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Sexualisation of Young People Review

Sexualisation of Young People

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Dr Linda Papadopoulos

Dr Linda Papadopoulos is one of the most well-known and respected psychologists

working in the UK. Her comments regarding the psychology behind news and
current events are often syndicated by the press and discussed by television and
radio networks both in Britain and in America.

She has a very prolific academic publication record and has published widely in peer
reviewed academic journals in the field of Counselling and Medical psychology. She
has also written several academic and self-help books and is often invited to give
specialist lectures at numerous universities and medical schools both in England and
throughout the world.

Founder and director of the successful Programme in Counselling Psychology at

the London Metropolitan University, Dr Papadopoulos was appointed Reader in
psychology in 2001 – a great distinction at such a young age.

Dr Papadopoulos is a chartered counselling and health psychologist who has

worked in various treatment settings both privately, with her own practice and
in the National Health Service. During her 12 years as a chartered psychologist,
she has gained extensive experience in the counselling of individuals, couples and

With a prolific and distinguished career that keeps her very busy, Dr Papadopoulos
values her free time. She enjoys family life in London with her husband and their
young daughter.
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Foreword 3

1. Executive summary 5

2. Introduction 17

3. Background and context 19

4. What is sexualisation and why does it matter? 22

5. Sexualised content and the mainstreaming of pornography 33

6. The impact of sexualisation 53

7. Sexualisation and violence 65

8. Recommendations 75

9. Bibliography 85

10. Acknowledgements 100

Sexualisation of Young People Review

Sexualisation of Young People Review

hyper-sexualisation and objectification
of girls on the one hand, and hyper-
masculinisation of boys on the other,
perpetuate and reinforce each other.
Throughout the course of the review,
what has become very apparent is that
sexualisation is a multi-factorial issue
and therefore needs to be approached
from a range of perspectives, taking into
account not only the emotional and
cognitive development of children but also
the influence of family, culture and society
as a whole. 
Over the past months, my team and I have
reviewed hundreds of articles from the
fields of psychology, sociology, education,
politics and media. We have interviewed
people working on the front-line with
When I was approached by the Home
abused children and abusers. We have
Secretary to conduct an independent
spoken to young people, parents, teachers,
review on the impact of the sexualisation
clinicians, academics, policy-makers and
of young girls on violence against women,
lobbyists. What came across loud and clear
I genuinely welcomed the opportunity to
is that this is a very emotive issue – and so,
take a critical look at this area. As both
I wanted to ensure that the evidence
a psychologist and as a mother, I was
was presented as objectively as possible
very aware that this was a topic that was
so that a public debate could ensue and
gaining increasing amounts of attention
informed decisions about how to address
both in academic literature and the
these issues could be made. This is not an
popular press.
opinion piece, the evidence and arguments
Although the original intention of the presented within this document are not
review was to focus on how sexualisation based on conjecture but on empirical data
is affecting girls, it quickly became evident from peer reviewed journals, and evidence
that we could not talk about girls without from professionals and clinicians. Behind
acknowledging the concomitant impact the social commentary and the headlines
on boys and the hyper-masculinised about inappropriate clothing and games
images and messages that surround them. for children, there are the real statistics, on
The scope of the review was therefore teenage partner violence, sexual bullying
widened to encompass the sexualisation and abuse that need to be acknowledged
of all young people and to look at how and addressed.

Sexualisation of Young People Review

In addressing these issues we must not

forget that sexual curiosity is a normal
feature of childhood and therefore
we need to provide young people
with the tools that will enable them
to deal with sexual content safely and
successfully. I believe that providing our
kids with a set of realistic, non-exploitative
representations of gender and sexuality
would go a long way towards ensuring
their healthy emotional – and sexual
– development and promoting gender
I want my little girl, indeed, all girls and
boys, to grow up confident about who
they are and about finding and expressing
their individuality and sexuality, but not
through imposed gender stereotypes
or in a way that objectifies the body
or commodifies their burgeoning
sexuality. This review is a step towards
understanding how, as parents, as
educators and as citizens we can take
responsibility for creating safe and
supportive environments for our children
to understand and explore relationships
and sexuality – and ensure that they do so
in their own time and at their own pace.

Sexualisation of Young People Review

1. Executive summary

“How have sex, sexiness and sexualisation

gained such favour in recent years as to be the
measure by which women’s and girls’ worth is
judged? While it is not a new phenomenon by
any means, there is something different about
the way it occurs today and how it impacts on
younger and younger girls.”1
1. Violence against women and sexually available. The report looks
girls is unacceptable, whatever at examples and the prevalence of
the circumstances and whatever sexualisation in culture and proposes
the context. In March 2009, the mechanisms by which sexualised
government launched the Together messages are being internalised and
We Can End Violence Against Women the consequences of these on young
and Girls consultation in order to raise people.
awareness of the problem and explore
policy proposals and ideas designed to 3. The world is saturated by more
help prevent violence against women images today than at any other
and girls. This report forms part of time in our modern history. Behind
that consultation.1 each of these images lies a message
about expectations, values and ideals.
2. This review looks at how sexualised Women are revered – and rewarded
images and messages may be affecting – for their physical attributes and both
the development of children and girls and boys are under pressure to
young people and influencing cultural emulate polarised gender stereotypes
norms, and examines the evidence from a younger and younger age.
for a link between sexualisation The evidence collected in this report
and violence. The decision by the suggests these developments are
government to commission this review having a profound impact, particularly
reflects the importance of the issue on girls and young women.
and the popular perception that
young people (and in particular young
women and girls) are increasingly
being pressured into appearing

McLellan, Sexualised and Trivialized – Making 5
Equality Impossible. Quoted in: Tankard Reist
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Sexualisation, learning is also the cumulative or ‘drip drip’

effect of exposure to sexualised
and development messages, themes and images over
time and in diverse settings. Children
4. Healthy sexuality is an important
and young people now have easy
component of both physical and
access to material that may not be
mental health. When based on mutual
age-appropriate. Core cognitive
respect between consenting partners,
learning and developmental theories
sex fosters intimacy, bonding and
demonstrate that children learn
shared pleasure.2 Sexualisation is the
vicariously from what they see, and
imposition of adult sexuality on to
that exposure to themes which a child
children and young people before they
is not developmentally ready to cope
are capable of dealing with it, mentally,
with can have a detrimental effect.5
emotionally or physically.
7. Children and young people today
5. While sexualised images have featured
are not only exposed to increasing
in advertising and communications
amounts of hyper-sexualised images,
since mass media first emerged,
they are also sold the idea that they
what we are seeing now is an
have to look ‘sexy’ and ‘hot’. As such
unprecedented rise in both the
they are facing pressures that children
volume and the extent to which these
in the past simply did not have to face.
images are impinging on everyday
As children grow older, exposure to
life. Increasingly, too, children are
this imagery leads to body surveillance,
being portrayed in ‘adultified’ ways
or the constant monitoring of personal
while adult women are ‘infantilised’.3
appearance. This monitoring can result
This leads to a blurring of the
in body dissatisfaction, a recognised
lines between sexual maturity and
risk factor for poor self-esteem,
immaturity and, effectively, legitimises
depression and eating disorders.6
the notion that children can be related
Indeed, there is a significant amount of
to as sexual objects.
evidence that attests to the negative
6. A number of factors shape the effects of sexualisation on young
way children and young people are people in terms of mental and physical
responding to the sexualisation of health, attitudes and beliefs.7
culture. One of the most significant
8. If we are going to address this issue
is the individual child’s age and
then young people need to develop
level of cognitive and emotional
and grow in surroundings where
development. Regardless of a child’s
they are admired for their abilities,
level of sophistication, when it comes
talents and values. It is important to
to internalising media and advertising
stress however, that in the diverse,
messages, there is a large body
multicultural UK context, cultural,
of research from developmental
religious and class backgrounds will
psychologists that attests to the fact
invariably influence the family’s role in
that young children do not have
mediating sexualised media content
the cognitive skills to cope with
persuasive media messages.4 There
Bandura (1971); Bem (1981)
McKinley (1999); Moradi et al. (2005); Polivy,
Satcher (2001) Herman et al. (2002); Tolman, Impett, Tracy and
Evidence provided to the review by Michael (2006)
Dr K. Sarikakis (2009) 7
Abramson and Valene (1991); Durkin and
Mayo & Nairn (2009) Paxton (2002); Harrison (2000)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

and views of what is appropriate it is important to look at the social

and acceptable. The psychological scripts children are being influenced by
ramifications of sexualisation, from and what makes children susceptible
violence in teenage relationships to to them.
self-objectification, are seen across
diverse class systems, suggesting Magazines, marketing and
that the issue of sexualisation is not advertising
confined to either a single race or class.
12. A dominant theme in magazines
seems to be the need for girls to
Sexualised present themselves as sexually
content and the desirable in order to attract male
attention.9 Worryingly, there is also a
mainstreaming of trend for children in magazines to be
dressed and posed in ways designed
pornography to draw attention to sexual features
9. Children and young people are that they do not yet have. At the same
exposed to an unprecedented time, advice on hairstyles, cosmetics,
range of media content, through an clothing, diet, and exercise attempt
ever-growing number of channels. to remake even young readers as
Furthermore, the proportion of objects of male desire,10 promoting
that content which is sexual or premature sexualisation.11 In the case
even pornographic is increasing at a of boys, ‘lads’ mags’ contain a high
dramatic rate. Until relatively recently, degree of highly sexualised images of
there was a way to at least try and women that blur the lines between
ensure that these were targeted to pornography and mainstream media.
the right audience. However, there is The predominant message for boys
no ‘watershed’ on the internet, and is to be sexually dominant and to
sexualised images and adverts may objectify the female body.
appear anywhere and are often sent 13. Over the past three decades there has
indiscriminately to e-mail accounts and been a dramatic increase in the use
mobile phones. of sexualised imagery in advertising.
10. With proliferation comes While most of this imagery features
normalisation. It is no surprise women,12 there has also been a
therefore that when researchers significant increase in the number
examine the content of young of sexualised images of children.13
people’s web pages they find that Sexualised ideals of young, thin, beauty
young teens are posting sexually lead to ideals of bodily perfection
explicit images of themselves on social that are difficult to attain, even for
networking sites, and self-regulating the models, which perpetuates the
each other with sexist, derogatory and industry practice of ‘airbrushing’
demeaning language.8 photographs. These images can lead

11. In order to genuinely understand

one of the main factors at play here,
Carpenter (1998); Durham (1998); Garner,
Sterk, and Adams (1998); McMahon (1990)
namely how young people internalise
the messages they are exposed to,
Duffy and Gotcher (1996)
Rush and La Nauze (2006)
Reichert et al. (1999)
Ringrose (2008) 13
Tankard-Reist (2010)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

people to believe in a reality that does 16. Music channels and videos across all
not exist, which can have a particularly genres have been found to sexualise
detrimental effect on adolescents.14 and objectify women.20 Women are
often shown in provocative and
14. At the same time, marketers are revealing clothing and are depicted as
effectively encouraging young girls being in a state of sexual readiness.
to present themselves in a sexual Males on the other hand are shown
way. Bratz dolls for example, are as hyper-masculine and sexually
child‑friendly characters presented in dominant. Research into the often
a notably sexualised way.15 Pencil cases sexual and violent content of music
and stationery for school children lyrics is comparatively thin on the
carry the Playboy bunny logo. Padded ground. However, an important
bras, thongs and high heeled shoes are connection between sexualised music
marketed and sold to children as young lyrics and their influence on shaping
as eight. Such blurring suggests that it young people’s early sexual activity
is acceptable to impose adult sexual is that the causality is not just related
themes onto children, and potentially to sexual content of lyrics, but also to
relate to children as sexual objects.16 their degrading nature.21
Television, film and music New technologies
15. Women on TV are far more likely 17. Over 80 per cent of young people
than their male counterparts to use the internet daily or weekly22 and
be provocatively dressed17 and around a third of 8–11-year-olds and
scenes of violence against women 60 per cent of 12–15-year-olds say
are increasingly common. A recent that they mostly use the internet on
report found that depictions of their own.23 Almost half of children
violence against women on TV had aged 8–17 and a quarter of those
risen by 120 per cent since 2004 aged between eight and 11 have a
while violence against teenage girls profile on a social networking site
rose by 400 per cent.18 There is also such as Bebo, MySpace or Facebook.24
a significant under-representation of While sites set age limits (typically
women and girls in non-sexualised 13 or 14), these are not generally
roles in films. In the 101 highest enforced. Social networking sites
earning family films between 1990– allow children and young people
2004 over 75% of characters were to create online identities. Girls, for
male, 83% of narrators were male and instance, report being under increasing
72% of speaking roles were male.19 pressures to display themselves in
By missing the chance to present girls their ‘bra and knickers’ or bikinis
with a diverse range of characters online, whereas boys seek to display
to identify with, the visibility of their bodies in a hyper-masculine way
more hyper-sexualised heroines will showing off muscles, and posturing as
inevitably have a bigger impact. powerful and dominant.25 Sexualised
Coleman (2008) 20
Andsager and Roe (1999); Seidman (1992);
Evidence provided to the review by the British Sommers-Flanagan and Davis (1993)
Board of Film Classification (2009) 21
Matino et al (2006). Quoted in Coy (2009)
Buckleitner and Foundation (2008) 22
Livingstone, Bober and Helsper (2005)
Eaton (1997) 23
Ofcom (2009)
18 24
Ofcom (2008)
Ringrose (2010)
Kelly and Smith (2006)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

self-presentation could also mean that this review.31 Mobile phones are also
young people are exposing themselves being used for so-called ‘sexting’ – the
to danger: recently, public attention sending, often unsolicited, of sexually
has focused on the use of social explicit messages.
networking sites to sexually solicit
underage children and young people. 20. With advances in technology, video
games are becoming increasingly
18. With the rise of the internet, it is not graphic and realistic.32 At the same
now a case of if a young person will time, children are more and more
be exposed to pornography but when. likely to play games without adult
Before the mainstreaming of internet supervision: three-quarters of
access, it was asserted that the average 12–15-year-olds have a games console
age of first exposure to pornography in their bedroom.33 Many games
was 11 for males26; however, latest feature highly sexualised content and
research suggest that this age is now there is a notable lack of strong female
much lower.27 A recent YouGov survey characters.34 The link between violent
found that 27 per cent of boys are content and aggression has been cited
accessing pornography every week, in several studies35 and it is widely
with 5 per cent viewing it every day. accepted that exposure to content
The survey also found that 58 per that children are either emotionally
cent had viewed pornography online, or cognitively not mature enough for
on mobile phones, in magazines, in can have a negative impact. Whereas
films or on TV. Another study showed parents are not likely to allow their
that a quarter of young people had children to watch an 18 film, they are
received unsolicited pornographic junk much more lenient when it comes to
mail or instant messages while almost allowing their children to play age-
one in eight had visited pornographic inappropriate games. This may be
websites showing violent images.28 because they do not fully understand
either the realism or the themes that
19. By the age of 15, 95 per cent of young these games contain.
people have their own mobile phone.29
Mobile phones allow young people The role of parents, schools
easy access to all kinds of online
content, regardless of whether or not and corporate responsibility
it is appropriate. Figures show that in 21. The evidence so far indicates that
2007, mobile phones were the UK’s it is time we critically examine the
biggest distributor of pornography.30 cumulative effect of the media
The use of mobile phones as a tool messages to which our children are
for bullying, controlling or monitoring exposed and how we can mitigate any
a dating-partner has attracted negative effects resulting from them.
considerable media attention recently, Installing filters on computers and
and was frequently raised during the locks on mobile phones is of course
evidence sessions held as part of important. But sexualised content

Bryant (1985)
Evidence Hearing Sessions for the Review
(May 2009 – July 2010)
Greenfield (2004) 32
Martinez and Manolovitz (2009)
Livingstone and Bober et al. (2005) 33
Ofcom (2009)
Ofcom (2008) 34
Dill and Thill (2007)
Juniper Research, Quoted in: Daw and Cabb
Anderson and Dill (2000); Freedman (2002);
Deselms and Altman (2003) 9
Sexualisation of Young People Review

is everywhere and, often, children

and young people are accessing it
The impact of
alone, in a setting that gives them sexualisation
no opportunity to ask questions or
discuss their feelings. Body image and gender
22. Parents are a powerful force in shaping inequality
their children’s attitudes to gender 25. In the past it was adult women who
and sexuality and have a vital role felt the imperative to look ‘hot’ and
to play in supporting their children ‘sexy’, now this imperative is being
to cope with and contextualise adopted by younger and younger
sexualised images and messages. girls who will inevitably face the same
However, parents can also contribute feelings of inadequacy and failure to
to the sexualisation of their children live up to an unrealistic ideal. The
in very direct ways. For example, by mass media promotes and reinforces
reinforcing self-objectification through an idealised notion of beauty for
encouraging or supporting the use of both men and women, presenting
cosmetic surgery as a means of ‘fixing’ standards – of thinness for women
poor body confidence or self-esteem and of muscularity for men – that few
– a phenomenon that is increasing at can ever hope to achieve. The effects
an alarming rate.36 of this are apparent – eating disorders
are on the rise. The eating disorder
23. Schools can help children develop charity BEAT estimates that 1.6 million
the capacity to interpret and filter people in the UK have an eating
information and to recognise and disorder. The vast majority of these
value diversity. As such perhaps we – some 1.4 million – are female.37
need to consider the value of media And now we’re starting to see what
literacy and gender studies and begin happens when you tweak the message
to see them as core to the curriculum – young women need to be not
we teach our children. Sex education, only thin, but also sexually desirable.
too, must focus on preparing young As anorexia increases so now does
people to form healthy, respectful, the number of young women having
emotionally fulfilling relationships. breast implants at an increasingly
24. Businesses must also play their part younger age.38
here. There have been numerous 26. It can be tempting to think that
reports over the past few years girls are taking the brunt, that boys
of how major high street retailers have it easier. But in some ways, the
have promoted, and then on second messages we are sending out to boys
thought withdrawn, clothing, games are just as limiting and restrictive: be
and products for children that are macho, be strong, don’t show your
undoubtedly age inappropriate. There emotions. Hyper-sexualisation of
is a clear role here for government femininity cannot exist without hyper-
to support and promote corporate masculinisation of males. They feed off
responsibility. and reinforce each other.


of-surgery/breast-enlargement/breast-implants- Zuckerman and Abraham (2008)

10 linked-to-suicide-risk/105
Sexualisation of Young People Review

27. Repeated exposure to gender- by the Department for Work and

stereotypical ideas and images Pensions43 shows that Jobcentres are
contributes to sexist attitudes and routinely advertising for vacancies
beliefs; sexual harassment; violence at escort agencies, lap-dancing clubs,
against women; and stereotyped massage parlours and TV sex channels.
perceptions of, and behaviour toward, We are seeing the normalisation of
men and women.39 Although sexual these trades as viable career choices.
objectification is but one form of The fact that both within celebrity and
gender oppression, it is one that popular culture women are habitually
factors into – and perhaps enables – heralded as successful and celebrated
a host of other oppressions women for their sex appeal and appearance
face, ranging from employment – with little reference to their intellect
discrimination and sexual violence to or abilities – sends out a powerful
the trivialisation of women’s work and message to young people about what
accomplishments.40 is of value and what they should
focus on.
Mainstreaming of the sex
industry Sexualisation and
28. With the ubiquity of sexualisation
and the increasing pornification of
society has come the mainstreaming 30. Research has shown that adults –
of the sex industry, as exemplified including women44 – who viewed
by the proliferation of lap-dancing sexually objectifying images of women
clubs. Sexualisation – and the in the mainstream media were more
commodification of women and girls – likely to be accepting of violence.45
is now so ingrained in our culture that The evidence gathered in the
glamour modelling and lap-dancing are review suggests a clear link between
widely viewed not only as acceptable consumption of sexualised images, a
but in some cases aspirational.41 tendency to view women as objects
and the acceptance of aggressive
29. Sexualisation is tied to economic attitudes and behaviour as the norm.
markets in the forms of beauty and Both the images we consume and the
sex industries, that both open and way we consume them are lending
restrict the breadth and variety of credence to the idea that women are
identities and ambitions open to there to be used and that men are
young women. A growing number of there to use them.
girls are setting their sights on careers
that demand a ‘sexy’ image. Surveys 31. There is a significant amount of
have found for instance that a high evidence linking stereotypical attitudes
proportion of young women in the to women’s sexuality and sexist beliefs
UK aspire to work as ‘glamour models’ with aggressive sexual behaviour.46
or lap-dancers.42 A report released
Kilbourne and Lazarus (1987); Lazier-Smith 44
Johnson & Adams et al. (1995)
(1989); UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural 45
Kalof (1999); Lanis and Covell (1995)
Organisation (1980) 46
Dean and Malamuth (1997); Malamuth and
Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) Briere (1986); Malamuth and Donnerstein
Coy (2009), Coy and Garner (in press) (1982, 1984); Murnen, Wright and Kaluzny
Deeley (2008) (2002); Osland, Fitch and Willis (1996); Spence,
Losoff and Robbins (1991); Truman, Tokar and 11
Fischer (1996); Vogel (2000)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

A recent Home Office survey found female body, and the pressure on boys
that 36 per cent of people believed to conform to a hyper-masculine ideal,
that a woman should be held wholly are having a very real effect on young
or partly responsible for being sexually people’s day-to-day lives.
assaulted or raped if she was drunk,
while 26 per cent believed a woman 34. There is growing evidence from
should accept at least part of the educational and social scientists that
blame for an attack if she was out girls are facing increasing sexism
in public wearing sexy or revealing in the playground and classroom.
clothes.47 Researchers have indicated that cases
of sexual harassment and forms
Young people, sexual of gendered and sexualised name
calling and bullying may be on the
bullying and violence rise in both primary and secondary
32. The shocking results of a recent survey schools.48, 49
carried out by the NSPCC show
that for many young people, violence Pornography and sexual
within relationships is commonplace – aggression
one in three teenage girls aged 13–17
had been subjected to unwanted 35. Pornography shapes young people’s
sexual acts while in a relationship, sexual knowledge but does so by
and one in four had suffered physical portraying sex in unrealistic ways.
violence. And, although both sexes are The nature of online pornography is
experiencing partner violence, girls are changing: it is increasingly dominated
suffering more as a result. A significant by themes of aggression, power and
proportion of the girls surveyed stated control, blurring the lines between
that the violence had seriously affected consent, pleasure and violence.50
their welfare; for boys, there appeared 36. Advances in technology are making
to be few consequences. NSPCC’s pornography more and more
Head of Child Protection Awareness accessible to children and young
Chris Cloke has described this as people. There is consistent and
evidence of a ‘culture of confusion reliable evidence that exposure to
about what is acceptable among pornography is related to male sexual
girls and boys living in today’s highly aggression against women. Prolonged
sexualised landscape.’ exposure increases the likelihood
33. In gangs, rape and sexual assault is of consuming material that depicts
increasingly becoming the weapon either potentially ‘harmful’ or, what
of choice. Assaulting a girl is used the UK government labels, ‘extreme’51
not only to assert power over the sexual behaviours such as violent
girl herself, but also over those who sex, sadomasochism and bestiality.
associate with her. And although gangs High pornography use is not in itself
make up only a small part of society in an indicator of high risk for sexual
the UK, the use of violence as a means aggression. However, adults who
to punish and control is not just in the
domain of sub-cultures – as shown by 48
Duncan (2004); Renold, (2003); Ringrose (2008)
the results from the NSPCC survey 49
Please note, this figure does not include the
on teen partner violence. It seems that total number of permanent exclusion in primary
notions of power and control over the and special school settings
Hanson and Tyd´en (2005); Dines (2008)
Home Office (2009) 51
McGlynn, Ward and Rackley (2009)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

are already predisposed to violent can be devastating, ranging from

activity and who also score high for post‑traumatic stress disorder, anxiety
pornography use are much more likely and depression, to sexual dysfunction,
to engage in sexual aggression.52 suicide and self-mutilation. It affects a
significant number of children in the
37. There has been a marked increase UK – estimated at over 2 million –
in the number of sites that infantilise although the vast majority of child
women. Adults exposed to ‘barely sexual abuse goes unreported.54
legal’ or virtual child pornography The majority of those who display
make stronger links between youth sexually harmful behaviour are actually
and sexuality than adults exposed adolescent males, with 25-40 per cent
to materials featuring older-looking of all alleged sexual abuse involving
models. They are also more likely young perpetrators.55
to associate sex and sexuality with
subsequent non-sexual depictions of 39. An issue of concern is that the
minors.53 When girls are dressed to sexualisation of girls is contributing to
resemble adult women, people may a market for child abuse images (often
associate adult motives and even a referred to as ‘child pornography’
sense of adult responsibility onto the in the media) or sex with children.
child. Depicting young girls dressed The fact that young girls are styling
or made up as sexually mature older themselves in overtly sexually
women may serve to normalize provocative ways for other young
abusive practices such as child abuse people’s consumption – whether this
or sexual exploitation. be on social networking sites or via
photographs sent by email or mobile
Child abuse and sexual phones – makes them potentially
exploitation vulnerable. Young people themselves
38. Child sexual abuse lies at the are now producing and swapping what
extreme end of the spectrum of is in effect ‘child pornography’ – a fact
consequences of sexualisation. The borne out by the growing numbers of
psychological effects of sexual abuse adolescents that are being convicted
for possession of this material.56

Cawson et al. (2000)
Malamuth, Addison and Koss (2000) harmful_behaviour_wda33252.html
Paul and Linz (2008) 56
Carr (2004) 13
Sexualisation of Young People Review

40. There is broad agreement from 41. Sexualisation is a profoundly
researchers and experts in health important issue that impacts
and welfare that sexualising children individuals, families and society as
prematurely places them at risk a whole. Unless sexualisation is
of a variety of harms.57 However, accepted as harmful, in line with the
what we need is further empirical evidence presented in this report,
evidence in the form of large scale and similar reports from the US and
longitudinal studies that will look Australia, we will miss an important
in detail at the effects on boys and opportunity here: an opportunity to
girls of living in a sexualised culture broaden young people’s beliefs about
across their development. Many of where their value lies; to think about
the mechanisms that have been cited strategies for guiding children around
as disseminating hyper-sexualised sexualisation and objectification;
ideals to children are a consequence and to create new tools and spaces
of recent advancements in media for young people to develop and
and technology. Only now are we explore their sexuality in their own
beginning to see a concerted effort time and in their own way.
by psychologists and other social
scientists to address this issue.

