Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Steubenville and Sexualization

I am haunted by the case described in this article in the New York Times of a high school girl who, while unconscious, was reportedly dragged to different parties and sexually assaulted by several high school boys.

As the mother of daughters, what haunts me is that many, many people saw this girl being assaulted, and yet nobody stood up for her in a way that mattered. Many even took pictures and videos of the girl and posted them on social networks, often with notes about her being “dead,” getting raped, and so forth. I’ve seen one photo in which the girl is clearly unconscious and is being moved by two boys hauling her by the ankles and wrists. Her head lolls back. There is no way that someone in this position could be considered aware enough to give any kind of consent for sexual activity. She was raped and violated, and these horrible acts were photographed and shared with no regard for her humanity. In fact, in one horrifying video, which I won’t link to because it’s so disturbing, a young man laughs and makes fun of the girl for being raped.

As someone who works with adolescents and has for many years, I know that most adolescents are beautiful, caring people who want to change the world for good. These boys and those who let this girl be hurt without standing up for her are not the norm.

And yet, our culture that objectifies girls, that depicts them primarily as sexual objects, impacts the way our adolescents see these kinds of acts. While I hope that the adolescents who I know and work with would have helped this girl, I also know that adolescents are inundated with messages about girls being sexual objects. The more you see these messages, the easier it is to view this as true. Women and girls are consistently depicted in marketing and media as sexual objects. When people say, “Sex sells,” what they really mean is that the female body depicted as a sexual object grabs the attention of consumers, and makes them look at the product. Sure it does. But does that make these kind of advertisements that depict women as objects and promote sexualized and objectified views of them okay?

sexualized ad che



sexualized car ad

Sexualized media does matter. Research has shown that media depictions impact the way we look at ourselves and the world around us. I am sick and tired of hearing people say that media doesn’t impact our perceptions and actions. If that were true, companies wouldn’t pay millions of dollars to advertise to consumers every year. I’m also sick and tired of hearing women say, ala Cameron Diaz, “Every woman does want to be objectified!”  This shows a complete lack of understanding about what objectification and sexualization means. Everyone, male and female, enjoys being desired, but in a situation that involves mutuality . That’s natural. But to equate feeling sexy with being seen as purely the object of someone else’s desire rather than an agent of one’s own desire just shows that one has embraced enlightened sexism. Being sexy and desired is not the same thing as being objectified. You want to have no say in your sexual experience? You want to be treated like a sex toy with no feelings or desires? You want to be treated like nothing other than a body for someone else’s pleasure? On a regular basis? This is objectification. This is not healthy sexuality.

This case doesn’t just come down to media and culture, though. We also have to think about how those individual adolescents, their families, and communities influenced their behaviors. In the face of these kinds of horrible situations, it is vital that we begin to think about what we can do to keep these things from happening again. Because this, of course, is not an isolated incident. A girl in Texas was in a very similar situation just a year or so ago, and ended up being punished even while her rapists (also high school athletes) went free. Here are some ideas about what we need to do. I welcome other thoughts.

  • As adults, we must work to change this culture that treats girls as sexual objects. This means challenging those messages from media and within our own microcultures, such as the schools, churches, or other groups that we’re a part of. When I was in high school, some male athletes were caught looking into the girls locker room while girls were changing, and even photographing them. The school response? “Boys will be boys.” “You wear a bikini to the pool, he wasn’t seeing any more than that.” The whole point that these adults were missing was that of consent. Consent is a key issue that we must be talking about with our kids. Everyone has a right to say what happens with their own body. This kind of excuse making and lack of accountability must stop.
  • We must teach both our sons and our daughters that girls are not sexual objects, that their bodies belong to them and them alone.
  • We must promote the idea that everyone, both boys and girls, have a right to say what they want in physical relationships. We must talk to our kids about healthy physical and sexual agency as well as mutuality. Any physical contact between people must be mutually agreed upon.
  • We must teach our children that no means no, and when someone is not able to give clear consent, that means no. It is never, in any circumstance, okay to do anything sexual to or with any person (male or female) who is not able to give clear consent.
  • We must work to teach our children to stand up for those in need, those who are vulnerable, those who are being hurt.
  • We must hold our own children accountable for their actions, and support schools and other agencies when they try to do so. We don’t teach our children to be responsible, agenic adults by keeping them from reaping the consequences of their actions, rather good or bad. If from an early age we provide reasonable consequences for behaviors, our children will learn to expect that and think about the consequences before they act.
  • Supervise your children, for goodness sake. If you have a party at your home, be there and pay attention to what’s going on. Open doors, walk around, have more adults there as chaperones. Get your neighbors or friends to keep an eye on your house if you’re away and let you know if a party is happening that you didn’t know about. I know that realistically we cannot control everything that our older children are involved with or exposed to. But we can do our best to be involved, aware, and vigilant about their safety and the safety of others.

