Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

The Story of Us: Why Communities can Help in the Fight Against Sexualization

Sexualized media offers children and adolescents a view of the world that is idealized and  unrealistic. With the consistent images of women and girls as “objects” and narratives that promote using ones sexuality to gain power, adolescents and children are inundated with the concept that female strength is equal to sexiness. However, media representation often does not reflect reality. For example, in Glee’s “first time” episode, the character of Rachel is surrounded by girls who have already had their first sexual experience, but as Amy Jussel points out in this post on Shaping Youth, the latest research suggests that the majority of teens are not having sexual relationships. There is a mismatch between what’s presented as reality through media and what truly exists in reality in many different areas, from the number of teens actually having sex to the size of the average woman. How do we help children and adolescents separate the truth from fiction?

One of the most powerful forces in the fight against sexualization can be found in the communities of support with which a child is involved. From sports teams to acting troupes, from math teams to churches, these communities provide a child with realistic feedback in several different ways. They help a child or adolescent learn to see the world from a well-defined perspective that is often missing in sexualized media depictions. For example:

  • Communities of support provide children and adolescents with feedback about what kids are really doing. On TV, the girls may all be dressing in sexy clothes and the couples may all be having sex, but a close-knit community of adolescents can provide a counterpoint to this when a child notices that the people that they know aren’t doing these things.
  • Communities provide a focus on achievement that is not about sexuality. From sports teams to dance troupes to academic clubs and religious youth groups, children who are involved in communities receive a message about their value that comes from something that they can do or be, rather than how they look. This is a very powerful counterpoint to the messages of sexualized media that focus primarily on sexuality as power for girls and women.
  • Communities provide accountability for individual behavior and a focus on being a team player. One of the issues that we see with sexualized media is a kind of “all about me” focus that promotes seeing oneself or treating others as objects with a very individualistic perspective of relating to other people. But communities don’t work this way. When children and adolescents are involved with communities, they get feedback from their peers when they become too “me” centric. Nobody wants to play on the team with the player who only cares about themselves, nobody wants to be in the play with the actor who can’t work with others, and this kind of pressure is good in helping adolescents learn to work with others, to see their value as a member of a community rather than solely focusing on their themselves and how to get what they want.

Communities of support can provide children and adolescents with many positive messages that powerfully contradict the messages of sexualized media. If the children in your life haven’t become connected with a community of peers, it may be time to start thinking about what kinds of groups they might enjoy being a part of. If they like sports, athletic teams are great, but children who don’t enjoy sports can also find support through community or school groups that focus on service, academics, or arts. Encourage your child to be a part of communities that provide them with support in becoming the best person that they can be rather than trying to become like the unrealistic and idealized images presented through sexualized media.

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