Dangerous Messages

Report Calls for Defense of Young People

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MARCH 7, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Sexualized images and media messages pushing licentious behavior are a threat to young people, says a report published by the U.K.’s Home Office.

An independent psychologist, Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, was commissioned by the Home Office to examine the impact of a highly sexualized culture in the context of the British government’s efforts to reduce violence against women.

“Changing attitudes will take time but it is essential if we are going to stop violence against women and girls,” commented Home Secretary Alan Johnson in the Feb. 26 press release accompanying the report.

Both the governing Labour Party and the main opposition Conservative Party are concerned about the impact of contemporary culture on young people. Prior to the report’s release the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, had said he was in favor of restricting irresponsible advertizing aimed at children, the BBC reported Feb. 26.

In the report itself — titled “Sexualization of Young People: Review” — Papadopoulos explained that her investigation formed part of a consultation meant to raise awareness about the problem of violence against women and girls. In particular she investigated the question of whether there is a link between the sexualization of culture and violence.

“Women are revered — and rewarded — for their physical attributes, and both girls and boys are under pressure to emulate polarized gender stereotypes from a younger and younger age,” the report commented.

The report defined sexualization as “the imposition of adult sexuality on to children and young people before they are capable of dealing with it, mentally, emotionally or physically.”

Objects

The use of sexual images in the media is hardly a recent phenomenon, the report admitted. Nevertheless, recent years has seen an unprecedented increase in their volume. As well, children are being portrayed with greater frequency in adult ways, while women are being infantilized.

“This leads to a blurring of the lines between sexual maturity and immaturity and, effectively, legitimizes the notion that children can be related to as sexual objects,” the text pointed out.

When it comes to children, one concern that the report highlighted is that at a younger age the cognitive skills needed to cope with persuasive media images is still undeveloped. Added to this lack of capacity to deal with such images, the pervasiveness of a sexualized culture means that children are frequently exposed to material that is not appropriate for their age.

The report observed that one of the dominant themes in popular magazines is that girls should present themselves as being sexually desirable if they want to be popular with boys. This is present even for young children, who are encouraged to dress in a way to draw attention to sexual attributes they do not even posses yet.

Dolls for example, are presented in a notably sexualized way. Objects such as pencil cases and stationery for school children carry the Playboy bunny logo. Padded underwear is marketed and sold to children as young as eight.

Meanwhile, for boys the predominant message is that they should be sexually dominant and treat the female body as an object.

Television, films, and music, along with the print media, all portray to young people this hyper-sexualized message, the report observed.

Disorders

As children are confronted with continual appeals to conform to such images, one of the results that can occur is a dissatisfaction with their own bodies and poor self-esteem, that in turn can provoke depression and eating disorders. Along with disorders such as anorexia young women are resorting to cosmetic surgery in higher numbers, under the pressure of conforming to an idealized image.

Children and adolescents are also encountering a large amount of media content that is explicitly sexual or even pornographic, Papadopoulos added. The ease of access to the Internet, along with material sent via e-mail and to mobile phones means that it is difficult to restrict such content from reaching the young.

In fact, the report noted, the sex industry has now been mainstreamed and become a part of everyday culture. Job ads routinely advertise for vacancies at escort agencies, lap-dancing clubs, massage parlors and TV sex channels.

“The fact that both within celebrity and popular culture women are habitually heralded as successful and celebrated for their sex appeal and appearance — with little reference to their intellect or abilities — sends out a powerful message to young people about what is of value and what they should focus on,” the report commented.

One consequence of this is that researchers find when they examine the content of young people’s Web pages, many teens post sexually explicit images of themselves, and among their peers derogatory and demeaning language is common, the report said.

The sexualization of girls is also contributing to a market for child abuse images, the report noted. Many young girls are styling themselves in overtly sexually provocative ways for other young people’s consumption and sending these images through social networking sites or via photographs sent by email or mobile phones.

“Young people themselves are now producing and swapping what is in effect ‘child pornography’ — a fact borne out by the growing numbers of adolescents that are being convicted for possession of this material,” the report commented.

Violence

When it comes to the question of a relationship between sexualization and violence against women the report cited research showing that adults who viewed images of women as sexual objects are more likely to be accepting of violence.

“The evidence gathered in the review suggests a clear link between consumption of sexualized images, a tendency to view women as objects and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behavior as the norm,” the report added.

Papadopoulos also referred to a recent survey that showed how for many young people, violence within relationships is commonplace. In the age group of 13 to 17 one in three teenage girls had been subjected to unwanted sexual acts while in a relationship, and one in four had suffered physical violence.

Researchers cited in the report also suggested that by encouraging male viewers to perceive women principally as sexual beings, advertisements promote a mentality in which women are viewed as subordinate and, therefore, as appropriate targets for sexual violence.

“The repeated depiction of men as dominant and aggressive and females as subordinate and demeaned is arguably perpetuating violence against women,” the report stated.

Revolt

The report concluded by appealing for people to realize that sexualization is a profoundly important issue with serious consequences for individuals, families and society. Similar studies in the United States and Australia have come to the same conclusions, the report pointed out. At the same time it called for more research into this phenomenon. The report finished with a list of 36 specific recommendations on how to deal with sexualization.

Along with reports such as the most recent one published by the British Home Office, opposition to the sexualization of contemporary culture is growing at the grassroots level.

One example of this comes from Australia in the Collective Shout Web site, which offers an interactive platform for individuals and groups to take action against companies and the media when they present women as objects and sexualize girls to sell products and services.

Perhaps in the end more government regulations are not the solution to such problems as the cheapening of sexuality. What is really needed is a broad-based change
in public opinion as a result of a revolt against the exploitation of women brought about by the many concerned people who are sick of seeing human dignity degraded.

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