Not An Object: On Sexualization and Exploitation of Women and Girls

May 9, 2016

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women holds an annual two-week session every March at the United Nations Headquarters to bring together advocates from around the globe to address the issues most affecting women and girls. This year, the End Trafficking project and Together for Girls hosted a side event at the CSW 60 with Girl Be Heard and the International Council of Jewish Women to speak about how the objectification of girls in media is linked to violence against women and girls. This blog was co-authored by Jaimee Swift and Hannah Gould. 

Approximately 60,000 adolescent girls die each year as a result of violence and 120 million girls in the world today – about one in ten – have been victims of rape or forced sexual acts. In the United States, an estimated 11 percent of high school girls report that they have been raped.  And globally, according to data from the Together for Girl-supported Violence Against Children Survey (VACS), one in four girls experience sexual violence before age 18 and about one in four girls’ first sex was forced.

But why are women and girls so often the victims of violence?

Unfortunately there is not one answer to that question. However, when women and girls are repeatedly objectified and their bodies hypersexualized, the media contributes to harmful gender stereotypes that often trivialize violence against girls.

Based on a 2010 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) on the sexualization of girls in the media, exposure to media among youth creates the potential for massive exposure to portrayals that sexualize women and girls and teach girls that women are objects. Examining various media, the findings proved girls are portrayed in a sexual manner more often than boys; dressed in revealing clothing, and with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness. In a study conducted in 2008, researchers at Wesleyan University found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8 percent of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects.  However, when women appeared in advertisements in men’s magazines, they were objectified 76 percent of the time.

With these hypersexualized models of femininity constantly being perpetuated in the media, the negative implications affecting the mental, emotional and physical wellness of girls are many and affect women and girls on a global scale.

Consequences for girls and women include anxiety about appearance, feelings of shame, eating disorders, lower self-esteem and depression.

According to the Dove Self Esteem Project, globally, only 11 percent of girls would call themselves beautiful and six in ten girls avoid participating in fundamental life activities because of concerns about the way they look. One in three 6-year olds in Japan experiences low body confidence; Australian girls say that body image is one of their top three worries in life; 81 percent of 10-year old girls in the U.S. are afraid of being fat; and more that 110,000 girls in Brazil underwent cosmetic surgery in 2009.

In addition, sexual objectification contributes to harmful gender stereotypes that normalize violence against girls.

Of course, these stereotypes are not only harmful for girls, but for boys as well. Boys see how their bodies are portrayed in relation to girls and learn to believe success or attractiveness is tied to dominance, power, and aggression.

Advertisements can set the gauge for what a culture considers normal. When the media reinforces power dynamics that degrade and harm women and make violence toward them seem trivial, it reduces the likelihood that acts of violence, especially acts of sexual violence, will be reported.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted research on the sexual victimization of college women. Researchers found that less than five percent of the rapes experienced by the women they surveyed had been reported to authorities. The most common reason cited by rape victims for not informing law enforcement officials was the fear that the occurrence was not serious or harmful enough.

This is a huge problem. Because when it comes to dating violence, domestic violence, rape on campus, and sex trafficking – the main way victims can get help is by coming forward and reporting that they have been assaulted and exploited. Law enforcement and social service providers can do little to help women self-identify, so it’s up to our culture and our media to empower women to believe that any offense is serious and harmful – that any amount of violence is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, the media is not empowering women. The media sends the message that girls need to be pretty, not powerful; noticed, not respected.  And this is incredibly harmful, not just to a girl and her development, but to our culture at large.

However, while the sexual exploitation of women and girls and is rampant, there are change makers and organizations that you can work with that are combatting the media objectification of girls:

·         Founded by Academy Award-winning actor and advocate Geena Davis, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is the only research-based organization working within the media and entertainment industry to engage, educate, and influence media producers to dramatically improve gender representation in films; to stop stereotyping girls and women; and to create diverse female characters in entertainment targeting children ages 11 and under.

·         SPARK, a girl-powered, intergenerational activist organization, is working online to ignite an anti-racist, gender justice movement – one article at a time. Standing for “Sexualization Protest Action Resistance Knowledge,” SPARK is a movement for girls, by girls who are creating innovative solutions against sexualization, objectification and images of violence against women that are present in media and society.

·         The 4 Every Girl campaign is calling on entertainment and media industry leaders to create an environment where young girls feel valued and are defined by health media images of themselves. Sign their petition to call on leaders in the entertainment and media industries to produce media images that respect, empower and promote the true value of every girl.

·         Together for Girls and the End Trafficking project work to address harmful attitudes and social norms that condone violence against children. Through community mobilization, intervention programs and awareness campaigns, our initiatives reduce acceptance of violence and foster support for gender equality, making the world a safer place for girls and boys everywhere. To learn more about this topic and find more ways to take action on this issue, check out Together for Girls’ digital magazine Safe.

Hannah Gould (left) and Jaimee Swift (second from left) served as panelists in the "Protect Our Girls: Sexualization, Exploitation, and the Media" side event at the sixtieth session of the Commission of the Status of Women. Hannah Gould is an End Trafficking Fellow at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and Jaimee Swift is the Communications and Youth Advocacy Officer at Together for Girls. 

Together for Girls is a global public-private partnership dedicated to ending violence against children, with a focus on sexual violence against girls. To address this egregious human rights violation and public health problem, Together for Girls brings together the expertise and resources of many of the strongest organizations working globally in development, public health, and children and women’s rights to collaborate with national governments and civil society.

The  End Trafficking project is the U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s initiative to raise awareness about child trafficking and mobilize communities to take meaningful action to help protect children. In partnership with concerned individuals and groups, the End Trafficking project aims to bring us all closer to a day where there are no exploited children. If you would like to support the End Trafficking project, you can host a fundraiser or film screening by filling out our application HERE or download our free educational resources HERE