The end of innocence: The cost of sexualizing kids

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

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?'"

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