Ads use sex to sell to girls

Montreal Gazette
June 23, 2008
By B. Bundale

Walking down some stretches of Ste. Catherine St., you might have trouble telling a strip club and a toy store apart.

Dolls come dressed with black leather miniskirts, fishnet stockings, thigh-high boots and red feather boas.

The ads for Club Super Sexe portray women as girls, with pigtails, schoolgirl skirts and ruffles.

The increasing sexualization of girls in the media and its impact on teenage relationships was the focus of a report issued this month by the Quebec Council on the Status of Women.

The report includes 10 recommendations for the provincial government to promote equality between the sexes in Quebec. Among them are:

- Discuss sexuality and the media in the ethics and religious culture course that is to begin in public schools this fall.

- Launch a media awAreness campaign to promote equality.

- give youths and parents better access to information about sexuality.

"Sex has always been used to sell to adults, but the media are now using sex to talk to a much younger audience," council president christiane pelchat said.

The concern is not only that teenagers are having sex at a younger age, but also that sexually transmitted infections and violence in relationships are on the rise, pelchat said.

Sixty-five per cent of girls age 12 to 17 who are in a relationship have experienced some kind of psychological, physical or sexual violence, according to the institut de la statistique du Quebec.

"Another alarming statistic is that 20 per cent of girls who had sex before they were 16 did so either to please their partner or because it was something they thought they had to do," Pelchat said.

Sex is everywhere: the Internet, television, video games, music videos, magazines, movies and in ads. What is troublesome, Pelchat said, is that teens spend hours every day viewing media that "convey the conception of a sexuality based on inequality, stereotypes and the objectification of women."

"It becomes their role model for behaviour, and we've noticed young people - both girls and boys - mimicking what they see."

An Internet site gaining popularity among teens in Quebec is www.ma-bimbo.com, which encourages users to be "the hottest, coolest, most famous bimbo in the whole world."

Users create their own virtual "bimbo" to compete in beauty contests and ultimately find a billionaire boyfriend. Winners earn "bimbo dollars" to pay for virtual breast implants, facelifts and lingerie.

The original British site, www.missbimbo.com, also sold virtual diet pills to the "bimbos" until a media controversy forced creator Nicolas Jacquart to remove them.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls issued a report in February that found women in the United States are more likely than men to be portrayed in the media in a sexual manner.

Such sexualization can have negative effects on school performance, physical and mental health, attitudes and beliefs, the report said.

Sexualization in media occurs when sites like ma-bimbo.com define a woman's value based on her sex appeal and equate success with physical attractiveness, the APA's report said.

"Girls are programmed by advertisements to look at themselves as objects," said Jean Kilbourne, co-author of So Sexy So Soon: the New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids.

"It's not surprising this has an impact on their relationships and self-esteem," she said in an interview from Boston.

The current portrayal of sex in the media "is infinitely more prevalent and graphic" than in previous generations, Kilbourne said.

As an example, she noted padded push-up bras and thong underwear marketed to 7-year-olds.

In addition to sexy clothes, the sexualization of dolls is of concern to many parents.

Bratz Babyz, dolls marketed to girls age 4 to 8, come dressed in tube tops and bikinis, sitting in hot tubs and mixing drinks.

"It is worrisome when dolls designed specifically for 4- to 8-year-olds are associated with an objectified sexuality," the APA report said.

"Parents can do a lot and they certainly have a responsibility to talk openly with their kids about these issues," Kilbourne said.

A project involving Lilia Goldfarb of the Montreal Women's Y and the Université du Québec à Montréal has created a guidebook titled Early Sexualization, for parents of preteen girls.

The animated guide, which can be downloaded at the website www.ydesfemmesmtl.org, explores seven scenarios inspired by real situations to help parents broach the topics of appearance and sexuality with their children.

The project holds workshops across the province on the hyper-sexualization of girls.

"Many girls I've spoken with are critical of the media," said Goldfarb, who is head of leadership services at the Montreal YWCA. She is responsible for all leadership and empowerment programs offered to girls and women.

"They are bothered by the idea that women were seen as just sexy objects. But they say if you want to be popular at school, you have to dress and act a certain way."

Marguerite Deslauriers, director of the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women, said the Quebec Council on the Status of Women's report is useful and makes some important recommendations.

"It encourages the understanding that the sexualization of women is a political issue and not just a private issue," she said.

But the report fails to adequately address how sexual representation in the media affects gender identity, Deslauriers said.

"They seem to assume everybody identifies as either a man or a woman, and while they mention at one point that girls may be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, there is no mention of trans-identity (transgenderism)."

Deslauriers praised the council for recommending that discussions of sexuality and equality be included Quebec's elementary school curriculum rather than pushing for government censorship of sexually suggestive imagery.