Rights4Girls Blog

Because every girl deserves to be safe.


Washington, District of Columbia, United States
December 31
Director of Policy and Advocacy
Human Rights Project for Girls
Human Rights Project for Girls is a human rights organization dedicated to protecting the rights of vulnerable young women and girls in the U.S.

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MARCH 2, 2012 2:55PM

Defining Sexualization and Naming Its Harm

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By Jessi Leigh Swenson

Human Rights Project for Girls feels that we can’t have an honest conversation about domestic child sex trafficking, or the sexual violence to prison pipeline, or the vulnerability of girls in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems without talking about the harmful effects of sexualization in media and culture.

Sexualization, as defined by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, is unhealthy commodification of bodies and overexposure to sex.  It is separate entirely from healthy sexuality and sex education.

The APA Task Force defines sexualization as having four components:
  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
Sexualization is imposed upon a person, while sexuality is a personal, internal process integral to a healthy life.  However, as Cinderella Ate My Daughter author Peggy Orenstein points out, girls learn to conflate the two--thinking that sexualization is their sexuality--a wrong that has long term effects on their mental and physical health. (Orenstein tapped into national maternal zeitgeist with her 2006 cry for help on the challenges of raising a daughter in our sexually-charged culture, and has now become an amazing spokeswoman on the subject).

The APA Task Force’s recommendations on sexualization of girls are appropriately couched in a public health framework.  We need more research and more education.  We need to arm our young women and girls with media savvy so they can process the constant sexualizing bombardment.  Human Rights Project for Girls seeks to frame the issues of child sex trafficking and sexual violence against girls as human rights issues with widespread and long term effects on public health.

In the conversation about ending domestic child sex trafficking and working to improve policies for vulnerable girls, we must name the sexualization of girls as a primary factor.  When the best case scenario is that a girl is able to emerge into womanhood unscathed by sexual violence, but objectified and commodified nonetheless, that is an unacceptable cultural norm.  When our sexualizing culture renders it more acceptable to purchase a girl for sex on Backpage.com, something needs to change.  Vulnerable girls, without the force field of family, safety, and access, are more exposed to the harmful effects of sexualization--including the real commodification of their bodies through trafficking. 

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