By Julie Gale, Kids Free 2B Kids Director.

The premature sexualisation of children and young teens is a global issue which has been increasing over the past decade. Our kids are inundated with confusing messages that serve to minimize what it means to be a whole well rounded human being.

Popular culture encourages girls to focus on their appearance and sex appeal, and while females are offered more opportunities in the work force than ever before, marketing and advertising frequently diminishes girls aspirations to simply being ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’.
Ariel Levy – author of Female Chauvinist Pigs argues that girls and young women are objectified today as never before. Their physical appearances – especially their sexual attributes – are portrayed as their most important assets.

The sexualisation of children can be defined in two ways:
1. Direct sexualisation occurs when children are dressed or posed in ways designed to draw attention to adult sexual features that the children do not yet possess.
2. Indirect sexualisation occurs when a child is involuntarily exposed to sexualised imagery, which is often aimed at adults…for example outdoor billboard advertising.

It is important to note that sexualisation is not the same as sexuality or sex. According to the Report of the APA Taskforce on the Sexualisation of Girls published by the American Psychological Association in 2007, sexualisation has to do with treating other people (and sometimes oneself) as “objects of sexual desire…as things rather than people with legitimate sexual feelings of their own”. When people are sexualised, their value comes primarily from their sex appeal, which is equated with physical attractiveness. This is especially damaging and “problematic to children and adolescents who are developing their sense of themselves as sexual beings.” 

It is normal for a child to go through a gradual process of learning to understand about sex, sexuality and intimacy and what it means to be a caring and respectful human being.

Authors of So Sexy So Soon, Dr Jean Kilbourne and Professor Dianne Levin state: ‘We are not alarmed that today’s children are learning about sex and sexuality. We are alarmed by the particular lessons that children are learning. The sexualisation of childhood is having a profoundly disturbing impact on children’s understanding of gender, sexuality and relationships.”

It is important for parents to realise that concern about the images their children are exposed to is not about being old fashioned or prudish. Child development professionals are also speaking out about this issue and increasing research supports this concern.

Amanda Gordon, President of the APS says: “The Australian Psychological Society is very concerned with the sexualisation of children in society. The research is saying that the sexualisation of children is leading to real mental health problems for those children as they get into their adolescence and their adult years.

We think that the sexualisation of children from as young as eight is what is doing the damage – that’s the danger time, middle childhood. We want to protect those children in those years.

We are not being prudish in doing that, we are actually giving them a chance then to stride out and be sexual beings when their time is right -when their body is right – when their mind is right – to make better choices based on feelings rather than on what they read or what they see.”

Adolescent psychiatrist Dr Sloane Madden from Westmead Children’s Hospital Sydney says: “One third of eight year olds are not happy with their weight and shape. Nearly one in four are dieting. I think there is a growing concern amongst eating disorder professionals around the world that children at this age are being subjected to increasingly sophisticated and adult messages. Messages acquainting thinness with success – sexualised images – presented to children at an age when really they’re psychologically unable to understand those images.” 

Sexualised imagery and easy access to pornographic images on the internet also impacts greatly on our boys and young men.

Kilbourne and Levin go on to say: “Boys are surrounded by media messages that encourage them to judge their female peers based on how they look, often to view them with contempt, and to expect sexual subservience from them. Young men these days are quite actively discouraged from entering into mutually satisfactory intimate and committed relationships with women. Men who have been conditioned to judge women by the current standard of beauty and to compare real women with the idealized images in the popular media and pornography often find it difficult, if not impossible, to feel empathy for women. Needless to say, they are unlikely to be satisfying partners for women. Boys who lack empathy, who have deficit compassion disorder, often become men who find it impossible to have deep and fulfilling intimate relationships with their partners, with their children, with anyone. This is a very high price to pay.”

Exposure to sexualised imagery and pornography at young ages is having negative impacts on our kids’ mental health. This exposure is linked to increased depression, anxiety, body images problems, eating disorders, self harm – a decrease in the age of first sexual experience and an increase in sexually transmitted infections.

While some parents and teachers are concerned about sexuality education leading to earlier or increased sexual activity, recent and comprehensive literature reviews find instead that sexuality education leads to a delay in the onset of sexual activity, reduced rates of sexually-transmitted infections and greater adoption of safer sex practices by those young people who are already sexually active.

It is incumbent upon parents to communicate with children about the messages they are bombarded with in the media. Children need strong direction and guidance, and permission to reject the hyper sexualised culture that imposes unrealistic expectations on them.

While teenage boys may be stereotyped as sex-mad, a report by researchers in the Journal of Adolescence (USA) suggests on the contrary, that boys are motivated more by love and a desire to form real relationships with the girls they date.

“Let’s give boys more credit,” said study author Andrew Smiler, an assistant professor of psychology at the university. “Although some of them are just looking for sex, most boys are looking for a relationship. The kids we know mostly aren’t like this horrible stereotype. They are generally interested in dating and getting to know their partners.”

