Girls and the Early Sexualization Phenomenon

What We Did

In What Are We Doing to Girls? The Early Sexualization Phenomenon and How Communities are Responding, we identify a variety of forces that are driving the early sexualization of girls, from media and marketing to biological and social factors. While researchers have begun exploring the possible causes of the phenomenon, parents and communities are attempting to combat it. This report is based on a thorough review of scholarly literature and interviews with social workers, teachers, youth workers and girls themselves; it describes an array of community-based approaches to the problem as well as the theoretical underpinnings of these approaches and what evaluations have shown about their effectiveness.

Why We Did It

This project arose from the child welfare field itself, and the concerns expressed by social workers and caseworkers about the sexualized behavior of the girls coming to their programs – behavior that was not typical of girls even 15 years ago but was common now. They were certain that early sexualization was an escalating problem, yet they had no idea what they could do about it. Many factors seemed to be contributing to it, but influencing any one of them enough to really make a difference seemed to be impossible. Or was it? That is what we set out to discover.

What We Found

Our exploration of current research indicates that in addition to the popular notion that media plays a role, a variety of environmental and social factors seem to be pushing girls into prematurely sexualized beliefs and behaviors. Evidence is mounting that for girls who lack family support and other protective factors, early sexualization is associated with serious problems, including increased risks for teen pregnancy, STI’s, emotional behavioral disorders and sex trafficking. In response, communities, schools and social service agencies are engaging in efforts which range from parental education, sex education, and adventure and girls empowerment groups to media education and advocacy campaigns.

While anecdotal accounts are promising, empirical evaluations of programs are few in number, and at best suggest only an indirect impact on girls’ beliefs about themselves or their sexual behavior. In other words, as a field, we’re not yet in a position to claim that whatever changes programs produce will ultimately help girls resist the forces of sexualization. While we don’t yet have the answers to questions about which girls are most affected by early sexualization, what responses have the greatest impact and how much of a difference they really make, What Are We Doing to Girls? forms a part of the foundational structure needed to develop this emerging body of practice.

Who Should Care

This report is for anyone who cares about girls – from parents, communities and youth workers to researchers and policy makers. Of particular interest to providers working with girls in high-risk categories (those in foster care, special education and juvenile justice settings), the report highlights promising programmatic approaches and directions for future research.

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The following individuals and organizations supported the production and dissemination of this report: 

Katherine Arthaud, Mary Bailey, Gary M. Blau, Rosemarie Burton, Anthony and Kelly Burton, Vicki and Ross Cohen, Steve Girelli, Mary Imbornone, Shanley Hinge, George McCully, Rebecca Muller, David Newman, Peter Mendelson, US Attorney’s Office/Vermont, and Vermont Children and Family Council for Prevention Programs