Sexualizing girls and women
Yes, it can be bad,
but let's not forget that women are sexual beings
Modern culture heavily promotes the sexualization of young women and girls, and that’s harmful to their self-esteem and healthy development, according to a recent study by the American Psychological Association (Report on the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls). The APA defines sexualization as “occurring when a person’s value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another’s sexual use.”
As one who strongly believes that women should be able to confidently assert their sexuality and enjoy sex as much as the next guy—without having to suffer social condemnation for it—this can be a challenging and even confusing issue. I can’t really argue with the APA’s general conclusion that sexualization—as they define it—is harmful to girls. The biggest crime in my view is that women's intelligence and abilities are perceived as less important, or even irrelevant, compared to their sexuality.
The sexualization of girls and women appears to be closely tied to fashion and physical appearance. The extremes of fashion can have the effect of restricting women's freedom, or sexualizing them too much. In Jack Holland’s book "Misogyny: the World’s Oldest Prejudice," which I recently reviewed, the author pointed out that when men and women dress quite differently, it generally indicates a sexist society. Typically, the more extreme the difference—as in the days of the corset during Victorian times—the more patriarchal the society.
On one level, it’s an issue of social conformity. Women (and men) want to identify and fit in with their peers, and dress and appearance is a typical way to do that. This seems to become less important as people get older, so it's partly an affliction of youth. For example, I enjoy wearing miniskirts and trying to look sexy, but I feel mature and confident enough to handle it. It’s easy for me because I know I’ve got lots more going for me. But it's quite different for girls and young women, because they're still trying to establish their self-identities and self-esteem. They may be more prone to internalizing these messages and making them self-reinforcing, to the detriment of developing their talents and brains.
So how do we encourage sexual independence in young women, while also making sure we encourage them to develop their intellect and abilities? Perhaps more importantly, how can we change the culture to reduce the sexualization of young women to reasonable levels? I say “reasonable levels” because, as I'll explain shortly, I believe that sexualizing young women is natural to some extent, and not necessarily destructive.
Young girls are a different matter. I see an important distinction between the sexualization of young women versus minor girls. The latter are children and as such, are rarely mature enough to understand or appropriately act on their sexuality. The sexualization of young girls by the media could rightly be seen as the sexual abuse of minors. So the following commentary pertains to young women, not minors.
First, can we figure out why society has a compulsion to sexualize young women, and why women so often buy into it themselves? Ultimately, I believe there’s some biological basis to it. The animal kingdom is full of examples of gender differences in sexual display. In many species, the male is often the "pretty" one—male birds exhibit brilliant plumage and male elks sport magnificent antlers, for example. The purpose of such otherwise useless attributes is to attract mates. “Sexual selection” is considered a powerful engine of evolution, in which males tend to select females with certain characteristics, and women do the same with men. The idea is to pick sexual partners who look the healthiest and most “fit” so you can increase your chances of reproducing successfully.
Studies have shown that men and women have many overlapping, but some very different criteria, when it comes to selecting a preferred mate. The key differences are that men tend to prefer a physically attractive and younger partner, while women tend to prefer older men with resources. Men also tend to seek out more sexual partners and have lower standards for choosing them, at least when looking for “short-term” mates. But women tend to be more selective about who they sleep with. The reasons for this, according to sociobiological theory, are that men are motivated to maximize their reproductive potential by impregnating as many women as possible, while women have to consider the serious consequences of sex—pregnancy and child-rearing. Therefore, women search for reliable men who will stick around and help with the kids.
But men have a dilemma when it comes to establishing male paternity. Unlike women, men can’t be certain that their children are really theirs. Patriarchy evolved as the solution—its primary feature being the control of women’s sexual behaviour. I have argued that the male need to establish paternity is largely responsible for women’s oppression, and also sheds light on the controversial nature of prostitution, abortion, and rape.
How does patriarchy and the male paternity theory relate to the sexualization of women in modern society? It's important to display our physical “sexiness” to attract the opposite sex, so that the most "fit" individuals will successfully reproduce. And those who are most attractive are those who are young, healthy, and fit. Near-universal perceptions of physical attractiveness include youth, facial symmetry, clear healthy skin, a reasonable Body Mass Index, a waist to hip ratio of 0.7 or less in women, tall height in men, and smaller size in women.
However, I suggest that it’s more important for women to be physically attractive than it is for men, simply because women contribute far more to children's development through pregnancy and child-rearing. The more attractive the woman, the “better” children she’ll produce, according to male instincts. In patriarchy therefore, the display of women's sexual attractiveness is for the benefit of men, to help them choose a healthy partner. It was never meant as a way for women to express and enjoy their own sexuality. Ideally, patriarchy requires women's sexual display to be passive, without them initiating or having sex to please themselves. That would be too dangerous, because it jeopardizes men's need to guarantee the paternity of their children.
This explains why society focuses on sexualizing young women, because youth is the most enviable, attractive state there is, therefore it's the "healthiest." Of course, women themselves are not exempt from biology, and most women sincerely do enjoy making themselves attractive to men. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. However, the biological tendency to sexualize women becomes neurotic when society goes overboard with it, especially by sexualizing very young girls. Neuroticism could be defined as what happens when natural tendencies are over-exaggerated to unhealthy levels. For example, patriarchy itself, with its paranoid need to control male paternity, is itself neurotic because it tends to oppress women to ridiculous extremes, such as allowing women out of their homes only if chaperoned and covered head to toe in a tarp.
