Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Northern Arizona chapter.

Trigger warning: SA, r@pe, and mentions of violence against women

“The sexualization of young girls and the projection of them as sex objects within the media occurs before they have even reached puberty.” (Durham, 2009).

The sexualization of a person occurs when the person’s value comes only from their sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of their other characteristics; a person is sexually objectified – that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action (APA, 2008). This form of sexualization is something that is a learned behavior – people are not naturally born with the capacity to sexualize and objectify another person. A conversation of nature and nurture has largely surrounded this statement (i.e. sexualization is learned), the latter mentioned being the cause of sexualization. We live within a society that conditions and conforms those at a young age. Sly ‘adult’ jokes in children’s TV shows and the observation of others’ behavior molds the perceptions that children have of sexuality and what being sexual means – this perception carries on into adult life, becoming a fixed-perception in some cases.

This learned behavior is what has lead to the intense and potent sexualization of young girls and women alike. In this instance, both of the forms of sexualization mentioned earlier are being used in a hyper-extended form. Virtually every media form provides ample evidence of the sexualization of girls and women; consistenly being portrayed in a sexual manner where they are objectified. In addition to this, a narrow standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized (Durham, 2009). I do not feel the need to go into detail on this beauty standard, other than clarifying that it is centered around the westernization of beauty – viewing beauty through a white lens that places the core of beauty within Europe. The racist underpinnings of this expected beauty standard are interloped with the sexualization of women, which brings intersectionality into the mix for those that are not white-passing.

Lolita complex in media

The Lolita Effect (complex) was coined by Meenaski G. Durahm. The effect analyzes the media’s portrayal of young girls, whilst using history as a guide. The sexualization of young girls is no new phenomenon. Looking to Shirley Temple as an example, one of Temple’s first roles in 1932 was as an exotic dancer in a bar for soldiers in “War Babies.” Where she was only three years old at the time. Those in charge of Temple’s career openly exploited the sexualization of her childhood innocence (Shprintz, 2006). 

Throughout Temple’s career, they figured out how to preserve the veneer of innocence while teasing the men who proved her greatest admirers both on and off screen. Her character was often an orphan, consistently finding herself the “darling” of bachelors, widowers, lonely uncles, in “love” stories that feature non-childlike caresses on both sides (Shprintz, 2006). Another prime example of this can be seen through the career of Natalie Portman, which began with her role in “Leon: The Professional” film, where a similar trope was used. The film portrays Natalie Portman, only twelve at the time, as having a relationship with an older man through a case of Stockholm Syndrome. The objectification she experienced as a child in this film followed her throughout her career (Sanchez, 2020). Portman is open about the horrifying objectification she experienced as a child from this movie as well – her first fan mail being a rape fantasy story written by a grown man. Not to mention that later, a local radio station would start a countdown to her 18th birthday (Sanchez, 2020). This consistent duo of characters – a young girl and a grown man – is purposely written to appeal to the older male audience so that they may live out their fantasies in an environment where it is not just seen as okay, but encouraged. This trope is merely another disguised form of the sexualization of young girls that simultaneously allows pedophilia to be an open part of the conversation.

The American Psychological Association (APA) studied and examined the sexualization of young girls within different forms of media. One study examined coded advertisements over a forty-year period in five magazines targeted to men, women or a general adult readership. 1.5% of the ads portrayed children in a sexualized manner, of those that did, 85% sexualized girls rather than boys (APA, 2008). Furthermore, the percentage of sexualizing ads has increased over time. Examples of this sexualization of girls can be easily found. These include advertisements such as the Sketcher’s ad depicting Christina Aguilera dressed as a schoolgirl in pigtails, with her shirt unbuttoned, licking her pencil. This ad was for the well known kids shoe brand that was targeted towards young girls. Within the clothing brand realm, there were also found to be thongs sized for 7-10 year-olds, some printed with slogans such as “wink wink” (APA, 2008). Both of these instances reinforce the already clear validity of women and girls being sexualized. Pushing this false narrative that girls are naturally ‘sexy’ or ‘sexual’ from a young age – which implies that the forms of sexual assault and harassment that they experience is somehow their own fault and responsibility. Never-mind the ads headed by men that dress grown women in children’s clothing as they smile conspicuously into the camera.

Advertisements such as these are there to appeal to two different audiences: young children and adult men. Why does an adult man need children’s shoes in the first place? Why are we having a woman model as a child instead of an actual child, which the shoes were intended for in the first place? There is no logic or reason behind these forms of media. They are created to attract more customers, more loyalty, and more money. They simultaneously sexualize children and entice pedophilia. Just as Natalie Portman’s movie Leon did, just as Shirley Temple’s movies and shows have. Commodifying sexuality is no new feat within media, let alone profiting off of the objectification of women and girls.

What is clear is that these medias are constantly surrounding us within our respective environments. They teach girls that their sexuality is merely a vessel of pleasure for men and they teach men that women and girls are objects to be gazed upon and used one-sidedly. It ingrains this notion that women’s resolute and final purpose is to center themselves around male-validation, whether this be through avenues such as marriage, clothing, or sex in and of itself.

An extensive analyses documenting the sexualization of girls has yet to be done. Research documenting the pervasiveness and influence of such products and portrayals is sorely needed. Whilst there is this large lack of research, examples can be found virtually everywhere. Music, television, film, clothing, ads, and more have yet to be fully examined in their objectified portrayals of young girls and women alike as well as the mental, physical, and emotional effects that these portrayals have on women and girls. 

American Psychological Association. (2008). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.

Durham, M. G. (2009). The Lolita effect: The media sexualization of young girls and what we can do about it. Abrams.

Sanchez, C. (2020). Natalia Portman says that being sexualized as a child made her feel unsafe. Bazaar. 

Shprintz, J. (2006). Tarnishing Temple’s image. Variety.

Prue Love

Northern Arizona '25

Prue is a second-year Sociology major with a triple minor in international communications, cinema studies, and Asian studies at Northern Arizona University. She hopes to use aspects of her major and minors to work in the journalism or film industry. She is currently an editor for Her Campus and a freelance graphic designer & artist. When she's not writing or doesn't have her eyes glued to a screen you can usually find her knitting, reading, or snowboarding.