Recommendations for schools. New SRE resource materials

should be made available for teachers
Education and schools
who work with children with special
1) All school staff to have training on education needs and learning difficulties.
gender equality. Specialist training should
4) Schools to ensure that all incidents
be given to those who teach Personal,
of sexual bullying are recorded and
Social, Health and Economic (PSHE)
reported separately to other forms of
education and citizenship.
2) The Department for Children, Schools
5) New practical ‘How To’ guidance on
and Families (DCSF) to issue statutory
tackling sexualisation is disseminated to
guidance to schools to promote a ‘whole
all schools.
school’ approach to tackling gender
inequality, sexual and sexist bullying and 6) Primary schools should make specific
violence against women and girls. reference to the influence of the media
on body image and personal identity
3) References on sexualisation, gender
within a new programme of study on
stereotypes and pornography to be
‘Understanding Physical Development,
included in DCSF’s revised Sex and
Health and Wellbeing’.
Relationships Education (SRE) guidance


APA (2007); Coy (2009); Malamuth (2001); Tankard-Reist (2010)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Recommendations (cont.) 16) One-to-one confidential help

in school/college from a trained
7) A module on gender equality,
professional such as a psychologist to be
sexualisation and sexist/sexual bullying
made available to every child and young
be developed as part of the DCSF’s
Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning
(SEAL) programme. Media and awareness-raising
8) Media literacy should be taught not 17) A national campaign to be launched
only through PSHE education but also to address the issue of teenage
through English, drama, the arts, history relationship abuse, including a specific
and citizenship. pack for primary and secondary schools
so that they can build on issues arising
9) More investment in youth workers to
from the campaign.
enable them to work with young people
outside of mainstream education around 18) A working group of high profile
the issues of sexuality, sexist and sexual women in media together with academics
bullying and gender equality. should be set up to monitor and address
gender inequality in the media.
10) The UK Council for Child Internet
Safety (UKCCIS) to further develop its 19) The establishment of a media award
current online resource centre where that promotes diverse, aspirational and
parents can access internet safety advice. non-sexualised portrayals of young people.
11) Digital literacy to be made a 20) The government to launch an
compulsory part of the national curriculum online ‘one-stop-shop’ to allow the
for children from the age of five. public to voice their concerns regarding
irresponsible marketing which sexualises
12) The government should work with
children with an onus on regulatory
internet service providers to block
authorities to take action. The website
access to pro-anorexia (‘pro-ana’) and
could help inform future government
pro-bulimia (‘pro-mia’) websites.
policy by giving parents a forum to
13) A schools campaign to be developed raise issues of concern regarding the
which promotes positive role models sexualisation of young people.
for young men and young women and
21) Information on body image, self-
challenges gender stereotypes.
esteem, eating disorders and e-safety
14) Schools should encourage girls to to be included in the government’s
value their bodies in terms of their physical proposed ‘Positive Parenting’ booklets
ability. This should be linked to the work of for parents of older children.
the 2012 ‘Get Set’ education programme.
22) The government should support
15) Local Authorities must be the Adversing Standards Agency
accountable for treating victims of child (ASA) to take steps to extend the
sexual abuse and ensure that specialist existing regulatory standards to include
services receive adequate funding for commercial websites.
the treatment of children who have
been abused.

Sexualisation of Young People Review

Recommendations (cont.) and retailers to encourage corporate

responsibility with regard to sexualised
23) The introduction of a system of
merchandise. Guidelines should be
ratings symbols for photographs to
issued for retailers following consultation
show the extent to which they have
with major clothing retailers and parents’
been altered. This is particularly critical in
magazines targeting teen and pre-teen
audiences. 31) The existing voluntary code for
retailers regarding the placements of
24) The content of outdoor
‘lads’ mags’ should be replaced by a
advertisements to be vetted by local
mandatory code. ‘Lads’ mags’ should be
authorities as part of their gender
clearly marked as recommended for sale
equality duty to ensure that images
only to persons aged 15 and over.
and messages are not offensive on the
grounds of gender. 32) The government overturns its
decision to allow vacancies for jobs in
25) Broadcasters are required to ensure
the adult entertainment industry to be
that music videos featuring sexual posing
advertised by Jobcentre Plus.
or sexually suggestive lyrics are broadcast
only after the ‘watershed.’ Research
26) The current gap in the regulatory 33) A new academic periodical to be
protection provided by the Video established and an annual conference
Recordings Act 1984 to be closed by series should be held focusing solely on
removing the general exemption for the topic of sexualisation.
‘works concerned with music’.
34) Funding be made available for
27) Regulation of UK-based video on research that will strengthen the current
demand services to be strengthened to evidence base on sexualisation. This
ensure that they do not allow children to should include trend research into
access hardcore pornography. teenage partner violence and frequency
of sexual bullying and abuse.
28) Games consoles should be sold with
parental controls already switched on. 35) Clinical outcome research to be
Purchasers can choose to ‘unlock’ the funded and supported to find the most
console if they wish to allow access to effective ways to identify, assess and
adult and online content. work with the perpetrators and victims
of child sexual abuse.
29) This idea should be extended to
‘child friendly’ computers and mobile 36) A detailed examination of media
phones where adult content is filtered literacy programmes should be carried
out by default. out jointly by the DCSF, and the
Department for Culture, Media and
Working with businesses and retailers
Sport (DCMS).
30) The government to support the
NSPCC in its work with manufacturers

Sexualisation of Young People Review

2. Introduction
Sexualisation is a growing phenomenon: recommendations for research, clinical
from magazines to TV to mobile phones, practice, education and training, policy and
sexualised images and messages are awareness-raising.
everywhere. Journalists, child advocacy
organisations, parents and psychologists It is not the intention of this review to
argue that this is having a damaging enter into a theoretical debate on the
effect on children and young people.56 precise definition of sexualisation (see
This report aims to find out whether Chapter 4). The evidence gathered
this is really the case, and to explore here suggests that the proliferation and
the possible links between exposure accessibility of sexualised content may be
to sexualised images and content and jeopardising the mental and physical well-
violence against women and girls. being of young people in the UK. Our aim
is to focus attention on the need for a
This report was commissioned by the collaborative approach to safeguarding
Home Office Violent Crime Unit as part young people and promoting a healthy
of the Together We Can End Violence transition from childhood to adulthood.
Against Women consultation, launched in This report is concerned primarily with
early 2009. The consultation called for ‘a the rights of the child, and with protecting
fact-finding review into the sexualisation the health, well-being and safety of every
of teenage girls’. This, broadly, is the child in the UK.
review’s remit, although evidence relating
to the sexualisation of pre-teenage Methodology
children and of boys as well as girls has
also been included.58 The report is based on a critical, thorough
and comprehensive desk-based review
The report begins by summarising the of available data on the sexualisation of
background to the sexualisation debate young people. We have drawn on existing
and some of the main theories of how government research and statistics, lobby
young people learn and develop. It goes group publications and academic journals
on to look at the volume and spread of in order to build a comprehensive picture.
sexualised images and content by media
channel and at the possible impact this has Stakeholders have also been invited to
on self-esteem, body image, mental health submit their views on processes and
and personal relationships. It also considers structures relating to the sexualisation
the possible links between sexualisation of young people and possible links with
and violence. Finally, the report suggests violence. Those responding to the call for
evidence included:

American Psychological Association Task Force
on the Sexualisation of Girls (2007). Herein
referred to as ‘APA’

Sexualisation of Young People Review

C. Bankes and I. McGibbon – Gangs, TKAP, D. Glover – Commissioner of Factual

Violent Crime Unit, Home Office Programming, Channel 4
C. Banatvala, A. Marsden – Director of C. Green and H. Elsdon-Smithers –
Standards, Ofcom White Ribbon Campaign
M. Banos-Smith – Womankind D. James-Hanman – Director, Greater
C. Barter – University of Bristol London Domestic Violence Project
D. Buckingham – Professor of Education, K. Iwi – Respect
Institute of Education and Director, Centre P. Johnson – British Board of Film
for the Study of Children, Youth and Media Classification
O. Campbell and L. Taffe – Advertising M. J. Kehily – Senior Lecturer, Childhood
Standards Agency and Youth Studies, Open University
C. Christie – Taskforce on Violence L. Lawrence – Policy Lead on Personal,
Against Women and Children, Social and Health Education, Curriculum
Department of Health Unit, Department for Children, Schools
M. Coy – Child and Woman Abuse and Families
Studies Unit, London Metropolitan S. Levenque and A. Heeswijk – OBJECT
University A. Martinez – Sex Education Forum
F. Crow – Assistant Director, National E. Mayo – Co-operatives UK
Children’s Bureau T. Narducci, Z. Hilton and V. Patel – NSPCC
C. Dawes – Department for Culture, N. O’Brien – Brook Advisory Centre
Media and Sport (DCMS)
T. Palmer – founder, Marie Collins
S. Delaney – Team Manager, Birmingham Foundation
Sexually Harmful Behaviour Team
A. Ramage – Series Producer, Sex
S. Dyer – Beatbullying Education versus Pornography, Endemol
R. Einhorn – NSPCC Sexual Exploitation K. Richardson – Child Exploitation &
Service Online Protection Centre
L. Emmerson – Sex Education Forum J. Ringrose – Senior Lecturer, Sociology
C. Firmin – Race on the Agenda of Gender and Education, Institute of
G. Frances, J. Sharpen and F. Mackay – Education
Members of the VAWG Advisory Group K. Sarikakis – Director, Centre for
R. Gill – Professor and Director Centre International Communications Research,
for Cultural, Media and Creative Industries University of Leeds
Research, Kings College, London A. Speechly – Youth Justice Board

Sexualisation of Young People Review

3. Background and context

“An integrated approach is necessary to

ensuring not only that violence against
women becomes universally regarded as an
unacceptable and criminal violation of women’s
human rights, but also that victims of sexual,
physical and psychological violence receive the
attention and support that they need to be able
to escape and resolve their situation.”59

Violence against women and girls is to protect women and provide support
unacceptable, whatever the circumstances to victims of violence. There are currently
and whatever the context. The UK 31 legal frameworks in place, covering
government is committed to taking action issues including rape and sexual violence;
to further reduce the number of violent domestic violence; female genital
incidents and to counter the tendency mutilation; forced marriage; ‘honour’
for violence to become ‘normalised’. crimes; trafficking; sexual harassment; and
This literature review forms part of a marital rape.
wider investigation into the underlying
causes and impacts of violence against With regard to children, local authorities
women and girls. It sets out to identify and schools are required to work with
how sexualised images and messages may each other and with other children’s
be affecting the development of children services to support the Every Child
and young people and influencing cultural Matters agenda, which sets out five key
norms with regard to sexual behaviour outcomes for children and young people:
and attitudes. 59 • be healthy;
Over the past decade, a number of • stay safe;
government departments have been • enjoy and achieve;
working with voluntary organisations to • make a positive contribution; and
deliver a package of measures designed • achieve economic well-being.60

violenceagainstwomen.pdf 60

Sexualisation of Young People Review

Performance against these outcomes is and girls) are increasingly being pressured
measured by a set of National Indicators, into appearing sexually available, and that
which cover key areas relevant to the this pressure is having a negative impact
sexualisation agenda including supporting on both attitudes and behaviours. During
children’s emotional health and reducing the public consultations held by the
the rate of conception for under-18s. Home Office in spring 2009, many parents
expressed concern about the pressure on
Some progress has been made. Over teenagers – and even younger children
the last decade the number of incidents – to appear sexually available and about
of domestic violence has more than the sexualisation of young people and its
halved while the conviction rate has possible links to violence.
risen significantly; however, there is still
much work to be done. Recent research Views expressed in recent surveys suggest
carried out by the NSPCC and Sugar,61 a that violence against women and girls
magazine targeted at teenage girls, found is becoming increasingly ‘normalised’.64
that 45 per cent of girls surveyed had According to a UK opinion poll carried
been ‘groped’ against their wishes. Another out in February 200965 16 per cent of
NSPCC study, this time carried out with people think it is sometimes acceptable
the University of Bristol,62 showed that for a man to slap his partner if she nags
a third of girls aged 13–17 had suffered him, while 20 per cent believe that it is
unwanted sexual acts within a relationship OK under certain circumstances to hit a
and a quarter had been victims of physical women if she is wearing revealing or sexy
violence. These findings form just a tiny clothing. As stated above, the NSPCC/
part of the growing evidence for what Bristol University study66 found that
the NSPCC’s Head of Child Protection experiences of sexual abuse and violence
Awareness Chris Cloke has described within relationships were commonplace
as a ‘culture of confusion about what is among teenage girls.
acceptable among girls and boys living in
today’s highly sexualised landscape.’63 The international
The Home Office context
The issue of sexualisation is raised in a
Violence Against number of international laws, protocols
Women and Girls and initiatives, including the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of
strategy Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
The Together We Can End Violence (1979), the Beijing Platform for Action
Against Women and Girls consultation (BpfA) (1995), and the Palermo Protocol
was launched in early 2009. The decision (2000).
to undertake this review as part of the CEDAW calls on all signatory states
consultation reflects the importance of the to take decisive action to tackle the
issue and growing perception that young objectification of women and girls. Article
people (and in particular young women 5 requires that measures are put in place
to modify the social and cultural patterns
Published in Sugar magazine, 23 May 2006
Barter, McCarry, Berridge and Evans (2009)
Barter, McCarry, Berridge and Evans (2009)
NSPCC press release, 22 May 2006 www.
pressreleases/22_may_2006_unwanted_sexual_ against-women-poll?view=Binary
20 experiences_wdn33559.html 66
Barter, McCarry, Berridge and Evans (2009)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

of men and women with a view to The American Psychological Association

eliminating prejudices and practices based (APA) Taskforce’s report on the
on the idea of the inferiority or superiority Sexualisation of Girls, published in 2007,
of either sex and/or on stereotyped roles explores how sexualisation is affecting
for men and women. CEDAW also states young girls cognitively and emotionally,
that the sexual objectification of women and impacting on their ability to develop
plays a role in maintaining inequality a healthy sexual self-image.67 In 2008, the
between the sexes, and has repeatedly Standing Committee on Environment,
identified links between the portrayal Communications and the Arts for the
of women as sex objects by the media Australian Senate published its report
and the sex industry and attitudes that on the Sexualisation of children in the
underpin violence and discrimination contemporary media.68
against women.
More recently, a French parliamentary
Strategic Objective J2 of the Beijing campaign, spearheaded by Valérie Boyer
Platform for Action calls for all states to MP, has called for all digitally enhanced
tackle unbalanced portrayals and the photographs to be printed with an
projection of negative and degrading attached health warning. Similarly, the
images of women in the media. Article 9 Real Women campaign, led by UK MP
of the Palermo Protocol requires states Jo Swinson, aims to encourage the
to discourage the demand that fosters public to challenge and complain about
all forms of exploitation (particularly of misleading or untruthful advertising,
women and children) which may lead including adverts featuring airbrushed
to trafficking. images, to the relevant authorities.
Finally, a report on sexualised goods aimed
at children was recently undertaken by the
Scottish Government.

APA (2007)

Australian Parliament, Standing Committee on


Environment, Communications and the Arts

(2008) 21
Sexualisation of Young People Review

4. What is sexualisation and

why does it matter?
“It is important to analyse cultural
representations of gender roles, sexuality and
relationships and ask what specific values
are being promoted and if these are having a
negative impact on child development. Key
questions include the impact on children... of
stereotyped images of passivity and sexual
objectification... the long term impacts of
early exposure to adult sexual themes and
the ways in which cultural exposure impacts
on parents’ roles in protecting and educating
children around sexuality in a developmentally
appropriate way.”69

The world is saturated by more images to the extent to which such stereotypes
today than at any other time in our have become ‘normalised’ that to object
modern history. Behind each of those is often to be accused of lacking a sense
images lies a message about expectations, of humour and proportion. As one
values and ideals. Images present and young teenager told me, “Girls call each
perpetuate a world where women are other names like ho and slag but its not
revered – and rewarded – for their always serious, sometimes it’s just for fun,
physical attributes and can put pressure just a way to tease each other or even
on both girls and boys to emulate as a compliment to tell a friend that she
polarized gender stereotypes from a looks hot or sexy”.70
younger and younger age. It is testament

Newman, The Psychological and Developmental Impact of Sexualisation on Children.
Quoted inTankard Reist (2010)
22 70
Evidence provided in a focus group, held as part of the Review (2009)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Introduction (cont.)
Attitudes thought to have been adolescents are highly susceptible to the
eradicated by the gender equality images and messages they see and hear
movement have somehow become around them particularly when, as is
acceptable again. Suddenly, it seems, it’s increasingly the case, they are accessing
OK to call a woman a ‘bird’ or to have those images and messages alone.
her posing semi-naked on the cover of a
The following chapter examines the
mainstream magazine, suddenly it’s cute
various ways in which sexualisation
and funny for little girls to sing along to
can be defined and how it differs from
misogynistic lyrics of songs, as long as
healthy sexual development. It then goes
long as it’s done for the sake of a bit of
on to examine how children and young
simple harmless fun.
people develop, providing an overview
However, many researchers, clinicians and of some of the key theories of learning
educators agree that the ramifications and development. Finally, it looks at how
of this kind of ‘fun’ are far from harmless. those theories operate in practice; that
The evidence collected in this report is, at how and why sexualisation may
suggests these developments are having be having an impact on children and
a profound impact, particularly on young people.
girls and young women. Children and

What is sexualisation? indiscriminately apply the notion of

sexualisation so that any expression of
“ the current environment, teen girls sexuality by children is seen as wrong or
are encouraged to look sexy, yet they problematic.
know little about what it means to be
sexual, to have sexual desires and to The idea that sexualisation is increasingly
make rational and responsible decisions prevalent throughout our culture has
about pleasure and risk within intimate been gaining momentum since the late
relationships that acknowledge their 1990s and is now regularly discussed
own desires.”71 by academics and researchers. The
consensus seems to be that the most
Healthy sexuality is an important obvious manifestation, the dissemination
component of both physical and mental of sexualised visual imagery, while
health. When based on mutual respect important in its own right, is part of a
between consenting partners, sex fosters wider phenomenon: the emergence in
intimacy, bonding and shared pleasure.72 the UK of a ‘pornified’ culture73 and the
Sexualisation, by contrast, is the imposition encroaching of pornography into many
of adult sexuality on to children and young spheres of everyday life.74 Although
people before they are capable of dealing some75 interpret this as a sign of cultural
with it, mentally, emotionally or physically. maturity and of the democratisation of
It does not apply to self-motivated the visual field, a more widely held view76
sexual play, nor to the dissemination of
age‑appropriate material about sexuality.
We should be careful that we do not 73
Paul (2005)
McNair (2002)
Tolman (2002) 75
McNair (2002)
Satcher (2001) 76
McNair (2002); Paul (2005) 23
Sexualisation of Young People Review

is that the ‘sexualisation of culture’77 is a First, the volume of sexualised images

sign of cultural degradation.78 To enter and the extent to which they impinge on
into this debate is beyond our remit; everyday life are significantly greater than
rather, our concern is to map out, through they were as recently as two decades ago.
clear analysis of the empirical research Public spaces are saturated with sexualised
literature, the possible links between the images and messages.80 As a result, they
sexualisation of culture and gendered and are visible to everyone, including children
sexualised violence. and young people who may not have
the maturity to rationalise and put what
Broadly, those academics who accept they are seeing into context. At the same
the phenomenon of sexualisation time, these images and messages are also
approach it in two ways. On the one becoming more explicit. Increasingly, it
hand, so-called ‘mainstream sexualisation’ seems, there is a blurring between the
describes the democratisation of sex ‘mainstream’ media, whether in the form
and sexuality and the breaking down of of billboard posters, magazine covers,
binary oppositions (for example, male/ music videos, fashion shoots or film trailers,
female or heterosexual/homosexual). On and the world of pornography.
the other, there is the commercialisation
of sexuality which may well involve the Second, because of the proliferation of
appropriation of feminist terminology visual images, ‘social classifiers’ such as
such as ‘empowerment’, ‘equality’ and ‘girl gender, class, race and age are being used
power’. Arguably, this serves to reinforce to present exaggerated constructions of
the dominant male gaze, by ensuring that femininity and masculinity. The resulting
female sexual expression only gains validity caricatures – the big-breasted blonde
under the surveillance of men; something bimbo, the ‘dirty old man’ – are defined
that may be leading to increases in solely by their sexual attributes, attitudes
sexualised violence among young people.79 or behaviours.81 In the case of the blonde
bimbo, too, there is a strong link between
Understanding the current apparent sexually availability and validation;
phenomenon of sexualisation the ‘right’ physical attributes and the
willingness to submit to male desires are a
The term ‘sexualisation’ is used to describe
‘passport’ to acceptance, money and fame.
a number of trends in the production and
consumption of contemporary culture; the Third, children are increasingly being
common denominator is the use of sexual portrayed in an ‘adultified’ way while,
attributes as a measure of a person’s conversely, adult women are being
value and worth. Although sexualised infantilised.82 This leads to a blurring of
images have featured in advertising and the lines between sexual maturity and
communications since mass media first immaturity. This is having the effect of
emerged, the current phenomenon of sexualising girlhood and legitimising the
sexualisation differs from what has gone notion that children can be related to as
before in three important regards. sexual objects.

Gill (2009); Zurbriggen et al. (2007); McNair 80
McNair (2002)
(2002); Paul (2005); Rush and La Nauze (2006) 81
Paasonen (2007)
Hitchens (2002); Paul (2005) 82
Evidence provided to the review by
Barter, McCarry, Berridge and Evans (2009) Dr K. Sarikakis (2009)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

The APA definition of objective here is to better understand the

impact sexualisation is having now and to
sexualisation identify effective strategies for combating
In 2007, the American Psychological its negative effects.
Association (APA) carried out an
extensive review of the impact of
sexualisation on young girls.83 The APA’s
Sexualisation, learning
taskforce provides the following definition and development
of sexualisation as occurring when:
A number of factors shape the way
• a person’s value comes only children and young people respond to the
from his or her sexual appeal or sexualisation of culture. One of the most
behaviour, to the exclusion of other obvious is the individual child’s age and level
characteristics; of cognitive and emotional development –
• a person is held to a standard that a Pussycat Dolls video, say, will mean very
equates physical attractiveness with different things to a three-year-old, an eight-
being sexy; year-old and a 14-year-old.
• a person is sexually objectified What is important to consider however
– that is, made into a thing for is the cumulative effect that exposure to
others’ sexual use, rather than seen sexualised messages and images will also
as a person with the capacity for have over time. Throughout this report,
independent action and decision we will argue that the ‘drip drip’ effect
making; and/or is an insidious but powerful mechanism
• sexuality is inappropriately imposed by which the previously unthinkable
upon a person. becomes widely acceptable, often within
a relatively short space of time. To give
The APA views sexualisation as a just one example, cosmetic surgery
continuum, with so-called ‘sexualised has moved from being predominantly
evaluation’ (that is, looking at someone medical in nature to being the preserve
with sexual intent) at one end and severe of Hollywood stars to being an accepted
sexual exploitation, such as sexual abuse part of mainstream culture (see page 58)
or trafficking, at the other. within just a few years.
This report takes the APA definition as Developments in technology play a
its benchmark, since it accurately reflects significant role, and while the internet
the themes emerging from the evidence provides amazing learning opportunities,
sessions held by the Home Office as part it also gives children easy access to age-
of the Together We Can End Violence Against inappropriate materials, which they can
Women and Girls consultation. Briefly, access alone, without the input and
these themes are that the sexualisation mitigating influence of an adult who could,
of children and the infantilisation of adult perhaps, help them to understand and
women is having a negative impact on contextualise what they are seeing.
young people’s body image and identity
and making a significant contribution to As the learning and developmental
the demand for the sexual exploitation theories outlined below demonstrate,
of women and children within the UK. there is a considerable body of evidence
We appreciate that academic debate to suggest that children do learn
over the precise theoretical interpretation vicariously from what they see, and that
of sexualisation is ongoing; however, our viewing inappropriate messages or images
can have a detrimental effect.
Zurbriggen et al. (2007) 25
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Socialisation theories learned patterns of behaviour that

individuals can use to control social
Social learning theory84 is based on the
interaction. As in social learning theory,
principle that we learn by observing
children learn by observing how others
others’ attitudes and behaviours and by
behave, encoding these messages and
seeing the outcomes of those behaviours.
using them to ‘script’ their own behaviour.
It also posits a reciprocal relationship
between cognitive, behavioural and For example, the combination of seeing
environmental influences; that is, that how other people behave and exposure to,
behaviour influences environment as well say, certain adverts and/or TV programmes
as the other way round. could lead a child to conclude that, ‘For
people to like me, I need to look pretty’
Gender socialisation theories such as
or ‘Being a strong boy means playing
gender schema theory85 are especially
rough’. These conclusions will then
relevant to understanding how hyper-
dictate how they interact with others, the
sexualised/hyper-masculinised images can
expectations they impose on themselves
influence thinking and form the basis for
and others, and how they subjectively
individuals’ beliefs about how they should
assess and ascribe meaning to the world
look and behave. The central premise is
around them. Cognitive scripts can be
that children learn what it means to be
rehearsed (and reinforced) through
either male or female from prevailing
fantasy and play, ready to be acted out
cultural norms and are then either praised
when the trigger that first prompted the
(and therefore reinforced) for adhering to
encoding occurs again.87
these norms or, conversely, punished for
going against them. Cognitive theories also cover beliefs
that operate at an unconscious level,
More recently, Bussey and Bandura have
for example subconscious associations
focused on how children’s own cognitive
between beauty and thinness.88 A recent
processes work alongside the socialisation
study into how cognitive associations
process that begins to take effect at
are established uncovered a disturbing
birth. The argument is that, once they
manifestation of this phenomenon: after
understand what society expects of them
seeing sexually explicit content featuring
with regard to gender roles and standards
actors who appeared to be under-age,
of behaviour, children start to internalise
viewers were more likely to associate sex
those expectations and create their own
and sexuality with non-sexual depictions
rules. They then, in effect, start to ‘police’
of minors.89
themselves in line with these self-imposed
standards, adapting and monitoring their Understanding the effects of unconscious
own behaviour without the need for processing is particularly relevant
reassurance and reinforcement from considering how so many of the messages
outside.86  that children have to contend with
actually target their emotions at an
Cognitive theories unconscious level. Various studies in the
Cognitive theories such as schema theory fields of psychology and neuroscience
and cognitive information processing have shown that it is often ones ‘emotional
theory hold that social behaviour is instinct’ that influences decision making
controlled by ‘cognitive scripts’; essentially, rather than cognitive reasoning. A good

First articulated by Bandura (1971)  87
Huesmann (1998)
Bem (1981) 88
Ahern, Bennett and Hetherington (2008)
Bussey and Bandura (1999) 89
Paul and Linz (2008)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

example is a recent study that found that Culture also dictates what is seen as
using a celebrity voice to sell a product ‘acceptable’. Cultural spillover theory95
could make that product more desirable argues that when behaviours are accepted
but only if the voice wasn’t specifically in one aspect of life, they become
recognised; 90 the point being that if legitimised and therefore acceptable in
people can recognise a voice, they can other areas, without the need for people
be consciously cynical about whether to give their direct, explicit support. For
they choose to believe the paid celebrity example, researchers have suggested that
endorsement or not. However, if the voice the more a society legitimises the use
is only recognisable to the subconscious, of force to attain ends for which there
then the cognitive filters one could in is widespread social approval (such as
theory use to moderate the messages are tackling crime or deploying military force),
completely bypassed.91 the more the use of force becomes
legitimised in other domains such as
This sheds light on children’s emotional personal relationships.96 It seems logical to
and cognitive development. So, for assume that the same principle of spillover
example, when a message is linked to may operate with regard to sexualisation,
positive, desirable feelings or images, and that the portrayal of women and
it gains an emotional appeal that is girls in magazines and on billboards as
independent of rational reasoning.92 sexualised objects will lead to their being
Significantly, the onset of puberty is objectified elsewhere.
associated with increased awareness of
and responsiveness to rewarding stimuli. Objectification theories
So brands and concepts with the ‘cool
Objectification occurs when an
factor’ hold out the promise of peer
individual is treated not as a person
acceptance, thus making them particularly
but as a collection of body parts valued
attractive to teenagers.93
predominantly for its use by others.97
Cultural theories  Objectification theory98 cites the powerful
role of visual media (including mainstream
Individuals develop and ascribe beliefs and films, magazines, advertising and TV) in
meanings to themselves and the world disseminating images that focus on bodies
around them within a specific cultural and body parts which implicitly encourage
context. Cultivation theory states that the viewer to adopt a ‘sexualised gaze’.
individual perceptions and beliefs are Due to the proliferation of such images,
shaped by ‘socialising’ influences such as theorists argue, sexual objectification has
the media.94 In effect, media channels now effectively permeated our culture.99
act as ‘cultural advertisements’, telling Moreover, this objectifying perspective
consumers what to focus on, what to is becoming internalised, with girls and
value and how to value it. women increasingly viewing themselves
and their bodies from a detached, third-
person viewpoint: ‘How do others see
me?’, rather than ‘How do I feel?’100

Baron, Straus et al. (1988)
Baron, Straus et al. (1988)
Forehand and Perkins (2005) 97
Fredrickson and Roberts (1997)
Berridge and Winkelman (2003) 98
Fredrickson and Roberts (1997)
Mayo and Nairn (2009) 99
APA (2007); Tankard-Reist (2010); Australian
Steinberg (2008) Parliament (2008)
Gerbner et al. (1994) 100
Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) 27
Sexualisation of Young People Review

There are three main aspects to this Of course, some children and young
phenomenon. First, it leads to body people are highly media-savvy and well
surveillance, or the constant monitoring able to negotiate media content.106
of personal appearance. Second, this However, there is a large body of research
monitoring can result in body shame, from developmental psychologists
where an individual feels that their physical attesting to the fact that young children do
appearance fails to meet the standards not have the cognitive skills to cope with
they have set for themselves based on persuasive media messages.107 The APA
idealised media images and, moreover, found that children are vulnerable to
that they are a ‘bad person’ as a result.101 media messages because ‘they do not
Body shame is strongly linked with body comprehend commercial messages in the
dissatisfaction, a recognised risk factor for same way as do more mature audiences
poor self-esteem, depression and eating and hence are uniquely susceptible to
disorders.102 Third, an individual who sees advertising influence.’108 One commentator
themselves as a sexualised object is more has likened exposing children to
likely to believe that they should control advertising to ‘sending them to the beach
their appearance and that, with hard work without sunscreen’.109
and effort, they can reach the (largely
unattainable) standards prescribed by Children’s ability to interpret messages
the media.103 is directly linked to their ability to
understand abstract concepts. No matter
Age and cognitive ability how sophisticated a six-year-old is, they
simply do not have the abstract cognitive
A meta-analysis of 25 years of research
understanding needed to assimilate
into the effects of media exposure
information from advertisers and the
shows clear links both between age and
media in the way that an older teenager
processing ability and between media
or adult can.110 Yet, as we have already
exposure, attitudes and, by extension,
suggested, all age groups are increasingly
behaviour. The media is a source of
being exposed to the same images and
learning.104 In fact it has been suggested
that the media acts as a kind of ‘super
peer’105 replacing messages from parents Children may also believe that they have
or educators and gaining credibility in the understood a message when they have
minds of young people by assuming an not. In fact, even as children get older
authority of ‘coolness’. they are still susceptible to the hidden
advertising and media messages that
target them. As Mayo and Nairn put it, ‘the
stimuli which kids don’t really notice and
which create emotional associations are
the ones that influence them in the most
powerful ways’.111 This needs to be taken
into account when studying how children

McKinley (1999)
Buckingham and Bragg (2004)
Moradi et al. (2005); Polivy and Herman (2002);
Mayo and Nairn (2009)
Tolman, Impett, Tracy, and Michael (2006) 108
Kunkel, Wilcox, Cantor, Palmer,
Heinberg and Thompson (1996) Linn and Dorwick (2004)
Emmers-Sommer and Allen (1999)
Cooper (2004)
Levin and Kilbourne (2008). Quoted in Coy
Mayo and Nairn (2009)
28 (2009) 111
Mayo and Nairn (2009)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

are affected by media content, since conscious ones. Several studies have
although they may believe and say that underscored the fact that it is not
they understand specific messages their what young people say to a group of
behaviours often indicate otherwise. researchers (or to themselves for that
matter) that influences behavioural choices
A recent study from Western Australia but rather the associations between
examined how interactive advertisement behaviours and the ‘aspirational’ constructs
games (‘advergames’) on a breakfast promoting them.113
cereal site influenced children’s attitudes.112
The children were split into two groups: It is important to acknowledge that the
those that played the game and those that way that young people internalise media
did not. When questioned both groups and advertising messages is complex:
made it clear that they believed that fruit young people’s attitudes are often based
was healthier than the fruity cereal in on their subconscious feelings, which
the advergame they were playing, so the can be affected by ‘subtle emotional
game did not override the healthy eating appeals’ that are not well controlled by
messages they had been taught – or so conscious reasoning. In addition, in cases
they told the researchers. However, when where young people have not developed
it came time to make a choice between advertising literacy skills, it is then that
the sugary cereal and other kinds of conscious learning is often dominated by
food, it seems that the advergame had unconscious learning.114
a huge influence with 54% of the group
who had played the game making the Even where images and messages are
less healthy food choice as opposed to being consciously absorbed, without
only 32% in the other group. Advergames guidance from a trusted adult, children
work by making implicit associations and young people may be unable to
between the product and the pleasure understand and contextualise violent
derived from playing the game. This is or pornographic images or content and
what makes certain media or advertising assume that they are appropriate models
messages so powerful, they can change for behaviour and an accurate reflection
children’s behaviour even though they do of how the world works. So, for example,
not believe that their minds have been exposure to violent sexual images could
changed at all. lead impressionable young men to assume
that women want to be forced into sex,
All of this suggests that exposing children which has serious implications for gender
to images and messages that they are not equality in sex and relationships.115
yet equipped to deal with may well have a
negative impact. It also suggests that while Children with learning disabilities may find
children themselves may believe that they it particularly difficult to moderate or filter
can understand and contextualise, say, a out unhealthy images or constructs. Sara
Playboy logo on a pencil case or an attack Delaney, team manager of the Sexually
on a prostitute in a video game, such Harmful Behaviour Team in Birmingham,
encounters may be having a profound speaking during the review’s evidence
impact on attitudes and behaviour at an sessions, pointed out that there is a
unconscious level. lack of guidance generally on discussing
sex and relationships with children that
There is evidence to suggest that
unconscious emotional connections are 113
Dal Cin, Gibson, Zanna, Shumate, Fong and
much more enduring than cognitive Bargh (2002)
Mayo and Nairn (2009)
Mallinckrodt and Miserski (2007) 115
Emmers-Sommer and Allen (1999) 29
Sexualisation of Young People Review

have learning disabilities. She indicated dissatisfaction. While it has been suggested
that around 40 per cent of the children that exposure simply exacerbates existing
assessed and treated in her unit have issues and that people with a negative
some form of learning disability and body image are more likely to seek out
that the vast majority of these children ‘thin’ images,120 there is nevertheless
are developing their sexual scripts from a significant correlation between the
pornography. She also pointed to a lack internalisation of the ‘thin ideal’, media
of awareness of sexual norms and an pressure and body dissatisfaction.121
increase in inappropriate sexual touching ‘Internalisation’ describes the process
in schools.116 by which an individual ‘buys in’ to social
norms and turns them into guiding
Cultural difference principles that inform their behaviour and
Cultural, religious, and class backgrounds
will influence the family’s role in mediating Internalisation has been shown to be the
sexualised media content as well as what biggest predictor of body dissatisfaction in
is deemed as appropriate and acceptable. girls123 although other factors – including
There is a need for more research into cultural pressure, individual differences in
how social location affects young people’s body mass and lack of social support –
ability to cope with sexualised content,117 also play a significant part.124
and how schools in particular might help
For boys, social pressure is the main cause
to mediate sexualised and violent media
of body image disturbance.125 Parental
content and provide tools to support
messages are the strongest influence
young people.118
on body image in boys and young men,
What we do know, however, is that while parents, the media and, to a lesser
sexualisation occurs across all cultures and extent, the influence of male peers are
all social classes, although the channels the strongest predictors of body change
may vary. Sexualised or degrading images strategies.126 For boys, messages are likely
of black women are commonplace in to centre around ideas of physical strength
hip-hop videos, for example, while fashion and dominant, controlling behaviour.
advertising is more likely to objectify white
Internalisation is also a powerful means
women. The psychological ramifications of
by which the sexual norms and scripts
self-objectification such as eating disorders
promulgated by pornography become
and plastic surgery (see pages 58–60) also
normalised and help to shape young
transcend race and class barriers.119
people’s views about intimacy and sexual
relationships.127 Boys can be made to
Internalisation feel that treating girls as sex objects and/
There are several theories that attempt or behaving in an aggressive manner
to explain the link between exposure
to idealised media images and body 120
Hill (2006)
Cusumano and Thompson (2001)
Thompson et al. (2004)
Evidence provided to the review by
Sara Delaney (2010)
Stice and Bearman (2001)
Buckingham and Bragg (2004)
Stice and Whitenton (2002)
Thornburgh and Lin (2002)
Cash (2002); Ricciardelli and McCabe (2001);
Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe and Tantleff-Dunn
Abrams and Stormer (2002); Atlas, Smith,
Hohlstein, McCarthy and Kroll (2002); Barry
and Grilo (2002); Goodman (2002); Hesse-
Stanford and McCabe (2005)
30 Biber, Leavy et al. (2006); Kolodny (2004) 127
Allen (2004)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

is the key to proving their manliness; boys in schools is the lack of healthy male
beliefs which can be exacerbated by a role models. She noted that the ‘social
lack of suitable role models.128 During scripts’ given to boys once again centre
the evidence hearing sessions Holly around male dominance and control, with
Elsdon-Smithers from the White Ribbon boys feeling that they have to prove their
Campaign noted that one of the issues manliness by relating to girls either as
that constantly arises in her work with sexual objects or in an aggressive manner.

Young children have a natural, healthy documentary on glamour modelling
interest in their sexuality. But when where a young aspiring glamour
their developing sexuality is moulded model said:
to fit adult sexual stereotypes, this can
compromise that healthy developmental “It’s so nice to get your hair and your
process. Children need time and space to make up done then for someone to
develop their own understanding, rather shout you look fantastic, you look
than being presented with constructs gorgeous. It’s a complete confidence
that they may not be emotionally or boost, an ego boost. I think everyone
cognitively ready to deal with. should do it. Everyone should have
a glamour shoot done just for
Much of the evidence suggests that themselves”129
instead of putting children and young
people in control of their sexuality, we This young woman’s self esteem is
are in danger of isolating them from it predicated on her appearance being
altogether. And by doing so, creating a approved of by men and her confidence
situation where young people are so boosted by fulfilling a superficial, aesthetic
used to ‘packaging’ themselves for others’ ideal. Her point is that self-confidence
consumption that they begin relating to can be achieved by conforming to
themselves in the third person, where certain beauty standards – and of
they become estranged from their own course such conformity is rewarded in
bodies. industries that trade on and commodify
female sexuality.
Wanting to be attractive, wanting to
be desired is natural. But it seems that Children and young people are not only
increasingly young women’s dominant being exposed to an increasing number
desire is to be desired. And this need is of hyper-sexualised images; they are also
often to the detriment of other hopes being sold the idea that girls should look
and aspirations. This is illustrated by a ‘hot’, regardless of their age. As such, they
quote taken from a recent BBC are facing pressures that children in the
past simply didn’t have to face.

Evidence provided to the Review by Holly
Elsdon-Smithers, White Ribbon Campaign UK
Quoted in Coy and Garner (in press) 31
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Conclusion (cont.)
Children’s ability to understand and beauty is not only narrow and
assimilate information develops over unrealistic, it is also racially biased. Our
time. Given the proliferation and seeming obsession with the monolithic
accessibility of sexualised images, it is ideals of gender and beauty leaves such
almost inevitable that children will come little room for manoeuvre that we are in
into contact with content they’re not danger of ostracising and pathologising
ready to understand. Not only can this the vast majority of children that don’t
be upsetting and disruptive, it can also conform to that ideal.
lead them to make assumptions about
what’s appropriate that could lead Young people need to be allowed to
them into potentially dangerous and develop and grow in surroundings where
damaging situations. their self-esteem is not predicated on
their ability to fulfil the hyper-sexy or
For adolescents, untrammelled access hyper-masculine ideal, but where they
to sexualised images at a time when are admired for their individual talents
they are forming their own identity and and abilities. At a time when the visual
coming to terms with their emerging increasingly takes precedence, we are not
sexuality makes for a potent mix. For only teaching our children that looks are
any child, the pressure is huge. But what all that matters, we are also prescribing
about those children who don’t fit the an increasingly narrow and limited
’norm’? Those who’re gay? Those who physical ideal that is, for most of them,
are disabled or come from a minority virtually impossible to achieve.
ethnic background? The ideal for female

Sexualisation of Young People Review

5. Sexualised content and the

mainstreaming of pornography
“With all the unregulated pornography available
online it feels like we’re tending a small part
of one corner of the garden while a jungle of
exploitative imagery grows around us.”
Peter Johnson, Head of Policy, British Board of Film Classification130


Advertising doesn’t just sell products; photographs of barely clad actresses
it sells aspirations and identities. and models, along with sexually explicit
The proliferation and accessibility of strap lines, on the covers of mainstream
advertising images and messages make it magazines and stock them alongside the
increasingly difficult to target them at the comics in high street newsagents. High
appropriate audience. With the advent of street stores sell video games where the
mobile internet, it is almost impossible to player can beat up prostitutes with bats
guarantee that messages are only being and steal from them in order to facilitate
seen by the age group for which they game progression. The message is clear
are intended. There is no ‘watershed’ on – young girls should do whatever it takes
the internet, and many adverts are sent to be desired. For boys the message is
indiscriminately to mobile phones and just as clear: be hyper-masculine and
e-mail addresses. A child with a mobile relate to girls as objects. It’s no surprise
phone literally has access to pornography therefore that when researchers
in their pocket. examine the content of young girls’ web
pages they find young teens are posting
With proliferation and accessibility come sexually explicit images of themselves on
normalisation. From the café culture of social networking sites, and self-regulating
lap dancing clubs, to push up bras for each other with sexist, derogatory and
8-year-olds, we’ve reached a point demeaning language.
where it’s seemingly acceptable to use

Evidence provided to the Review by
Peter Johnson, British Board of Film
Classification (2009)

Sexualisation of Young People Review

Introduction (cont.) With a tendency to ‘adultify’

children and ‘infantilise’ women, the
As images that would have been found lines where childhood ends and
shocking just a few years ago flood adulthood begins are becoming
the mainstream, so the boundaries increasingly blurred. Girls who haven’t
get pushed back further. We’re seeing even developed secondary sex
adverts that reference gang rape and characteristics are posed to look overtly
adverts where women are reduced sexy, while adult women are posed to
to dismembered body parts. In fact look submissive and child-like rather
the influences of the iconic visual than empowered and in control. It’s no
constructs of porn are contributing to surprise therefore that for young female
the emergence of a caricature of what actors and musicians, taking their clothes
it means to be a woman. Being beautiful, off has become a rite of passage, a way
being attractive, being ‘sexy’ is no longer of showing the world that they’re ‘all
about individuality and the characteristics grown up now’. While boys are ‘allowed’
that make a person unique, it’s about to enter adulthood without needing
ticking off items on a checklist: big breasts, to advertise their sexual availability or
big lips, fake tan, fake hair, fake nails – and, desirability, they are nevertheless exposed
of course, youth. to messages that reinforce the idea that
they should be primarily motivated by
The notion that all young women
sex and that male desire is something
who are socialised into believing that
that cannot be controlled. This is having
their worth lies in their sexuality and
an impact both on boys’ attitudes to their
appearance should have the ‘agency’ to
own bodies and on their attitudes to and
stand up to these images is naïve. This
behaviour towards girls.
assumes that: firstly, all these messages
are assimilated on a conscious level The following section provides an
so can easily be challenged; secondly, overview of how the media and
that all young women are afforded the advertisers are promoting sexualised
opportunity to moderate these messages images and messages and explores the
through healthy parental and peer role of the internet. It also looks at the
relationships; thirdly, that their own self- role of parents in providing support
esteem is resilient enough to allow them to help their children understand and
to question and stand up to prevailing contextualise what they see and hear.
norms; and finally, that their education has It goes on to look at the various ways
afforded them the kind of media literacy in which pornography has entered
that allows them to ‘filter out’ unhealthy the mainstream, including through
messages. The fact is that many young the internet and the proliferation
people don’t have these opportunities of lapdancing clubs. Throughout,
and, as such, are vulnerable to the we consider the implications of this
messages both overt and covert that are exposure on children and young people’s
propagated in the world around them. emotional and cognitive development.

Sexualisation of Young People Review

Magazines “Women’s magazines are a joke. There

should be more magazines that empower
“A more sexualised media hasn’t been women and focus on their rights, not just
great for women. We’re still labelled. their appearance.”
Can’t we just do what we like with Focus group participant138
our bodies? Labelling and stereotypes
reinforce our inequality.” Conversely, the ‘lads mags’ targeted at
young male readers typically feature
Focus group participant131
highly sexualised images of women that
Young people consistently cite the media blur the lines between pornography and
as an important source of information mainstream media. At the same time,
on sexual issues.132 In the US, the number they promote an idea of male sexuality
of magazines targeting the teen market as based on power and aggression,
rose from five to 19 between 1990 and depicting women as sex objects and
2000.133 Nearly half of 8–18-year-olds say including articles that feature strategies for
they spend at least five minutes reading manipulating women.139
a magazine the previous day, with 22 per
“It’s depressing that in this era women
cent spending at least 20 minutes. On
and young girls can go into mainstream
average, 8–18-year-olds spend 14 minutes
shops and be bombarded by highly
a day reading magazines.134
sexualised images of naked young
A dominant trend seems to be the women plastered over men’s magazines.
need for girls to present themselves as Inside, readers’ girlfriends are encouraged
sexually desirable in order to attract male to send in pictures of themselves topless.
attention.135 Articles, cover lines, photos In the name of what? Freedom of
and adverts encourage girls and women to expression? It’s a narrow and damaging
look and dress in ways that will make them version of how young women should
attractive to men: so-called ‘costuming for behave with regards to their sexuality and
seduction’.136 Both language and images are their relationships with men.”
sexualised,137 with repeated use of words Karen Bailey,
such as ‘hot’ and cute’ reinforcing the Stella Project Co-ordinator140
idea that these are the qualities to which
readers should aspire.

Women’s National Commission (2009)
Huston (1998); Buckingham and Bragg (2004);
Donnerstein and Smith (2001); Greenfield
(2004); Peter and Valkenburg (2007);
Thornburgh and Lin (2002)
Teen Market Profile (2005) Quoted in APA
Roberts et al. (2005)
Carpenter (1998); Durham (1998); Garner, 138
Women’s National Commission (2009)
Sterk, and Adams (1998); McMahon (1990) 139
Taylor (2005)
Duffy and Gotcher (1996) 140
Evidence provided to the review by
Rush and La Nauze (2006) Karen Bailey (2010) 35
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Children in magazines are often dressed This survey backs the findings of a group
and posed in such a way as to draw of experts and researchers from the UK,
attention to sexual features that they do USA, Australia, Ireland and a number of
not yet possess, while advice on hairstyles, other countries. The group recently sent
cosmetics, clothing, diet, and exercise a letter to the Advertising Standards
attempt to remake even young readers Authority in response to the Authority’s
as objects of male desire,141 promoting call for more evidence on the impact of
premature sexualisation.142 Young girls are advertising on body image.145 Citing over
encouraged to see themselves as objects 100 studies into the effects of idealised
that must be sexually connected to a man media images on women and girls and
in order to feel complete.143 While these further studies documenting the impact
findings are mainly drawn from the United of the muscular ideal on young men and
States, UK magazines feature very similar boys, the group reached the following
themes and content. conclusions:

Airbrushing: portraying • poor body image is linked to

eating disorders, cosmetic surgery,
images of ‘unattainable extreme exercising, unhealthy
perfection’ muscle-enhancing activity,
In a recent study of over 1,000 women depression, anxiety and low self-
carried out by consumer cosmetics esteem;
company Dove,144 more than two-thirds of • idealised media images have a
women stated that they lacked confidence negative effect on a significant
about their bodies as a result of viewing majority of adolescent girls and
digitally altered images of models, while women, and this starts from an
a fifth said they felt less confident in early age;
their everyday lives. A quarter of those • advertising images of average-size
questioned said that images used in models are just as effective as
advertising made them feel self-conscious images of very thin women;
about their appearance. Nearly all the • there is a lack of awareness about
women surveyed – 96 per cent – said the extent to which images are
they would like advertisers to be honest being altered; and
about the extent to which they were
airbrushing or digitally manipulating images. • better media literacy can reduce
both the negative impacts of
exposure and the tendency to
internalise the thin ideal.

Duffy and Gotcher (1996)
Rush and La Nauze (2006)
Garner et al. (1998)
Blamed_For_Womens_Increasingly_Poor_ 145
The Impact of Media Images on Body Image
36 Self-Esteem and Behaviours, Misc. (2009)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

In France, a group of 50 MPs has There has also been a significant increase in
introduced legislation calling for all digitally the amount of sexualised images of children
enhanced images to be clearly marked. in circulation.151 Increasingly, young children in
The bill had its first reading in the French adverts are being dressed, made up and
parliament in September. posed like sexy adult models; conversely,
adult women are being infantilised.152
“We want to combat the stereotypical Theorists argue that this ‘age compression’,153
image that all women are young and in blurring the boundaries between
slim. These photos can lead people childhood and adulthood, is enabling the
to believe in a reality that does not values perpetuated by some marketers to
actually exist and have a detrimental encroach further and further into childhood.
effect on adolescents. Many young
people, particularly girls, do not know the The Advertising Standards Authority
difference between the virtual and reality, (ASA)154 recently ruled that an advert for
and can develop complexes from a very American Apparel clothing ‘could be seen
young age.” to sexualise a model who appeared to be
Valérie Boyer, Member of Parliament146 a child’. The advert consisted of six photos,
with the model gradually unzipping her
Advertising hooded top further and further until
her nipple was exposed. She was styled
Sexualisation in advertising is not a new wearing natural-looking make-up. Although
phenomenon. Content analyses of TV the model in question was actually 23, the
adverts stretching back to the 1970s show ASA stated that some of the shots made
that gender-stereotypical ideas and images her appear to be under 16.
are widely used.147 Nevertheless, over
the past three decades there has been a While adults may be equipped to understand
dramatic increase in the use of sexualised why such images are inappropriate, it is
images in advertising. The overwhelming important to remember that children and
majority of these images feature women.148 young people are often not.
For example, in a recent study of 72 beer “Research establishes clearly that most
and non-beer ads randomly selected from children under the age of approximately
prime-time sports and entertainment eight years do not comprehend the
programming, 75 per cent of the beer ads persuasive intent of advertising. Such
and 50 per cent of non-beer ads were felt children lack the capability to effectively
to be ‘sexist’,149 and featured women in evaluate commercial claims and
objectifying roles.150 appeals, and therefore tend to accept
the information conveyed in advertising
as truthful, accurate, and unbiased.
Consequently, children in this age range
are uniquely vulnerable to commercial
146 persuasion.”155
Courtney and Whipple (1974); Furnham 151
Rush and La Nauze (2006)
and Voli (1989); Lovdal (1989); Rudman and 152
Rush and La Nauze (2006)
Borgida (1995); Russo, Feller and DeLeon 153
Lamb and Brown (2006). Quoted in Coy
(1982) (2009)
Reichert et al. (1999) 154
Defined as sexual and limiting in gender role ADJ_46886.htm
Rouner, Slater and Domenech-Rodriquez 155
APA Task Force on Advertising and Children
(2003) (2004) 37
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Furthermore, the sheer proliferation Marketing also encourages young girls

of such images leads to gradual to present themselves in a sexual way.
desensitisation; research carried out One tactic is to present characters that
among teenage girls found that their children strongly identify with in a highly
objections to sexualised images tended to sexualised way.158 Bratz dolls, for example,
decrease over time.156157 are targeted at four-to-eight-year-olds,
yet most dolls in the range are heavily
Taking steps to protect made-up, some of which are dressed in
miniskirts and fishnet stockings. Another
children tactic is to market objects to young girls
The ASA’s remit requires it to have that are entirely appropriate on one
‘special concern for the protection of level but which nevertheless send out
children’ and the Agency has a number disturbing messages: putting the Playboy
of enforceable codes prohibiting, for bunny logo on a child’s pencil case is a
example, advertisers from targeting prime example of how the line between
children with misleading adverts, sexual immaturity and maturity can be
adverts that put viewers under blurred. Such blurring – which also occurs
pressure to purchase, and any adverts when adult women are presented in an
that could cause harm or distress. infantilised way (for example, the recent
Playboy cover of a model in pig-tails,
Other countries have adopted various holding a teddy bear) – effectively suggests
approaches to restricting advertising that it is acceptable to relate to children
for children. In Greece, toy adverts in a sexual way.159 In his examination
are banned on TV between 7am and of sexual portrayals of girls in fashion
10pm; Sweden bans all TV advertising advertising, Merskin (2004) puts it like this:
aimed at children under 12; while
Norway, Finland, and Denmark do “…the message from advertisers and
not allow sponsorship of children’s the mass media to girls (as eventual
programmes. The Broadcasting Code women) is they should always be sexually
of Canada severely restricts children’s available, always have sex on their minds,
advertising and bans any adverts that be willing to be dominated and eventually
imply a product will make a child sexually aggressed against...”160
happier or more popular. In 2004, the Although the bulk of the research
APA’s Task Force on Advertising and is currently focused on print and TV
Children formally backed a proposal advertising, it is arguably the case that
to restrict advertising to children aged internet advertising – which can be
eight or under in the US. The task both interactive and prolonged – has an
force highlights that as adults respond even more powerful effect on children
to commercials by automatically and young people. That interactivity can
applying cognitive filters, which tell encourage children to form strong bonds
them that the commercial intends to with brands.
persuade them, they expect biased
information and interpret it accordingly. The basic economic concepts are also
Children on the other hand lack these different. Whereas primary school
cognitive filters.157 children can understand the basic

Survey carried out in New Zealand, Clark
Evidence provided to the review by the British
(2008) Board of Film Classification (2009)
APA Taskforce on Advertising and Children
Ringrose (2010)
38 (2004) 160
Merskin (2004)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

principles regarding the exchange of sell identities to children especially girls,

goods for money, they are less likely to allowing a child, for example, to adopt a
understand how a gaming website may ‘rock chic’ look one day or a ‘bo-ho hippy’
be subsidised by selling advertising space. look the next.163 The notion of young girls
Increasingly, new psychological research enjoying dress-up is nothing new. The vast
is beginning to show that because of this majority of little girls have at least one
older children are just as susceptible to princess dress in their wardrobe, and while
advertising messages as those in junior there is nothing wrong with role-playing
school.161 Neuro-marketing studies have with clothes and enjoying fashion, what
shown that the reason behind this has to is concerning is that many of the choices
do with the way our brain is configured: now available to young girls encourage
the thinking part of our brain (the neo- them to engage and experiment with
cortex) responds to cues differently themes that they may not be cognitively
to the instinctive part of the brain (the or developmentally ready to engage with.
limbic system). Researchers suggest that If we accept that girls are to some extent
many decisions are made based on our experimenting with their identities through
instincts rather than conscious reasoning. fashion then we need to consider the
And since children’s and young people’s impact on increasingly younger girls being
rational responses are less developed than marketed clothes designed to highlight
those of adults, they are therefore more sexual characteristics that they do not
vulnerable to media messages. yet possess. By over-emphasizing their
sexuality through fashion it may make it
Children’s clothing harder for girls to value themselves for
other aspects of their identity. In their
“The NSPCC’s position on this is that report on the sexualisation of girls, the
by normalizing sexualised clothing and APA makes the point that when girls are
behaviour, it opens up young girls to being dressed in miniature versions of adult
exploited.” clothes, there is the danger that people
Tom Narducci, will project adult motives, responsibility
senior consultant, NSPCC162 and agency on girls, and that this in turn
may have the impact of normalising the
From push-up bras for pre-teens to high- sexual abuse of children.164
heeled shoes for four-year-olds, media
reports of age-inappropriate clothing
being targeted at young children have
become common place. Researchers
indicate that marketers use clothes to

Mayo and Nairn (2009)
Narducci T., [http://www.kidglue. 163
Lamb and Brown (2006); Pollett and Hurwitz
com/2010/02/11/parenting-site-campaigns- (2004)
against-sexualizing-young-girls/] (2010) 164
APA (2007) 39
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Corporate social Television

responsibility “By depicting violence against women,
especially young women, with increasing
Reports published in Australia165 frequency, or as a trivial, even humorous
and the US166 have called for greater matter, the networks may be contributing
corporate social responsibility and to an atmosphere in which young people
there are signs that at least some view aggression and violence against
manufacturers are prepared to listen women as normative, even acceptable.”170
to the concerns of those working to
safeguard children. In the UK, Tesco The world as depicted on TV is
agreed to withdraw pole-dancing kits disproportionately male and it
from the toys and games section of its disproportionately sexualises women
website167 following complaints from and girls. There is also a significant under-
parents. Toy manufacturer Hasbro representation of women and girls in
shelved plans to produce a range of non-sexualised roles in films. In the 101
dolls based on the pop music group highest earning family films between
the Pussycat Dolls, noted for their 1990–2004 over 75% of characters were
revealing clothes and sexy image.168 male, 83% of narrators were male and 72%
of speaking roles were male171 Females
In autumn 2009, a group of large on television are far more likely than their
companies including Mars, Lego, male counterparts to be provocatively
Kelloggs and McDonalds, announced dressed172; sexual comments and remarks
the launch of Digital Adwise, a set are commonplace, and are predominantly
of online lessons aimed at teaching targeted at women.173 In an analysis of
children about online content and 81 episodes of different prime-time US
helping them to think more critically programmes, researchers observed that
about media messages. “Children women’s bodies were frequently objectified
and their parents need to better and that they were often subject to
understand how the internet works, insulting allusions to their sexuality and lack
not just as a platform but as a means of intellect. An average episode featured 3.4
for advertising,” said Nick Stringer, head examples of sexual harassment, of which
of regulatory affairs at the Internet roughly two-thirds involved sexist or sexual
Advertising Bureau.169 comments. Another analysis, this time of
workplace-based sitcoms, found frequent
comments characterising women as sexual
objects and jokes about women’s sexuality
and bodies.174
Violence against women on TV is
increasingly common. A US report found
that depictions of violence against women
on TV had risen by 120 per cent since
2004 while depictions of violence against
Rush and La Nauze (2006) teenage girls rose by 400 per cent. Over
APA (2007)
Parents Television Council (2009)
Fernandez, Daily Mail, 24 October 2006
Kelly and Smith (2006)
Eaton (1997)
Ramsay, ‘Brands back lessons about online
advertising for UK children’, Marketing
Ward (2003)
40 Magazine, November 2009 174
Grauerholz and King (1997)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

the same period, violence occurring It is important to note that research

irrespective of gender increased by just shows that children do question images
2 per cent. In 19 per cent of depicted and storylines based on sex on TV, yet
offences, violence against women resulted sexualised imagery in advertising and TV
in death. In the vast majority of cases (92 has become so ‘naturalised’ that children
per cent) the violence – or its graphic typically lack the ability for a cultural critique
consequences – was shown, rather than of sexism. Research illustrates that children
implied or described.175 absorb the ‘male gaze’ and conform to a
powerful ‘heterosexual logic’.177
Given the fact that the TV often acts
as a ‘child minder’ for many families, it However, there is evidence to suggest
is imperative that parents are aware of that TV programmes can be a valuable
what constructs their children are being source of ‘sexual learning’, with material
exposed to – simple measures such as from some programmes being used to
switching the TV on and off to watch generate resources which have been used
specific shows or not allowing children to support the Personal, Social, Health and
to have televisions in their bedrooms Economic (PSHE) education and Media
have been found to make a significant Studies curricula in secondary schools.178
improvement in terms of what children For example, the Channel 4 documentary,
are exposed to and how they make the Sex Education Show Vs Pornography,
sense of it.176 Spending time to speak to which explores the myths perpetuated by
children about what they have seen and the porn industry, has been used as a sex
how it impacts them has been shown to education tool in some schools.
be one of the best ways to ensure that
the messages they receive are moderated
and challenged.

Barr-Anderson, van den Berg, Neumark- Buckingham and Bragg (2004)

Sztainer and Story (2008) Buckingham and Bragg (2004)

Sexualisation of Young People Review

The role of parents

Parents are a powerful force in shaping Parents can also contribute to the
their children’s attitudes to gender sexualisation of their children in very
and sexuality. Girls’ interactions with direct ways. For example, in the US,
their mothers will tend to inform their children’s beauty pageants are high
own response to cultural messages profile events. Although the number
about thinness and body ideals:179 of children actually taking part is
there is a clear link between the relatively small, coverage in news, TV
extent to which mothers focus on programmes and advertising means
their own thinness, their tendency to that the phenomenon has entered the
criticise their daughters’ weight and mainstream. Increasingly, too, parents
the likelihood of those girls developing are allowing and even encouraging their
an eating disorder.180 Father’s attitudes children to undergo plastic surgery (see
have a noticeable impact on the page 58) as a means of ‘fixing’ poor body
gender-typing of children’s activities and confidence or low self-esteem.
the extent to which children conform
to the norm.181 Conversely, parents also have a vital role
to play in supporting their children to
There are some key variations by cope with and contextualise sexualised
ethnic group. One US study182 found images and messages. Researchers
that white mothers routinely engaged point to the damage that can result
in ‘fat talk’ with their daughters, when children lack the emotional
describing the girls as ‘... surrounded sophistication and psychological
by excessive concerns over physical development to understand what they
appearance and talk of feeling fat.’ are seeing and suggest that the solution
Messages from fathers tended to be is for parents to play a more active role
critical and often included a sexual in communicating with their children
element, such as a reference to a about sexual matters.183
daughter starting to develop breasts.
By contrast, African-American girls However, there are limits to what
were getting much more positive parents can achieve alone. It is
feedback from their parents. While imperative that companies that promote
dieting rates were similar to those for the premature sexualisation of children
white girls, African-American girls had for their own commercial interests act
higher levels of body satisfaction and more responsibly, and that companies,
self-esteem and were less worried advertisers and media outlets are
about their weight. aware of and take steps to minimise
the negative impact that the images and
messages they promote are having on
children and young people.


Ogle and Damhorst (2004)
Hill, Weaver and Blundell (1990); Levine, Smolak, Moodey, Shuman and Hessen (1994)
McHale, Crouter and Tucker (1999)
Nichter (2000)
Levin and Kilbourne (2008)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

The internet children and young people to create

online identities. The fact that some, mainly
“My younger cousins, they’re all under the girls, choose to present themselves in a
age of 11, and they’re now coming into sexualised way has attracted considerable
an age where the internet is all they’ve public attention.190 Interviews with
ever known. When we were young, we 14–16-year-olds whose online profiles
were still doing all the [outdoor] activities ‘raised issues around sexual representation
and the internet wasn’t really around. So and identity’ found that girls are ‘under
we’ve got balance. But maybe in five or particular and constant threat of failing to
10 years’ time that will change.” 184 meet the pornified and hyper-sexualised
visual ideals of “perfect femininity”
2009 marked a watershed for the internet:
for the first time, companies spent more
on online than on TV advertising. The “Are we seeing a ‘disciplinary technology
internet is now the UK’s single biggest of sexy’, an increasing compulsion
advertising medium, accounting for for young people to perform as
23.5 per cent of the total market.185 For sexual objects online? The increasing
children and young people, this means normalisation of pornography and sexual
more and easier access to sexualised commodification of girls’ bodies online
marketing imagery and messages, as well leads to ‘real life’ anxieties, conflicts and
as to many other forms of sexualised violence in their relationships at school.”192
online content.
As Jessica Ringrose, a senior lecturer in
Almost all (99 per cent) of 8-17-year-olds gender and education, indicated during
have access to the internet,186 split roughly our evidence gathering sessions, “young
equally between girls and boys.187 Since girls are presenting themselves as sexually
2008, the number of children with access active and sexually available, and young
to the internet in their own bedroom has people are encouraged to subscribe to
grown significantly, and now stands at 16 hetero-normative ideas of femininity and
per cent of 8–11-year-olds and 35 per masculinity.”193
cent of those aged 12–15. In all, around a
third of 8–11-year-olds and 60 per cent of Girls, for instance, report being under
12–15-year-olds say that they mostly use increasing pressures to display themselves
the internet on their own.188 in their ‘bra and knickers’ or bikinis online,
whereas boys seek to display their
A quarter of internet users aged between bodies in a hyper-masculine way, showing
eight and 11 have a profile on a social off muscles, and posturing as powerful
networking site such as Bebo, MySpace and dominant. 194 Hyper-femininity and
or Facebook.189 While sites set age limits hyper-masculinity posit heterosexuality as
(typically 13 or 14), these are not generally the norm, influencing attitudes towards
enforced. Social networking sites allow homosexuality in schools and beyond.195
Further, sexualised self-presentation could
17-year-old girl, quoted in Livingstone, Helsper
and Bober (2005)
Internet Advertising Bureau 190
Kornblum (2005)
en/1/adspendgrows300909.mxs (accessed 191
Ringrose (2010)
November 2009) 192
Ringrose (2010)
Ofcom Media Literacy Audit (2008) 193
Evidence provided to the Review by Jessica
Lenhart, Rainie and Lewis (2001); Roberts et al. Ringrose, Senior Lecturer in gender and
(2005) education, IOE
Ofcom (2009) 194
Ringrose (2010)
Ofcom (2008) 195
Ringrose and Renold (2010) 43
Sexualisation of Young People Review

also mean that young people are exposing most likely to happen through instant
themselves to danger from further afield: messaging and chat rooms.203
recently, public attention has focused on
use of social networking sites such as Social networking and
MySpace and Facebook to disseminate
sexualised material and sexually solicit
underage children and young people.196 • 49 per cent of children aged 8–17
have an online profile (mainly Bebo,
The rise of online networking presents
MySpace, Facebook).
considerable challenges for everyone
coming into contact with young people.197 • 59 per cent of 8–17-year-olds use
It has been suggested that schools, social networking sites to make new
for example, have yet to address the friends.
implications of young people’s engagement • 16 per cent of parents don’t know
with social networking sites – activity whether their child’s profile is visible
which takes place away from school but to all.
which nevertheless has a profound impact • 33 per cent of parents say they set
on young people and the way they engage no rules for their children’s use of
with each other.198 Similarly, parents and social networking sites.
carers must recognise that the internet • 43 per cent of children say their
is increasingly bringing the dynamics of parents set no rules for use of social
the playground into the home. We need networking sites.204
resources to ‘guide’ young people around
new technologies and social relationships
mediated through new communication Children’s websites204
technologies.199 Many websites for children are perfectly
safe and have a high educational and social
Cyberbullying – where victims are
value. However, some are undoubtedly
harassed via the internet or mobile
encouraging very young girls to present
phone – is consistently estimated to affect
themselves as adult women and to focus
around a quarter of secondary-age young
on their physical appearance to the
people,200 with some studies putting the
exclusion of all else.
figure as high as 75 per cent.201 Texting
and instant messaging are particular areas At, girls and boys
of concern.202 Research conducted by are encouraged to use plastic surgery
the University of New Hampshire found and extreme dieting to help their virtual
that, while 15 per cent of young people characters achieve the ‘perfect figure’
surveyed had experienced unwanted and compete with each other to create
sexual solicitation online, only 4 per cent ‘the coolest, richest and most famous
were targeted via their social networking bimbo in the world’. The site currently has
site. Where harassment did occur, it was over two million registered ‘bimbos’. At, girls create avatars who
For example, Slater and Tiggemann (2002) have ‘style off ’ competitions with each
Boyd (2008) other, go clubbing to ‘pull’ men and take
Ringrose (2009) the morning-after pill. Children of any age
Boyd (2008) can play as there is no robust method for
Action for Children (2005); Li (2006); Smith
checking participants’ ages.
(2005); Hinduja and Patchin (2007)
Juvonen and Gross (2008) 203
Ybarra and Mitchell (2008)
Noret and Rivers (2006); Smith et al. (2006) 204
Ofcom (April 2008)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Maybe these games are supposed to be that 27 per cent of boys were accessing
‘ironic’ but the fact is that they normalise pornography every week, with 5 per cent
topics ranging from cosmetic surgery viewing it every day. The survey also found
to marrying for money as appropriate that 58 per cent had viewed pornography
subject matter for child’s play. It is another online, on mobile phones, in magazines,
powerful indication of how the boundaries in films or on TV. Another study, this time
between what is seen as appropriate for of 9–19-year-olds, showed almost one in
children and what is the preserve of adults eight had visited pornographic websites
is being blurred. showing violent images.209
Exposure to pornography can also happen
Pornography inadvertently. Nearly 40 per cent of
“…men are still encouraged through 9–19-year-olds have accidentally seen a
most pornographic materials, to see pop-up advert for a pornographic site;
women as objects and women are 36 per cent have ended up on one by
still encouraged much of the time to accident; 25 per cent have received porn
concentrate on their sexual allure rather junk email; and 9 per cent have been
than their imagination or pleasure.”205 sent pornographic images by someone
they know.210 The YouGov survey showed
Pornographic websites constitute around that nearly one in five had been sent
1.5% of all websites.206 Pornhub, YouPorn pornography via email or their mobile
and RedTube are among the top 65 most phone without their consent.211
viewed websites in the UK. They also allow
users to upload their own material. Such At the same time, there have been
sites are based on the YouTube business changes in the nature of pornographic
model and offer instant and free access to materials. The modern trend in explicit
hardcore pornography with no effective ‘hardcore’ and so-called ‘gonzo’ pornography
access controls in place to prevent is to depict sexual activity free from any
children viewing the material. pretence of narrative or relationships, and
to show participants (especially women)
Each day, search engines deal with around being pushed to the very limits of their
68 million requests for pornographic physical capabilities, often in a group sex
material – approximately a quarter of all scenario. Many ‘hardcore’ works also play
searches on the net.207 This, combined with around with notions of consent, youth,
the proliferation of sexualised images in innocence, inappropriate relationships, pain
online advertising, suggests that both and violence in ways which range from
pornography and sexualised images are relatively innocuous to extremely disturbing.
becoming more widely available and easily
accessible. A recent report by the Australian
Research Centre in Sex, Health and
It is no longer a case of if a young person Society reviewed research carried out in
will be exposed to pornography but 12 countries on the use of pornography.
when. A 2008 YouGov survey208 of over It concluded that boys exposed to
1400 14–17-year-olds in the UK found pornographic material were more likely to
see sex as casual and were more inclined
to believe that there is nothing wrong with
Walter (2010)
holding down and sexually harassing girls.
Zook, Report on the location of the internet
adult industry. In: Jacobs, K., Janssen, M.,
Pasquinelli, M. (Eds.) (2007) 209
Livingstone and Bober et al. (2005)
Ropelato (2006) 210
Livingstone and Bober et al. (2005)
Sex Education Survey (2008) 211
Sex Education Survey (2008) 45
Sexualisation of Young People Review

