In nearly every type of media girls and women are being sexualized, that is treated as objects of desire or as “things” rather than people. Whether it be in the form of movies, television, video games and the Internet, advertising, cartoons, music videos and lyrics, females are portrayed in demeaning sexual roles involving anything from casual nudity to rape and violence. This is according to a 2007 report of the American Psychological Association. (Zurbriggen, Eileen L.et al eds. Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association, 2007.)
It is, in the opinion of Nancy Jo Sales, author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, (Knopf, 2016) greatly impacting the development and self-esteem of adolescent females who spend inordinate amounts of time responding and contributing to Snapchat, YikYak (an anonymous form of Twitter,) or whatever forms of Internet communication are current. They are employing these long-distance forms of contact to assess their popularity, their looks, their sexuality and even their level of “hotness.” All of this is in the interests of interacting with a similarly anonymous population of males who will evaluate them, or better said, exploit them. It all may occur before they have even held hands with a boy.
Why the rampant sexism in the face of otherwise respectable gains for women in the public domain? That is, women have entered nearly every occupation and now outrank men in terms of higher education. We have a woman as a viable candidate for President in the US though women still do not enjoy wages that are equal to men’s in similar occupations. Did you hear the little girl who asked Hillary Clinton if she would be paid the same as a man if she became President? The APA report, cautious as always, did not offer any explanations for the undercurrent of sexism that still exists in the media. Nancy Jo Sales states and I agree that Internet porn—that omnipresent multi-billion dollar industry—is a contributing factor.
But let’s go a little deeper. Why is porn so ubiquitous? So unstoppable? If we can understand the appeal of Internet porn, we may have some hope of managing it. Clearly, it satisfies a strong biological urge and has been around in some form or other since time began. But why the objectification of women? Whence the need to make them less than human—an image, a thing? Why does rape—the violent assault of women—remain a universal prize of conquering armies?
I believe that that answer, or at least a part of it, lies in the need that all humans have to be the dominant “in” group while defining another subset—in this case, women—as the vanquished outgroup. Since women and men interact in powerful sexual ways, it is in and through sexual stimuli that men achieve their subjugation of women. So while men and women appear to be achieving some measure of equality in the public sphere—the workplace, the college campus, or even the political arena, in the private sphere, the sexual sphere, a war is being waged. The Internet and all forms of social media provide an ideal medium in which to wage this war. Its victims, sadly, may be the young girls who are caught up in its seductive demands.
Next week we will look at ways to fight back—both to protect our daughters from being its victims and our sons from being its aggressors.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.