Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Sexualization: Real or Imagined Problem?

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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.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


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.

4 comments on “Sexualization: Real or Imagined Problem?

  1. Outstanding – thank you! I have written about this extensively, but will most certainly be adding this link to one of my previous posts (self-image vs sexualised image) ! So glad to have found you :-). I am really looking forward to keeping up with your work.

  2. Melissa Wardy
    June 26, 2011

    Excellent post. The opposition to those who work in the field of sexualization reminds me of the opposition faced by those who fought for Children’s Rights in the late 1890’s. It was a matter of social justice, a matter no one had considered before, and those at the forefront of the fight had a lot of minds to change.

    We need to change. We have not only commodified childhood, we have begun to commodify the actual bodies of our children. This cannot stand, as wherever you live on the globe, our children must be seen as sacred and precious.

    I’m looking forward to expanding the research field with you 🙂

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      June 26, 2011

      Melissa, I agree, it’s opening our eyes to things that we’ve become used to seeing and really questioning. I’m looking forward to expanding the research too! The issue of how all of the commercialized and sexualized media impacts young children is fertile ground for discovery.

  3. Cherisse Flanagan
    June 20, 2011

    Thanks for bringing both sides to the forefront. I agree, there is likely more common ground than not, and find your post to be well constructed. I find the idea that by helping children maneuver these messages is to put our own “value system” on these children to be an odd argument. We put our values on children regardless – they will see what we value, even if we don’t explicitly tell them. In fact, they are probably better at seeing what we value than we are. This is why women must resist the constant mirror checking, scale obsessing, and self-degrading comments about their appearance. I just cringe when I see people (and yes, it’s usually women!) post on facebook something like I saw this morning…….”1st day of staycation – back to exercise and eating write/dieting……” Although I support healthy living, this reeks of the kind of constant appearance checking that women are saddled with because of the media messages we receive.

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