Editor's note: Because this is a story that deals with a sensitive subject, we have gone to great lengths to not include offensive material. Conversely, to fully show the breadth of the issue, the story includes mature subject matter.
This is first in a series on the sexualizing of teens. The second story examines what parents and teens are doing to fight back.
Deseret News editorial: Fighting oversexualization
SALT LAKE CITY — Even in a mall in Utah, one of the most conservative states in the country, bodies scream for attention. On a late summer afternoon, a teenage "novelty" shop employee stands atop a ladder in super-short shorts, midriff showing, arranging merchandise. It's not clear if she knows how very much of her is on display. But the teenage boys ogling her do.
She's just feet from a rack of T-shirts emblazoned with stick figures interacting provocatively. Further into the store, Super Mario backpacks share an aisle with a "how-to guide" showing a sex act on the cover.
Families brush by mannequins in thongs and panties as they step into a lingerie store. In this mall, they will pass scores of massive photos featuring couples in various stages of dress and undress looking soulfully at each other. One ad campaign, taped to a storefront window, shows a teenage male model — the caption: "Get into our pants." Even toddlers in promotional posters wear skimpy clothes, vampy looks and makeup.
At home later, the children will likely watch TV. Little ones, 2 to 11, average 32 hours a week. Those 12 to 17 average 23 hours, says a University of Michigan Health System study. During those hours, they'll drink in ads for hair products and teen-siren TV shows, makeup and technology, much of it couched as "hot" or "sexy."
Even seemingly innocent sports video games often play out against a backdrop of sexually suggestive cheerleaders. From an early age, children are inundated with sexual images every single day.
Experts say they will pay a heavy price.
Children and teens are becoming "sexualized" and researchers and psychologists say it hits girls particularly hard, shaping their view of themselves and their potential, as well as how others view them.
The effect on young girls and adolescents is most profound, the American Psychological Association (APA) says, because "their sense of self is still being formed."
Sexuality is not the same as sexualization. Sexuality evolves in children as they develop a healthy curiosity and growing understanding of their bodies. Sexualization occurs when someone's sense of their own value is based solely on sex appeal or that individual is held to narrow standards of attractiveness, says the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which issued reports in 2007 and 2010. It happens when a person is "sexually objectified" — made into a "thing" for others' sexual use. Ads, movies and TV shows do that sometimes by showing women as body parts, not whole people. It also refers to someone who has had sexuality imposed on them, like little girls depicted as older and more worldly.
Sexualization, experts say, devalues accomplishment, intelligence and character. Pope John Paul II once said "the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of a person, but that it shows far too little." The same can be said when people are valued only for sex appeal, says Jason Evert, a San Diego-based author and motivational speaker, who addresses thousands of teens each year.
Sexualization has been going on for decades, largely unnoticed, the elevator music of American life.
"Kids learn from a lot of sources," says Steve Thomsen, communication professor at Brigham Young University. "It's true they learn from parents and other socializing agents like church and school, but they also learn an awful lot from media. They rely on media as a way to learn about their world. What they see is what they assume is normal."
At a "very young age, sexuality becomes a component of their self-concept. That's what they see. They discover relationships with members of the opposite sex at younger ages. Music has content that pushes the envelope. With a combination of a lot of factors, children at 10 or 11 now think the way someone two generations ago reached at 19 or so."
Standing in the same Salt Lake area mall next to her granddaughter, Sandy Sadler says she believes kids are growing up much faster, something she blames in partly on the Internet and ready access to images and information, whether a child's mature enough for it or not.
It's an issue both simple and complex. "Young women and girls lack the tools to validate themselves. They look outside themselves for validation," said a 2007 study by the Women's Foundation of California on pop culture impact on girls and young women. It affects, they said, "identity, behavior and opportunity."
That's the simple part. The complexity is all the ways sexualization hinders development, from failure to form healthy self image to the normalization of sexually degrading behavior, the report said, adding that "media teaches girls and young women the MOST important thing is how we look. Not living up to the unrealistic image impacts mental health."
