It is no secret that young women and girls experience tremendous amounts of pressure to sexualize themselves, and that young men also experience pressure to view young women as sexual objects. These harmful attitudes can lead to dire consequences, ranging from mental health issues to sexual exploitation.
On April 3rd, EDOYR attended Women Support Network of York Region’s (http://www.womenssupportnetwork.ca/) presentation on Human Trafficking. Many different people from many different professional and social backgrounds were in attendance, including mental health care, supportive housing, education, addictions, and women’s organizations.
The meeting included a lot of fruitful discussion around the issue of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and girls. One of the themes that emerged, in WSN’s research and in the group’s discussion, was the idea that in many areas of society young people are socialized to view women as sexual objects. A few people brought up a recent issue in which a young man at a high school in York Region started a Facebook group wherein photos of young women at the school were posted and the photos were rated on sexual desirability. Furthermore, people would speculate on the likelihood of the subject’s willingness to perform specific sex acts given the level of sexualization of the photos. Some of these photos were obtained without the permission of the young women, but some photos were submitted willingly by the young women themselves. The trend quickly became, the more sexualized the photo, the more ‘likes’ and positive comments the photo would get. Conversely, comment sections of photos of young women who did not ‘pass the test’ were inundated with negative and hurtful comments.
The danger with viewing women as sexual objects in this way is that as soon as a human is viewed as an object, people feel justified in buying and selling this ‘object’, not to mention denigrating, abusing and mistreating this ‘object’.
Young women today face extreme societal pressure to be ‘sexy’ and attractive to others, males in particular. Furthermore, young men face extreme societal pressure to be ‘macho’ and view women as sexual objects. The prevalence of dieting and body dysmorphia in children, especially girls, speaks to the seriousness of these ingrained values. Many young women often face a choice – they can either choose to ‘be sexy’, or, they can be outcasted. Unfortunately, many of the young women who choose to be sexy are deemed ‘too sexy’, and are also outcasted and labeled as ‘sluts’ or worse, which often leads to victim-blaming attitudes. On the flip side, young men also face a choice – buy into the damaging view that women should be treated as sex objects, or become ostracized as being ‘soft’ or ‘gay.’
What can be done to combat these harmful values?
We have a duty to educate our youth about the destructive nature of these attitudes. During the discussion that followed WSN’s presentation, many professionals spoke up about the importance of having people go into schools and youth spaces and speak to young girls and boys about the importance of respecting women as people, and not as objects. As most young people come to realize, the comfort and acceptance that comes from prioritizing sexuality and physical attractiveness over any other attribute is a hollow comfort indeed. When one’s personal sense of self-worth is completely bound up in what others deem is attractive, it leads to an instability in one’s self esteem and to unhealthy attitudes about one’s existence as a complete and whole individual. Furthermore, viewing physical attractiveness as a pinnacle achievement breeds a culture of competition and negative attitudes towards others, who may be perceived as a potential ‘threat’ to one’s own attractiveness. Additionally, placing the highest value on physical appearance just furthers a culture of commodification, wherein buying the next ‘miracle product’ is the answer to all of life’s problems.
It is important for young people to realize that their hands are not forced – that they do have a choice other than sexualization or ostracization. They can choose to cultivate inner aspects of themselves that will give them a more stable, long-lasting, and healthier sense of self. They can inspire and encourage each other to take on new challenges, learn new skills, and grow together as human beings. Adults, especially young-adults, can be good role models and share helpful and healthy messages among the young people in their lives, messages highlighting the importance of viewing oneself as a whole individual with a unique set of skills, attributes, passions, and tastes.
This is part of the work that EDOYR is doing in our community. In April and May, EDOYR will be visiting many grade nine classes at several local high schools in order to send positive messages about developing a healthy sense of self, to raise awareness about the prevalence of mental health issues among high school age youth, and to provide outreach and resources for those who need them.
We all need to do our part to dismantle the harmful attitudes that drive the sexual objectification of women. Perhaps if we all reach out to just one young person in our lives, we can make a positive difference in their life and help them develop a healthy view of themselves and of others, thereby contributing to a safer, warmer, and healthier society as a whole.
Volunteer Communications Co-ordinator