to hear more. My contact is operationtransformation@yahoo.com

  7. Lisa Strowd Goldberg
    October 11, 2011

    I was curious as to whether you support the Biblical doctrine that women should be submissive to men – husbands, church leaders, etc…?

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 20, 2011

      Hi Lisa,
      Thanks for commenting. However, as per my comment policy, I don’t address off topic questions. This blog is focused primarily on the psychological impact of media on children. If you’re interested in engaging in theological discussion on the role of women in the church, I’d suggest that you participate in the lively debate and discussion that goes on at http://www.halfthechurch.com. People with differing perspectives weigh in and share many different viewpoints.

  8. Lisa Strowd Goldberg
    October 19, 2011

    Jennifer,
    I am interested in hearing your view on exactly what healthy sexuality looks like, and how homosexuality fits within that framework. Thanks.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      October 20, 2011

      Hi Lisa,
      Please see my past posts on healthy sexuality. The gist of what I’ve said compares sexualization (which is primarily representing women and girls as objects per the APA Report definition for the pleasure of others) with healthy sexuality, which allows sexuality to be viewed from the context of the person as a whole. I’ve written quite a bit about the ideas of agency, mutuality, and the importance of parents in helping their children understand their sexuality.

  9. Pingback: Why Merida Matters: The great makeover debate | Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

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