It is time for us to stand up and say, “No more” to marketers and media makers who promote the sexualization and objectification of women and girls. It is time to hold our children to higher standards and to call them to hold one another to standards of decency. It is time to respect the dignity and humanity of all people. Enough is enough.

34 comments on “Steubenville and Sexualization

  1. Pingback: Who’s Teaching Boys about Consent? A Post from the Archives. - Crystal Smith

  2. Pingback: Old Dominion Frat Case: No laughing matter | Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

  3. Pingback: Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker on Teaching Kids About Consent | The Achilles Effect

  4. Pingback: Teaching Kids About Consent: Yes means yes | Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

  5. Pingback: Steubenville and Sexualization…Changes needed | Kelli Rodriguez

  6. Pingback: Maryville, Steubenville, Anywhereville: Talking with Kids about Consent and Sexuality | Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

  7. Pingback: Talking about Miley: Why we need to invade Times Square | Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

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

  9. Pingback: Who’s Teaching Boys about Consent? | The Achilles Effect

  10. Pingback: Objectifying women « Real Rest is the Best

  11. Pingback: Enlightened Sexism: Why power through sexuality is bad for girls and women | Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

  12. Torrey
    January 6, 2013

    Jennifer – thank you for postings his great article. I would hope that men would be equally horrified by this tragic story as any woman reading it. We should expect more of our young men and hold them to a high standard when it comes to respecting others (regardless of gender), valuing others, showing mercy, defending the defenseless and loving others. These selfless acts must be consistently modeled by this generation of men and women if we are to effectively disciple the next generation. The barrage of sexualized, consumerized and monetized messages should be met with an equally prolific supply of messages and actions which demonstrate the worth and value we are called to see in others. I am so thankful for men (and women) who took the time to teach and model these ideals for me. The positive example, although less frequent in its occurrence, is far more powerful

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2013

      Thanks for your comment, Torrey. I agree with you, responsible, caring adults need to be taking the time to model positive, respectful, responsible behaviors for young men and women. When we all work together to help our young people learn these lessons, we make a huge impact on our world now and on what our world becomes.

  13. Eryn
    January 6, 2013

    (If my first comment didn’t thread, I was replying to Sheri B. I had a completely different comment in mind until I read her comment.)

    Bravo, Jennifer. I much enjoyed this post.

    The only thing I’d like to add is that we need to discuss with our kids what they can do if they’re in a situation where they see someone being abused.

    I suggest that our teens LEAVE the party (“I need to go outside for a minute so I can call a friend”) & then call their parents &/or cops. Do not engage in the group think, do not put themselves at risk by trying to get between a group of teen boys who are caught up in the moment. Leave that for the police who are trained to deal with these situations. We need to tell our kids that we’ll be much less upset to get a phone call of “I’m at a party, there’s drinking, I need out” than we will ever be to see our sons laughing about raping a “dead girl” on a video… or worse.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2013

      Great point! If kids feel confident that if they call us and tell us they’re scared and some bad things are going on that we’ll come get them and help them deal with the situation, then they’ll be more likely to call. Making sure the door of communication is clearly open is huge.

      In our own community, several middle school girls snuck out and went joy riding with high school boys who were drunk. Two of them ended up dying when the car hit a tree. I talked about that situation with my middle school daughters and some girls I work with. My main message was, if you find yourself in a bad situation and don’t know how to get out, call me. I will come and get you wherever you are. Don’t let your fear of getting I’m trouble keep you from making a call when your gut tells you that something bad is or will happen.

  14. Kylie pomfrett
    January 6, 2013

    I totally agree! For myself I try to make a difference when I go into shops when they have a magazine that exploits the female body right in view of my children I say something and when they look at me in a confused way I just tell them this is how everything starts , those rapists that are in jail admitted to first seeing these typed of magazines as children, one guy just laughed at me and said” Australia’s a free country, I said” where’s yr boss” and he said ” he doesn’t care and only one other person has complained a few years ago”! ( i guess that may have been me ) So where do you go from there ? I guess I have to continue to annoy them and speak the truth in love!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2013

      Hi Kylie, the more we point out sexualized media and marketing and the way it harms all of us, the more impact we make. Sometimes it feels like we’re not having impact, but in the past few years as I’ve been doing this work, I’ve seen a huge raising of awareness. I think we just have to keep on speaking out and standing up, and teach the younger generations to do the same. Keep it up, you’re not alone!

  15. goodrumo
    January 6, 2013

    Well said. I’ve just finished Dr Allan G Johnson’s work, ‘Gender Knots’ it goes into detail about the patriarchial system that harms us all. The boyfriend of the young woman that was drugged and raped by these young men said that ‘noone dumps me.’ Another made the comment on his twitter that he had no sympathy for w—–s. That they have this attitude, this sense of entitlement to not only drug her, but rape her, degrade her and treat her like some dead carcass of animal as a trophy smacks of sheer misogyny. I have two teenage sons and they are horrified that young men not only think this way, but are repulsed and furiour as their actions. The world is greatly disturbed by not only the Indian young woman that was raped and killed by the young men on the bus there, but also this happening on the other side of the world, Australia in between and our rape statistics are just as much a shame to society here. If it isn’t the States it’s a young woman being abducted from a street walking home in Melbourne, if not there it is India, if not there African country ie Congo, if not there a 9yo girl gang raped in Afghanistan. This world needs to know people are not prepared to accept this anymore. Peace marches in Melbourne, protests in India, protests and anonymous internet workers telling the real truth for the young woman in Ohio.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2013

      I thought of the case in India when I read this as well. It’s not so different from this case. We all need to stand up and say that this is not okay and we won’t stand for it.

  16. Katrina McFerran
    January 6, 2013

    I was also moved by the passion of this narrative. Thank you for making clear statements and suggestions that we can share. We can’t give up hope and we are building community every time we read one another’s ideas and share them with others. We can make the world a better place:) We have to. thank you:)

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2013

      Thanks, Katrina. I agree, community is vital to change this, to make this world a better place.

  17. Sheri B.
    January 5, 2013

    The only thing I think is missing from this article, and should actually be the main focus, is teaching girls to stop sleeping around, to respect themselves, to behave as if their sexulity is valuable. We can’t tell women to be proud of their sexuality, their freedom and then damn men and society for abusing and profiting from women who are clearly happy to sell themselves. I am not suggesting that women are responsible for being raped but they are responsible for flaunting their tits and ass, for sleeping with any man they find attractive and for behaving as though they are nothing but sexual objects. Value your intelligence, your beauty and your sexuality enough to not drop your panties at the sign that a man might like you. Women get into bed so quickly these days they barely give a man the opportunity to notice more about them than how easy they are. Women are responsible for how society percieves them, not the other way around. Anyone who behaves like a slut and then gets pissed that she is “objectified” is an idiot. Put your clothes back on, stop acting like a bitch in heat and have a conversation with a man that involves more than, “I’m really attracted to you, want to go back to my place?” Sorry, but I feel like its really easy to blame men and society rather than hold women accountable for promoting their sexuality to gain attention and temporary power. Each advertisement you see, a woman posed for and was paid for, why don’t we ask them what they think about it, about losing their livelihood in the hope of squashing the objectification of women. This issue is way bigger than some lipstick and a billboard, it has to do with the fundamentals of feminine value, which, indeed, have become based on sexuality. Each girl and woman can take action to change that but she has to control and respect herself and ultimately not be so flattered by the attention given to her sexuality that she forgoes intelligent conversation for physical satiation. Society will never make us better women, but strong, respectable women can make a better society.

