Recommendations from APA’s 2007 Task Force Report on The Sexualization of Girls

Submitted Comments to The Honorable Kathleen Sebelius

January 20, 2011

The Honorable Kathleen Sebelius
United States Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20201
Dear Secretary Sebelius:
On behalf of the 152,000 members and affiliates of the American Psychological Association (APA), I am writing in response to the Department of Health and Human Service’s request for input on the Strategic Plan for Federal Youth Policy (Strategic Plan). APA appreciates the efforts made by the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs to utilize the knowledge and experience of organizations focused on youth well-being in the strategic plan.

APA is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. Comprised of researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and graduate students, APA works to advance psychology as a science, a profession, and a means of promoting health, education, and human welfare.

APA’s 2007 Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls recommends additional research and programs to combat the detrimental emotional and psychological effects of sexualization on youth. Sexualization occurs when “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 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” (APA, 2007, p. 2). Sexualization is found in numerous facets of society including media representations of females, gender roles and stereotypes promulgated in society and negative peer influences. More research is needed to continue to discover the effects of sexualization.

Sexualization has a broad array of devastating effects on youth, both male and female, and ramifications that extend throughout our society. Exposure to sexual images of girls has been linked to multiple mental health problems including girls’ low self-esteem, symptoms of depression, and eating disorders (APA, 2007). Sexualization is also linked to girls’ increasing engagement in risky sexual behavior such as having unprotected sex and using drugs and alcohol, which impairs decision-making (APA, 2007).

Increased emphasis on a female’s sexual appeal may also impact educational and occupational aspirations of girls. Objectification from others and from girls themselves has been shown to reduce cognitive abilities and lower educational achievement. In addition, stereotypes that reinforce girls’ understanding of their worth as being defined by their sexiness narrow their expectations and the appeal of certain fields. For example, girls are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, traditionally male fields, which are areas that are critically important to the U.S. economy now and in the future. Objectification, in turn, has a negative impact on the workforce.

Girls and boys exposed to frequent sexualizing images of girls also face challenges in relationships. Girls’ relationships with each other may be affected by competition over narrow beauty standards and male attention (APA, 2007). Sexualized messages and images of girls and women also affect relationships with males. Boys may develop unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of girls' and women's physical appearance, and this may impair their ability to develop healthy relationships with girls and women (APA, 2007).

Furthermore, violence against women continues to be prevalent throughout media. The Parents’ Television Council (PTC) reports that between 2004 and 2009, violence against women and teenage girls has increased on television programming at a rate of 120 percent compared to the 2 percent increase of overall violence in television content. The Council warns that by depicting violence against women with increasing frequency on television, or as a trivial, even humorous matter, these images may be contributing to an atmosphere in which young people view aggression and violence against women as normative and acceptable.

These dangerous trends for youth are increasing and more federal support for research and programs that educate and empower all youth are needed. The strategic plan should include resources for research and programs to combat the influence of sexualization. In particular, we need to know how the sexualization and objectification of girls and women in media affects girls’ and boys’ healthy growth and development. In addition, research is needed regarding how the effects of sexualized depictions of girls vary by gender, race and ethnicity, and developmentally by age groups. Research needs to inform education programs on media literacy and empowerment programs in culturally-appropriate ways so that we effectively reach at-risk youth. Youth, parents, communities, and the media need information about their contribution to sexualization and how to correct it so that girls and boys have equal opportunities to achieve in any field they choose.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the strategic plan and to offer our recommendations regarding the importance of further research to address the issue of sexualization of girls. If you have any questions or need additional information, please do not hesitate to contact Krysta Jones in our Public Interest Government Relations Office at (202) 336–5931. 
Sincerely, Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD, Executive Director - Public Interest Directorate