What’s behind our girl-harming culture?

A professional body tackles the issue of the sexualisation of girls but fails miserably to diagnose the cause.
Dale O'Leary | 20 June 2012
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No-one would guess it from even a passing acquaintance with popular television shows, but there is increasing concern among parent and professional groups about the sexualisation of girls. Responding to this concern the American Psychological Association appointed a taskforce to study the problem in 2006. The resulting report shines a light on a real problem, but it fails to offer a workable solution. It is undeniable that the media and culture present girls with a sexualized image of their value and appeal. However, seeing the problem does not necessarily mean that one understands the cause, and without understanding the cause it is highly unlikely that one can prescribe the correct remedy.

The underlying problem which the report ignores is that the media and culture promote the idea that sexual activity for adolescent girls is acceptable provided consent is obtained and the girl feels that she is ready. Rather than recognize that non-marital sexual activity is the problem, the report argues that only improper sexualization is a problem, and insists that this can be distinguished from healthy sexuality. According to the report, “Healthy sexuality is an important component of both physical and mental health, fosters intimacy, bonding, and shared pleasure, and involves mutual respect between consenting partners.” The authors of the report appear to assume that it is possible to promote unrestricted sexual freedom while avoiding the negative effects of sexualization. They do not present evidence that this is possible.  Experience teaches us that teen girls are not mature enough to make a rational and responsible decision to take the risks, both physical and psychological, involved in an intimate sexual relationship.

The report ignores the risks, arguing that, “Self-motivated sexual exploration on the other hand, is not sexualization, by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.” Therefore, the report recommends as one of the remedies for toxic sexualization “comprehensive sexuality education.”

The authors appear to believe that it is possible for girls to engage in “self-motivated sexual exploration” without becoming objectified. The fact is that males want to have sex with females and are attracted to certain physical characteristics. Women, and particularly girls, want to be loved, to attract male attention, and to enter a committed relationship. There is a truism, that men say “I love you” to get sex and women give sex in order to get love. For women and girls, sex outside marriage can have serious negative consequences, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), pregnancy, loss of self-respect, and emotional entanglements with males who are not committed. Societies have long recognized these dangers and have therefore found various ways of protecting girls from seduction and destructive relationships.

“Comprehensive sexuality education” is not the solution for sexualization, but one of the secondary causes. The primary cause is the sexual revolution, an ideology that opposed any restriction on any kind sexual activity regardless of the participants’ age, sex, or relationship, so long as consent was obtained. As this ideology gained power, barriers were broken and lustful young men took advantage. Girls stripped of the protection once provided by vigilant parents and prudent institutions were seduced into surrender. When the easily predictable epidemic of STDs and out-of-wedlock pregnancies occurred, the sexual revolutionaries presented themselves as experts who could solve the problem. Fearful parents were told that their children needed “comprehensive sexuality education” in order to prevent STDs (particularly the dreaded HIV/AIDS) and pregnancy and the sexperts were more than willing to provide it. They did not tell the parents that their real goal was not to teach the students how to eliminate the risks involved with sexual relations outside marriage by abstaining from such activity (just as one eliminates the negative effects of smoking, by not smoking), but to teach the students how to reduce their risk through the use of condoms, contraception, and when that failed abortion (the equivalent of offering filter-tip cigarettes and, ultimately, lung surgery).

The primary concern of such people was the preservation of their sexual revolution. The sexualization of girls was inevitable.

Wendy Shallit, author of Return to Modesty, watched as her elementary school female peers were subjected to sexual harassment by boys, who had received implicit permission from their sex education teacher to talk of previously taboo subjects. She was appalled that adults were so quick to abdicate their responsibility to protect girls:

“We have so few rules these days, and even when we do, no one seems to enforce them. Why is no one enforcing our rules? Don’t they care about us?...Today adults err on the side of not intervening at all, … I often find myself lecturing adults about why they should be lecturing me, which is a strange position to be in.”

Amy Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amherst, Massachusetts, advises parents to let their teenage child sleep with her boyfriend -- at home. In her recent book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, teens and the Culture of Sex, she praises Dutch parents who talk to their children about contraception but leave it to them to assess their own “readiness for sex”. This seems to be around the age of 16 -- by when many kids cannot even decide which course to take at college and are, by today’s averages, at least 10 years away from committing themselves in marriage and having children.

Dr. Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist at a major university and author of Unprotected, writes of how, while university health services warned young women about the dangers of smoking and poor diet, they failed to even mention the physical and psychological risks associated with sexual activity as experienced on campus.  She routinely treated young women were depressed because relationships had broken up, traumatized after contracting an STD, or suffered post-traumatic stress after abortion. 

Not only was there no campus outreach to these women, they were made to feel that their reactions were illegitimate. Women who expected commitment were categorized as clingy. Those brokenhearted after a breakup were told to get over it. Abortion was promoted as a minor procedure that empowered women.  While students were warned about the long term effects of diet and smoking, these young women were not warned that they were risking their fertility by engaging in sex with multiple partners and putting off having children until their thirties. The message of the dangers of sex outside marriage is so unwelcome on campus that when Unprotected first came out the author was listed as “Anonymous.”

Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, after seeing teenage girls in her private practice who suffered from depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem, concluded that, “Girls are coming of age in a very poisonous, girl-hurting culture.” However, she also reported on a number of girls who avoided these problems and were successfully navigating adolescence. In each case, the girl in question chose not to engage in sexual activity before marriage. In spite of the evidence before her, Pipher concluded that, for girls, adolescence is a time for “coming to terms with their own sexuality, defining a sexual self, making sexual choices, and learning to enjoy sex.” 

So long as comprehensive sexuality education presents adolescent girls with “choices”, when the evidence is overwhelming that the only safe choice is “no”, the problem of sexualization will continue. So long as boys are exposed to explicit, how-to, comprehensive sexuality education courses, they will see girls as sexual objects and girls will either accept their status as sexual objects or be forced to continually defend themselves in an increasingly hostile environment. Abstinence education is not enough since it puts the entire burden for saying “no” on the girl. It is time for adults to recognize their responsibility to lovingly, but firmly, just say “no”.

The fundamental question the APA report avoids is: Should adolescent girls engage in sexual activity or do the risks outweigh the benefits? Because the authors of the report ignore the real cause of the sexualization of girls, the remedies they offer – including more sports, forums, positive media -- will not solve the problem. If girls are encouraged by comprehensive sexuality education to have sex they will inevitably be treated as sexual objects.

Dale O’Leary is the author of The Gender Agenda and One Man, One Woman.  Her blog can be found at http://daleoleary.wordpress.com

A more comprehensive analysis titled “An Evaluation of the American Psychological  Association’s Task Report on the Sexualization of Girls, by Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons and Dale O’Leary, appeared in the Spring edition of the Ave Maria International Law Journal Vol. 1:2 (2012). It is available online here.

This article is published by Dale O'Leary and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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