The study’s author, Michael Flood, said that Exposure to pornography also influences
“there is compelling evidence from around behaviour outside the sexual sphere.
the world that pornography has negative Recent research has suggested that young
effects on individuals and communities.” people that display anti-social behaviour
The point was also made that pornography are more likely to have been exposed
shapes young people’s sexual knowledge to pornography. They also report more
but does so by portraying sex in exposure, exposure at an earlier age, and
unrealistic ways. In particular, they noted more extreme pornography use than
that most pornography is both callous and their peers.217
hostile in its depictions of women.212
Pornography is increasingly normalising
aggressive sexual behaviour, blurring the
Pornography and lines between consent, pleasure and
sexual behaviour violence.218 Research also indicates that
the more explicitly violent the material,
“From a young age, boys are taught that the more likely the viewer is to see
they are entitled to consume women’s women as sex objects.219 Male ‘high
bodies and are also fed unrealistic pornography consumers’ are more likely
expectation of those bodies, sex and than low consumers to ‘act out’ behaviour
relationships in general. At the same time, learned through watching pornography.220
girls are encouraged to embrace this as This has worrying implications,
liberating.” particularly given the growing tendency
Sophie Taylor, Greater London of pornographic films to feature violent
Domestic Violence Project storylines (see page 45).
There is strong evidence linking Over time, young people are internalising
consumption of pornography with sexual the often violent and non-consensual
behaviour. In a study of 718 US high messages and images they see in
school students from 47 different high pornography and coming to accept
school classes,213 29 per cent said that them as the norm. Pornography is also
pornography had influenced their sexual normalising what until very recently
behaviour. In a European study, 53 per cent would have been seen as niche practices
of young men reported that pornography such as the removal of female public hair,
had ‘inspired’ their sexual behaviour.214 giving a pre-pubescent appearance:221
a custom that is now permeating
Research illustrates that high consumption
mainstream culture.
is also linked to the propensity to have sex
outside a stable relationship.215 A survey of
471 Dutch teenagers aged 13–18 showed
that the more young people sought out
online porn, the more likely they were
to see sex as a purely physical function,
devoid of empathy. The more realistic the
material, the stronger this view became.216

Flood (2009) 217
Bjørnebekk (2003). Quoted in Flood (2009)
Hanson and Tyd´en (2005) 218
Hanson and Tyd´en (2005); Dines (2009)
Tyd´en and Rogala (2004) 219
Peter and Valkenburg (2006)
Hanson and Tyd´en (2005) 220
Hanson and Tyd´en (2005)
Peter and Valkenburg (2006) 221
Dines (2008)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

According to social learning theory, what sexuality than adults exposed to materials
is important is not necessarily the content featuring older-looking models and are
of the media itself but rather the implicit also more likely to associate sex and
values that it represents, which provides sexuality with subsequent non-sexual
the potential for harm. As such, what is depictions of minors.227
of importance here is not simply that a
child sees two people engaged in sex, but “For some men, children became the
more to do with the nuances surrounding object of their sexual desire, especially
how the couple relate to each other and after they clicked on the pop-up ads for
the attitudes this reinforces. As much of teen porn, which led them into the PCP
the pornographic material available today [Pseudo Child Porn] sites, and eventually
increasingly centres around gendered into real child porn. For some men, the
themes of power and violence, then this teen sites were just a stepping stone to
is what children will be responding to. the real thing, as they moved seamlessly
Of course, as is the case with all media, from adult women to children.”228
effects on the viewer are mediated by the
perceived realism of the material and an Computer games
individual’s engagement with it.222 Online games are by far the most
common way in which children aged
‘Barely legal’ pornography 8–11 in the UK make use of the internet,
Despite a US Supreme Court ruling with 85 per cent of younger children
in 2002223 criminalising ‘virtual’ child and 64 per cent of adolescents playing
pornography – pornography featuring regularly.229 With advances in technology,
adults who appear to be minors or games are becoming increasingly graphic
computer-generated imagery of minors and realistic.230 At the same time, children
– there has been an ‘explosion in the are more and more likely to play games
number of sites that childify women’224 without adult supervision: three-quarters
These include sites focusing on the of 12–15-year-olds have a games console
youthfulness of the females depicted, on in their bedroom.231
loss of virginity, on pairing young women
with much older men, and on glamorising Many games feature highly sexualised
incest.225 There is also a trend for female content and there is a notable lack of
porn actresses to appear in preambles strong female characters. In a recent
to the main film talking direct to camera content analysis, 83 per cent of male
about their early sexual experiences; often, characters were portrayed as aggressive,
these will allegedly have taken place while while 60 per cent of female characters
the actress was still a child.226 were portrayed in a sexualised way
and 39 per cent were scantily clad. The
There is evidence that such websites equivalent figures for male characters
encourage consumers to view children as were 1 per cent and 8 per cent
legitimate sex objects. Adults exposed to respectively.232 Violence against women
‘barely legal’ or virtual child pornography is often trivialised. For example, in the
make stronger links between youth and
Paul and Linz (2008); Ashcroft v. Free Speech
Peter and Valkenburg (2006); Ward and Coalition (2002)
Rivadeneyra (1999) 228
Dines (2008)
Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002) 229
Ofcom (2007)
Olfman (2008) 230
Martinez and Manolovitz (2009)
Dines (2008) 231
Ofcom (2009)
Evidence provided to the Review by Peter
Johnson, British Board of Film Classification (2009)
Dill and Thill (2007) 47
Sexualisation of Young People Review

game Rape-Lay, which was for a while increasing aggression in children and young
available to buy online via’s people. The same learning processes that
marketplace platform, players take on underlie these effects are also likely to
the role of a rapist who stalks a mother work with sexualised content affecting
before raping her and her daughters. sex-role beliefs, emotions and behaviour.237
There has also been a marked increase
in the number of games depicting various Mobile devices
forms of sexual abuse.233
The proliferation of media and the
Many popular video games effectively increased accessibility of all kinds of
reward children for engaging in violent, content is nowhere better illustrated
illegal activity, albeit virtually. The potential than by the growth in the mobile phone
negative effects are compounded by the market. By the age of nine, 52 per cent
fact that so many children are playing of British children have a phone; by the
these games alone. The point was made age of 15, that figure has risen to 95 per
during the evidence sessions that, while cent.238 Mobile phones allow young people
most parents are unlikely to let their child easy access to all kinds of online content,
watch an 18-rated film, their attitude regardless of whether or not it is age
to age-inappropriate games is more appropriate.
lenient, perhaps due to their own lack of
understanding of the games’ themes and The mobile porn industry
The global mobile porn industry
The link between violent content and is currently worth an estimated
aggression has been cited in several $2 billion.239 Figures show that, in 2007,
studies234 and although it is overly mobile phones were the UK’s biggest
simplistic to make a direct link between distributor of pornography.240 Globally,
cause and effect, Byron concluded it is telecoms companies made $1.7 billion
widely accepted that exposure to content from ‘adult content’. Evidence suggests
that children are either emotionally or that a high proportion of queries
cognitively not mature enough for can made via mobile phone relate to
have a potentially negative impact.235 adult content.241, 242
This is backed up by children themselves:
in a recent Ofcom survey, two-thirds 239240241242

of 12–15-year-olds said they believed The use of mobile phones as a tool for
that violence in games had more of an bullying, controlling or monitoring a dating-
impact on behaviour than violence on TV partner has attracted considerable media
or in films.236 attention recently, and was frequently
raised during the evidence sessions held
Several studies in the past have suggested
as part of this review.243 Mobile phones
that violent content can impact behaviour
are also being used for so-called ‘sexting’

Dill and Thill (2007)
Ofcom (2008)
Juniper Research, cited in Daw and Cabb (2009)
Martinez and Manolovitz (2009) 240
Juniper Research, cited in Daw and Cabb (2009)
Anderson and Dill (2000); Freedman (2002); 241
Kamvar and Baluja (2006)
Deselms and Altman (2003) 242
Church and Smyth et al. (2007)
Byron (2008) 243
Evidence Hearing Sessions for the Review
Ofcom (2008) (May 2009 – July 2010)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

– the sending of, often unsolicited, sexually subversive example of teens-being-teens

explicit messages. in the context of modern technological
A recent survey of 2,000 young people244
found that 38 per cent of respondents had However, while the majority of the
received a sexually explicit or distressing literature on the subject recognises that
text or email and that, of these, 55 per cent young people have always pushed the
were sent and received via mobile phones. boundaries of what is acceptable and that,
The vast majority (85%) of ‘sexts’ were sent up to a point, ‘sexting’ can be seen as a
by someone the recipient knew. The survey new way of doing something that young
concluded that ‘peer to peer anti-social/ people have always done, it also stresses
predatory behaviour is one of the biggest the unprecedented scope of this new
threats facing our young people today media. With this new wider scope comes
online and via mobile phones’.245 These new risks, the full extent of which may not
findings support Palfrey’s contention that have registered with teenagers.
in many cases children’s safety and security
is being undermined by their peers, rather Music videos and lyrics
than by unknown adult predators.246
On average, young people listen to
Most of the available literature on ‘sexting’ music for between 1.5 and 2.5 hours
comes from the US and is based on each day.251 Music lyrics and videos are
an online survey commissioned by The therefore a significant potential influence
National Campaign to Prevent Teen and on young people. Music videos across all
Unplanned Pregnancy.247 This survey genres sexualise and objectify women
found that 20 per cent of teenagers and between 44 and 81 per cent of
aged 13–19 have either sent or posted music videos contain sexual imagery.252
‘nude or semi-nude’ images of themselves; Emerson notes that artists tend to
findings which have been questioned on ‘portray themselves with a highly stylised
the grounds that those responding to an and glamorous image’253 and that that
online questionnaire are inherently more image is often highly sexualised. Arnett
likely to answer ‘yes’. Others have pointed supports this, claiming that ‘...the portrayal
out that C.J. Pascoe’s research248 in the of sexuality in popular music has become
same area found hardly any mentions of less subtle, [and] more explicit.’254
‘sexting’. However, the comparison may
be unviable as Pascoe’s research had a Women are often shown in provocative
wider remit, was conducted by an adult in and revealing clothing,255 and portrayed
a face-to-face setting and was was largely as decorative objects that dance and
carried out before ‘sexting’ became a
widespread trend.249 The phenomenon has 250
Dr Richard Chalfen, guest blogger, Center on
also been viewed as ‘a modern and slightly Media and Child Health
Beatbullying (2009) 251
Martino and Collins et al. (2006)
Beatbullying (2009) 252
Gow (1990); Greeson and Williams (1986);
Palfrey et al. (2008) Sherman and Dominick (1986); Argarbright
247 and Lee (2007); Brown, L’Engle, Pardur, Guo,
SexTech_Summary.pdf, retrieved February Kenneavy, Jackson (2006); Peterson, Wingood,
2010 DiClemente, Harrington and Davies (2007)
Pascoe et al. (2007)
Emerson (2004)
Arnett (2002)
which-is-epidemic-sexting-or-worrying-about-it/ 255
Andsager and Roe (1999), Seidman (1992)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

pose rather than, say, singing or playing an One study based on a sample of 160
instrument 256 They are depicted as being songs found that an average of 16 per
in a state of sexual readiness, and there cent contained sexually degrading261
is often a focus on their bodies or on lyrics, rising to 70 per cent within certain
specific body parts and facial features.257 genres.262 A 2006 study revealed that,
Even where women are the performers, while lyrics from almost all music genres
they are often presented and portrayed contained sexual content, degrading sexual
in an overtly sexual way. Violence occurs content was most apparent in rap-rock,
in 56.6 per cent of videos and visual rap, rap-metal and R&B. The researchers
presentations of sexual intimacy in over identified a possible link between
75 per cent. Perhaps most tellingly, 81 per exposure to popular music and early
cent of the videos containing violence also initiation of sexual activity, pointing to the
include sexual imagery.258 Males are often prevalence of sexual themes and referring
shown as hyper-masculinised and sexually to a previous longitudinal study linking
dominant. music video consumption with risky sexual
In their experiment on exposure to
pornography, Zilllmann and Bryant It is important to remember here that the
demonstrated that frequent exposure to possible association between sexualised
pornography resulted in both men and lyrics and sexual attitudes is not related
women becoming more accepting of to the sexual content of the lyrics alone
rape myths. Put simply, ‘rape myths’ are but also to their degrading nature.264
a collection of untruths which minimises Lyrics like these are often accompanied
the occurrence of sexual violence and by comparable images, for example, rap
diminishes the aggressor’s responsibility. artist Nelly swiping a credit card through
While this study was primarily concerned a young woman’s buttocks (Tip Drill) and
with measuring the effects of exposure women being walked on leashes (P. I. M. P.
to explicit sex, it did suggest that milder by 50 cent).265 In an article published in the
forms of sexual content, including the April 2009 issue of the American Journal of
depiction of women as sexual objects, Preventive Medicine, researchers found that
might yield similar results.259 teenagers who preferred popular songs
with degrading sexual references were
Research into the often sexual and violent more likely to engage in intercourse or in
content of music lyrics is comparatively pre-coital activities.266
thin on the ground. However, the APA Task
Force260 noted the tendency of popular The identities celebrated through different
song lyrics to sexualise women or refer music genres like rap and hip-hop has
to them in a derogatory manner, citing highlighted some of the racist portrayals
examples from popular mainstream artists of young black women. Researchers
like N-Dubz (‘I don’t mean to be pushy, have suggested that young black girls are
pushy, I’m just in it for the pussy, pussy’) and
50 Cent (‘I tell the hos all the time, Bitch 261
Sexually degrading, as defined by (Rudman
get in my car’). and Borgida (1995)) “An environment that
implicitly primes perceivers to categorise
women negatively (e.g. as sexual objects in an
inappropriate context)”
Arnett (2002); Gow (1990) 262
Martino et al. (2006)
Vincent et al. (1987) 263
Martino et al. (2006)
Sherman and Dominick (1986) 264
Martino et al. (2006). Quoted in Coy (2009)
Zillmann and Bryant (1989) 265
Coy (2009)
APA (2007) 266
Primack (2009)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

being encouraged to align themselves

with glamorised versions of pimp/ho
chic as a means of attaining personal and
social power, but that these portrayals
in themselves reflect sexist, racist

More than 30 years ago, cultural theorist The process of internalisation is gradual
Marshall McLuhan pointed out that we and insidious. If you’re told that being
perceive the effect the media has on us pretty means being thin, that being
about as well as fish perceive the water attractive means showing off a ‘sexy
they swim in. The evidence suggests that body’, that objectifying women makes
it’s time for this to change; time that we you more of a man enough times, you
take a critical look at the impact of the start to believe it’s true. Young people
media messages to which our children who choose to present themselves and
are exposed and start thinking about to behave in this way are simply following
how we can mitigate the negative effects. a script, and it’s a script that we keep
giving them over and over again.
The fact is that the ideal of beauty
presented in the media is arbitrary and Of course, young people’s reactions to
limiting. But for young girls, without the this barrage of sexualised imagery and
experience and ability to filter those negative messaging will be informed by
messages, without the confidence and a whole host of factors. Socio-cultural
self-esteem to contextualise what they’re factors, family norms, personality
seeing, the message comes across loud variables and education all play a
and clear: the only thing that matters role. Nevertheless, the impact of our
is being attractive and the only way to tendency to internalise such messages
be attractive is to be submissive and and the implications of this for our sense
overtly sexual. And at the same time, of self and self-worth should not be
we’re telling boys that the less emotion underestimated.
they show and the less respectful they Installing filters on computers and locks
are towards girls, the more ‘manly’ on mobile phones is important, but
the become.

Coy (2009); Lamb and Brown (2006);
Rose (2008) 51
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Conclusion (cont.)
sexualised content is everywhere and At the same time, we need to find
young people are often accessing it ways to guide children and young
alone, giving them no opportunity to ask people around developing tools as
questions or discuss their feelings. informed media-savvy consumers. They
need to be able to understand that
Businesses and the media have a part
a magazine is selling a fantasy, and to
to play, too. To take just one example,
distinguish that fantasy from reality. They
how many people must have been
need to know that images are routinely
involved in the development of the game
being digitally altered – in some cases,
Rape-Lay? How many people either
almost beyond recognition – and they
pretended not to notice its content, or
need to be equipped with the tools to
pretended that it didn’t matter? That
moderate and mitigate the effects of the
game is now no longer available through
message and images that they come into’s online marketplace, and
contact with. It is only when children and
there are many other examples of age-
their care-givers are given knowledge and
inappropriate games and clothing being
skills around media literacy, the rights and
put on sale and subsequently withdrawn.
responsibilities of sexual relationships,
But there should be more to corporate
and safe engagement with technologies,
responsibility than simply saying sorry
that they will be able to navigate,
after the event. Businesses should be
question and challenge the images and
thinking from the outset about what a
messages they are exposed to.
product, a strapline, an image is really
saying to children and young people.

Sexualisation of Young People Review

6. The impact of
“…pre-adolescents and adolescents are
like actors as they experiment with different
features of their newly forming identities and
try on different social ‘masks’. This plasticity
may make them especially susceptible to the
messages society conveys...”268

As is the case with body image have a greater sense of humour.
disturbance, sexualisation occurs on a Unfortunately, it’s under the guise of
continuum. You don’t have to experience having humour and being open-minded
sexual abuse to experience sexualisation, that the all important debates we need
in the same way that you don’t have to be having are being avoided.
to have Body Dysmorphic Disorder to
Attitudes change and evolve over
experience body dissatisfaction.
time. We are now so desensitised to
A sexist song lyric, a doll in full make up the objectification of women there
and fishnet tights, a pre-teen who wears is research to show that many young
a push-up bra to get the attention of women joke about and regulate each
boys – these examples of sexualisation others’ behaviour by using demeaning
in action seem benign and, taken in sexist terms. In fact, so normalised has
isolation, perhaps they are. But the point this objectification become that pairing
is that these things aren’t happening in up young babies with sexual innuendo is
isolation. They’re happening together, seemingly commonplace. A cursory web
they’re happening to younger and search of cute or funny baby clothes,
younger children, and in many cases brings up a host of examples – one
they are not being counterbalanced of which is a baby outfit with words
by guidance from a responsible well- ‘My mommy is a M.I.L.F’ with the caption
informed adult. And because what is ‘Baby wants to let everyone know that
relevant is the interaction of these his/her mom is a hottie! A cute and funny
different social cues or behaviours, taking Creeper or T-Shirt for your baby, infant,
any one in isolation is usually dismissed or toddler.’ Funny or not, this is indicative
as moral panic, with the suggestion that of how attitudes shape social behaviour.
people need to be more relaxed, to

Strasburger and Wilson (2002), paraphrased in Zurbriggen et al. (2007)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Introduction (cont.)
There is strong evidence to show that Clearly, through various mechanisms,
children learn from what they see, and girls have been encouraged to see
that they internalise those messages their value and hence seek to control
to create their own set of ‘rules’ and or affect their lives through being thin
codes of behaviour. From the messages and beautiful. Now we’re starting to
that they get from their parents and see what happens when you tweak the
peers, to the ads they view and the message to tell girls that they need to be
games they play, children are constantly not only thin, but also sexually desirable.
being bombarded with, and need to Interestingly, as anorexia increases so now
make sense of, both overt and covert does the number of young women having
messages around them. breast implants and at an increasingly
younger age. The intent arguably is to
Interestingly, although we are happy to feel accepted, to feel desirable and to
acknowledge the educational value of feel in control of their destinies – after
games, there seems some hypocrisy all, as some theorists would argue, the
when it comes to what we are willing to sexualisation of young women is now
accept that children are actually learning. being re-packaged as empowerment.
Making the point that educational
computer games can help develop It can be tempting to think that girls are
learning is fine but we can not in the taking the brunt, that boys have it easier.
same breath state that violent or gender- It still seems to be the case that a man
stereotyped games have no effect. can be recognised and respected for
something other than his looks. But in
It’s pretty clear that the mechanisms we some ways, the messages we’re sending
have used over the years to tell girls they out to boys are just as limiting and
should be thinner are working. Eating restrictive: be macho, be strong, don’t
disorders are on the rise with BEAT (a show your emotions. Hyper-sexualisation
National Charity offering support for of femininity can’t exist without hyper-
people affected by eating disorders) masculinisation of males. They feed off
and several other international studies and reinforce each other.
reporting increases. Eating disorders have
the highest mortality rate of any mental In this section, we look at how
illness. The mortality rate associated with sexualisation is affecting people’s
anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than confidence, self-esteem and mental
the death rate from all causes of death health, influencing the way individuals
for females 15–24 years old.269 relate to each other and effectively
reshaping social norms.


