The history of sexualisation in the media
If you think that the media’s influence on society is a new development, you might want to think again. The media’s iron-tight grip on society has moulded our every move since before ‘the media’ had its name. The media has decided for centuries how we as individuals act, dress, perceive the world and perceive ourselves. Just look at the power of propaganda — whether it’s advocating war in the 1940s or it’s a major broadcasting network pushing its agenda, propaganda calls the tune of anyone who’ll listen.
It might have manifested differently over the years, but sexualisation in the media is nothing new either. Think back to the 1980s and 1990s — the age of the size 0 model. And at the same time, pornography and adult content became widely accessible. With the boom of the digital era and social media, we’re bound to see some drastic changes in society.
What’s different about the media today?
While sexualisation is just as prevalent in the media today, there’s one essential difference — media is now handed to children on a silver platter in the form of social media networks. And like all media, it’s not immune to sexualisation. Teens as young as 13 (and even younger, as some children lie about their age) are drawn to these social apps like moths to a flame and are exposed to the deepest, darkest corners of the media that no child should see.
We’re seeing that inside popular culture, from a very early age, children are encouraged to show as much skin as possible, be as provocative as possible — in their movements, gestures, content and more. Children are pressured into showing themselves off, focusing on their exterior self and silencing their inner identity.
How does sexuality fit into all of this?
So what are we missing? Well, we’re missing an essential piece of the puzzle, namely sexuality — we can’t talk about sexualisation without talking about sexuality. We seem to have forgotten that sexuality is not a purely outward gesture, it doesn’t just focus on the exterior self.
Sexuality is largely inward — built of a brilliant mosaic of defined and interlinking parts, namely:
- Orientation: Where do you identify on the gender spectrum?
- Sexual preference: Who are you attracted to, what are your sexual preferences, what type of things are you into?
- More importantly, what your sexuality represents: Who are you in this world?
This fundamental view of sexuality lends itself to the idea that each and every one of us arrives in this world with, at least to some degree, some sort of purpose or opportunity to discover, embrace and share our true selves with the world.
These essential aspects of sexuality are completely and utterly overlooked, leading to an entirely misconstrued conception of sexuality and sexualisation brought upon our youth.
What does the sexualization of teens on social media mean for our children?
Instead of gaining a deeper, balanced view of sexuality, focusing on orientation, preference, purpose; our children:
- Are trained by sexualised media into thinking that this is how they should be, this is what makes them successful, this is what makes them attractive
- Are taught that they are only who they appear on social media
- Judge and evaluate themselves against an outward, superficial metric
If we’re only invested in these perceptions of sexuality, it becomes very complicated, leading to some damaging effects on our youth’s mental health. Teens are experiencing overwhelming anxiety and an erosion of their self-esteem — all because they feel judged on purely how they appear.
So how can we, as their guardians and protectors, prevent this?
How can we turn the media’s tides?
Here’s the million-dollar question:
“What if we taught our children the digital life skills of sexuality, what it is to be a human in this world and all the wonderful and diverse dimensions that make up who we are?”
We can teach them about the influence of sexuality online and how it can very easily overwhelm who we really are, to the point where we’re acting as some sort of social-media-born character. While it’s normal and age-appropriate for teens to try on different identities at different stages in their development, teens today no longer know that they’re only trying them on. With some guidance, they may learn to discern whether this personality they picked from social media actually works and serves them, or whether it’s just a facade with the goal of chasing followers.
If we work together to educate our children, we can help loosen the grip that the media has on our youth and society. We can raise a generation that’s balanced and healthy in their view of sexuality and confident in who they are as an individual in this world.