Government Relations Update

Developing a research-based plan to advocate against sexualization of girls was the goal of the “Advocacy Against Sexualization Summit,” hosted by APA’s Public Interest Government Relations Office (PI-GRO) at APA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

More than 25 psychologists, advocates, representatives from federal agencies and education and media organizations attended the meeting April 13, which featured presentations from leading researchers and those working to stop sexualization.

Sarah McDermott with the American Association of University Women (credit: Lloyd Wolf)Participants identified and prioritized a series of actions for future advocacy efforts, including fostering more youth involvement in working to stop sexualization, educating parents and teachers on the cognitive impact of sexualization on youth, and widespread dissemination of new research to both congressional and federal agency leaders.

Eileen Zurbriggen, PhD, chair of the former APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, created in 2006, opened the summit by describing research findings from the task force’s report and the research on sexualization that has been published since its 2007 release. The report — which was widely covered by the media and continues to be cited in articles and interviews — highlighted troubling links between the sexualization of girls and mental health problems, including eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. The report calls on parents, school officials and all health professionals to be alert to the potential impact of sexualization on girls and young women. Schools should teach media literacy skills to all students, says the APA report, and should include information on the negative effects of the sexualization of girls in media literacy and sex education programs. (Read the report.)

At the summit, Zurbriggen explained that the APA task force reviewed published research on the content and effects of virtually every form of media, including television, music videos, music lyrics, magazines, movies, video games and the Internet. They also examined recent advertising campaigns and merchandising of products aimed toward girls.

“The consequences of the sexualization of girls in media today are very real and are likely to be a negative influence on girls’ healthy development,” says Zurbriggen, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “We have ample evidence to conclude that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development.”

Other speakers emphasized the need to empower girls to resist objectification. Deborah Tolman, PhD, and Lyn Mikel Brown, EdD, of the SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge) movement, spoke about the importance of youth empowerment programs. SPARK emphasizes girls’ rights to healthy sexuality, encourages young people to create their own media and empowers young women to resist objectification. The APA report was the call to action and SPARK was the response, said Tolman and Brown. SPARK convened a group of “unlikely partners” to build a coalition committed to engaging girls as part of the solution to a problem. (Learn more about  SPARK.)

Janice Ferebee with the National Council of Negro Women(credit: Lloyd Wolf)Another presenter, Tarshia Stanley, PhD, an English professor at Spelman College, discussed how she mobilizes her students to take an active role in combating hypersexualization. “One of the best aspects of the summit was learning about the other organizations working on this critical issue,” said Stanley. “As an outcome of the summit, the groups decided to create a video for parent-teacher associations to educate them about the negative effects of sexualization. This is a great project for my film students to implement.”

Since the release of the sexualization of girls report, APA’s PI-GRO and Women’s Programs Office have been disseminating findings to policymakers. They also initiated the 2010 Healthy Media for Youth Week, a public education and advocacy campaign that focused on bringing the findings of the report to parents, youth and the government through Facebook and APA’s website. In 2009, PI-GRO initiated the drafting of the Healthy Media for Youth Act, federal legislation sponsored by Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). The legislation would authorize youth empowerment and media literacy programs, support research on the effects of negative media images on youth, and establish a Federal Communications Commission committee to create voluntary recommendations on healthy media.

“As a society, we need to replace all of these sexualized images with ones showing girls in positive settings — ones that show the uniqueness and competence of girls,” said Zurbriggen. “The goal should be to deliver messages to all adolescents — boys and girls — that lead to healthy sexual development.”

Krysta Jones is a senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA’s Public Interest Government Relations Office. Corine Bell is an intern in the office.

To follow APA’s advocacy efforts on this and other issues, join APA’s Public Policy Advocacy Network. Through PPAN, you can sign up for action alerts and stay informed about, and involved in, federal policy. In addition, if you are interested in taking a more active role in advancing PI-GRO’s legislative and regulatory priorities, contact the office at (202) 336-6166.