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Sexual Abuse

Preventing Female Sexual Abuse and Trafficking

Stop the sexualization of girls

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Numerous models and minors who are aspirating models have brought allegations of sexual crimes against photographers associated with clothing companies such as Victoria’s Secret. Parent company L Brand’s CEO Leslie Wexler had a close affiliation with convicted sex offender and accused sex trafficker, Jeffrey Epstein. We applaud the models who wrote to Victoria’s Secret seeking protective measures against abuses.

No matter how girls or women dress or move their bodies, and regardless of their chosen occupation, they deserve respect and equality. However, the objectified, hyper-sexual poses and clothing required to model for companies like Victoria’s Secret actually perpetuate the very process that endangers models and all girls and women: sexualization.

The American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls explained that this common phenomenon results in girls feeling valued only (or, we contend, mostly) based on their sexual appeal or behavior; (2) that their sexiness equates with a narrowly defined, unrealistic standard of physical attractiveness; (3) and that they are not people, but objects (things) to be evaluated and used by others for sexual purposes, thus being objectified; or (4) sexuality is imposed on them(forcing them to be sexual, such as by using authority or sex trafficking).

Boys are less likely to grow up feeling valued by their sexual appeal, behavior, and unrealistic standard of physical attractiveness, but sexual abuse of boys is appallingly prevalent and thought to result from child sexualization. One in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.

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Sexualization of preteen and young teen girls is particularly dangerous because they are children, not women. Dehumanizing and objectifying girls endangers them by increasing societal acceptance of child sexual abuse, pornography, and trafficking, and is linked to inequality, mental illness, eating disorders, low self-esteem, acceptance of violent treatment, and substance abuse among other harms. Female objectification is detrimental for males too—valuing females by these superficial, unrealistic criteria impairs work relationships and romantic partnerships, and makes males more likely to commit sexual assault and harassment.

Warning Signs That Sexualization Is Affecting Your Children

It’s normal for preteens and adolescents to be insecure about their looks and spend quite a bit of time enhancing their physical appearance, but when it appears to be the most important thing to the exclusion of other activities and priorities, it’s a warning sign of sexualization. Often expressing concern about not fitting into narrow ideals (six-pack abs for boys, large breasts, long thin legs, and tiny waists for girls) is another warning sign.

Source: JohanJK/iStockPhoto

Here are others: using pornography, speaking about women or men as body parts or in derogatory or stereotypical terms, accepting or preferring media highlighting assaulted or objectified women, succumbing to peer pressure to dress or act sexually, and for girls, expressing concern about looking sexy or having good enough bodies to attract a romantic partner, or wanting to buy sexualized toys, products, and clothing.

To help prevent sexualization and protect your children from its serious harms, here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage kids to have full childhood experiences by avoiding sexualization as you describe what it means and its harms.
  • Ask kids what they think about sexualized images in media like movies, e-games, music videos, and magazines: “What do you think about how she/he is dressed (or is posing or acting toward men/women)?” “Do you think she/he looks like that in real life (was imaged altered)?” “Who is sending that message and why (trying to sell things, showing they value women based on looks or sexiness)?” and then say what you think. But discourage judging people by their dressing style and poses—these choices don’t reflect personal character. Simply suggest they not pay attention to sexualized bodies and styles in media or real life.
  • Help kids understand how sexualization harms them. Contrary to media messages, how “hot” or sexy girls are doesn’t matter compared to things that can give them real happiness and power, such as confidence, self-respect, educational and other achievements, good relationships, and having fun. Help infuse self-esteem into girls, so they feel valuable as people just as they are. Suggest dressing for respect, comfort, and fun and praise them for doing it.
  • Help boys and girls understand how idealized physical images harm their perception of important qualities for a potential partner (such as thinking that physical attractiveness is most important when close relationships matter most in the long run). Discuss how sexualized images increase aggressive behaviors against women and gender inequality.
  • Express outrage and boycott companies that use sexualized images of women and girls, and encourage girls to speak out too. A group of thirteen- to sixteen-year-old girls who protested Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts printed with the objectifying slogan, “Who needs a brain when you have these?” successfully removed them from the market.

Lastly, advocate for social emotional learning programs in schools and communities. Our volunteer nonprofit team’s new PowerUp Girls for Life program helps preteen girls fight sexualization and other threats to their well-being and success. Despite many strong, deleterious sexualizing influences on youth today, including those created by clothing companies, parents and mentors can help defeat them just by starting the conversation with their kids.

More from Brian D. Johnson, Ph.D. and Laurie Berdahl, M.D.
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