Those with family support, safe environment, adult role models and activities that emphasize healthy body image are less likely to take part in destructive behaviors than peers who lack those assets.
But the so-sexy message is pervasive. Youth are bombarded with sexuality and violence at even younger ages, when they are not prepared to handle it, said Sherrie Uczekaj, a mom who was shopping with a group of kids at the mall.
That sentiment is echoed by Evert, the California-based teen motivational speaker, who says it's easy to find examples of sexually degrading behavior, but there's not enough talk about healthy sexual behavior.
"As a society, we know more about women who look good than we know about women who do good," wrote Audrey Brashich in "All Made Up." "The most celebrated women today are famous primarily for being thin and pretty, while women who are actually changing the world remain comparatively invisible."
When researchers at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California analyzed 100 top-grossing films of 2008 for a study that came out this April, they found teen girls were more apt to wear sexy, provocative clothing (40 percent) in movies than older females. They were also as likely to appear partially naked as older females (30 percent). Lead researcher Stacy Smith said "the data speaks to an overemphasis on beauty, thinness and sexualization of women at younger and younger ages."
The APA spots examples across all media types, from video games and the Web to music videos, magazine ads and even children's toys. Look at Bratz dolls, APA says, marketed for girls 7 to 10, dressed in minis and fishnet stockings, tight jeans and skimpy tops, as examples of dolls that depict "sexy". MGA, the maker of Bratz, declined comment.
There's a progression, says Diane Levin, co-author of "So Sexy So Soon". Little girls love baby dolls, then Barbie dolls, then Hannah Montana. Who can forget Miley Cyrus, who played Hannah, pole dancing at the Teen Choice Awards or posing semi-nude for Vanity Fair?
It's not just the quantity of depicted sex, either, they write. "Sex in commercial culture has far more to do with trivializing and objectifying sex than with promoting it, more to do with consuming than with connecting. The problem is not that sex as portrayed in the media is sinful, but that it is synthetic and cynical. The exploitation of our children's sexuality is in many ways designed to promote consumerism, not just in childhood but throughout their lives."
Identical twins Lexie and Lindsay Kite, doctoral candidates at the University of Utah, have studied sexualization for years. Lexie notes sexualization of women and little girls is both "extreme" and "normalized" in media. Her examples include Vogue covers featuring small girls made up and posed like grown women, thongs and push-up padded bras for children as young as 6, Walmart's line of 70 make-up products for girls 6 to 12. It's happening, she says, to make a profit.
When they look in the mirror and what looks back is not sexy and pouty and perfectly thin, "little girls get really serious body hatred and anxiety," says Lexie. The feeling stays as they grow into women. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, the number of women 18 and younger who have had breast enlargements has risen nearly 500 percent over the past decade. Models and movie stars are routinely photographed using filtered lenses and false lighting. An editor can easily make wrinkles or pounds go away with digital editing tools, Lexie said. Girls are encouraged to emulate a standard that is not only unattainable — it's fiction.
"We create a really harsh environment for females. They grow up so early. 'You need to buy these things to grow up.' We villainize women for growing older. You don't see a woman represented positively unless she has youth and fitness and is sexual," she says.
Real girls don't stand a chance. The total effect, from the advertising to how women are portrayed, has become "normalized pornography," Lexie Kite says firmly.
Laura Christensen's daughters, Katie, now 19, and Rachel, 23, were teased because they didn't have boyfriends — in sixth grade. What she found most maddening, though, were magazine ads. "Ads targeting kids my daughters' age and younger," said Christensen, of Sandy. "You're not good enough without these products. Life is meaningless without a guy."
While researching this story, Deseret News reporters asked several children what ads try to tell them. A girl, 13, said hair product commercials are made so she will picture herself "more pretty, slick, together." She says when she sees them she imagines an edited, unrealistic version of herself. "It's a Photoshop think," she admits.
Lexie and Lindsay Kite believe fitness magazines create more body-image misery than the fashion and lifestyle magazines so often criticized for too-sexy depiction of females. They looked at Self and Shape. On their blog, BeautyRedefined.net, the twins said they ride a crest of popularity that includes studies showing health and fitness magazines trail only doctors as a source of health information for women and families.
