Effects of Hypersexualization
Definition of hypersexualization
Hypersexualization, or the sexualization of public space, involves the attribution by the media of a sexual character to a product or behaviour that has nothing intrinsically sexual about it. Hypersexualization can be seen in magazines, videos, films, the fashion industry and particularly in advertising. To sell a product, advertising can:
- trivialize sexuality
- use sexual stereotypes
- use the female body
Advertising campaigns even resort to “porno chic,” a trend that involves simulating pornographic images to increase sales. Porno chic places women in submissive roles while promoting male domination and sexual performance. Close-ups of legs, breasts and thighs reinforce the idea that women are sexual objects and not fully-fledged human beings.
Generally speaking, this trend increases tolerance of a certain kind of violence against women, which could even lead to a greater risk of sexual aggression. It goes without saying that this phenomenon makes it very difficult to achieve equality between women and men.
The sexualization of public space habituates the public to stereotyped and unrealistic representations of women. Seduction and attention-seeking sum up the roles often attributed to them. Women are also under intense pressure to be sexually active and attractive.
In addition, the phenomenon creates a socio-cultural standard of beauty:
- The woman is white and thin with full lips, long hair and big breasts.
- The man personifies strength, energy and domination. He impresses others with his independence and taste for adventure. He has bulging chest muscles, broad shoulders and an impassive face.
These role models promoted by the media do not reflect reality, however. Under 5% of women have body shapes similar to those of fashion models.
Effects of advertising on young people
The advertising industry tends to target young people between the ages of 8 and 14 because people who are subjected to advertising at this age:
- often continue consuming the same brands when they become adults
- check many sources of information, particularly digital media
- have more money than the young people of previous generations
Advertising firms meticulously observe young people’s behaviour and dress in order to sell them a sexualized image of themselves. An entire generation of children is therefore encouraged to adopt sexualized attitudes and behaviours for which they are not prepared emotionally, intellectually or physically.
In addition, the fashion, cosmetics, music and film industries particularly target young girls using products designed specifically for them, such as fruit-flavoured lipstick, hair and nail accessories, seductive clothing and even sexy underwear. Keep in mind that hypersexualization is a social phenomenon, which means that criticism ought to be directed against social, cultural and media images, not at the girls and women affected by them.
As a result of being surrounded by dolls and princesses whose primary quality is physical beauty, girls learn to rely on physical appearance while still very young. When, in 1968, Barbie spoke for the first time, she had six sentences in her repertory, including “I have a date tonight” and “I love being a fashion model.” In 1992, Barbie was still uttering stereotypes like “Math class is tough,” “I love shopping,” and “Let’s go to the ball.”
Commercial advertising targeting children under the age of 13 is prohibited in Québec. For more details, visit the website of the Office de la protection du consommateur . Keep in mind that, every day, children are nonetheless still exposed to hundreds of ads that influence their perceptions of their body and sexuality.
Consequences of hypersexualization
Hypersexualization influences young people’s perception of sexuality. In fact, the huge amount of sexual content that is publicly available generates a distorted understanding of gender relationships, beginning at a very early age.
For example, many girls and boys are influenced by pornography, which is easily accessible online, and many want to reproduce the images they see there in their personal lives. As a result, girls continue to be objectified in the roles that are projected onto them, and they continue to be victimized. Since it is considered cool for a boy to be sexually active and to boast about it, many boys will also feel pressure to perform sexually and to try different sexual practices, sometimes with multiple partners.
Many adults view the ease with which young people can access sexual content as nothing out of the ordinary. These same adults feel that today’s young people know more than they did at that age, and that it’s all for the best. But being more informed does not mean that young people are ready to deal with these realities. The process of children’s sexual development is the same as before.
Similarly, hypersexualization can lead to precocious sexual behaviour among young people. Fascinated by the images they see on television and the Internet, they sometimes adopt behaviours borrowed from adult sexuality without having the maturity required to deal with the situations that may result. Girls often have the impression that they are abnormal if they are not interested in romantic or sexual relationships. And the fact that social norms are contradictory makes them even more confused; they are expected to be both innocent and seductive, virginal and sexually experienced.
On the other hand, according to the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), young people are no more precocious sexually than preceding generations since they have their first sexual experiences at about the same age.
Engaging in sexual relationships while still very young is one of the factors that increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs). Given that one out of twenty young people have had their first sexual experience before the age of 14, it seems essential that they be made aware while still young of the risk of contradicting an STBBI or of having an unplanned pregnancy.
Finally, the media has a negative influence on the ways in which girls and boys perceive their bodies. See the Stereotypes and Body Image page for more information on this subject.
Public space and private space
“Public space” refers to everything outside the home, including the media (television, film, magazines, advertising billboards, social media, etc.). It also encompasses all places accessible to the general public (parks, shopping centres, highway system, etc.). The line that separates the public world from the private domain has become increasingly blurred in our society, and children are not equipped to instinctively distinguish between them.
Because they are regularly exposed to images that should remain private, young people have a tendency to share private and personal aspects of their lives on social media, particularly on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, as if they were confiding in a private diary. They subsequently become more vulnerable to a variety of problematic situations such as sexual exploitation, bullying and identity theft.
For more information on this subject, see the section entitled Relationships in the Digital Age.
Tips and tools for young people
Adults have a responsibility to help young people understand that certain images circulating in public space depict situations that should remain private. It is essential to develop their critical sense in dealing with sexualized representations and in the use of social media.
While friends play a key role in adolescence, young people attribute a great deal of importance to the opinions of adults they appreciate and trust.
Here are some examples of things you could do to make young people more aware of the effects of hypersexualization:
- Openly criticize sexually explicit images in public space.
- Point out examples of ads that promote diversity and gender equality.
- Explain the concepts of public life and private life by drawing a parallel with social media.
- Approach the topic of sexuality in a simple, straightforward manner that children can understand.
Sexuality education is everyone’s business. Parents, daycare staff and the entire school team can raise awareness of hypersexualization among children and young people and ensure that the steps in their development are respected. Early childhood is not too soon to begin exploring the subject, starting from the perspective of healthy diet, digital identity and romantic relationships.