269 (US statistics)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Body image magazines is linked with concerns about

physical appearance and eating problems.275
“I’m probably going to get my tits done soon.
It’s not really that big a deal any more. Loads Evidence also suggests that ‘…negative
of people do it.” self-evaluation in terms of body weight
and appearance is being practised by
Girl, 15, interviewed by
increasingly younger generations. This
Respect UK270
includes boys as well as girls.’276 Children as
The mass media promotes and reinforces young as six are expressing dissatisfaction
an idealised notion of beauty for both with their bodies and concerns about their
men and women, presenting standards – weight.277 A series of group discussions run
of thinness for women and of muscularity on behalf of the Girl Guiding Association
for men – that few can ever hope to with girls aged seven and over found that
achieve. As girls are hyper-sexualised, so many were seriously dissatisfied with their
boys are being hyper-masculinised. Of appearance and weight. Nearly three-
course young people respond to media quarters of 7–11-year-olds wanted to
messages in complex ways but repeated change some aspect of their appearance.
exposure to these images and messages By the age of 10–11, one in eight wanted
can lead both sexes to internalise to be thinner, rising to 21 per cent among
potentially harmful messages about their 11–16-year-olds and 33 per cent of those
own behaviour, their relationships with aged 16–21. Among this older group,
each other and, ultimately, their value as 50 per cent said that they would consider
human beings. having cosmetic surgery to change their
Researchers agree that the female bodies
depicted in the media are getting thinner.271 The pressure on boys to be muscular may
There is also evidence to suggest that girls be just as harmful as the pressure on girls
and young women adopt and internalise to be thin.279 A study of 595 adolescents
idealised representations of the female found that, while exposure to idealised
form.272 An analysis of results from 25 adverts did not lead to increased body
experimental studies revealed that women dissatisfaction for boys, it did lead to
felt significantly worse about their bodies increased negative mood and appearance
after viewing pictures of thin models comparison for both sexes.280 A self-
than after viewing images of average- or reporting exercise involving 14–16-year-
plus-sized models.273 Similarly, men were olds281 found that both boys and girls were
more depressed and had higher levels of experiencing body shame and practising
muscle dissatisfaction after seeing adverts body surveillance.282
containing idealised images.274 For both
Idealised images also influence boys’
sexes, exposure to idealised images in
attitudes to girls’ bodies. A group of
13–15-year-old boys looked at 20 adverts
Focus group consisting of African young people
living in South London. Held by Respect UK 275
Morry and Staska (2001)
(2010) 276
Hill (2006)
Ogletree, Williams, Raffield, Mason and Fricke 277
Flannery-Schroeder and Chrisler (1996);
(1990); Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson and Kelly
Smolak and Levine (1994)
(1986); Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann and Ahrens
The Guide Assocation (2009)
Thompson and Stice (2001); Schooler, Ward,
Botta (2003)
Merriwether and Caruthers (2004) 280
Hargreaves and Tiggemann (2004)
Groesz et al. (2002) 281
Knauss and Paxton et al. (2008)
Agliata (2004) 282
Botta (2003) 55
Sexualisation of Young People Review

featuring idealised images of thin women, Several researchers have demonstrated

while a second group looked at neutral the way the female body is depicted in the
images. The groups were then asked to media has become increasingly thin over
rank 10 characteristics, including slimness the years and that body weight trends in
and physical attractiveness, according to fashion and media mirror trends in the
their importance when choosing a partner wider society.286 What we need to take
or girlfriend. Results suggested that boys note of is why girls have internalised the
were more likely to rate slimness and beauty myth and the thin ideal. The subtle
attractiveness as important after viewing pre-conscious messages linking thinness to
the ‘thin ideal’ images, and pointed to success and happiness have actually had
a link between this and boys’ level of a significant impact on young women’s
concern with their own body image. The behaviour and decision-making. This is
researchers concluded that the media evidenced by the increasing focus on
was leading boys to have unrealistic body dissatisfaction and rise in cosmetic
expectations of girls and to evaluate them surgery and eating disorders. Researchers
in an unfavourable and unrealistic way.283 and clinicians have also noted a tendency
amongst girls for self-objectification, i.e.
Body image and the process whereby one becomes more
sexualisation concerned and engaged with how ones
body is perceived by others while de-
“Body dissatisfaction is the discrepancy
emphasising ones own subjective feelings,
between someone’s actual body size and
and internal awareness.287
the ideal body size presented in the media.
Body dissatisfaction is so ubiquitous that it is The case of body image is a good example
described as normative.”284 of what happens if we encourage girls and
young women to equate their self-worth
The concept of body image arises often
with narrow idealised representations of
when looking at the issue of sexualisation.
the female form. Perhaps it also gives us
The process by which idealised forms
some insight into where we are headed
of the body are internalised and how
with the hyper-sexualised environment
this relates to sexualisation and self-
that young girls are growing up in today,
objectification is important to consider.
where the dominant message to girls
There is trend research that suggests that
seems to be to focus on others’ sexual
young girls adopt and internalise idealised
interest in and physical judgement of
representations of the female form
them, rather than their own desires,
depending on what is being celebrated
abilities and interests.
and validated by their culture.285

Ogletree, Williams, Raffeld, Mason and Fricke
(1990); Silverstein, Perdue, Peterson and Kelly
Hargreaves and Tiggemann (2003) (1986); Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann and Ahrens
Murnen et al. (2003) (1992)
Cash and Fleming (2002) 287
APA (2007)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

The long-term effects

When girls evaluate themselves idealised – and, for most, unachievable
against unrealistic airbrushed images – representation of the female form,
it cultivates a feeling of falling short, we are encouraging them to think
of not being ‘good enough’. This then of themselves as objects. Girls are
leads to appearance anxiety – a process becoming more concerned with how
labelled by some theorists as ‘normative others perceive them than with their
discontent’.288 Hyper-sexualised, value- own interests and desires.291
laden images and messages that girls
are exposed to are having a profound This self-objectification fits well with
impact not only on their body image the current media focus on self-
but on their sense of self. improvement – not in the form of
learning a new skill but of enhancing
The evidence suggests that even brief one’s physical appearance.292 The
exposure to images of thin models implication is that the antidote to
can lead to acute body dissatisfaction; whatever ails you – bad relationships,
similar trends emerge from longer-term depression, low-self-esteem – is to
studies. One such study looked at the change the way you look to more
impact of giving girls a subscription closely resemble the current ideal.
to fashion magazines on levels of thin
ideal internalisation, body dissatisfaction, It has been suggested that greater media
dieting and bulimia and negative feelings literacy could help to ameliorate the
and emotions. The research found negative effects of exposure to idealised
that extended exposure was likely to images.293 However, some researchers
have a long-term impact on ‘vulnerable’ have expressed the concern that, over
teenagers.289 time, any benefit would be outweighed
by the sheer volume of images in
There has been a subtle but significant circulation, suggesting that, to be truly
shift with regard to what girls are beig effective, measures to improve media
validated for. Increasingly, the message literacy needed to be accompanied
being sent out to girls is that youth and by wider use of average-sized models
beauty aren’t enough: they’ve got to be and initiatives aimed at encouraging
‘sexy’, too. Sexiness and desirability form society as a whole to take a more
the core of a girl’s value and identity.290 critical and questioning approach to the
And when we encourage girls to equate perpetuation of unrealistic ideals.
their self-worth with a narrow,
288289290 291292293

McRobbie (2007). Quoted in Coy and
Garner (in press) 291
APA (2007)
Stice and Spangler et al. (2001) 292
Brumberg (1997)
Gill (2007) 293
Yamamiya and Cash et al. (2005) 57
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Plastic surgery Mental health

“Sexualisation leads to poor self-image and Exposure to the sexualised female ideal
lack of confidence in girls that affects health is linked with lower self-esteem, negative
and the capacity to reach potential.”294 moods and depression in young women
and girls.301 Adolescent girls exposed to
Rising levels of body dissatisfaction and the adverts featuring idealised women have
de-medicalisation of plastic surgery has significantly higher State Depression
led to a major increase in the number of scores302; and frequent exposure to films,
women seeking to achieve the thin ideal TV and music videos featuring idealised
by surgical means. The UK spends more images is linked to lower self-esteem303
on plastic and cosmetic surgery than any (particularly among Black and Latino
other country in Europe, with the total young people),304 stress, guilt, shame and
figure for 2009 expected to reach insecurity.305 Researchers have suggested
£1.2 billion.295 As many as 15 per cent that internalising conventional ideas
of those who undergo cosmetic surgery about femininity leads girls to question
have body dysmorphic disorder, where their worth as individuals and that, the
sufferers become fixated on what are in more depressed they become, the more
reality quite minor physical flaws.296 likely they are to suppress their feelings
In 2005, over 77,000 invasive plastic about their bodies and ignore their own
surgery procedures were performed ‘authentic’ voices.306
on young people aged 19 or under in In a longitudinal study spanning four
America.297 By 2008, the total number years, Stice and Hayward et al. identified
of plastic surgery procedures (including body dissatisfaction, eating disorders
minimally invasive procedures) carried and depression as accurate predictors
out on young people aged 13–19 had of which girls would go on to develop
reached 219,136.298 According to the ‘major depression’.307 Another, shorter,
American Society of Plastic Surgeons,299 longitudinal study by the same researchers
young people are having plastic surgery to found that although there was no
fit in with their peers and to improve their statistical relationship between long-term
self-esteem and confidence. Evidence also exposure to thin images, the internalisation
suggests that a growing number of parents of the thin ideal and body dissatisfaction,
are allowing their daughters to undergo dieting and bulimic symptoms, vulnerable
plastic/cosmetic surgery in order to treat viewers were suffering adverse effects.308
poor self-esteem or poor body image.300 Links have also been identified between
feeling dissatisfied with one’s life and the
consumption of online pornography.
Researchers observed a vicious circle
Coy (2009)
295 301
APA (2007)
Durkin and Paxton (2002); Mills, Polivy, Herman
and Tiggemann (2002)
Rivadeneyra, Ward and Gordon (2007); Ward
linked-to-suicide-risk/105) (2004)
American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS)
Rivadeneyra, Ward and Gordon (2007)
(2008) 305
Stice and Shaw (1994)
ASPS (2008) 306
Tolman, Tracy, Michael and Impett (2006)
ASPS (2008) 307
Stice and Hayward et al. (2000)
ASPS (2008) 308
Stice and Spangler et al. (2001)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

effect, with dissatisfaction leading to more body dissatisfaction,315 and eating disorder
problematic internet use leading in turn to symptomatology.316, 317 These links cannot
greater dissatisfaction and so on.309 be explained away by a prior interest in
fitness and dieting.318
Eating disorders Furthermore, a study involving 366
“I think that today’ puts a lot of adolescents found that exposure to so-
pressure on young people. In the last year called ‘fat character TV’ (where fatness
or so I’ve started worrying a lot more about is portrayed in a negative light and/or as
my weight and body image. That could be being synonymous with traits like gluttony,
caused by all the magazines I read in a untrustworthiness and sloppiness)
week.”310 predicted eating disorders in older
girls, while ‘fat character TV’ predicted
The eating disorder charity BEAT body dissatisfaction among younger
estimates that 1.6 million people in the boys.319 There is also a link between
UK have an eating disorder. The vast the consumption of fashion and beauty
majority of these – some 1.4 million – are magazines and dieting practices such as
female.311 Over time, the fluctuation in limiting the intake of calories and taking
eating disorder levels reflect changes in diet pills.320
fashion and, therefore, in the ‘desirability’ of
the idealised thin body shape.312 Just as with body image (see page 55),
eating disorders are affecting children at
“The ratios of bust-to-waist and hip-to-waist a younger and younger age. The same
measurements of women depicted in Vogue research321 found that 42 per cent of
and Ladies Home Journal were low in the girls aged 11–16 had either carefully
1920s and 1930s, high in the 1950s, and low monitored their food intake or restricted
again in the 1960s and 1970s. ...these ratios their intake of certain foods ‘to excess’.
varied over time inversely with the occurrence Another study322 surveyed 581 nine- and
of anorexia nervosa in 10-19-year-old girls. 10-year-old girls and found that 11 per
The thin, non-curvaceous standard preceded cent of nine-year-olds and 7 per cent of
the time periods when the rates for anorexia 10-year-olds scored ‘in the anorexic range’.
nervosa were highest.”313 Over a third of girls selected ‘ideal’ figures
Numerous studies link sexualisation and that were smaller than their actual bodies.
the depiction of women as sex objects While levels of body dissatisfaction were
to the occurrence of eating disorders. consistent across ethnic groups, girls from
This supports findings pointing to a link minority ethnic backgrounds scored higher
between exposure to adverts and TV for eating disturbances.
programmes featuring slim models and
inaccurate estimations of body size,314

Peter and Valkenburg (2006)
Irving (1990); Richins (1991); Stice and Shaw
Girl quoted in Growing up in a material world –
Charter on Commercialisation (2007)
Harrison and Cantor (1997); Stice et al. (1994)
Stice and Schupak-Neuberg et al. (1994)
retrieved December 2009 318
Harrison and Cantor (1997)
Lucas, Beard, O’Fallon and Kurland (1991) 319
Harrison (2000)
Lucas, Beard, O’Fallon and Kurland (1991) 320
Thomsen, Weber, & Brown (2002)
Myers and Biocca (1992); Sumner, Waller et al. 321
The Guide Association (2009)
(1993) 322
DeLeel, Hughes and Miller et al. (2009) 59
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Pro-ana and pro-mia Gender stereotyping

websites Repeated exposure to gender-
stereotypical ideas and images contributes
Pro-anorexia (pro-ana) and pro-bulimia to sexist attitudes and beliefs, sexual
(pro-mia) websites advocate and harassment, violence against women,
encourage the perception of eating eating disorders and stereotyped
disorders as lifestyle choices rather perceptions of and behaviour toward
than serious psychological disorders.323 men and women.328 Gender-stereotypical
Sites often provide tips and tricks on ideas and images in the media generate a
how to maintain (or initiate) anorexic ‘distorted body image by setting unrealistic
or bulimic behaviour and resisting standards of female beauty and thinness’.329
treatment or recovery.324
Research into the impact of exposure to
Such websites are widely viewed, both sexist330 and non-sexist TV adverts
and often seem to attract vulnerable found that women exposed to sexist
young people. In a study of 13–17-year adverts saw their bodies as larger, and
olds, 12.6 per cent of girls and 5.9 per experienced a bigger discrepancy between
cent of boys had visited pro-ana or their perceived and their actual body size
pro‑mia sites.325 Girls were more likely than a control group.331 The researchers
to demonstrate a higher drive for concluded that sexist adverts ‘have direct
thinness, a worse perception of their and socially consequential implications for
own appearance and higher levels of psychological adjustment and well-being’,
perfectionism, making them a high risk leading to body dissatisfaction which in
group for the development of eating turn is linked with depression and loss of
disorders. self-esteem.
Among healthy young women, viewing The sexualisation of women – and, more
such sites induced low self-esteem and widely, the pornification of culture – can
negative views about their appearance. put pressure on boys to act out a version
Viewers also saw themselves as of masculinity based on the display of
heavier, said that they were more likely power over women. Boys are told that
to exercise and/or think about their being a ‘real’ man means being in control,
weight in the near future, and were particularly when it comes to intimate
more likely to compare their own and sexual relationships.332 Increasingly,
image with that of others.326 In a large boys are encouraged to construct their
survey of university students, women identities and to understand and affirm
who used pro-eating disorder websites their masculinity through their sexuality
had higher levels of body dissatisfaction and sexual experiences.333 The acquisition
and eating disturbance than a control of sexual experience then becomes
group.327 an opportunity to demonstrate sexual
competence or accomplishment rather

Kilbourne and Lazarus (1987); Lazier-Smith
Royal College of Psychiatrists (2009) 329
Lavine, Sweeney and Wagner (1999)
Norris et al. (2006); Harshbarger et al. (2009) 330
Defined as sexual and limited in gender role
Custers and Van den Bulck (2009) 331
Lavine, Sweeney and Wagner (1999)
Bardone-Cone and Cass (2007) 332
Ricardo and Barker (2008)
Harper et al. (2008) 333
Fracher and Kimmel (1998)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

than an act of intimacy.334 Given this, it is than as an individual. While media

perhaps not too much of a leap to posit images objectify both men and women,
a link between the messages being sent women are significantly more likely to be
out to boys and the normalisation of portrayed in a sexually objectified way.
aggressive – or even violent behaviour – A survey of advertising images found that
towards girls and women as demonstrated women were three times more likely
in the next chapter. than men to be dressed in a sexually
provocative way. Around 80 per cent of
Early sexual activity the images showed women in sexually
explicit postures, while in half of all images,
The UK has the highest teenage women were represented by a body part
pregnancy rate in western Europe.335 or parts only, compared with 17 per cent
Almost 43,000 girls aged 18 or of men.337
under became pregnant in 2007.
Young people continue to be When objectified magazine images of both
disproportionately affected by sexually men and women were shown to children
transmitted infections (STIs): despite aged between six and 12, the girls showed
making up just 12 per cent of the significant awareness of body esteem
population, in 2008 16–24-year-olds issues and a tendency to internalise
accounted for 65 per cent of new the images. Moreover, girls who were
Chlamydia cases, 55 per cent of new uncertain as to how to respond to the
cases of genital warts and 17 per cent thin, sexy ideal presented to them tended
of new syphilis diagnoses. Although to have lower self-esteem than girls
the total number of gonorrhoea cases who consistently rejected the images.338
fell by 11 per cent between 2007 and Research also shows that pornography
2008, the Health Protection Agency’s leads viewers – both male and female – to
Sexually Transmitted Infections view women as sex objects.339 See page
Department believes that there is 46 for more detail.
still a ‘substantial pool’ of people with
undiagnosed STIs. Lap-dancing and
335 glamour modelling
With the ubiquity of sexualisation and
Sexual objectification the increasing pornification of society
has come the mainstreaming of the sex
“Although sexual objectification is but one
industry, as exemplified by the proliferation
form of gender oppression, it is one that
of lap-dancing clubs. Sexualisation – and
factors into – and perhaps enables – a host
the commodification of women and girls
of other oppressions women face, ranging
– is now so ingrained in our culture that
from employment discrimination and sexual
lap-dancing is widely viewed as acceptable,
violence to the trivialisation of women’s work
‘making the harm of commercial sexual
and accomplishments.”’336
exploitation invisible’.340 The number of
Sexual objectification occurs when a lap-dancing clubs in the UK currently
person is portrayed solely as a sexual stands at around 300.341 Increasingly, such
object, and viewed as a collection of
sexual and physical attributes rather 337
Reichert (1999)
Murnen and Smolak et al. (2003)
Marsigilio (1988); Nzioka (2001) 339
Peter and Valkenburg (2007)
UNICEF (2001) 340
Object (2009)
Fredrickson and Roberts (1997) 341
Home Office (2009a) 61
Sexualisation of Young People Review

clubs – along with sex shops, topless bars Several theorists have argued that the
and other similar businesses – are located ‘aspirational’ connotations now associated
alongside mainstream entertainment with glamour modelling and lap-dancing
venues, raising their profile and increasing are reflective of wider changes in our
their visibility.342 culture; what Rosalind Gill refers to as ‘the
pornification of culture’.345 This describes
Sexualisation is tied to economic markets the phenomenon whereby young people
in the forms of beauty and sex industries, are exposed to images and messages
that both opens and restricts the breadth derived from pornography in increasingly
and variety of identities and ambitions diverse and disparate areas of society.
open to young women. Growing numbers
of girls are aspiring to careers that This exposure affects all young people,
demand a ‘sexy’ image. Surveys have found regardless of their background and
for instance that a high proportion of education. While some might argue
young women in the UK aspire to work as that they are making a free choice,
‘glamour models’ or lap-dancers. A recent commentators have noted that the
online survey that asked 1,000 15–19 year hyper-sexualisation of culture is beginning
olds to indicate what their ideal profession to co-opt the language of freedom and
would be from a list containing careers choice.346 When girls are told over and
including doctor and teacher, found that over again not only that their appearance
63 per cent of 15–19 year olds considered is all that matters, but that exploiting their
glamour modelling their ideal profession appearance is a route to success, it is
while a quarter of the all girls surveyed little wonder that many are choosing to
cited lap dancer as their top choice.343 take this route. A monolithic view of the
‘ideal’ women combined with the biased
A report released by the Department portrayal of such jobs in popular and
for Work and Pensions344 shows that celebrity culture is limiting, rather than
Jobcentres are routinely advertising for increasing, the choices open to young girls.
vacancies at escort agencies, lap-dancing
clubs, massage parlours and TV sex
channels: we are seeing the normalisation
of these trades as viable career choices.
This is based on an economic and
cultural context that is giving rise to the
increasing uses of a woman’s body for
male satisfaction through, for example, the
international sex trades and hard and soft
core pornography industries.

Hubbard et al.(2008); Egan et al.(2006)
Deely (2008)
Gill (2009)
62 depositedpapers/2008/DEP2008-3155.doc 346
Walter (2010)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

People trafficking
It is difficult to obtain a reliable figure
for the number of adults and children
being trafficked to the UK for the
purposes of sexual exploitation. This
is by its very nature a covert crime.
However, Home Office research
suggests that in 2003 there were up
to 4,000 women who were victims
of trafficking for sexual exploitation in
the UK; and in 2009 CEOP (the Child
Exploitation and Online Protection
Centre) estimated that the potential
number of child trafficking victims
was 325.
The link between pornography
and organised crime is a long
and established one.347 Together,
pornography, people trafficking and
prostitution contribute to a network
of exploitation that fuels the global sex
trade.348 According to the UN, global
profits from the trafficking of human
beings currently stand at around
$7 billion, equivalent in monetary
terms to the global trade in drugs.
As with all economic systems, there
must first be demand before there
can be supply. In this scenario, it is
argued, the demand is being fuelled by
the widespread depiction of girls and
women as sex objects.349

Attorney-General’s Commission on
Pornography Final Report (1986)
Sarikakis and Shaukat (2007)
Sarikakis and Shaukat (2007) 63
Sexualisation of Young People Review

The research summarised in this confidence is certainly important it
section suggests that there are negative seems that what this hyper-sexualised
consequences associated with the society is selling to girls is actually a
sexualisation of children in terms of body caricature of sexual confidence. From
dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem, sexual the physical attributes of cosmetically
harassment and views on sexual violence. enhanced breasts to the ‘sexual scripts’
of pleasing your partner ‘no matter
It’s unrealistic to assume that we can
what’, the porn star ideal of sexuality
stop our children and young people from
and beauty is certainly not the only
seeing sexualised images and messages.
and arguably not the best way for
But what we can do is give them tools to
young women to attain ownership of
help them understand and interpret what
their sexuality. Perhaps we need to be
they see, and build up their confidence
discussing with young people that true
so that they feel secure in their own
sexual confidence and sexual liberation
identity. In the past it was adult women
means that you don’t have to enjoy and
who felt the imperative to look ‘sexy’.
accept all forms of sexual entertainment
Now this imperative is in danger of being
for the sake of seeming comfortable with
adopted by younger and younger girls
your sexuality.
who will inevitably face the same feelings
of inadequacy, failure to live up to an Schools can help children develop
unrealistic ideal, and a distillation of their the capacity to interpret and filter
self-worth that it is only based on the information and to recognise and value
ability to attract attention from others. diversity. As such perhaps we need to
consider the value of media literacy
Children who don’t feel happy about
and gender studies and begin to see
themselves are more likely to latch on
them as core to the curriculum we
to things that promise popularity and
teach our children. Sex education, too,
acceptance. As the evidence in this
must focus on preparing young people
section shows, all too often that will
to form healthy, respectful, emotionally
mean conforming either to the hyper-
fulfilling relationships. Focusing on
sexy or the hyper-masculine norm. The
prevention of STIs and the mechanics
evidence suggests that children with low
of sex, while important, does not
self-esteem, and those without a close,
prepare young people for the complex
supportive family network, are most
emotional nuisances, power dynamics,
vulnerable to sexualised content and
and performance anxiety of early sexual
most likely to suffer negative impacts.
It’s a double whammy: there’s no one
there to moderate their activities so they Advertising is a multi-billion pound
are more likely to have more frequent industry because it works – it has an
and more prolonged exposure to effect – so to say that its impact on young
inappropriate material and when they people hasn’t been proven is disingenuous.
are exposed to this material there is no What we need to consider is how the
one there to talk to about it or to help effect of the media interacts with other
make sense of it. factors (psychological, familial and social)
to bring about a situation where young
Many young women now believe that
people’s sexuality is commodified and
the only confidence worth having is
sexual confidence – and while sexual ultimately used against them.