The Kites found that "beyond objectification of bodies and the perpetuation of beauty ideals," they emphasize fitness in terms of appearance, not ability and wellbeing. The magazine slogans could be "weigh less, smile more."
The APA report notes that advertising across mediums has long sent confusing, sexualized messages, like Skecher's 2004 "naughty and nice" ad with a pig-tailed Christina Aguilera as a schoolgirl with her shirt unbuttoned, licking a lollipop.
Girls are maturing much younger than they were even 10 years ago. About 15 percent of girls now start puberty at age 7 and 27 percent at 8, according to a study of 1,239 6- to 8-year-old girls published last year in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
So where does sexualization start? It's an assault on multiple fronts, the targets younger and younger. Researchers at Ohio's Kenyon College looked at 15 popular U.S. store websites this year and concluded nearly a third of girls' clothing sizes 6 to 14 is "sexy." They defined it as clothing that highlighted a sexualized body part, had traits associated with sexiness or had sexually suggestive writing. They looked for it in tandem with childlike characteristics, like polka dots and modest cuts. "Tween" stores — those serving kids 8 to 12 — had the highest proportion.
It seems to Lisa Newberg that her boys, 13 and 17, are as inundated by sexual images as any girls are. Even kid-rated video games have characters with cleavage hanging out and skimpy clothing. Online video games have suggestive pop-up ads. She and her husband put parental monitors on the computers so the boys can't get into sites they shouldn't be on, and they talk about "not being in a position where you find yourself feeling like you need to do what the other kids are doing," she says.
The bombardment at younger ages also affects boys more than it used to, says a study released this summer which found boys mature faster than they used to. Lead author Joshua Goldstein says since the mid-18th century boys have matured about 2.5 months faster each decade.
Girls' "sexier" clothing has a direct impact on boys, says Evert, the motivational speaker.
"Men are very visual," he tells teenagers. "When a women dresses in a provocative way, it is basically telling us that is the best thing she has to offer. The body isn't bad, it's beautiful. But the beauty of a women's body is so intoxicating to a man, it can eclipse the beauty of the person if too much of the body is showing."
Many movies and TV shows geared toward teen boys celebrate men who sleep around and rap lyrics from stars like Lil Wayne and Jay Z often equate manliness with promiscuity.
In fact, music videos may have the most extreme types of sexualization, says Jennfier Stevens Aubrey, University of Missouri professor. A study she released last month on the effects music videos have on college-age men found that "music videos place a great deal of emphasis on women's sexual appeal and reinforce the stereotype of women as sex objects, existing primarily for the pleasure of male spectators."
Participants in her study who viewed highly objectified videos of female artists like Beyonce's "Upgrade You," Fergie's "Fergalicious" and even Hilary Duff's "Stranger" were more likely to think that interpersonal violence was okay in a relationship, that sexual harassment is not a valid social concern and that women are sex objects and use their bodies to unfairly manipulate men.
Aubrey said while many artists like Lady Gaga, Brittney Spears and Katy Perry feel like they are empowering women by their easy use of their own bodies, "they leave a negative taste culturally" that presents women as sexual objects.
Take 13-year-old Jenna Rose's music video "O.M.G." It starts with nine tweens in outfits so short they look like spandex underwear doing dance moves one might learn in a pole dancing class, without the pole. The lyrics are sexually suggestive. The video has had more than 2.3 million views on YouTube since March. With the advent of the Internet and YouTube, teens and tweens can access any music video they want, any time they want. Stevens found that by age 15, youths spend more time listening to music than they spend watching TV or with any other medium. For 13 percent of 11- to 14-year-olds, music videos are the preferred TV genre.
And since TV, movie and video game ratings are not set by child development experts in America like they are in Australia, for instance, it is harder for parents to judge media accordingly.
"So Sexy" author Levin believes there has been a steady escalation of what is acceptable for teens and tweens. This summer, for instance, the Supreme Court said states cannot regulate sale of violent video games to minors.
