For more than a decade, we’ve challenged the objectification of women and the sexualisation of girls in media, advertising and popular culture. In this blog, we focus on sexualisation, the ways in which children can be sexualised, the consequences of this, and what you can do about it.
What is sexualisation?
According to the American Psychological Association, sexualisation occurs when:
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
The concept of sexualisation, and its harms to children, can sometimes be misunderstood. Sexualisation is not the same thing as sexuality – experts distinguish between healthy sexuality and harmful sexualisation:
Healthy sexuality is an important component of both physical and mental health. When based on mutual respect between consenting partners, sex fosters intimacy, bonding and shared pleasure. Sexualisation, by contrast, is the imposition of adult sexuality on to children and young people before they are capable of dealing with it, mentally, emotionally or physically. It does not apply to self-motivated sexual play, nor to the dissemination of age-appropriate material about sexuality (Sexualisation of Young People Review, Papadopoulos).
Sexualised imagery and messages are almost everywhere. Experts report an “unprecedented rise” in the volume of sexualised advertising and media, what Dr Linda Papadopoulos refers to as the “cumulative or ‘drip drip’ effect of exposure to sexualised images, themes and images over time and in diverse settings”.
Children are particularly vulnerable to sexualisation, as they are not yet developmentally capable of contextualising sexualised images and messages. Additionally, a significant body of research indicates children learn from what they see, and exposure to inappropriate messages and images can be detrimental (read more here.)
How are children being sexualised?
We’ve documented and challenged the sexualisation of children, mostly girls, in various ways, including sexualised portrayals of girls, the marketing of adult, sexualised products and practices to girls, and the eroticisation of girls as sexual objects for men’s sexual use.
Sexualised portrayals of girls
We have exposed the sexualisation of children through sexualised portrayals in advertising (see promotional material for Witchery’s clothing line for kids), child models on Instagram, sexualised dancewear brands like California Kisses and FrilledNeck Fashion (see our #WakeUpInstagram campaign for more info).
Sexualised practices for girls
Sexualised products marketed to girls
We have called out companies that sexualise girls through sexualised products marketed for children, including clothing with sexualised slogans (like Supre tees emblazoned with the slogans “Jingle my bells”, “North Pole Dancer”, “Santa’s Bitch”, “High Beams” and “Pussy Power”), sexualised underwear for children (like Bonds padded bras for six-year olds, Best & Less “tweenage push-up bra”, designed to give the illusion of breasts in girls who have not yet developed them, as well as bras for toddlers), high heels for babies, sexy nurse outfits for toddlers from Amazon, and Playboy-branded jewellery for little girls sold by Diva.
The eroticisation of girls for men’s sexual gratification
We have exposed corporates who profit from eroticising girls, incest and child-abuse themed products, like Etsy (which is still selling ‘male masturbators’ modelled on the mouth of an Asian little girl, and more), retailers that marketed male masturbators modelled on the bodies of children, including Chemist Warehouse (who sold the ‘Virgin Pussy Palm Pal' sex toy), Condom Kingdom (who sold the ‘Lolita vibrating vagina’ and the ‘Teenage Dream’), and both Amazon and Bookworld for selling rape, child-abuse and incest-themed erotic eBooks.
Children can be sexualised both directly, as evidenced above, as well as indirectly, through their exposure to adult, sexualised content. This can be via media or advertising that may not be directly targeting children, or may be intended primarily for an adult audience, but that children are still exposed to.
One way this can occur is when sex industry venues, like sex shops, strip clubs or Sexpo, are permitted to advertise in public spaces, like billboards and buses, where the audience includes children and young people. Sex shop Honey Birdette is a serial offender, broadcasting highly sexualised and porn-inspired advertising to an all-ages audience, with no regard for their wellbeing.
What are the impacts of sexualisation on girls?
The harms of sexualisation are extensive. In its 2007 Task Force into the sexualisation of girls the American Psychological Association concluded there was “ample evidence to show that sexualisation has negative effects in a variety of domains including: cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality and beliefs”.
There is a growing body of evidence of the harms to children from sexualisation. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists noted that premature exposure to adult sexual images and values has a negative impact on the psychological development of children, in terms of self-esteem, body image and understanding of sexuality and relationships.
Sexualisation is believed to have a profound impact on young women and girls, who are under intense pressure to look ‘hot’ and sexy from increasingly younger ages. The objectification of women in media and advertising puts pressure on girls and women to conform to stereotypical sexualised beauty ideals and to appear sexually available at all times. According to RANZCP exposure to sexualising messages contributes to girls defining their self-worth in terms of sexual attractiveness, and the “excessive focus on appearance and narrow definition of attractiveness” contributes to the development of abnormal eating patterns and lack of positive body image.
The dominant message to girls seems to be to focus on others’ sexual interest in and physical judgement of them, rather than their own desires, abilities and interests (Papadopoulos).
While women and girls are primarily the subjects of hyper-sexualised media representation, these messages also play a crucial part in socialising men and boys to see the sexual objectification of women and girls as normal.
What can you do about it?
We believe individuals should act both personally and politically. Parents have an important role in helping to shape their children’s attitudes and to model healthy behaviours. Try to avoid ‘fat talk’ and focusing on physical appearance. Encourage kids to focus on what their bodies can do rather than how they look, and to develop skills and interests based on effort and performance rather than appearance. It’s also important to limit media consumption and their exposure to content that can be harmful.
But parents can’t do it alone – we need Governments, companies, advertisers, marketers and media to get on board. We’ve been fighting against the sexualisation of girls for over a decade, exposing corporates that profit from sexualising girls in products and services and pressuring them to change their ways. We need your help! Sign up on our website, like and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, and join with us in challenging the sexualisation of girls.
Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist
Sexualisation of Young People Review, Dr Linda Papadopoulos