Have you ever wondered about the seeming contradiction between western society’s pre-occupation with displaying sexy women, versus the sexual double standard that says women shouldn’t really act on their sexuality? This makes sense in light of sexual selection and the male paternity theory. It’s good for young women to look sexy, and also good when women are mothers, but a "sexy mother" for example, is inappropriate and irresponsible because she can't be trusted with paternity of her children. In other words, women's proper role is to look sexy in order to attract a stable mate, but once that happens, she should become a good mother and stop being sexy, at least to the outside world. (Note that in societies where women are hidden under veils and burkas, arranged marriages take the place of sexual selection.)
A culture that promotes an extreme sexualization of women, while at the same time condemning "sluts and whores,” is a culture still under the sway of that age-old patriarchal fear and fascination with women—also known as the Madonna/Whore syndrome. Women can be sexy, or they can be mothers, but there's no inbetween. This makes men feel conflicted about women, and a lot of women tend to absorb those messages too, unfortunately.
But do our media messages accurately reflect what people really think? Perhaps there’s quite a gap. For example, I don't think the average man is "demanding" the over-sexualization of women. Most men seem to prefer women who are intelligent and confident—even saying these qualities are what make a woman sexy (unless that only applies to men over 30!). Even the hand-wringing media coverage of the sexualization of young women reflects a questionable assumption—that women who sexualize themselves are turning themselves into passive victims, rather than deliberately using it as a way to confidently assert, express, and celebrate their own sexuality. Women do not become slaves to sexualization, after all. Large numbers of young women do not dress like vamps, and those that do, don’t necessarily do it all the time—only when they want to exercise their sexual power. Further, if we actually asked provocatively-dressed young women if they see themselves as sexually exploited objects suffering from low self-esteem, most would probably protest “Absolutely not!” So why can’t we just take their word for it, instead of assuming they’re hapless victims who don’t know their own minds? We too often overlook that women and girls are sexual beings with their own urges and desires. Patriarchy has a long history of ignoring women’s pleasure and women’s opinions, and modern society still doesn’t place much trust in women’s moral autonomy—especially when it comes to sex.
The APA’s definition of sexualization might, therefore, be contaminated with society’s assumptions and judgments about women, rather than reflect how women see themselves. For example, the APA researchers cite studies showing that girls and women “self-objectify” themselves more than boys or men do. This is seen as a problem because the researchers assume that sexual objectification is a bad thing, especially for women. I would argue that being a sex object now and then is a perfectly natural and exciting activity for both men and women. But also, if women have a biological tendency to display themselves sexually in order to entice men to choose them, then it’s perfectly normal for women to objectify themselves more than men do. Instead of lamenting that this leads women to base their self-worth on how others perceive them (a common practice in both genders, by the way), maybe we should just accept without judgment that most women actively choose to sexually objectify themselves at least sometimes, and can derive considerable pleasure from doing so.
Many of the APA’s findings and conclusions follow a similar path. The researchers recognize that girls and women participate in and contribute to their own sexualization. However, they systematically deny the moral agency of girls and women through such meaningless findings as: “Thus, girls’ choices are not fully independent of cultural or past interpersonal influences.” Well, whose choices are?!
It’s true that many young women have not yet developed the maturity and confidence that would make their “self-sexualization” a truly informed or responsible choice. But we all know about the inherent immaturity and rashness of youth. What difference is there, really, between a young woman attracting lewd attention by wearing a micro-mini skirt and no panties, and a young man speeding down the road in his car while guzzling beer? We might agree that neither behaviour is wise, but we can also appreciate that both young women and men will grow out of it as they mature. If we can allow young men to sow their wild oats and take risks, why not young women too?
The real crime in sexualizing young women is not necessarily the sexualization per se, but the fact that women’s intellect and abilities are ignored or trivialized in the process. Because if the APA’s conclusion is true—that the sexualization of girls is linked to common mental health problems in girls and women—it may be due more to the negation of their other attributes, and the sheer over-emphasis on their sexuality. Further, women’s sexuality tends to be viewed negatively by society—in the sense that it’s considered “dangerous” or “dirty” (a legacy of our puritan Christian heritage). Another negative aspect to sexualization is that society has a narrow ideal of women’s sexual attractiveness. Women may feel inadequate or dissatisfied when they don’t meet society’s unrealistic criteria of beauty, and this can lead to consequences like eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression.
So let’s return to my earlier question: how can we encourage the sexual independence of young women, while also encouraging them to develop their intelligence and competence? A related question is: how can society learn to truly respect all three of these attributes of women? The answers to these questions are inextricably linked. If society starts treating women’s brains and abilities with more respect, minor girls would not be subjected to the media’s over-sexualization of women and girls, and women in general would not be held to impossible standards of beauty, or to the sexual double standard.
The APA researchers offer several detailed recommendations to combat the sexualization of girls, which involve more comprehensive research, more tools and training for psychologists, public funding and public programs, and raising public awareness. Most of these measures would certainly help address the problem. The key issue, however, may be the assumptions behind the content of these recommendations. Instead of just blindly trying to stamp out the sexualization of women, we need to ensure that women’s own sexual agency is respected, even when they choose to “sexually objectify” themselves. Because maybe that’s just part of the wonderful, messy complexity of normal human behaviour.