Sexualisation of Young People Review

7. Sexualisation and
“Violence is something one learns. It requires
the desensitisation of the consumer, and his/
her emotional distancing from the humanity of
the persons involved. Pornography is construed
upon the fragmentation and deduction of the
female body into parts...”350

It is tempting to dismiss the link between that, say, pornography that shows girls
sexualisation and violence as being too talking with relish about pre-teen sexual
far-fetched. Yet the evidence cited in the exploits, or highly realistic video games
previous sections suggests a clear link where players take on the role of
between consumption of sexualised stalker and rapist might start to blur the
images, a tendency to view women as boundaries between what is acceptable
objects and the acceptance of aggressive and what is not.
attitudes and behaviour as the norm.
I have already made the point that in the
In many ways, sexualisation leads to
past few years pornography has become
dehumanisation. Both the images we
a part of mainstream culture. But it is
consume, and the way we consume
important to note that we are not talking
them, are lending credence to the idea
here about idealised or exaggerated
that women are there to be used and
depictions of mainstream erotica or sex.
that men are there to use them.
Increasingly, porn is dominated by themes
Sexual abuse and sexual violence are, of aggression, power and control. And,
thankfully, at the extreme end of the as the porn industry increasingly pushes
spectrum of impacts of sexualisation. the boundaries, so mainstream culture
Nevertheless, it is imperative that we follows suit.
acknowledge the very real possibility

Sarikakis and Shaukat (2007) 65
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Introduction (cont.)
By sending out the message that girls settle disputes or get revenge with
are there to be used and abused, there gang members by raping girlfriends,
is a danger that we are turning boys sisters and even mothers of their rivals.
into consumers of the female body, who And although gangs make up only a
see sex as a means of domination and small part of society in the UK, the
control rather than an act of intimacy use of violence as a means to punish
and a source of mutual pleasure. One and control is not just in the domain
girl interviewed as part of a recent study of sub‑cultures. The shocking results
on gang violence gave the following of a recent survey carried out by the
explanation for why girls have sex: NSPCC show that for many young
people, violence within relationships is
“It’s to keep the boy happy… to make commonplace. It seems that notions of
him like you more and to please him and power and control over the female body,
stop him from having sex with other girls. and the pressure on boys to conform to
Sometimes it hurts but you don’t want to a hyper-masculine ideal, are having a very
say anything because then he’ll just leave real – and very damaging – effect on our
you for someone that will do all the stuff day-to-day lives.
he wants and please him better.”351
This section provides an overview of
Many of the professionals who work the evidence for the links between
with gangs and informed this review sexualisation and aggression, including
noted that in gang culture, sex is referred violence within relationships. It also
to as ‘beating’ and, increasingly, rape is considers the role of pornography in
being used as the weapon of choice to normalising violent behaviour.

Attitudes to violence beliefs with aggressive sexual behaviour.354

A recent Home Office survey found that
“Images of women as objects or in
36 per cent of people polled believed that
submissive poses normalises violence against
a woman should be held wholly or partly
women. Men associate these images with
responsible for being sexually assaulted
women walking down the street.”
or raped if she was drunk, while 26 per
Focus group participant352 cent believed a woman should accept
There is a significant amount of evidence at least part of the blame for an attack
linking stereotypical attitudes to women’s if she was out in public wearing sexy or
sexuality, adversarial sexual beliefs, revealing clothes.355
acceptance of the ‘rape myth’353 and sexist

Dean and Malamuth (1997); Malamuth and
Briere (1986); Malamuth and Donnerstein
(1982, 1984); Murnen, Wright and Kaluzny
Evidence provided in a focus group, held as (2002); Osland, Fitch and Willis (1996); Spence,
part of the Review (2009) Losoff and Robbins (1991); Truman, Tokar and
Women’s National Commission (2009) Fischer (1996); Vogel (2000)
See definition on page 50 355
Home Office (2009)

Sexualisation of Young People Review

There is also a connection between sexual partners and a more tolerant

exposure to stereotypical images of attitude towards child sexual abuse.362
women in adverts and aggressive or
violent attitudes. Researchers suggest that, A recent longitudinal study of 1,000 boys
by encouraging male viewers to internalise from birth to 25 looked at how their
the notion of women as sexual beings, levels of self-esteem affected their risk of
adverts create a hierarchy within which violent behaviour. Boys with higher levels
women are viewed as subordinate and, of self-esteem at 15 were less likely to be
therefore, as appropriate targets for sexual violent offenders by the age of 25, while
violence.356 The repeated depiction of men lower levels of self-esteem were linked
as dominant and aggressive and females to a greater risk of violence at 18, 21
as subordinate and demeaned is arguably and 25.363 A survey of 13,650 pupils aged
perpetuating violence against women.357 11–16 from 39 schools across England
found that lack of self-concern and low
Adults – including women358 – who self-esteem were useful constructs in
viewed sexually objectifying images of predicting adolescent violence.364
women in the mainstream media were
more likely to be accepting of violence.359 Partner violence
A significant number of men exposed to
video games featuring hyper-sexualised “Our research has uncovered, for the first
characters made judgments that suggested time in the UK, the shocking levels of
greater tolerance of sexual harassment; violence – physical, emotional and sexual
in the longer-term, exposure correlated – that many girls experience from their
with tolerance of sexual harassment and partners. Indeed...this may be the most
greater acceptance of the ‘rape myth’.360 prevalent form of violence girls experience
in their childhoods. We can no longer ignore
A study of 458 young adolescents this fundamental welfare problem and the
examining the relationship between family damage it does to girls’ well-being and their
environment, gender-focused themes and long-term life chances.”
narratives in music videos and attitudes
towards sexual harassment361 showed University of Bristol & NSPCC
that, while girls were less accepting of research report365
sexual harassment than boys, exposure A recent survey commissioned by the
to music videos reduced their resistance. NSPCC366 found that 33 per cent of
This was particularly true for girls without teenage girls aged 13–17 had been
a supportive family. For both boys and subjected to unwanted sexual acts while
girls, frequent TV viewing and exposure in a relationship, and 25 per cent had
to pornographic material led to greater suffered physical violence. Among boys,
acceptance of sexual harassment. The 18 per cent had experienced physical
study also identified a link between violence. Nearly three-quarters of
viewing sexualised images of girls, a girls and half of boys claimed to have
tendency to view younger girls as potential experienced some form of ‘emotional
violence’ from their partner, with girls
more likely to have experienced this in a
Lanis and Covell (1995)
Murnen et al. (2007); Dill and Brown et al.
(2008) 362
Strouse and Goodwin et al. (1994)
Johnson and Adams et al. (1995) 363
Boden and Horwood et al. (2007)
Kalof (1999); Lanis and Covell (1995) 364
Sutherland and Shepherd (2002)
Dill and Brown et al. (2008) 365
Barter, McCarry, Berridge and Evans (2009)
Strouse and Goodwin et al. (1994) 366
Barter, McCarry, Berridge and Evans (2009) 67
Sexualisation of Young People Review

direct or overt form. Girls and boys who “You know K – if she calls me names
had had a family member or peer behave I’ll smack her around the cheek… I’d just
violently towards them were more at risk grab her and I’d punch her and make them
of partner violence; outside the home, pay for it. I can’t help it, it’s not me. My hand
girlfriends and boyfriends are the most just goes, ‘boom’.”
common perpetrators of sexual abuse Boy, aged 12369
and violence.367
“It’s a known fact that boys normally bully
Although both sexes are experiencing girls because they like them. If you hit them
partner violence, more girls are suffering it’s cos you fancy them… first signs of love.”
and the impact of this suffering is greater. Girl, aged 14370
A significant proportion of the girls
surveyed stated that the violence Statistics from the Department for
had seriously affected their welfare; for Children, Schools and Families show
boys, there appeared to be few at least 120 permanent371 and 3,450
consequences. Researchers also remarked fixed period exclusions attributed to
on the level of coercive control apparent sexual misconduct in the academic year
in young people’s relationships and, again, 2007/08.372
on the impact of this on girls in particular.
The Youth Justice Board reports a rise
Significant numbers of girls were subject
in recent years in the number of sexual
to high levels of control overwhere they
offences committed by young people
could go, who they could see and what
which result in a pre-court or court
they could do. Many found themselves
‘disposal’. Sexual offences include a wide
under constant surveillance via the internet,
category of offences which vary in their
mobile phones and text messaging. Such
level of severity, ranging from unlawful
control often led to girls becoming isolated
sexual intercourse to rape. In 2007/08
from their peer networks.
alone, 1,302 incidents of sexual offending
by 10–15-year-olds were recorded – 29
Sexualised violence in of which were committed by 10-year-
schools old children373. Separate figures drawn by
the NSPCC from all but one of the UK’s
Sexual harassment, and gendered and police forces show that children under 18
sexualised name-calling and bullying are committed 1,065 sexual offences in the
on the rise in both primary and secondary year ending March 2008.374
schools.368 Research has uncovered some
alarming examples of how the apparent
acceptability of violent behaviour is
shaping gender roles and relationships:

Womankind UK (2007)
Womankind UK (2007)
This does not include the total number of
permanent exclusions in primary and special
school settings
DCSF (2009)
Cawson and Loretto (2000) 373
Statistics (2004–08), Youth Justice Board
Duncan (2004, 2006); Francis (2005); Renold, 374
NSPCC (2010). Figures obtained under
68 (2002, 2003); Ringrose (2008) Freedom of Information Act
Sexualisation of Young People Review

bestiality. Researchers point to a number

Gangs, sexualisation and of negative consequences linked to the
sexual violence consumption of such material:

In gangs, rape and sexual assault is “Dispositional changes include diminished

increasingly becoming the weapon of trust in intimate partners, the abandonment
choice. Assaulting a girl is used not only of hopes for sexual exclusivity with partners,
to assert power over the girl herself, evaluation of promiscuity as the natural
but also over those who associate state, and the apprehension that sexual
with her. The growing threat of sexual inactivity constitutes a health risk. Cynical
violence also means that girls are attitudes about love emerge, and superior
seriously affected by gang activities; sexual pleasures are thought attainable
regardless of whether they are directly without affection toward partners. The
involved themselves. institution of marriage is seen as sexually
confining. Increasingly, having a family and
Girls also talk of feeling increasingly raising children is considered an unattractive
pressurised by magazines, music prospect.”378
and the fashion industry to present
themselves in a highly sexual way. A study of over 800 subjects aged 18 to
They tend to respond to this pressure 26 found that 87 per cent of young men
either by over-sexualising themselves and 31 per cent of young women used
from an early age or by developing a pornography, and that 67 per cent and
more ‘masculine’ persona which, in the 49 per cent thought pornography was
gang context, means they often found acceptable. There was a clear link between
themselves in dangerous situations.375 the use and acceptance of pornography
and risky sexual attitudes and behaviours,
substance abuse and non‑marital
cohabitation values.379 However, high
Pornography and pornography use is not in itself an
sexual aggression indicator of high risk for sexual aggression.
But people who are already predisposed
“All this push to get women to buy into porn to violent activity and who also score high
and its values…is it really empowering? If for pornography use are much more likely
it was, wouldn’t it be empowering for all to engage in sexual aggression.380
‘Angela’, female prostitute In other words, where a person already
has a propensity towards violence,
Evidence points to a link between that propensity may be heightened
exposure to pornography and ‘sexual by the presence of sexually aggressive
callousness’, as well as a decrease in pornography.
feelings of guilt, repulsion and disgust.
Prolonged exposure increases the
likelihood of consuming material that
depicts either potentially ‘harmful’ or what
the UK government labels ‘extreme’377
sexual behaviours such as violent sex and

ROTA (2007) 378
Zillman (1989)
Walter (2010) 379
Carroll and Padilla-Walker et al. (2008)
McGlynn, Ward and Rackley (2009) 380
Malamuth, Addison and Koss (2000) 69
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Malamuth and Vega agree that there is a

The Confluence Model significant correlation between exposure
to pornography and both actual, and
The Confluence Model of sexual
attitudes to, sexual aggression.382 This is
aggression shows how a number
backed by a further study involving 515
of factors work together with
men, which found a strong association
pornography use to predict levels
between rape and rape proclivity and
of sexual aggression. Pornography
the use of all forms of pornography.
consumption therefore contributes
The strongest links were with hard-
‘significantly to the prediction of sexual
core pornography featuring scenes of
aggression both as a main effect and in
violent rape. Soft-core pornography was
interaction with other factors’.381
positively associated with the likelihood
2.2 of sexual force and non-violent coercive
Pornography Use behaviour, but negatively associated with
Low the likelihood of rape and actual rape
Mean sexual aggression

1.6 These conclusions are supported by a
recent literature review,384 which identified
consistent and reliable evidence that
1.2 exposure to pornography is related to
male sexual aggression against women,
and while the association is strongest
.8 for violent pornography, it is still reliable
Low Medium High
for non-violent pornography. It should be
Risk for sexual aggression based on GH x HM x IS
noted, however, that researchers have also
identified a circular relationship whereby
Hostile masculinity (HM) describes
those men who are considered as high-
personality traits linked to aggression,
risk for sexual aggression are more likely
including insecurity, defensiveness,
to be attracted to sexually violent media
hypersensitivity and a hostile/distrustful
and more influenced by it.386
attitude to women.
In a critical review of the literature on
Impersonal Sex (IS) describes a
pornography and links with violence,
promiscuous, non-committal attitude
Itzin, Taket and Kelly (2007) conducted
towards sexual relations.
a critical analysis of experimental studies
General Hostility (GH) refers to disputed by Fisher and Grenier (1994).
traits such as callousness and lack of The experimental studies were said
emotion, which increase the likelihood by Fisher and Grenier to have failed
of developing HM and IS. to confirm that violent pornography is
associated with anti-women thoughts and
As the figure shows, the risk of sexual acts, citing inconsistent findings due to
aggression is highest for those that score methodological and conceptual limitations.
highly for GH, HM and IS, and who are In the wider review of evidence of harm
also heavy consumers of pornography.
Allen et al. (1995)
Boeringer (1994)
Flood (2009)
Flood and Hamilton (2003)
Malamuth and Vega (2007) 386
Malmouth et al. (2000)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

to adults relating to exposure to extreme

pornographic material Itzin, Taket and
Child sexual abuse
Kelly concluded that there is evidence “It would be unrealistic to assume there is
of negative psychological, attitudinal no correlation between the sexualisation and
and behavioural effects on adults who objectification of children and their being
access this material. This included beliefs sexually abused. ...children are portrayed, and
that women enjoy or desire rape; lack taught to act, as sexual beings. Why should
of empathy with rape victims and a it surprise us if those that wish to abuse
preference for extreme material; and children use this to legitimise their actions?”
behavioural effects such as aggression in
the laboratory after exposure.
Child sexual abuse lies at the extreme
Itzin, Taket and Kelly conclude that sexual
end of the spectrum of consequences
explicitness per se (as Malamuth (2003)
of sexualisation. Nevertheless, it affects a
argues) does not have harmful effects;
very significant number of children. One
but when a message is presented within
estimate392 puts the number of girls in
a sexually explicit setting it may have
England who have been sexually abused
a different effect than if the message
at 1.1 million and the number of boys at
was presented in a non-sexual setting.
490,000. Another suggests that as many as
This subconscious processes whereby
2 million under-16s – and one in five girls
messages in pornography become
– is a victim of ‘sexual abuse or violence’.393
embodied and engendered with arousal
Figures from the US show that disabled
and orgasm live on in feelings and fantasies
children are three times more likely to be
that are deeply embedded and much
sexually abused than able-bodied children;
more difficult to remove.387
figures in the UK are thought to be
It should also be noted that most studies broadly similar.394
involve adult subjects, although there is
Recent figures from the NSPCC show that
evidence to suggest links between violent
over 21,600 sex crimes were committed
pornography and aggressive behaviour in
against under-18s in 2008/09.395 More
younger viewers.388 A US study of boys
than one third (36 per cent) of all rapes
and girls aged 11–16 found that greater
recorded by the police are committed
exposure to R- and X-rated films was
against children under 16 years of age.396
linked to greater acceptance of sexual
According to the Department of Health,
harassment.389 Another study where
child sexual abuse is greatly under-identified
the average age of participants was 14
and reported: 72 per cent of sexually
found a correlation between frequent
abused children do not tell anyone about
consumption of pornography and the
the abuse at the time.397 While the majority
belief that it is acceptable to hold a girl
of abusers are male, the number of female
down and force her to have sex.390
Evidence provided to the Review by
Tom Narducci, NSPCC (2009)
London Safeguarding Children Board (2008)
Cawson (2000)
Sullivan and Knutson (2000)
Itzin (2000) than_21000_child_sex_offences_recorded_last_
Flood (2009) year_wdn70725.html, retrieved February 2010
Strouse et al. (1994) 396
Home Office Statistical Bulletin (July 2006/12/06)
Check and Guloein (1989) 397
Caswon et al. (2000) 71
Sexualisation of Young People Review

sex abusers in Britain is estimated at Child pornography

between 48,000 and 64,000.398 The majority
“When girls are dressed to resemble
of those who display sexually harmful
adult women, however, adults may project
behaviour are adolescent males, with 25–40
adult motives as well as an adult level of
per cent of all alleged sexual abuse involving
responsibility and agency on girls. Images
young perpetrators.399 Some clinicians
of precocious sexuality in girls may serve to
have noted that the sexualised images
normalize abusive practices such as child
of children that are now more common
abuse, child prostitution and the sexual
and easily accessible challenge the norms
trafficking of children.”403
that commonly forbid sexual interest in
children.400 It is a widely held view that the use of
child pornography must be considered
Victims of sexual abuse can experience
and understood as “…one practice within
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
a repertoire of child sexual abuse” and not
cognitive distortions, anxiety, depression,
as an isolated issue which can lead to child
somatic concerns, disassociation, eating
sexual abuse.404
disorders, sexual dysfunction, impaired
self-relatedness, behavioural difficulties, There is very little experimental research
relationship problems, aggression, on the effects of viewing images of child
substance abuse, suicide, self-mutilation abuse. However, in a study that sought to
and indiscriminate sexual behaviour.401 examine this by using adult actors that
One study suggested that almost three- looked like young girls (so-called ‘barely
quarters of girl victims of ‘contact sexual legal’ pornography), the findings showed
abuse’ went on to experience PTSD, while that exposure to such pornography led
57 per cent suffered major depression.402 to stronger mental associations between
non-sexual images of children and words
The consequences of child sexual abuse
related to sex.405 This suggests that viewing
can be devastating, and yet, from the
sexualised portrayals of children could
evidence sessions that fed into this review,
lead to viewers making these associations
professionals working with victims of
even when children are not being
abuse pointed out that in many cases,
children who experience sexual abuse
are not given access to support services, An issue of concern that has been raised
even following assessment. This is an issue by experts is that the sexualisation of girls
that will be explored more thoroughly could potentially contribute to a market
by the Taskforce on the Health Aspects for images of child abuse. The APA review
of Violence against Women and Children on sexualisation notes that there is a
when it reports to the government in new trend for ‘grooming’ children on-line
March 2010. whereby paedophiles join on-line teen

Lucy Faithfull Foundation (
Emma Rush – What are the risks of premature
sexualisation in children. Quoted in Tankard Reist
(2010) 403
APA (2008)
Briere (1991) 404
Kelly and Regan (2000)
Jones and Ramchandani (1999) 405
Paul (2005)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

chat rooms and seduce girls into As academics in the field have pointed
performing sex acts for money in front out, modern technology “has transformed
of the camera.406 This specific form of the political economy of all pornography,
exploitation is tackled in the UK by the making it possible for almost anyone to
Child Exploitation and Online Protection be producer, distributor and consumer
(CEOP) Centre. simultaneously.”409
Exposure to sexualised images of children Tink Palmer, Internet Watch Foundation,
and child pornography could potentially noted in an evidence session for this
increase a child’s vulnerability to sexual review that she had encountered several
exploitation and abuse. Sexual images of cases where young people were groomed
children may have the effect of normalising to consume child porn by sex offenders
child sexual abuse. During the Australian who had made initial contact in on-line
Conference of Child Abuse and Neglect chat rooms. Her experience is reflected
in 2003 it was reported that exposure in research findings that suggest that
to X-rated pornography was a significant growing numbers of adolescents are
factor in young children abusing other being convicted of possession of child
children.407 In her research on how pornography.410 In accord with these
14–16-year-olds present themselves findings are the results of a New Zealand
online, Jessica Ringrose made the point study that reported that among offenders,
that young girls, inspired by the hyper- the largest group trading in internet
sexualised portrayals of women around child pornography were aged between
them, are styling themselves in overtly 15–19.411
sexually provocative ways for the
consumption of other young people.
What we are seeing on social networking
sites and in ‘sexting’ is, effectively, children
themselves producing child pornography.408

Eichenwald (2005) 409
Kelly and Regan (2000)
Stanley, et al. (2003) 410
Moultrie (2006)
Ringrose (2008) 411
Carr (2004) 73
Sexualisation of Young People Review

The evidence set out in this document a study. Second, such a study would
suggests that there is broad agreement have to overcome considerable
among researchers and experts in health ethical obstacles with regard to
and welfare that sexualising children breaches of family privacy and the risk
prematurely places them at risk of a of further sexualising child participants.
variety of harms, ranging from body Finally, many of the mechanisms through
image disturbances to being victims of which sexualisation is occurring are
abuse and sexual violence.412 relatively new. Only recently have we
begun to see psychologists and other
Sexualisation devalues women and social scientists making a concerted
girls sending out a disturbing message effort to address the issue.
that they are always sexually available.
It creates false expectations for girls So, we need more research.
trying to live up to unrealistic ‘ideals’, and Nevertheless, we should acknowledge
for boys in terms of how they think a that the research and evidence from
girl should be treated. It increases self- child experts and clinicians gathered in
objectification and limits the aspirations this report points clearly to the fact that
and choices that girls feel are open to sexualisation is having a negative impact
them. Sexualisation lowers important on young people’s physical and mental
barriers to child sexual abuse, and health, and helping to normalise abusive
undermines healthy relationships, behaviour towards women and children.
increasing the likelihood of violence
In 2007 the Department for Children,
against women and girls.
Schools and Families published its
There is both empirical research Children’s Plan413, aimed at making
and clinical evidence that premature England ‘the best place in the world
sexualisation harms children. There for children and young people to grow
is, however, a clear need for further up’ and which highlighted the need
empirical evidence in the form of a to reduce the risk to children from
large-scale longitudinal study to look in potentially harmful media content.
detail at how living in a sexualised culture To do this, we must first accept that
affects both boys and girls as they grow sexualisation, as evidenced in this
and develop. report and in similar reports from the
US and Australia, is harmful. Only then
There are several reasons why such can we begin to develop strategies for
evidence does not yet exist. First, large helping our young people to deal with
longitudinal studies require careful sexualisation and create spaces where
development and significant funding: they can develop and explore their
in Australia, the federal government sexuality in their own time and in their
spent two years debating whether own way.
the National Health and Medical
Research Council should fund such

APA (2007); Coy (2009); Malamuth (2001); Tankard-Reist (2010)
The Children’s Plan: Building brighter futures, DCSF (2007)
Sexualisation of Young People Review

8. Recommendations

I believe that reviews like this one The recommendations outlined below
should not only raise awareness and are derived from the main themes that
define the issues, they should also look have emerged from the review. They
at possible solutions and ways forward. have evolved through consultations with
Throughout the course of my work on professionals who work on the front
the review, some people have suggested line in relevant areas and they have been
that the problem of sexualisation is so informed by those working with the
complex and so endemic that it will be practicalities and logistics of government
practically impossible to bring about policy. What is required is a joint effort
real change. I don’t believe that this is by parents, teachers, professionals,
the case. Sexualisation is undoubtedly clinicians, advertisers, retailers and policy
a complex and multi-factorial issue, but makers. For the greatest social change
social change is always possible, as long comes not from addressing one aspect
as people are sensitised to the need for of a problem but from the cumulative
that change to occur. effect of many people acknowledging
together that change needs to happen.

