Sex Sells: The High Price of a Sexualized Culture
In 1975, an ad campaign was publicized that read, "Because innocence is sexier than you think." A little girl posed in the print ad with teased hair, pouty lips, and a teddy bear. The accompanying television ad repeated the slogan with shots of a woman dressed as a young child posed in a seductive manner. The product description read, "The wide-eyed innocence of a child is an aura no man can resist in a woman."
These ads were for a perfume marketed to preteen and teen girls as an introduction to the perfume industry. The company hoped to gain years of financial return by captivating a young audience and training them to choose their fragrances over competitors with the promise that the use of their product would make them more sexually desirable.
Unfortunately, this messaging is a single example in a sea of examples of the hyper-sexualized nature of our culture in regard to women and girls, and it is not isolated to the advertising industry. This objectification creates an unhealthy perception of personal identity and charts a dangerous course toward exploitation as it makes girls vulnerable to believing their worth is intrinsically tied to their sexual appeal.
What is sexualization?
The American Psychological Association defines sexualization as when a person is sexually objectified, which means minimized to be only an object of sexual use rather than to be seen as a complete person with value outside of a sexual experience (APA, 2007).
American culture is inundated with examples of sexualization, specifically the sexualization of girls. A common misconception is that such culture would be confined to venues or media types that blatantly promote sex, like pornography and the adult entertainment industry. However, an overwhelming majority of the sexualization of girls, and therefore the negative impact upon girls, comes from sources that many of us are exposed to on a daily basis, such as music, movies, television, advertising, etc.
Culture Reframed, a 2019 report on hyper-sexualized media, gives the following examination of exposure to the sexualization of girls: Portrayals of women on television as sexually objectified occurs in 45–50% of cases; Sexualizing of content in children’s TV programs averaged 24 incidents per program. Every episode had sexualizing content, 72% of which targeted female characters; Magazine advertisements featuring women as sexual objects are most common in men’s magazines (76%), closely followed by 64% in adolescent girls’ magazines and 56% in those intended for adult women; and in a study of 15 national stores, researchers found that almost 30% of the clothing items for pre-teen girls (represented on their websites) had sexualizing characteristics (Culture Reframed, 2019).
The unfortunate truth is that girls are growing up in a culture that tells them they are objects of sexual pleasure and to be of worth, they must acclimate to the expectation to sexualize their interactions and presentation. To be of value, she must be 'sexy.'
Social Media: A Symptom that Perpetuates
On a brief scroll through any social media platform, you will find both the perpetuation of sexualization as well as proof that girls internalize it. Social media is not the cause of sexualization, but it certainly exacerbates it by giving it a prominent platform that is both readily available and eagerly consumed by mass audiences.
Profile pictures are an excellent example. The standard pose for many girls throws a hip forward, purses lips together, and accentuates features that they have been told are 'sexy.' Profile pictures are like billboards, working to attract traffic. The message that these profile pictures send is, "Sex sells." However, before we condemn an individual for her choice of a profile photo, it is important to recognize that she is simply reacting to the cultural precedent that has been set for her. Her profile photo is a reflection of the salesmanship tactics that she has been exposed to her entire life. Her attempt to gain affirmation is much more about meeting the basic human need for acceptance than it is about sex. She has been trained, just as the perfume company hoped she would, to embrace the belief that she is only as valuable as she is sexually desirable.
Objectification is perpetuated through the vehicle of social media as it creates a vicious cycle of exposure and internalization. Simply put, observation leads to behavior modeling.
The sexualization of girls did not begin with social media. It simply acts as a mirror reflecting the cultural standard of the world and creating a mechanism of comparison.
The Root of Exploitation
Cultural sexualization creates vulnerability.
It lays the foundation for exploitation. While it may seem like a hyperbolic jump from exposure to sexualized marketing to victims of human trafficking, the prior sets the tone for the latter. It creates the culture required for the dehumanizing objectification necessary for sex trafficking to take place.
It teaches young men to view women and girls as objects that can be bought, sold, traded, and discarded when their perceived value runs out. It teaches young women that love and acceptance are only available if they allow themselves to be used and their sexuality exploited.
Yes, sex sells, but it is at the expense of our daughters.
So, we are left with the questions: What do we do now? How do we regain the ground that has been lost?
How do we give her hope?
Restoring Her Identity
In the Garden, the enemy made evident his plan to try and steal the identity of God's people. Our daughters are, unfortunately, not immune from that attack. The world's view of their identity leaves them on an endless pursuit to find stable footing on shifting sand. It leaves them without direction on who they truly are and from Whom their worth is derived.
A sexualized culture tells them the lie that their value rests upon how much of themselves they are willing to give away. The Truth, however, is Jesus sacrificed His life so they would never have to earn their worth.
In Him, they are loved (John 3:16). They are chosen (Ephesians 1:4-5). They are created for a purpose (Ephesians 2:10). They are beautiful (Psalm 139:14). They are worthy (Isaiah 61:10). They are precious (Proverbs 3:15). In Him, they are set apart (Jeremiah 1:5).
Arming them with Truth empowers them to recognize a counterfeit presentation. We do that within the context of genuine, compassion-filled relationships.
In addition, we can address our culture as a whole in prayer and personal response. Just as the disciples gathered in the Upper Room and devoted themselves to intercession, we ask you to come alongside us to pray for the root of exploitation to be pulled up from our society.
To stand in the gap for them, we must live intentionally and recognize ways that the world around us is influenced by the sexualization of girls. Then, respond in a way that defends the sanctity of the lives of an entire generation of girls who are searching for a firm foundation.
Giving her hope is worth the fight!
How can you help?
Pray for culture to shift, and for girls to be exposed to the Truth of what God says about them.
Build genuine, meaningful relationships with teens rooted in compassion.
Educate those around you about the sexualization of girls in our every day lives.
Donate your time or financial resources to local organizations that speak life over girls of all ages.
American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf.
Culture Reframed (2019). Sexualization of Girls: An Update. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf.