Sexualization at an early age: A reflection of middle-school life

Bullying or sexually harassing behavior is a particularly troubling form of sexualization.

By Sarah Chisholm

Sarah ChisholmWhen I first started middle school, I was prepared for boys to make fun of me because I was too tall, too fat, too weird, etc. But it was a much different story with my experience. The boys in my middle school picked on girls sexually. Once puberty hits, sexual harassment between boys to girls significantly increases (Gruber & Fineran, 2008). I was cat-called, verbally harassed and occasionally brushed up against. It got to the point that it was just accepted. And the sad thing was that I didn’t even have it that bad. Girls who had more boys in their friend groups were more likely to be picked on. (McMaster, Connolly, Pepler, & Craig, 2002) I would see other girls constantly harassed and it seemed like no big deal to them. Other girls were pulled on, clothing pulled off and groped. I was lucky, in the scheme of things. Things didn’t get bad for me until 8th grade.

Towards the end of the year, I had gained some extra weight, like many teenage girls do. It was something that wasn’t a big deal to me because I was still growing, but one of my peers did not take it lightly. He had informed me that I was pregnant. Now let me make this clear, I was not asked if I was pregnant. I was told that I must, in fact, be pregnant because I gained weight. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A classmate made a statement about my sexuality, which must be true, because I became “fatter.” It didn’t stop there. He then wrote on my Myspace page that I was pregnant about 20 times. I was mortified. People would come up to me in school and ask if I was actually pregnant. I hadn’t even dated before. What did I know about sex? Although, I, apparently, knew enough about sex to be pregnant.

And I go back to the fact that I didn’t even have it that bad. This experience was traumatizing and it was only a one-time thing. The way these boys seem to have the right to objectify girls at such a young age is astounding. And it was amazing to me how accepted this was by my peers. Nobody really seemed grossed out by it. These experiences were so uncomfortable, but we just took it. Did we just like the attention? Or maybe we wanted to yell at the boys but were afraid. A big issue is girls feel like they can’t fight back because most of the boys were bigger and stronger (Why some girls are bullied, 2009). Although physical strength isn’t everything, to an adolescent girl, it can make them feel inferior. 

In a culture so focused on male dominance, it is difficult to break that cycle and stand up for ourselves. Girls should have the right to explore their sexuality when they choose. Exploring sexuality can be a wonderful thing when you are ready, but it can be harmful if you are not. Immediate impacts of bullying include loneliness and fewer friends. Mentally, sexual bullying has increased depression and anxiety in adolescent girls (Gruber & Fineran, 2008). These effects can go into a girl’s adulthood and restrain them from developing healthy relationships with a partner. 

Girls need to feel like they can make a stand in their middle schools against these acts. By working together as a group, they can feel strong against their bullies. There are also girl empowerment groups around the country that are helping girls grow as women and make good social changes. (American Psychological Association, 2007). These groups are great for girls to increase their self-esteem and get back to better mental health. Looking back on the situation as an adult, I wish I could go back to my middle-school self. I would have encouraged myself to stand up to my bully because I could. 

References

American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007) Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (PDF, 804KB).

Gruber, J., & Fineran, S. (2008). Comparing the impact of bullying and sexual harassment victimization on the mental and physical health of adolescents. Sex Roles, 59(1/2), 1-13.

McMaster, L., Connolly, J., Pepler, D., & Craig, W. (2002). Peer to peer sexual harassment in early adolescence: A developmental perspective. Development and Psychopathology, 14(1), 91-105. 

Why some girls are bullied. (2009, Sept. 22). Home. Retrieved June 10, 2014.


Sarah Chisholm is an undergraduate student at Radford University in Radford, Va. She will graduate in May 2015 with a major in advertising and a minor in psychology.



Response from Lauren Fasig Caldwell, JD, PhD

As defined in the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2007), sexualization encompasses a continuum of behavior that occurs when: A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior; physical attractiveness is equated with being sexy; a person is objectified rather than seen as a person capable of independent action and decision making; and sexuality is inappropriately imposed on someone. Any one of these behaviors, alone, is sexualization. Children and young adolescents may most frequently experience the fourth form of sexualization, when sexuality is imposed on them by adults or peers. 