1) Education and the school culture which discriminate

against women and encourage or justify
schools gender inequality, sexual bullying and
harassment. I believe there is a need for a
i) Promoting gender equality in schools greater emphasis in initial teacher training
Schools have a vital role to play, together and continuing professional development
with parents, in helping young people to on gender awareness and gender-based
develop healthy relationships, manage volence. I recommend that:
their emotions, and challenge the
behaviour of some young men towards • All school staff should have training
women and girls. on gender equality.
• Staff who teach Personal, Social,
School staff report that they do not Health and Economic (PSHE)
have the skills or confidence to address education and/or citizenship should
gender equality. They need to be aware be given specialist training and
of the significant impact of gender on ongoing support to address these
experiences within school; and to know issues through the curriculum.
how to identify and address aspects of
Sexualisation of Young People Review

High levels of sexist bullying in schools It should include setting personal

suggest that schools must do more boundaries and understanding what is safe
to meet the ‘Be healthy’ and ‘Stay safe’ and appropriate touching and behaviour. It
outcomes of Every Child Matters,414 to should also look at issues like body image
fulfil their duty to promote well-being and and violence in relationships and aim to
to safeguard their pupils. There is evidence help young people develop an awareness
which suggests teachers do not feel of the gap between pornography and real
confident to challenge the discriminatory sexual relationships. It is imperative that
attitudes and behaviours that underpin all children receive this level of education
violence against women and girls. Teachers and guidance including children with
should therefore be given a much greater learning difficulties, who often miss out
level of support and guidance. I therefore because of their special educational needs.
recommend that: It is also important that teaching staff are
equipped to deliver high-quality teaching
• The Department for Children, about personal relationships which tackles
Schools and Families (DCSF) issues sexualisation and that responds to the
statutory guidance for schools on realities of children and young people’s
gender equality, in order to raise the lives. I therefore recommend that:
profile of the issue. The new guidance
should be comprehensive, including: • Clear reference is made to
how to address gender equality and sexualisation, gender stereotypes and
violence against women and girls in pornography within the Department
the school Gender Equality Scheme; for Children, School and Families’
the school ethos; in anti-bullying revised Sex and Relationships
policies; safeguarding strategies; the Education (SRE) guidance which is
wider curriculum; staff training; and currently out for public consultation.
the services and information that • Practical ‘How To’ guidance on
schools provide. tackling sexualisation is disseminated
• Schools should ensure that all widely to schools through
incidents on sexual bullying are Teachernet, the PSHE Association,
recorded and reported separately to the Sex Education Forum and other
other forms of bullying. agencies. This would pull together
illustrative material of good practice;
ii) Statutory Personal, Social, Health and demonstrate how sexualisation can
Economic (PSHE) education and Sex and fit within the existing curriculum
Relationships Education (SRE) including SRE, PSHE education,
Citizenship and Media Studies; and
As part of the Violence Against Women
detail what resources are available
and Girls consultation, I recommended
and links to relevant organisations.
that PSHE education, which includes
SRE, become a compulsory part of • New SRE resource materials are
the curriculum. Ministers have already made available for teachers who
indicated that this is their intention. SRE work with children with special
provides important opportunities for education needs and learning
children and young people to develop the difficulties.
language and skills they need to be safe
and to understand personal relationships. In many schools, effective work is already
SRE should begin in primary schools and under way in the areas of violence against
continue throughout secondary school. women and girls and gender equality.
This includes lessons given as part of the
Sexualisation of Young People Review

PSHE and citizenship curricula, lessons should equip young people with the
given in other subjects, assemblies and cognitive filters to critically examine and
other school activities. However, there is challenge the media portrayal of both
still more that could be done in primary men and women. It should address
schools. I therefore recommend that: concepts such as air-brushing of images
and the cult of celebrity, and be linked to
• Primary schools should make education on safe internet use.
specific reference to the influence
Alternative media outlets such as blogs,
of the media on body image and
webcasts and magazines or ‘zines’
personal identity. This could form
distributed on the web could provide a
part of a planned new area of
useful forum for teaching and encouraging
learning, ‘Understanding Physical
young people to critically examine
Development, Health and Wellbeing’,
the sexualised or hyper-masculinised
and would help equip primary
images presented by popular media and
school children with tools to
marketers. By offering young people a
understand and interpret the images
chance to create their own content, these
and messages they see in the media.
channels can promote a powerful sense of
Almost all primary schools and a growing validation and ownership.
number of secondary schools are using I therefore recommend that:
the Social and Emotional Aspects of
Learning (SEAL) programme to support • Media literacy should not only be
children’s emotional wellbeing. I therefore taught through PSHE education
recommend that: but also through English and drama,
the arts, history and citizenship.
• A module on gender equality, A ‘whole school’ approach to media
sexualisation and sexist/sexual literacy would reduce the burden
bullying be developed as part of on PSHE education, ensure that
the SEAL programme. This should relevant links are made in other
include discussion of body image and subjects and effectively mainstream
objectification. gender stereotyping throughout the
iii) Media literacy and encouraging
activism iv) Working with young people outside of
While there are many organisations mainstream education
working to address the media literacy In recent years the integration of youth
needs of the UK population, efforts to work into other children’s services has
date have been fragmented, with little or moved from a universal service to an
no co-ordination at either strategic or increasingly ‘problem’ orientated targeted
operational level. As a result, resources one. However, there’s a great deal of
may be failing to reach those in most need positive work that can be done with
or to achieve the desired outcomes. young people, not because they are seen
I welcome the government’s desire to as deficient, or victims, or needing to be
boost young people’s media literacy ‘fixed’ but as part of more general anti-
skills.415 Any media literacy programme sexist and gender equalities-based work
with boys and girls. I recommend that:
Secretary of State for Children, Schools and
Families, Ed Balls. House of Commons Hansard
Ministerial Statements for 14 December 2009
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Pro-anorexia (pro-ana) and pro-bulimia

• Increased funding should be made
(pro-mia) websites advocate and
available for staffing, provision and
encourage the perception of eating
training of existing youth workers
disorders as lifestyle choices rather
so that they feel confident and
than serious psychological disorders.
sufficiently skilled to have discussions
They often provide tips on how to lie
with young people around sexuality,
to doctors, which foods are easiest to
sexist and sexual bullying and gender
vomit up and advice on initiating and/or
inequality. More materials are also
maintaining anorexic or bulimic behaviour.
needed to support youth workers to
I recommend that:
develop such work.

v) Digital literacy and the internet • The government should work with
internet service providers to block
While the internet brings unprecedented access to pro-ana and pro-mia
opportunities for children and young websites.
people to learn, develop and enjoy, it also
brings risks. Children – and their parents vi) Positive role models for children
– need education to understand and
Children – especially girls – need positive
negotiate those risks. At the same time,
role models to help challenge gender
steps should be taken to make the virtual
stereotypes and encourage them to
world as safe as possible. I therefore
develop their self-esteem based on
recommend that:
aptitude and accomplishment, not physical
appearance. I would like to put together
• The UK Council for Child Internet
a working group of inspirational working
Safety (UKCCIS) should be
women to help identify what we can
supported to further develop its
do to help this generation of teenagers
current online resource centre where
realise their potential and shape policy in
parents can access internet safety
this area.
advice. Strategies should be simple
and practical, and link to parents’ An initial project for the group could
existing life and parenting skills. be a short film featuring a dozen or so
inspirational women talking about their
From meeting with parents, I appreciate achievements, which could then be
that expecting them to take complete distributed to schools or made available
responsibility for their children’s digital for download. Schools could be invited to
literacy is both unrealistic and unfair. Our compete for a visit from one of the group
approach to improving digital literacy must members, or the chance to gain work
be two-pronged, and I recommend that: experience with them. Several high profile
sports and business women have already
• Digital literacy is made a compulsory agreed in principle to be involved.
part of the national curriculum
for children from the age of five A similar scheme for boys could challenge
onwards, and that age-appropriate the hyper-masculine ideal and provide
materials are made available to pupils alternative role models. The White Ribbon
at every stage of their education. Campaign, for example, already runs
workshops where boys can explore issues
like gender stereotyping and sexualisation.
Such workshops could be funded so that
more schools have access to them.
Sexualisation of Young People Review

For both boys and girls, there are obvious During the evidence sessions that
opportunities for promoting positive informed this review, professionals working
role models in the run up to the 2012 with abuse victims and teenage sex
Olympics. The ideal would be to work offenders pointed out that in many cases
with a range of people, from sport, children who experience sexual abuse are
entertainment and the world of business. not given access to support services, even
after an assessment. We must provide
As part of the government’s long-term psychological support for every child that
communication strategy to tackle violence has suffered at the hands of an abuser,
against women and girls, I recommend that: not rely on voluntary bodies or wait for
a child to start ‘acting out’. Therefore,
• A schools campaign is developed I recommend that:
which promotes positive role
models for young men and young • Local Authorities must be held
women and challenges gender accountable for treating victims of
stereotypes. The campaign should child sexual abuse and ensure that
build on the positive work already specialist services receive adequate
being undertaken in schools by funding for the treatment of children
organisations such as the White who have suffered abuse.
Ribbon Campaign and Womankind.
• One-to-one confidential help
• Schools encourage girls to value in school/college from a trained
their bodies in terms of their physical professional such as a psychologist
ability by encouraging them to should be made available to every
engage in athletic and other extra- child and young person.
curricular activities. Schools should
promote this work by linking it
to the 2012 Get Set education 2) Media and
programme (run by the London
Organising Committee for the
Olympic Games). There is a clear link i) A national campaign to tackle teenage
here to one of the core values of relationship abuse
the Olympic/Paralympic movement
The government strategy, Together we can
– demonstrating respect for oneself
end violence against women and girls, noted
and others.
my recommendation to run a campaign
vii) Support for children who have been aimed at challenging the attitudes
abused and perceptions that lead to violence
within teenage relationships as the first
Evidence indicates that children who phase in a broader cross-government
are abused are more likely to display communications strategy/campaign.
inappropriate sexualised behaviour. I have worked with the Home Office to
Currently, too few children are being inform the development of the Teenage
treated for the psychosocial consequences Relationship Abuse campaign, which
of sexual abuse; it is not until they start to was launched in February 2010. I also
act inappropriately that their behaviour recommend that:
is noticed and addressed. Teachers
and other professionals do not always
have the training and skills needed to
identify the early signs of abuse and offer
appropriate support.
Sexualisation of Young People Review

of both girls and boys if their efforts were

• A specific campaign pack is
acknowledged and rewarded. I therefore
developed for primary and
secondary schools which they can
use to exemplify and build on issues
• The establishment of a media award
arising from the national campaign.
that promotes diverse, aspirational
This campaign should not be a ‘one
and non-sexualised portrayals of
off ’ but be run annually, allowing
young people.
schools time to prepare activities and
lesson plans. iv) Support and guidance for parents
ii) A working group to address the I believe that parents should be given
sexualisation of women and girls by the information and support to educate
media their children about the issues raised in
this review. The Teenage Relationship
Since so much of the sexualised content
Abuse campaign could provide a useful
to which children and young people are
starting point. Directgov (the official UK
exposed comes via the media, there is
government website for citizens) will carry
a clear need for a forum where this can
information for parents, and this should
be monitored, discussed and addressed.
be developed, maintained and signposted
I recommend:
within government communications
beyond the lifespan of the initial campaign.
• Setting up a working group of
high profile women in broadcast During the course of this review, many
and print media – for example, parents have told me that when they
TV commissioners, presenters, see sexualised merchandise aimed at
producers, journalists – together children, or inappropriate imagery being
with academics to monitor and used in advertising, they are not sure who
address gender inequality in the they should complain to. Is it retailers,
media. This group should meet manufacturers, Local Authorities, the Press
monthly and work with the Complaints Commission, Ofcom, the
government to help it implement ASA, or their local MP? It can be difficult
its international obligations (see to know who to turn to. I therefore
page 20) to tackle unbalanced recommend that:
portrayals and the projection of
negative and degrading images of • The government launches an online
women in the media. ‘one-stop-shop’ to allow the public
to voice their concerns with an onus
iii) Media awards on regulatory authorities to take
It is apparent that there is a lack of action against irresponsible marketing
aspiration and ambition amongst a large which sexualises children. This will
number of Britain’s teenage girls. I would also help inform future government
like the sexualisation working group to policy regarding the sexualisation of
also influence policy and establish what young people by giving the public
can be done to help this generation of and parents a forum to raise issues
teenagers aim higher. The media might be of concern.
more likely to provide positive portrayals

Sexualisation of Young People Review

Parents also have an important role to play

• The introduction of a system of
in challenging gender stereotypes, teaching
ratings symbols for photographs
their children what is acceptable behaviour
to show the extent to which they
and language and helping set appropriate
have been altered. This is particularly
personal boundaries. Initiatives need to be
critical in magazines targeting teen
developed that encourage parents to talk
and pre-teen audiences.
to their children about these issues and,
where necessary, give them the tools to do The stereotyped – and often sexualised
so. I recommend that: – images of women that appear on
posters and billboards point to a double
• The government includes information standard whereby images that would be
on body image, self-esteem, eating unacceptable in a school or workplace
disorders and e-safety in its proposed are deemed acceptable for public display.
‘Positive Parenting’ booklets for Realistically, there is no way of preventing
parents of older children and young children and young people from seeing
people. these images, so I recommend that:
v) Advertising and magazines
• The content of outdoor
Increasingly, media messages are being advertisements is vetted by local
delivered via the internet, with companies authorities as part of their gender
spending millions on developing interactive equality duty to ensure that images
advertisements on their commercial and messages are not offensive on
websites. These adverts and ‘advergames’ the grounds of gender.
can be targeted at children or contain
offensive content and yet are currently vi) Music videos
unregulated. I recommend that: Sexually provocative music videos are
commonplace and easily accessible by
• The government recognises the children on TV and on DVD. Section 1.20
work being carried out by the of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code states
Advertising Standards Authority and that: ‘Any discussion on, or portrayal
supports it in taking steps to close of, sexual behaviour must be editorially
this regulatory loophole by extending justified if included before the watershed,
the existing standards to include or when children are particularly likely to
commercial websites. be listening, and must be appropriately
limited.’416 Yet sexual posing and suggestive
Evidence suggests that even brief
lyrics are found in many music videos
exposure to airbrushed images can lead to
shown before the watershed. In the
acute body dissatisfaction. To help combat
case of DVDs, music videos escape the
this, efforts to raise levels of media literacy
statutory classification required for other
should be accompanied by initiatives
types of content by virtue of a loophole in
aimed at encouraging society to take a
the Video Recordings Act 1984.417
more critical and questioning approach
to the harmful perpetuation of unrealistic
ideals. I therefore recommend:

Ofcom Broadcasting Code (2009)


Office of Public Sector Information, Video


Recording Act 1984 81

Sexualisation of Young People Review

I therefore recommend that: I therefore recommend that:420

• Broadcasters are required to • Regulation of UK-based video on

ensure that music videos featuring demand services is strengthened
sexual posing or sexually suggestive to ensure that they do not allow
lyrics are broadcast only after the children to access hardcore
‘watershed’. pornography. Proposals to
• The current gap in the regulatory achieve this are currently before
protection provided by the Video Parliament420 and should be
Recordings Act 1984 be closed, supported.
either by removing the general
exemption for ‘works concerned viii) Computers and networked gaming
with…. music’ or by lowering the Parent often feel under pressure to
threshold at which exemption is purchase the latest computer and video
forfeited. Proposals to lower the console games for their children. Although
threshold at which music videos 18-rated games only make up a small
lose their exemption are currently fraction of the total number of games on
before Parliament418 and should be the market, many of the most high profile
supported or even strengthened. and best selling releases are targeted at an
adult audience. Most responsible parents
vii) Video on demand services418 would not allow their young children
Although the new regulations relating to watch an 18-rated film, yet many
to video on demand services operating take a different attitude when it comes
from the UK represent a step in the right to 18-rated games, which are equally
direction, it is debatable whether the inappropriate in their content and style
amended Communications Act offers for a young audience. The latest gaming
children sufficient protection from potentially consoles also provide young people with
harmful content. In particular, the Act only access to the internet, and parents are
requires service providers to apply access often neither aware of this increased
controls (such as credit card payment) to access nor know how to censor the
material that ‘might seriously impair the information that children receive.
physical, mental or moral development of While many games consoles offer parental
persons under the age of eighteen’. controls, few parents are aware of how to
Ofcom, which regulates UK-based video set these up. Parents have a responsibility
on demand services, has stated419 that to speak to their children about the
explicit images of real sex between content of games and to be aware of how
consenting adults designed to sexually their children are using games consoles.
arouse the viewer are not likely to However, many parents have told me they
seriously impair under-18s. DVDs would like to see games consoles sold
containing this kind of content are with access controls already switched on.
classified ‘R18’ and can only be purchased I therefore recommend that:
in a licensed sex shop. Yet, according to
Ofcom, the same material can be freely
provided via video on demand.

Digital Economy Bill, amendment 246


Statement on the Ofcom Broadcasting Code –


Section Two: Harm and Offence ‘R18 Material

82 and its equivalent’ pp108 – 124, May 2005 420
Digital Economy BIll, amendment 251B
Sexualisation of Young People Review

called ‘lads’ mags’. These are often stocked

• Games consoles are sold with a
alongside magazines aimed at teenagers or
separate ‘unlocking’ code, which
even comics in high street newsagents and
purchasers can choose to input if
supermarkets, flouting the retailers’ existing
they wish to use or allow access
voluntary code of magazine placement.
of the console to adult and online
In accord with this, during an evidence
hearing session a spokesperson from the
• This idea could be extended to human rights organisation Object made
‘child friendly’ computers and mobile the point that:
phones where adult content is
filtered out by default. “ ….pornification impacts on how boys
and men are encouraged to view and treat
women, with far-reaching implications for
3) Working with gender inequality and violence against
businesses and women. The links between pornification,
discrimination and violence against women
retailers have been recognised at the international
i) Corporate responsibility level by the United Nations Convention to
Eliminate Discrimination Against Women
There are signs that some manufacturers (CEDAW), which calls on States to take
are prepared to listen to the concerns decisive action to tackle the objectification
of those working to safeguard children. of women and girls. This requires an
Numerous companies have withdrawn overhaul of media regulation to move away
products from sale following campaigns from inadequate self-regulatory voluntary
in the national press, and the NSPCC is guidelines.”
working with businesses to encourage
them to look at the implications of making I therefore recommend that:
and/or selling products that contribute
to sexualisation and objectification. • The existing voluntary code for
I recommend that: retailers regarding the placements
of ‘lads’ mags’ be replaced by a
• The government supports mandatory code, allowing customers
the NSPCC in its work with to report retailers who continue to
manufacturers and retailers to place such magazines at children’s
encourage corporate responsibility eye-level and/or next to publications
with regard to sexualised aimed at children and young people.
merchandise. • ‘Lads’ mags’ should be marked clearly
• As a first step, guidelines should be as recommended for sale only to
issued following consultation with persons 15 and over.
major clothing retailers and parents’
iii) Recruitment
groups so that a broad consensus can
be reached with regard to what is A report released by the Department
appropriate for different age groups. for Work and Pensions421 shows that
job centres are routinely advertising
ii) ‘Lads’ mags’ vacancies at escort agencies, lap-dancing
Many parents have complained to me clubs, massage parlours and TV sex
about the sexually explicit imagery and channels. In 2007-08, Jobcentre Plus
straplines featured on the covers of so-

depositedpapers/2008/DEP2008-3155.doc 83
Sexualisation of Young People Review

advertised over 350 vacancies in the adult

• Funding be made available for
entertainment industry, including ones
research that will strengthen the
for topless and semi-nude bar staff. In
evidence base. There is a particular
allowing this to take place, the government
need for longitudinal research;
is promoting the normalisation of these
research into the impact of
trades as viable career choices. I therefore
sexualisation on black and minority
recommend that:
ethnic groups, gay and lesbian
groups and disabled populations; and
• The government overturns its
carefully designed ethical research
decision to allow vacancies for jobs in
into the impact on child populations.
the adult entertainment industry to
be advertised by Jobcentre Plus. • Funding for trend research into
teenage relationship abuse and the
frequency of sexual bullying and
4) Research abuse.
i) A multi-disciplinary approach to • Clinical outcome research should be
sexualisation funded and supported to find the
most effective ways to identify, assess
A multi-disciplinary approach, bringing and work with the perpetrators and
together psychology, media studies, victims of child sexual abuse.
neuroscience and sociology would
help to give a rounded picture of the • A detailed examination of media
various factors and offer a more holistic literacy programmes should be
understanding of all the variables at play. carried out jointly by the DCSF and
I therefore recommend: the Department for Culture, Media
and Sport (DCMS).
• The establishment of a new
Specific topics for research could include:
academic periodical and an annual
possible links between sexualisation and
conference series focusing solely on
child sexual abuse; child pornography and
the topic of sexualisation.
sex trafficking; the influence of portable
ii) Improving the evidence base devices on risky behaviour and levels of
exposure to inappropriate content; the
A great deal has already been written risks faced by younger children and those
on topics raised in this review, from with special educational needs online;
newspaper editorials to scholarly journals. the prevalence and impact of ‘sexting’
While there is strong preliminary evidence and cyber-bullying; the changing media
to support a link between exposure to landscape; and public attitudes towards
sexualised content and unhealthy beliefs violence against women and girls.
about sex and relationships and attitudes
that support sexual coercion, there is
also a clear need for further research.
I therefore recommend that:

Sexualisation of Young People Review

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10. Acknowledgements
Researching and writing this review A very special thank you to Rhys
has been one of the most interesting Scudamore and Trystan Dafydd, whose
and thought provoking journeys of my tireless work and assistance throughout
career. I have been very lucky to have made this project not only possible but a
the support of a great team behind me genuinely enjoyable working experience.
to make the task of collating, reviewing I am especially grateful to both Jacqui
and writing up this work possible. A big Smith and Alan Johnson who had the
thank you to Steven McDermott and insight and bravery to recognise that the
Louise Bell for helping me wade through sexualisation of young people is an issue
seemingly endless reams of research; that needs be addressed and discussed,
and to academics like Jessica Ringrose, and who decided to get the conversation
Katherine Sarikakis and Maddy Coy for the started by commissioning this report.
constructive feedback and input. Finally, and very importantly, I’d like to
I am very grateful to the members of the thank all the children and young people
VAWG Advisory Group for their valuable who have helped shape and inform this
insight into the role that schools and review by taking part in focus groups
teachers can play in promoting gender and research studies and by sharing their
equality and preventing violence against experiences so generously – and in the
women and girls. Thank you also to case of my little daughter Jessica, for
front-line clinicians and those working in reminding me that the way she sees the
child protection like Sara Delaney, Peter world around her will inevitably shape the
Johnson, Holly Elsdon-Smithers, Davina way she sees herself…
James-Hanman, Tom Narducci and all the
members of the steering group for their
invaluable input, help and advice.

Dr Linda Papadopoulos

Dr Linda Papadopoulos is one of the most well-known and respected psychologists

working in the UK. Her comments regarding the psychology behind news and
current events are often syndicated by the press and discussed by television and
radio networks both in Britain and in America.

She has a very prolific academic publication record and has published widely in peer
reviewed academic journals in the field of Counselling and Medical psychology. She
has also written several academic and self-help books and is often invited to give
specialist lectures at numerous universities and medical schools both in England and
throughout the world.

Founder and director of the successful Programme in Counselling Psychology at

the London Metropolitan University, Dr Papadopoulos was appointed Reader in
psychology in 2001 – a great distinction at such a young age.

Dr Papadopoulos is a chartered counselling and health psychologist who has

worked in various treatment settings both privately, with her own practice and
in the National Health Service. During her 12 years as a chartered psychologist,
she has gained extensive experience in the counselling of individuals, couples and

With a prolific and distinguished career that keeps her very busy, Dr Papadopoulos
values her free time. She enjoys family life in London with her husband and their
young daughter.
Sexualisation of Young People Review

Sexualisation of Young People

When you have finished with
this publication please recycle it
This publication is printed
on 50% recycled paper
by Dr Linda Papadopoulos
© Crown copyright. February 2010. Ref. 299136.
ISBN: 978-1-84987-186-0