    • Eryn
      January 6, 2013

      “We can’t tell women to be proud of their sexuality, their freedom and then damn men and society for abusing… them.”

      That is crap. Men have responsibility for their actions. Don’t come into this fantastic post & spread MORE misogynistic lies. EVERY man is responsible for respecting women’s agencies over their own bodies. NOBODY deserves to be abused, even if some (completely unrelated to them) woman decides she is okay with being paid to be in a bikini ad. I don’t even understand your thinking, or the thinking of people like you. YOU are part of the problem, excusing abusive behavior & rape.

      If you think I’m responding out of turn, really take a look at what you said, ALL of your comment & then take a look at how you feel about women who don’t fit your moral norm. Your entire comment is “Women today are sluts! This is why they get raped!” Some men have been promiscuous since, oh, the beginning of time & nobody would ever excuse anally raping an unconscious man, like this teen girl was.

      The attitude that it’s WOMEN who should be held to a higher, unattainable standard (you can never ask an entire gender to do something. Unless you live in a religious dictatorship), IS the problem. “Sorry, but I feel like its really easy to blame men and society rather than hold women accountable for promoting their sexuality”. You are NOT sorry. What your WORDS are saying is that we can’t POSSIBLY expect men to not ANALLY RAPE UNCONSCIOUS GIRLS, THAT is a lost cause, so let’s move back to focusing the responsibility on girls.

      Sit down, look at YOUR unhealthy views on who deserves to be raped & stop being part of the problem.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2013

      Sexualized marketing and media promote the idea that women and girls are primarily valuable for their physical appearance and sexual attraction. Some women and girls buy into this, because they are sold a bill of goods. Sexualization and objectification are unhealthy for every one of us.

      I want to state again very clearly, consent and mutuality are the main issues here. This girl, for example, no matter what she was wearing or said or did before she passed out, could not have given consent. When any person does not or cannot give consent, nobody should have any sexual contact with them. The end. period. Nothing more to discuss.

  18. Wendy Whipple
    January 5, 2013

    I love this insightful article, and posted the link to it on Dirk Marketing’s FB page (who created the VOCO Nation ad campaign). I don’t have any real hope that it will do any good, but I had to at least make that attempt. Thank you for writing this.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2013

      Thanks for the comment Wendy. I guess we’ll see!

  19. Lindsay Kite
    January 5, 2013

    Well-said, Jennifer! This is fantastic. Treating women as useless sex objects is not a far stretch from being trained to view them that way through media. Thank you!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2013

      Thanks for the comment Lindsay. We have to do our part to share a very different message about female value. I love that you’re doing that!

  20. Holly
    January 5, 2013

    Completely agree. Well said. Let’s all keep doing our part to combat these horrible wrongs! And to change mentalities.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 6, 2013

      Thanks, Holly.

  21. This is a brilliant article, that I no doubt will be referring others to when they answer my concerns with “If you don’t like it-don’t look”. I was saddened and angered (but not shocked, which makes things even more upsetting) when I heard about the events in Steubenville, I hope the police manage to deal with the case appropriately and the criminals (including those who took the video/publicly identified the victim) are brought to justice.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 5, 2013

      Thanks for the comment, Stephanie. The old “if you don’t like it, don’t look” argument just doesn’t hold water. Sexualized media and objectification of women and girls impact attitudes and behaviors, and that effects all of us. It’s certainly not the only component in a case like this, but it does something to our collective psyche that is not healthy.

  22. Adrianne
    January 5, 2013

    Amen! Well said. All parents need to stop assuming that our children know to be good people and INVOLVE them in the process of helping others and understand that we are all equally valuable.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 5, 2013

      Adrianne, that haunts me to, that the perpetrators are someone’s child as well. We need to be having frank, difficult conversation with our teenagers about these situations and about what they might do if they find themselves at a party where anything like this starts to happen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker on WordPress.com

Twitter Updates

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,508 other followers


%d bloggers like this: