March 2007 – American Psychological Association report on the sexualisation of girls

The American Psychological Association (APA) has released the Report of the APA Task Force on the sexualization of girls. The document details the detrimental impact of sexualisation on girls' development from childhood to pre-adolescence.

Effects of sexualised media on girls

According to the APA's study, media images of sexy girls and adults posing as adolescents 'sexualises' girls, harming them both physically and psychologically.

The report defines 'sexualisation' as when:

  • a person's value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed
  • a person is sexually 'objectified'.

The report indicates that girls' contact with sexual imagery from an early age has a devastating effect on mental and physical health. Possible ongoing effects identified by the research include: low self-esteem, poor academic performance, depression, and eating disorders such as anorexia. The report also warns that sexualisation may contribute to the prevalence of paedophilia.

Causes of sexualisation

According to the APA report, the proliferation of sexualised imagery—in television, toys, on the internet and particularly in advertising—poses a major risk to girls and young adolescents because 'their sense of self is still being formed'.

One of the members of the APA Task Force, Dr Eileen Zurbriggen, said that:

'The consequences of the sexualization of girls in media today are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls' healthy development

'As a society, we need to replace all these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings.

'The goal should be to deliver messages to all adolescents—boys and girls—that lead to healthy sexual development.'

Read SBS World News' 'Sexed-up women "hurting girls"'.
Read the UK Daily Mail's 'The little girls "sexualised" at age of five'.

Australian research

In late 2006, The Australia Institute's Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze wrote a discussion paper and report examining the sexualisation of children in Australia.

Dr Emma Rush has also written an article in Early Childhood Australia's EveryChild magazine on 'The sexualisation of young children: A powerful marketing ploy'.

In the Every Child article she writes:

'Children pick up the message from advertising and popular culture that "sexy" equals "cool". Games like modelling, makeovers and imitation of pop stars can lead to the displacement of interest in, and engagement with, a full range of age–appropriate activities—physical, social, creative and so on.

'The emphasis on "sexy" looks and behaviour can also engender a skewed view of how to initiate and sustain healthy, reciprocal and caring relationships. Marketing may send the message that it's ok for a young child to be seen and behave in a manner well beyond their chronological and developmental age. Messages like these can sometimes place children in dangerous situations.'

View the contents of Every Child – Sustainability – Vol 13. No. 1, 2007.

Read the abstract of The Australia Institute's Corporate paedophilia: Sexualisation of children in Australia.

Read the abstract of The Australia Institute's Letting children be children: Stopping the sexualisation of children in Australia.

What carers and educators can do

In her Every Child article, Dr Rush provides the following suggestions to deal with the sexualisation of children:

'Early childhood workers are in a good position to encourage age-appropriate activities and behaviour. For decades now, many early childhood environments have been designated “war–toy–free zones”, as violence is not appropriate in this context.

'A similar approach can be used to counter the premature sexualisation of children. It is reasonable for staff in early childhood centres to encourage a “teenage–theme–free zone”. This could include:

  • educating parents about the potentially detrimental effects of sexualised products, or behaviours that are sometimes considered “cute”
  • a poster on the noticeboard, an article in a parent newsletter, or inviting a guest speaker and holding a discussion afterwards
  • implementing centre guidelines that promote children being dressed appropriately for active and messy play. A picture or drawing and a short message on the parent noticeboard is often enough, although it may need to be repeated in a parent newsletter or mentioned sensitively to individual parents.
  • 'Children will, of course, remain curious about the real implications of sex and sexual difference in their lives, including the difference between boys and girls and the question of where babies come from. Such curiosity is age-appropriate and early childhood workers and parents will need to discuss how to respond in a developmentally appropriate way, when children raise these issues.'

The executive summary of APA's Report of the APA Task Force on the sexualization of girls also contains advice on creating positive alternatives to the sexualisation of girls:

'Because the media are important sources of sexualizing images, the development and implementation of school-based media literacy training programs could be key in combating the influence of sexualization. There is an urgent need to teach critical skills in viewing and consuming media, focusing specifically on the sexualization of women and girls. Other school-based approaches include increased access to athletic and other extra-curricular programs for girls and the development and presentation of comprehensive sexuality education programs.

'Strategies for parents and other caregivers include learning about the impact of sexualization on girls and co–viewing media with their children in order to influence the way in which media messages are interpreted. Action by parents and families has been effective in confronting sources of sexualized images of girls. Organized religious and other ethical instruction can offer girls important practical and psychological alternatives to the values conveyed by popular culture.'

Read the American Psychological Association's Report of the APA Task Force on the sexualization of girls.

Last updated: (March 12, 2014 at 9:33 am)


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