Section four - The bottom line: sex sells

4. The bottom line: sex sells

Sex is used in most forms of media – whether a semi-clad ‘lovely’ on page 3, pictures of couple romping on a beach or the Playboy Bunny brand logo – in order to sell us an array products entirely unrelated to sex or love. Stereotypical images, predominantly of women but sometimes of men, are used to grab our attention and concern about the effect of this on children unites a broad spectrum of people, from conservatives to feminists. Although many refer to the effect as the premature sexualisation ofgirls, Mothers’ Union argues that we should be concerned about the effects of imposing sexuality on girls and boys; and that it is not right to sexually objectify a person or base their value solely on their sexual identity at any age. Hence, this report refers to the sexualisation of children.

Parents are especially concerned about the scale and impact of sexualised media and advertising upon children: 80% of parents believe that films and video games with sexual or violent themes can be accessed too easily by children; and 80% also believe that television, films, magazines and the internet make children sexually aware at a younger age than they would be otherwise.

Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union

The Home Office Review into sexualisation carried out in 2010 found that as well as ‘a dramatic increase in the use of sexualised imagery in advertising… there has also been a significant increase in the number of sexualised images of children.’[1] There is also a sexualisation of media content, for example in magazines. Those aimed at teen girls (but often read by younger girls) focus heavily on appearance and include messages on how to attract boys. However, these magazines do reflect the interests of many a teenage girl and provide helpful advice on growing up. There have also been recent, well reported instances of retailers removing from sale goods aimed inappropriately at children, such as pole-dancing kits, Playboy branded goods and padded bikini tops, which are often cheaply priced and therefore affordable across a range of incomes.

The most common use of the internet for eight to 11 year olds in the UK is the playing of online games.[2] There are a wide variety of internet games aimed at children – including those of a sexualised nature. For example, is ‘the free source for online games for Girls’. Games include ‘Beach Catfight’ where the purpose is to ‘beat your opponents in a sexy beach catfight game and score as high as you can’; and ‘Classroom’ where the purpose is to ‘use your wicked mind at work and fulfill your childhood fantasy… your objective is to see her [the teacher] in compromised positions to fulfill your adolescent dreams…’. The Home Office review also found that the virtual world draws children and young people into displays of sexualised behaviour, reporting that: ‘Girls… report being under increasing pressures to display themselves in their ‘bra and knickers’ or bikinis online, whereas boys seek to display their bodies in a hyper-masculine way’.[3]

Parents are right to be concerned. Sustained exposure to sexualised imagery can reinforce stereotyping of women, men and sex. Longitudinal research into the impact of viewing sexual imagery has shown that watching higher levels of sex on television may accelerate the initiation of sexual activity. A one year study, carried out by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2004, found that ‘adolescents who viewed more sexual content at baseline were more likely to initiate intercourse and progress to more advanced noncoital sexual activities during the subsequent year’. Whether the content was actual sexual behaviour or only talk about sex made no difference. The researchers speculated that watching high amounts of sexual content leads to beliefs that sex is more central to daily life than it actually is, which thus hastens participation in sexual or sexualised activity.[4]

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported another study in 2006 on the impact of music, film and magazines as well as television. Researchers found that 12-14 year olds with a media diet high in sexual content were more likely to have engaged in sexual activity by the end of the two year study than those with lighter diet, ‘because media portrayals of sexuality tend to be so consistent, frequent media users may begin to believe the world view portrayed and may begin to adopt the media’s social norms as their own.’[5]

There are other consequences of the sexualisation of children. Girls who absorb sexualised messages may ‘internalize and reproduce within their own self-schemas this objectified perspective, an effect referred to as “self-objectification”.’ This has been shown to detract from the ability to concentrate on other things because: ‘Chronic attention to physical appearance leaves fewer cognitive resources available for other mental and physical activities.’ Self-objectification can be accompanied by feelings of shame and anxiety about one’s body, whether it matches up to expectations, and several studies highlight instances where self-objectification is associated with low self-esteem, depression and eating disorders.[6]

Frequent exposure to media content that sexually objectifies women has a drip-drip effect on both girls’ and boys’ conceptualisation of femininity and sexuality: ‘Girls and young women who more frequently consume or engage with mainstream media content also offer stronger endorsement of sexual stereotypes that paint women as sexual objects… The sexualisation of girls can also have a negative impact on boys and men. Exposure to narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness may make it difficult for some men to find an “acceptable” partner or to fully enjoy intimacy with a female partner’.[7]

Whilst the sexualisation of children is of grave concern to many adults, Young People, Media and Personal Relationships, a study commissioned by the media industry and regulators, found that young people are less concerned and find the media a useful source of information about sex. However, the study also found that children ‘frequently’ encounter sexualised material, whether they chose to or not in children’s media as well as adult media; and that young people can find it difficult to identify what messages about sex are being given by the media, with younger children not necessarily understanding sexual references or connotations.[8] Ofcom has also accepted that ‘young people are still coming across a significant amount of unsolicited sexual material’ on the internet.[9]

It is easy, perhaps, either to overstate the issue or to dismiss it as a moral panic. There are regulations and guidelines in place, in both the UK and Ireland, prohibiting the portrayal of children in a sexualised manner (see section 5) and the Scottish Parliament also found that ‘relatively few’ sexualised products were aimed at children. Yet it is, as the Home Office review stated, the ‘drip drip’ effect of sexualised marketing and media content in general, and the blurring of lines between children’s and adult media that are the greater cause for concern.


[1] Linda Papadopoulos, Sexualisation of Young People Review. Home Office, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, Kunkel, Hunter and Miu, Watching Sex on Television Predicts Adolescent Initiation of Sexual Behaviour. Pediatrics 2004; 114;e280-e289.

[5] Brown, L’Engle, Pardun, Guo, Kenneavy and Jackson, Sexy Media Matter: Exposure toe Sexual Content in Music, Movies, Television, and Magazines Predicts Black and White Adolescents’ Sexual Behavior. Pediatrics 2006; 117; 1018-1027.

[6] Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls. American Psychological Association, 2007.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Buckingham and Sara Bragg, Young People, Media and Personal Relationships. ASA, BBFC, BBA, BSC, ITC, 2003.

[9] Ofcom’s Submission to the Byron Review. Annex 6: Literary Review. Ofcom, November 2007.