Sexuality versus sexualization – why is it important to know the difference?

Talking about media messages with kids requires that adults understand how marketers sexualize girls and women.

Following the Super Bowl each year, there’s lots of discussion about the quality and popularity of the commercials. For the 17th consecutive year, a group of faculty in the Michigan State University Department of Advertising and Public Relations provided a listing of the 10 “best” Super Bowl commercials based on creativity, production and overall quality.

Shining the light on commercials can provide an opportunity for young people and the adults in their lives to look beyond the production and quality values used by marketers. By offering opportunities for dialogue, adults can help adolescents look more deeply into the content of commercials and other kinds of media, in order to examine cultural messages about gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, disabilities and other areas of human differences. These kinds of interactions can help young people develop important media literacy skills.

As you consider having these kinds of conversations with the kids it your life, it’s important to know the difference between healthy sexuality and sexualization. In 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) published the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which examined the prevalence and impacts of media messages that sexualize girls and women. The report emphasized that healthy sexuality, which is an important aspect of our physical and mental health, involves the mutual respect of consenting partners and fosters intimacy, bonding and shared pleasure.

In contrast, the report stressed that sexualization occurs when:

  • A person’s value is limited to his or her sexual appeal or behavior at the exclusion of all the other kinds of characteristics. In other words, all those parts of us that contribute to our wholeness – such as our intelligence, abilities, values, interests and passions – are absent from sexualized messages and images.
  • A person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness with being sexy. For girls and women, these standards are too often narrowly defined and involve unattainable and unrealistically “perfect” sexualized body types.
  • A person is sexually objectified. This means that a person is made into an object or “thing” for the sexual pleasure of others, as opposed to being portrayed as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.
  • Sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. While people of any age can be sexualized, the report stressed that when children are portrayed with adult sexuality, it is imposed upon them rather than chosen. Throughout their development, children and adolescents are constantly bumping up against a media world, filled with sexualized images of young people, as well as sexualized products. Consider ways that many female dolls and cartoon characters have changed over time to become more and more sexualized.

The APA report highlights many research studies about the negative effects of sexualization on girls, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health (such as eating disorders and depression), sexuality development, and attitudes and beliefs. For example, girls who more frequently consume or engage with mainstream media content are more likely to endorse sexual stereotypes that portray women as sexual objects. They’re also more likely to “police,” bully or reject other girls for not conforming to narrow standards of sexualized beauty. Sexualizing and objectifying media has also been linked to girls’ and boys’ attitudes about dating relationships, boys’ sexual harassment of girls, and attitudes toward sexual violence.

Among the recommendations within the APA report is the need for an increased focus on media literacy for enhancing our ability to critically consume the hundreds of media messages we’re faced with daily. Having a clear understanding between sexualization and healthy sexuality is important for adults who want to help young people develop these skills. You can learn more about these issues from organizations such as Common Sense Media, Shaping Youth and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. As you take this journey, also keep in mind the importance of doing your own self-focus and reflection related to understanding and challenging media messages.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about these issues – including ways that media messages are linked to issues of bullying, bias and harassment. For more information, check out a new initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.

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