10 Ways to Girls’ Healthy Sexuality

We know that the sexualization of women and girls is rampant. It is the stuff of Ms. magazine’s “No Comment” section, eyes rolled at reality television, training bras for 7-year-olds and high heels for infants. But maybe we don’t realize the full effect of these images.

Did you know that 92.8 percent of music videos have at least one marker of sexualization? That just 29 percent of speaking characters in movies are female (and 80 percent are white)? That 40 percent of video-game players are female, but even a smart action figure like Lara Croft is sexualized, encouraging players to believe in gender stereotypes even more? That between 2003 and 2004 there was a three-fold increase in girls under 18 getting breast implants? That girls who play with Barbie have a lower rate of belief that any career is possible, even if Barbie is a doctor? That the more sexualized a girl’s identity is, the lower her grades in every subject, the lower her scores on standardized testing and the lower her general self-esteem?

And what exactly is sexualization? The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls Report defines it as;

when a person’s value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified.

The 2007 report, the most downloaded in APA history, also finds that virtually every form of media highly sexualizes women, negatively affecting “cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality and attitudes and beliefs.”

So what can young women do about all this over-sexualization?

Two weeks ago, I heard an audience of activists–many of them girls between the ages of 14 and 22–shout “We are the spark!” at an all-day event “to ignite a movement for girls’ rights to healthy sexuality.” The SPARK Summit–SPARK being short for Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge–offered panels and keynote speakers to inspire young women and men to wake up, work together and begin calling out the massive media machine that is doing all of us a disservice. There was talk about the hard work of activism, but also the need for fun, inter-generational conversation, diversity and vision. The speakers ranged from Geena Davis, representing her Institute on Gender in the Media, to young students in high school and college.

“The reason this work is so difficult,” said Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of Feministing, “is because it has to happen.” Emily May, founder of HollabackNYC, told the audience that “the revolution will be built by badasses,” and looked toward a future where:

sexy isn’t a look but a feeling… where we make out with people because we are attracted to their fierce soul power … and where we get to be us without reservations.

The point of the day wasn’t to send the audience home with a good lesson learned: It was to give a new generation the tools to speak up and access power and to get officially “sparked.”

How do we keep it going? How do we work against sexualization when it saturates us to the point of blindness?

Here are 10 ways we can work toward a girl’s right to healthy sexuality:

  1. Act! Check out the SPARK list of actions
  2. Talk it out: Activist Shelby Knox asked the SPARKsummit audience “to go out and have a conversation about women and girls with somebody who does not look like you … revolution starts in these conversations.”
  3. Get savvy: The APA offers a great list of Media Literacy Resources to educate ourselves at any age
  4. Get parental: APA also offers a guide for parents
  5. Shout out when media gets it right: The Geena Davis Insitute on Gender in the Media has an easy to use form here.
  6. Get analytical: Listen to the words of your favorite songs, and call out what seems problematic.
  7. Stick it! Bring attention to images and media that sexualize women and girl with tools like the Sticker Sistersthis insults everyone,” and “action not glamour” stickers.
  8. Give yourself some awesome: About-Face has a great list of resources and ways to empower yourself
  9. Create: Whether it’s a Halloween costume or a movie script, make the images that you want to see in culture.
  10. Don’t stop: check out organizations like Hardy Girls Healthy Women, BlackLight, The Line, New Moon Girls, imMEDIAte Justice, and the many others that are out there already showing what this could look like–and setting off sparks every day.

Photo from Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Surprisingly, sexualization/objectification can also harm women’s bedroom enjoyment.

    If a woman feels she looks good, she may just focus on how good she looks, and be distracted from the sexual experience.

    If she doesn’t think she looks good – doesn’t fit the cultural ideal – this is also distracting. She can be thinking about that, and feel discomfort instead of sexual enjoyment.

    Men, OD’d on porn, may also be disappointed by how real women look. If he’s less turned on, her sexual enjoyment is likely to be affected.

    Or, maybe he only cares about her as an object, and doesn’t take the time to suit her sexual needs and provide the emotional connection that so many women want. http://broadblogs.com/

  2. Pigtail Pals is working hard to provide better, healthier products and messages to our little girls while at the same time educating parents about the harms of sexualization and gender stereotypes in early childhood. Raising our girls from the beginning with better messages and educating parents is key in this fight! We can't forget about our littlest girls!

    Thanks for this great list of assets, sharing it with our community now!

  3. not surpisingly at all! , BroadBlog.
    there is no personal pleasure when your body is for the service of anyone but yourself. However, I must mention that sexualization and objectification of girls and women is not a choice, its a threat. That is what rape culture is about. This is a man's issue, not a woman's. Men are the ones watching porn, creating media, raping and benefitting from patriarchy. Instead of telling young girls they are in control and thus responsible for their own oppression or liberation we should be having mass assemblies with young boys telling them to knock it the fuck off. Girls should be "empowered" and learn to critique media, but they should not be led to believe this is something that can be done purely within a group of empowered girls and women.

  4. I'd like to see feminism/womanism/women's movement take on Sex-Ed in the schools, even if it's an optional part of PhysEd or after-school program. One day I was listening to a call-in radio show about sexuality, and a caller was wondering if she "should" do a hook-up based on what other people would think of her. I was struck by how her decision was void of whether she wanted to "hook-up" and whether she was in touch with her own sexual desire. I'd like to see Sex-Ed curriculum teach a developmental approach to connecting with one's own sexual desires and how to own them even before you consider sharing sex with a partner. Of course, this would have to include a discussion of masturbation at some point, but even in the early grades, a foundation for identifying feelings and owning them in the face of peer pressure would, in my opinion, establish a basis for talking about owning one's sexuality and defining it for oneself in later grades. I haven't researched existing Sex-Ed curricula (I know they're out there) to see if this is already a component. Anybody know?

  5. It's important to remember that sexuality is not the enemy and it's part of the human existence, inseparable from one's person. SPARK was very vocal about NOT being anti-sex, but providing women agency to create their own brand of sexy. Often times, the message derived from this argument is to pick the virgin over the whore in an attempt to combat objectification. But young girls need to be presented options outside of this dichotomy. Smart can be sexy. Strong can be sexy. Bodies of all shapes and sizes can be sexy. And sex appeal is only a piece of the whole. But the message should be "you're allowed to be sexy– on your own terms." Otherwise, women are both vicitimized by sexualization and restricted by resistance. And that's not helping.

  6. Mom/Feminist Blogger says:

    Thank you! As a mother of two teenaged people, I am very grateful that I am not alone in "harping" on this issue. I guess I may have gotten a good start with my son (18, college freshman) when he groaned recently, "Mom, everything's not about the patriarchy, you know…"

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