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The end of innocence: The cost of sexualizing kids

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 12:34 a.m. MDT

Children discover relationships with the opposite sex at a younger age when sexuality becomes part of their self-concept.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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."

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