The data also suggest that teenage boys will be receptive to parental messages about the importance of getting to know a girl and respect within relationships, even if they act otherwise. “Very few parents really talk to their sons about relationships,” Dr. Smiler said. “We know that many parents do have these kinds of conversations with girls.” Dr. Smiler said parents should talk to boys and girls and try to teach them about both romantic and platonic relationships, how to develop and maintain them, how to deal with ups and downs and how to forgive and regain trust.

“Somehow we buy into this idea that guys aren’t emotional, that guys aren’t interested in relationships, so we don’t give our teenagers the information,” Dr. Smiler said. “Boys rarely hear this kind of information about relationships from parents, whether about friendships or romantic relationships.”

If we leave our kids’ sex education up to the media then we will continue to see an increase in dysfunctional relating between boys and girls. We will continue to see girls acting out of an imposed ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ construct, which, along with objectified and sexualised images of females, affects the ways boys relate to and treat them.  We will continue to see our kids depressed and confused about how they are supposed to behave in their relationships…or their ‘hook ups’ …or their ‘friends with benefits’…or their f**k buddies. We will continue to see girls and boys sexting naked images of themselves, and very young girls performing oral sex under tables at school and at parties long before they are emotionally and psychologically equipped to engage in such behaviour. We will continue to see rates of Chlamydia soar – the silent sexually transmitted infection, which according to medical professionals, may see the next generation of young women with an unprecedented high incidence of infertility. The ramifications are many.

The media is devoid of valuable information about love, respect, caring, intimacy and importantly for our girls, sexual assertiveness, the right to say “no” and the right to expect respect.

In Australia, one in three girls and one in five-seven boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen. This is totally unacceptable.

It is well and truly time for parents to demand that the contemporary media environment and marketing and advertising – works responsibly to support their efforts to raise whole well rounded and happy children.

Australia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC) which was first adopted in 1989.  In May 2002, world leaders convened at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children to review the progress in meeting the goals and to agree on new goals for the next decade.

Comments from the 2002 United Nations General Assembly on the World Summit for Children include:
• Eleven years ago, at the World Summit for children, world leaders made a joint commitment and issued an urgent, universal appeal to give every child a better future.
• We reaffirm our obligation to take action to promote and protect the rights of each child – every human being below the age of 18 years, including adolescents.
• We stress our commitment to create a world fit for children…taking into account the best interests of the child…including the right to development.
• We hereby call upon all members of society to join us in a global movement that will help to build a world fit for children.
• Put children first. In all actions related to children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.
• In line with (the) principles and objectives, we (are) confident that together we will build a world in which all girls and boys can enjoy childhood – a time of play and learning, in which they are loved, respected and cherished, their rights are promoted and protected, without discrimination of any kind, in which their safety and well-being are paramount and in which they can develop in health, peace and dignity.

Our Government must focus on recommendations made by child development professionals and groups concerned about the wellbeing and mental health of our children, in the recent senate inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the contemporary media environment.  The inquiry is due for review at the end of 2009. Parents and other concerned individuals and groups must take action and speak out about the negative impacts on our children.

We have a right to expect better for our kids, and the Government has to show us the action promised when Australia signed CROC. Our kids deserve that.

Reference:

  1. Faking It. Women’s Forum Australia.
  2. Corporate Paedophilia Report. The Australia Institute.
  3. So Sexy So Soon. The New Sexualised Childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids.
    Diane E Levin, Ph.D and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D
  4. So Sexy So Soon. The New Sexualised Childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids.
    Diane E Levin, Ph.D and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D
  5. Sunday Program. Nine Network. 22 June 2008
  6. AM – ABC. Eating disorders on the rise. 28 May 2008
  7. So Sexy So Soon. The New Sexualised Childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids.
    Diane E Levin, Ph.D and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D
  8. APA Taskforce on the Sexualisation of Girls. American Psychological Association. 2007.
  9. (Grunseit et al. 1997;Roker and Coleman 1998, p 15) Youth and Pornography in Australia –  Evidence on the extent of exposure and likely effects. Flood and Hamilton 2003.
  10. “I wanted to get to know her better”: Adolescent boy’s dating motives, masculinity ideology and sexual behaviour. Department of Psychology SUNY Oswego NY. 2008 Feb;31(!):17-32.Epub 2007 May 29
  11. Inside the mind of the boy dating your daughter. Parker-Rope. New York Times. 15 Feb. 2008
  12. Childwise.
  13. Ratified by Australia in Dec 1990.
  14. S-27/2. A World Fit For Children. United Nations
  15. href=”http://www.aph.gov.au/SENATE/committee/eca_ctte/sexualisation_of_children/index.htm”

Writer: Julie Gale, Director, Kids Free 2B Kids. Editor Dr Ramesh Manocha.