Sexualization occurs through three related contexts. First, self-sexualization may occur when a person treats him or herself as a sexual object. For example, girls who value themselves only because of their appearance and/or sexualized behavior are engaging in self-sexualization. Second, other people in the preteen’s immediate environment may sexualize her, resulting in interpersonal sexualization. Third, and most frequently recognized today, cultural norms, expectations and values that suggest sexualization is good and normal are considered to be the contribution of society to sexualization. Advertisements with young girls in make-up and adult-style provocative clothing and commercials with women dressed as little girls in pig tails and skimpy school uniforms are examples of sexualization in society that may contribute to a young girl’s or boy’s acceptance of sexual objectification.

Regardless of the context or the process through which it occurs, sexualization can be particularly troublesome for young adolescents. Girls and boys experience significant identity growth during the teen years, and they learn socially acceptable ways to participate in intimate relationships through observing and experimenting with behaviors they see around them (Bussey & Bandura, 1984; Huston & Wright, 1998). Girls and boys may accept being treated like an object or appreciated only for their bodies as normal, and they may believe that treating their romantic partners in this way is appropriate. 

Sexualization has also been linked to poorer cognitive performance (Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003), eating disorders (Lucas, Beard, O-Fallon, & Kurland, 1991), low self-esteem (Tolman, Impett, Tracy, & Michael, 2006) and depression (Harrison & Fredrickson, 2003). Research also links sexualized beliefs about females with aggressive sexual behavior towards them (e.g., Dean & Malamuth, 1997).

Bullying or sexually harassing behavior is a particularly troubling form of sexualization. Unfortunately, the experiences described in this article are not uncommon. A study by the American Association of University Women (2001) found that peers engage in 79 percent of the sexual harassment in schools, often in the form of sexual jokes, comments on physical appearance or inappropriate touching. 

What can be done? The APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls recommends that public awareness and education efforts such as media education, forums and public service announcements to raise awareness of the issue and to encourage alternative imagery and interactions may help to counteract the pervasiveness of sexualization in our culture. Additionally, bullying prevention programs in schools can specifically address this type of negative behavior to clearly indicate that it is inappropriate and to help students develop skills in addressing and preventing such behavior. As the author suggests, young people experiencing such peer behavior can seek support from peer groups. Children and teens can also turn to supportive adults, whether at school or at home, to discuss the behavior, its effects and ways to counteract possible effects. Adults can also be a resource for changing the behavior. Schools around the country are proactively seeking to counteract such negative behaviors. For more information about sexualization and recommendations for addressing its negative effects, read the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls: Executive Summary

References 

American Association of University Women, (2001). Hostile hallways: Bullying, teasing, and sexual harassment in school (PDF, 1.28MB). Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. 

Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1984). Influence of gender constancy and social poser on sex-linked modeling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology®, 47, 1292-1302. 

Dean, K. E., & Malamuth, N. M. (1997). Characteristics of men who aggress sexually and of men who imagine aggressing: Risk and moderating variables. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 449-455. 

Gapinski, K.D., Brownell, K.D., & LaFrance, M. (2003). Body objectification and “fat talk”: Effects on emotion, motivation, and cognitive performance. Sex Roles, 48, 377-388. 

Harrison, K., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). Women’s sports media, self-objectification, and mental health in Black and Whilte adolescent females. Journal of Communication, 53, 216-232. 

Huston, A. C., & Wright, J.C. (1998). Mass media and children’s development. In W. Damon, I.E. Sigel, & K.A. Renninger (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: vol. 4. Child psychology in practice (pp. 999-1058). New York: Wiley. 

Lucas, A., Beard, C., O'Fallon, W., & Kurland, L. (1991). 50-year trends in the incidence of anorexia nervosa in Rochester, Minnesota: a population-based study. The American Journal Of Psychiatry, 148(7), 917-922.

Tolman, D. L., Impett, E.A., Tracy, A. J., & Michael, A. (2006). Looking good, sounding good: Femininity ideology and adolescent girls’ mental health. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 85-95.


Fasig Caldwell, JD, PhD, is the director, APA Children, Youth and Families Office.