Q&A: Buying Into ‘Sexy’ at the Expense of Everything Else

Sharon Lamb

Sharon Lamb, Ed. D., is a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is also a practicing clinician in Shelburne, Vt. and conducts forensic evaluations for the state in cases involving sexual abuse, harassment, and attachment. She is the author of three books and co-author of two books, as well as being a co-author of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls. She is a frequent speaker on sexualization and the media. Her most recent book, co-authored with Lyn Mikel Brown and Mark Tappan, is Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes. It is a sequel to Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes.  A new book, tentatively titled Sex Ed Now, is due out in the fall of 2012.  Her sexual ethics curriculum is available online and for use in schools at www.sexandethics.org

Q. There is a very detailed definition of sexualization, including four conditions that create it, in the influential 2007 APA report you co-authored. The report focused primarily on the media’s depiction of girls and women as sexual objects meant to gratify others and the implications for them. As it relates to children and teens, can you simplify it a little? What’s ‘sexualization’?
A
. There are four definitions in the report. They’re written out in simple form there. One definition of sexualization is the marketing and selling of a life style to a girl (or boy for that matter) at an inappropriate age or stage of development — to a young girl rather than to a teenage girl. ‘Self-sexualization’ refers to buying into a narrow definition of what is sexy, which usually means how to please boys and men, and being sexy at the expense of other qualities. Sexualization is also the valuing of someone’s sexuality above other features, and a very particular kind of sexuality that’s based on ideas that come from pornography and have made their way into the popular media. For younger kids it’s too much too soon, but really, even when it’s sold to a particular age, it’s a very narrow version of what it means to be sexy.

Q. There’s been a fair amount of controversy about this topic, both from adults who think something is seriously wrong and those who don’t think anything is wrong at all.
A.
It is very human to want to be sexy. Both men and women want to be admired and to be wanted sexually. We don’t want to make girls feel shame for it. One important question to think about is how do you make the anti-sexualization movement not about shaming girls for wanting to look good and sexy? We have work to do there.

“The problem is that we’re overvaluing sexiness for adolescents. They can be swept into that whole way of being and thinking and it can overtake them.”

We have to change the way we talk about the sexualization of girls. Two things are problematic. First, people think that the alternative [to sexualization] is for girls to be asexual, and that’s not it — the alternative is healthy sexuality, which we need to better define. Second is the idea that girls are duped; that they are buying into [our sexualized society] too much, or their parents are buying into it too much and we need to stop parents and kids from doing that. In fact, it’s the larger society, marketers and people producing media that we have to change. We need to create more public conversations about that.

Q. What’s the relationship between sex and sexualization?
A.
Children are sexual beings. I don’t believe in the idea of childhood innocence. I don’t think children are that innocent; they understand what’s going on to a great extent. So it’s not that we’re introducing sexuality to them at too early an age; it’s that we’re taking it out of the realm of play and making it part of their lives. Girls, and boys for that matter, have always played dress up, worn makeup — it’s a part of their play. They play dress up, or maybe even go to a wedding or fancy party in real life and want to dress up. But it’s the incorporation of that desire into everyday that makes it a problem.

I don’t know that little girls connect the act of sex with looking sexy. For example, most girls find it fun to dance [in a way that adults would call sexy, with pelvic thrusting and gyrating]. For the girls it’s fun, but I don’t think they are connecting it with the idea that the way they are dancing is actually imitating how people have sex or an invitation to have sex with them. When little kids imitate adults, they’re reflecting what society tells them they’re going to be when they grow up. They know they’re not that right now; they’re just playing at it. So that’s why it doesn’t bother me as much for little girls. But it still bothers me to the extent it crowds out other kinds of play.

It does bother me more for teenagers. The ‘powers that be’ want adolescents and adult women to think that their most valuable quality is sexiness and many teenagers and adult women do want to be sexy, among other things. But the problem is that we’re overvaluing sexiness for adolescents. They can be swept into that whole way of being and thinking and it can overtake them. We want girls to be valued for who they are. We need to focus on what it means to grow up to be a woman and how are you valued as a woman.

