Could we be in the midst of that rarest of events — a genuine cultural tipping point? Well, maybe.
We women — and yes, I take the liberty of speaking for almost every one of us throughout the land — may have sighed wearily about the sexual harassment being described every day in the media, but we haven’t been surprised. Not really. Being female in this society (or perhaps any society) is to know intuitively, in your bones, where you exist in the hierarchy, at least relative to powerful senior men. So nothing really unexpected here. Men, even men we like and respect, can exploit their power. We’re still, as a species, learning to be civilized.
But things change, if ever so slowly. At Youth Catalytics, we’re thrilled that women (and some men, too) are speaking out about how they’ve been victimized. We also know that the group with the smallest voice and greatest vulnerability probably won’t be heard at all. We’re talking about teenage girls and young women.
About 10 years ago, we started hearing from our direct-service colleagues that the girls in their programs were facing new pressures to look and act in sexual ways. Sometimes these were young girls, still in grade school. While children in state care had always been at higher risk of sexual abuse than other kids, with all the attending behavioral fallout, it seemed like something new was happening. Something in the culture, perhaps.
So we began exploring the social forces that shape both girls’ attitudes about gender and sexuality, and the consequences for poor girls in particular. Using ‘Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girl,’ the 2007 study from the American Psychological Association as a starting point, we investigated what young women, social service providers and academics were thinking and doing about the issue.
‘What Are We Doing to Girls? The Early Sexualization Phenomenon and How Communities are Responding‘ was the result. We went on to conduct a girls’ video and photovoice project and to partner with the U.S. Attorney General’s Office in Vermont on a public service campaign aimed at parents and other adults in girls’ lives. (Why a state Attorney General’s office? Because it’s nearly impossible to catch and prosecute all of the out-of-state internet predators who manipulate and exploit girls online. Since the creeps are out there and they’re not stopping, the idea was to strengthen girls’ resistance to them.)
We also began a news roundup, collecting all media and academic reports of approaches that lawmakers, schools, communities, and social service agencies are taking to early sexualization.
We invite all organizations working with girls and young women to tell us what they’re doing to advance the healthy development of girls. If you’ve got an approach that recognizes and challenges the negative forces affecting girls, we want to know about it and share it. (Click ‘share what you know.’)
~ YC Research Director Melanie Wilson
*Photo by Chloe Hotaling, YC Girls’ Photovoice Project.