Why Sexualization Matters for BoysNovember 03, 2011
This post is part of a new series on sexual harassment in school, launched in conjunction with the upcoming AAUW report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. Follow @AAUWResearch on Twitter for more information.
You may have heard the rumors running amok about a 14-year-old girl who was taped performing oral sex on a male classmate (her supposed boyfriend) while another male student looked on. The male student posted the video on the Internet, and it went viral on Facebook and YouTube. Despite the fact that it’s technically child pornography, the video was not removed from the sites for four days.
While many of the details of the story have not been confirmed (for example, we don’t know what her real name is or if the sex was consensual), one thing is for sure. The girl in question has faced overwhelming criticism and harassment for the video and even changed schools as a result, while the boys have managed to escape notoriety despite the fact that they were not only willing participants but also recorded and posted the video. As Latoya Peterson of Racialicious writes, “Folks have been largely silent on the role of boys and men in all this. … Is anyone concerned that the things these boys learned, either explicitly from their peers or implicitly from society … may have branded them as sexual offenders for the rest of their days?”
Peterson has a point; while most people are asking how the young women could have “made such a mistake,” few people are asking how the boys learned that this was an acceptable way to treat her in the first place.
There is no easy answer to this question. How we learn to treat people is influenced by a number of factors. But with the story breaking just around Halloween time, when countless “sexy” costumes are marketed and sold to women and girls, I am reminded of the messages that young girls receive on a regular basis that present narrow ideas about how women should behave and exist as sexual beings.
As Spark blogger Ness Fraser puts it, “These messages tell young girls that the most important thing to be in life is sexy, desirable, and for lack of a better term, f—able — no matter what age you are or how inappropriate that might be. [The young woman], presumably, has been exposed to these messages, like the rest of us, for years.”
But girls aren’t the only ones who consume these messages. Boys do too, boys like the ones who taped this girl and posted the video. Just as the media may influence how girls behave as sexual beings, sexualized and objectifying images can shape young men’s perceptions and expectations of women. It would be no surprise then that young boys may feel they are entitled to women’s bodies or that it is OK to sexually exploit women.
We can’t know for sure what exactly compelled these boys to do what they did, nor can we know for sure whether the girl’s actions were motivated by a genuine sexual desire or not. But we have to ask ourselves what this situation would look like if the media presented positive images of women and images of respectful men.
This post was written by AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund Intern Julie Smolinski.