The Parents Television Council took aim at Hollywood, looking at all scripted programs for viewers 12 to 17 that ranked in Nielsen's top 25 primetime shows in the 2009-2010 season. They found that TV tends to sexualize underage girls more often than adult females. Every onscreen scene with sexualized depiction of underage girls included dancing, kissing, erotic touching and/or implied intercourse.
It was not clear, the PTC noted, if the V-chip would help, since "75 percent of the shows that contained the content did not have an S-descriptor in the content rating."
What they didn't find was a plethora of models of healthy sexuality, the report said.
The more media people consume, the more likely they are to treat women and girls or themselves as an object, Aubrey says. "The media increases self-objectification for women. Girls begin to believe they are for someone else's pleasure. It's very dehumanizing."
Her studies have shown that women who tend to objectify themselves are more likely to have eating disorders, have low sexual and self esteem, be sexual risk takers and have depression. The same is not true for men. Men are not only judged by their looks, but by things like their intelligence, assertiveness and accomplishments.
As three teens enjoy a day at the mall on a late-summer day, two of them, named Carlee and Bethany, say they aren't sure how much they're affected by media images. But their friend Kenzie says she sees the impact. "They send out this message that girls have to be perfect all the time and that guys have expectations that you look like a model," she says.
She wishes TV shows had more people with average weight and height. She knows models are the exception, but they make her feel bad about herself.
"I envy them," she says starkly. "I think, 'Why can't I look like that?'"
At malls and online stores popular with tweens and teens, it's easy to find merchandise like "Jerseylicious" shirts, tank tops with see-through lace backs and the word "Reckless" emblazoned across the front, and "funny" buttons like one with jousting unicorns that says "I'm horny." A store frequented by teens even features onesies for infants with messages too obscene to print in a family newspaper. Another has a line of posters featuring sultry-faced teens, some locked in topless embrace.
A clerk at a downtown Salt Lake souvenir shop says the SL,UT (a play on Salt Lake, Utah) shirts fly off the shelves.
Boys, too, are growing up in a different world than even a decade ago.
Nick Uczekaj, 15, from Scottsdale, Ariz., said guys his age worry about having a girlfriend — some of his friends even have six.
"You hear all these things from the media about what girls like, that they like the bad boy," he says. "It's confusing to know how to act."
Sherrie Uczekaj was visiting the mall with her daughter's soccer group in June when they went into a Spencer's. Minutes later, she hurried everyone out. She couldn't believe what she saw out in the open in a store so clearly popular with youths: memorabilia with sex, drug and alcohol themes.
"Kids see a lot more things today than they used to," she says. "They get inundated."
Her daughter Emily, 13, says some of the friends she was close to growing up now use drugs.
Another mother in the group, Nicollete Lemmon, belongs to notMYkid, where parents learn to help their children make good choices early. It teaches parents the signs of different behaviors, how to start a conversation and action parents can take. Hot topics on the website include substance and alcohol abuse, depression, eating disorders, safe dating and internet safety.
The site says the average age a child first tries drugs is 13. Those who reach 21 without engaging in destructive behaviors probably never will, "which is why we passionately educate about current trends, warning signs and long-term impact of destructive behaviors. We believe proactive prevention on the part of kids, families and communities is the answer to long-term success."
"You try to talk to your kids about it all without coming across as being judgmental," Newberg, of West Jordan, says. "I get a lot of 'Oh, Mom,' but the way I view it, if I say it enough it will stick somewhere in their heads."47 comments on this story
Newberg — and experts, too — fear boys will grow into men with unmeetable expectations. Psychologist Liz Hale, a marriage counselor, talks about men who are disappointed with women and marriage and sex. None of it lives up to the hype they've been force-fed for years. She knows women who give up on themselves because they can't attain the ideal.
"The effect on boys is almost worse," says Christensen. "They grow up expecting that's what girls are and, frankly, none of us are that. It's hard to find a perfect woman when she doesn't exist."