Sexualisation damages boys as well as girls

Published in The Independent on 22 February 2007
View the published article here

It’s official, sexualisation harms girls. Of course it does. It harms all of us. It doesn’t just make girls ill, it harms boys too, teaching them to be sexually violent.

The American Psychological Association’s findings that the sexualisation of girls and young women as sex objects harms girls’ mental and physical health should be addressed at the root cause – the media. Hugely powerful and profit-driven, it is left to self-regulate with its own voluntary codes. Not only is this not working, it’s harming society. It should not be left to parents and schools to teach media and gender literacy and counter the damaging stereotyping in the media. The government need to introduce responsible media regulation, in which social responsibility and harm are not compromised for free speech. Only then will we see diverse representations of females in central and positive roles. As a society we should be extremely worried. The saturation of sexualized images of females is leading to body hatred, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depressive affect, high rates of teen pregnancy and unhealthy sexual development in our girl children. It also leads to impaired cognitive performance. In short, if we tell girls that looking ‘hot’ is the only way to be validated, rather than encouraging them to be active players in the world, they underperform at everything else.

But the consequences of sexualizing girls are far more devastating than this. Rape is at crisis levels and one in three women will be a victim of stalking, sexual harassment or sexual violence in their lifetime. Last year the NSPCC found that children are confused about what constitutes abuse in their relationships and Sugar magazine’s report ‘Pressure Sex – the terrifying truth’ found that 45% of girls have been groped against their wishes.

But who are the mysterious perpetrators of these crimes? Much of the media, the justice system and a third of the public seem to think alcohol is raping girls. That by getting drunk, dressing sexy and flirting, girls and women are responsible for the horrific violence committed against them. Only 8% of rapes are stranger rapes. It is ordinary boys and men who are committing these sexually violent crimes against girls and women. It is incredulous that when another rape or sexually violent crime is reported on the news, so ubiquitous it is unremarkable, it is never followed by a report asking, ‘Why are boys and men sexually abusing and raping girls and women? Where do they learn to film this film abuse on their mobiles? Where do boys and men learn that having power over women and being violent is an acceptable way to be a man? Instead, the onus is on girls and women to curb their behaviour and lives.

The sexualisation of girls and the normalization of the sex and porn industries have made it increasingly acceptable and ‘fun’ for women to be viewed as sex objects and for men to view women as sexual commodities. To speak out against this trend is framed as ‘anti fun’ and ‘anti sex’. Pressure group Object have documented how men’s ‘lifetsyle’ magazines and lad mags do not merely objectify women, they trivialise trafficking, sex tourism and prostitution. The number of young British men using prostitutes has doubled in a decade to one in ten. Many now travel abroad to buy sex, increasing the demand for children and women to be trafficked into prostitution. The charity, the Lilith project, has found that the increasingly mainstream pole and lap-dancing and porn industries are careful to hide their links with prostitution, trafficking and sexual violence. A five year old boy can buy a lad mag and learn that women are only sex objects and he has entitlements to their bodies. If he logs on to Zoo magazine’s website, he can watch videos of girls stripping and lap-dancing, one set up as if the woman is being stalked and secretly filmed in her bedroom while she strips, another of a ‘ridiculously hot’ girl being so frightened, she is screaming and crying uncontrollably in a ball. This is not just about sexualisation. Sexual harassment is being eroticised. John Stoltenberg of US group, Men Can Stop Rape has said that lad mags have a low opinion of their readers, that ‘they promote self-loathing and, the notion that for them to feel better they have to have power over women.’ Like most men and women working in gender violence prevention, he sees that the ‘rape culture’ of mainstream lads’ magazines, computer games (in which the player sexually attacks and kills women) and rap music that celebrates male violence against women and portrays them as easily available sex objects is giving boys damaging messages about manhood. His anti-rape campaign, My Strength, aims to bring boys and young men together to examine accepted sexist and misogynist attitudes and help them understand how traditional notions of masculinity can contribute to violence, gender inequality and unhealthy relationships.

The sexualisation of girls exploits girls AND boys. All children and young people are under immense pressure to accept it. Boys who are not enthusiastic about it or speak out against it run the risk of being ignored or ridiculed, of being labeled ‘gay’, ‘unmanly’ or not liking sex. Boys and young men are under pressure to act out masculinity in which power and control over women – and men – is normal. In which violence is normal, no less.

The absence of positive role models in boys’ immediate lives is showing. If the adult men around them do not challenge sexism and traditional masculine behaviours, boys won’t either. And with absent fathers, boys are left with celebrities and sports heroes to look up to. Music videos largely follow a template of an individual man possessing a group of sexualized women, gangsta rappers promote sexist and violent notions of masculinity, many young footballers and other sportsmen behave like playboys, enjoy group sex, get away with rape and keep their ‘hero’ status. Damian Carnell who works in gender violence prevention says, ‘From boyhood, men read into the messages that we see around us, from men’s institutionalised superiority over women and privileges of being male to negative stereotypes of girls and women. It’s no wonder therefore that 35% of boys aged 11-16 believe it is justified to abuse women.’

Jackson Katz, author of ‘Why some men hurt women and all men can help’ sees the power of male sports figures, even at high school level, to help fill the gap in anti-sexist male leadership. Like White Ribbon Campaign UK and Amnesty International, he advocates that ordinary men get involved to offer alternatives to traditional templates of masculinity, to speak out against sexism of others and to discourage men from being passive bystanders when faced with sexist or abusive behaviour. The APA report recognises that the sexualisation of girls jeopardises men’s ability to find an ‘acceptable’ partner and form and maintain intimacy with a female partner. Boys rate real girls and women as less attractive, view women in sexual terms and those with the most traditionally masculine beliefs are more dissatisfied with their romantic relationships. Studies have shown that exposure to even soft pornography reduces men’s empathy for women as human beings. It is not just recognised porn. As the APA note, ‘When one person objectifies another, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to treat that person with empathy, an important predictor of satisfaction and stability in intimate relationships.’

The sexualisation of girls is not just shattering the lives of girls and women, it is preventing boys and young men from relating to girls and women as complex human beings with so much to offer them. It is preventing boys from forming healthy friendships and working relationships with girls and women. Instead it is nurturing potentially violent abusers, rapists and johns. Ultimately, it means boys are not free to be themselves, to know their own humanity.

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