Q. Do at-risk girls have fewer protective factors that make them more vulnerable to early sexualization?
A.
Girls who are at-risk, are at-risk for all sorts of things. Investing in their development, investing in things that bring value to them and who they are and adhere to their true identity are the things that will work best. It’s too easy for girls to get attention and to only be valued for being sexy or sexual if they can. You have to give some girls the message that, sure they look pretty and they’re going to get attention for it, but they’ve got to develop other talents, skills, and interests — so that they’re more than just pretty.

Q. Where do boys fit in to the discussion?
A.
They need to be a part of the conversation. The majority of adolescent boys aren’t jerks; they hardly realize the power they have over girls. Anti-pornography education or porn literacy is a good thing for boys. It’s difficult to do correctly, because you don’t want to introduce a lot of things they haven’t seen, but people are working on it. Boys have unrealistic expectations from watching pornography — they worry about not being able to please a girl or not being able to perform well. By the end of high school, something like 90% of boys have watched some pornography. But it is a very tricky thing to teach in a classroom, because they will brag, ‘did you see this, did you see that,’ and the message is lost.  You’d need an excellent teacher for that. Right now, my sexual ethics curriculum is being taught in a school in Cambridge in the 9th grade and we will see how the students do with the pornography unit. I have two excellent graduate students as teachers.

“Boys do feel pressure about their looks, but I don’t think it’s equal at all. Boys have other needs — they need safe places to show their vulnerable sides, to express their sexuality.”

I don’t like when the pressure placed on girls and boys to look a certain way is said to be equal. Boys do feel pressure about their looks, but I don’t think it’s equal at all. Boys have other needs — they need safe places to show their vulnerable sides, to express their sexuality. Boys may feel proud when they can tell another male friend, ‘I did that [sexually],’ but they also want to be wanted, and they want to please their girlfriends.

Q. How can schools address this topic?
A.
There is a lot of anxiety in adolescence around fitting in and how you look. When schools address this — for example by having groups where girls can work out these things in a safe space — it can be really beneficial. Spaces where you can talk about the anxiety of not being wanted or for people only liking you for how you look — groups like those can be helpful. It’s the same for adults; when I’m on the web, advertisers target me with wrinkle creams and diet ads, and that can make me feel bad about myself, especially if I’m alone and have time to just sit there and think about the things I don’t like about myself. But if I’m in a group and we’re sharing stories about the wrinkle cream that didn’t work, or the diet program we tried and how we feel, it normalizes the experience. Normalizing the desire that girls have to be wanted, or needed, or sexy is important. That’s where media literacy programs can be used, but they’re not a cure-all.

I once taught a gender and psychology class, and the women in the class said sexism no longer existed, and argued that I only thought that it did because I’m a feminist and am biased. So, I assigned them to go find products like deodorant or cereal boxes and analyze them [to look for evidence of sexism or gender equity]. They were converts after that assignment; feminism is not a hard sell once you open somebody’s awareness. It’s a mind shift change that you have to create when you’re working with girls. We can educate them through media literacy programs and help them understand objectification; we need to get programs like that into schools. We need to open their eyes and encourage and support them when they want to do some activism. It can make a difference.

“We need to develop best practices for working with girls in different milieus, like a best practices guideline for middle school teachers.”

We need to develop best practices for working with girls in different milieus, like a best practices guideline for middle school teachers.The belief is that there are old-fashioned middle school teachers who see a girl who has developed early and automatically think she’s acting sexual. The high school girls I talk to always complain that one girl will get in trouble for wearing something too tight and another girl won’t — and it’s the girl who has breasts who will, and the girl who doesn’t who won’t. The girls say, ‘We’re wearing the same thing,’ but the teachers label her as sexual because she has larger breasts.

Sex education in school can include information on sexualization; it can be more expansive than just risk prevention. A lot of people have been looking at sexual bullying in schools. I try not to call anyone a bully, because it blames the child and not the environment. It also makes it seem like there are some bullies and some victims and some bystanders when really, depending on the situation, anyone could be any of those. So, I use bullying instead of bully. Bullying is really about gender and sexuality, so anti-bullying groups for girls can be helpful in addressing sexualization.

Q. What can parents do to help raise their girls in today’s hyper-sexualized society?
A. Parents can raise their girls to have many talents and interests so that their looks are less central to their self-worth. Even when they go through stages of only being into fashion or how they look, those other interests — sports, academics, music, art — will eventually come through. I don’t blame a girl for wanting to have the extra currency she gets for looking good, but that will only take her so far and she needs to focus on other things too.

You need to have alternatives for girls who don’t fit fashion model looks; you need to highlight their ‘prettiness’ or attractiveness in other ways. Sometimes it’s having an interesting tattoo or piercing that can lead to feeling sexy, and we can do a better job of recognizing that. We need to remind kids that if people had to look as great and as perfect as they do in the media and in advertising, our species would die out; most people just don’t look like that. That’s why we get to know each others’ personalities, interests, and talents, because all kinds of things can be attractive.

It’s important to give older kids permission to want to be sexy and it’s equally important to broaden their understanding of what can be sexy. For younger kids you need to point out that sex and being sexy are not synonymous with growing up; they are not the only things that teenagers are interested in.

You can say to girls, ‘Why do you want to be a princess, why don’t you want to be a queen? They get to order everyone around!’ Or, ‘Princesses only look pretty; I want more for you.’

“One organization can’t do everything, but several organizations working together can pick small battles and raise awareness.”

Q. And what about organizations that work with girls? What should they be doing?
A. I like what Lyn Mikel Brown does through Hardy Girls Healthy Women and SPARK. They create safe places for girls to analyze, discuss and organize; like with the Seventeen magazine photoshop protest. I’ll give you another example: when they decided to make Dora the Explorer [the character from a pre-school and school-age children’s cartoon] into a tween doll a few years ago, we created an online petition, and got thousands of signatures very quickly. I didn’t think [our petition] made much of a difference, but then I was asked to speak about it on one of the morning news programs, and I don’t think the doll ever came out — the protest worked — I never saw that doll in stores. Little things like that can make a big difference. One organization can’t do everything, but several organizations working together can pick small battles and raise awareness. The more you can do that with girls, the more they are going to grow up and be aware.

Another thing that Lyn Mikel Brown does is to create authentic intergenerational connections to teach girls to be more critical and protest the things they think are harmful. Adult women and girls work together to try and change society — it’s not just an adult woman leading a girls group — it is a collaboration. It’s less top-down and it helps girls find the issues that they want to explore.

I too am working in an activist kind of way with my sexual ethics curriculum, the SECS-C (Sexual Ethics for a Caring Society-Curriculum). It’s a curriculum that is currently being tested to see if it changes attitudes about the treatment of other people and sexism and whether it creates intelligent sexual citizens of teens. You can find it online at www.sexandethics.org.

Q. Where are the research gaps — what should educators and professionals be doing in order to answer some of the questions surrounding early sexualization?
A.
What if there were a six-week program for young girls about self-esteem that talked about where they got their self-esteem from, and talked about what’s valuable and important? Would that help to curb sexualization as they got older? What if there was a comparison of girls who had gone through media literacy training versus girls who hadn’t (but had other advantages and resources). What would we find when we looked at who was less sexualized and who had more protective factors? Another interesting question to investigate is, what if you paid girls to continue in sports? We think that participation in athletics provides protective factors — would it have an effect on the girls’ sexualization?

In my research, we’re starting a new project with several 9th grade classes at different schools who will take a survey that we’re working on now. I call it the ‘Buying Into It’ measure, meaning how much do they buy into [what they see in the media]. We have questions like, ‘Do you think it’s a problem that magazines airbrush pictures?,’  and have scales ranking the importance of things like personal attractiveness. We want to have questions that capture what the students really value and find important.

At what age is the best intervention for sexualization? That’s a question to be researched. I think 5th grade is best, because that’s when girls are starting to become interested in boys and are starting to get the message to conform. It’s important to give them positive messages at an early age, but you’re not going to be able to tell a 7-year-old to ‘follow her own dreams’; that’s just too much. When they really get hit with having to conform is the best time to try and intervene, in my opinion. But, we don’t know for sure — it’s a good question.

This interview was conducted by Youth Catalytics Research Associate Mindi Wisman.