“Porn Chic” – The Sexualization of Children and Young People

Nicola Steffen

Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Germany


Western Culture is currently undergoing a process of extreme sexualization and pornification.  The boundaries between pornography and mainstream culture are blurring and pornography is losing its stigma - “porn” is now “chic”.  New technologies have played a major part in facilitating this process by increasing access to and distribution of sexually explicit and pornographic material.  What was once considered pornography has now been accepted into the mainstream via popular culture, the media and advertising. These developments have not only altered our visual habits and moral norms, but have also resulted in profound changes in understanding of gender roles and stereotypes. It is first and foremost children and teenagers who face the greatest challenges in confronting and dealing with this mass of sexual information.  The pressure to conform to expectations and thereby construct a highly attractive and sexual persona has led to a rise in mental health problems amongst young people.  More research is needed to establish the true extent of the effects of Porn Chic on young children and teenagers today. Greater media literacy through education is one of many ways of combating the harmful effects of overt sexualization in our society.

"Hi my name is Gauge and I am 19 years old
you can check the date on my ID.
With the date on the movie.
Welcome to Bring ‘em Young
(from a House-Mix)


Our culture is experiencing a new sexual revolution which has been called the “democratisation of desire” (McNair, 2002).  Cultural scientists and sociologists have referred to this phenomenon variously as “pimp culture” (Amber, 2005), “raunch culture” (Levy, 2005), “mainstreaming of pornography” (Kinnick, 2007), “porning” and “pornification” (Sarracino & Scott, 2008), “hyper-sexualisation” (Ringrose, 2009) and “everyday porn” (Caputi, 2003).

Until a couple of years ago, pornography largely existed outside mainstream culture, separate from the rest of society and away from the public eye. Although pornography was accessible and sought after, it wasn’t imposed upon us.  This is no longer the case: amidst the course of the current sexualization of culture, spurred on by the media and advances in technology (“digital revolution”, “web 2.0”), the boundaries between pornography and culture have become blurred, and elements of pornography have been accepted into the mainstream since the early 90s.  In 2002, McNair called this process “Porno Chic”, or Porn Chic, which describes the cultural process by which pornography enters into our everyday lives as an acceptable, even idealized, cultural element.  As a result, pornography has been sanitized and is often a commonplace discussion topic in cultural discourse.

Lady GagaToday, Porn Chic is omnipresent and highly visible in art, popular culture and advertising.  Porn Chic is discernable throughout our culture and is present across all media forms, bringing it into the heart of youth culture. The song lyrics, stage costumes and dance choreographies of performing artists (such as Lady Gaga (see photo, right) or The Pussycat Dolls) are overly sexualized, and celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, both role models for millions of girls, are renowned for their exhibitionist behaviour.

Danish feminist Anette Dina Sørensen comes to the conclusion that children and teenagers are exposed to pornography to a greater extent than ever before and she refers to them as “Generation P” (Sørensen, 2003).  However, the effects of this increased exposure on children are as yet unknown (Sørensen, 2003).  In the same way that images of sexualization have become unremarkable, so too have sexualized images of children. Therefore, the author considers that, using the words of Rush and La Nauze, “it is essential to identify the various aspects of sexualization in order to make it clearly visible again.” (Rush & La Nauze, 2006, p. 7)

This paper reviews the process of sexualisation in our society over the past three decades, including a detailed review of what Porn Chic is and how it has come to affect and influence many aspects of modern culture. It also considers how Porn Chic has impacted on gender roles and stereotypes, and how the sexualisation of young people and girls in particular has occurred as a result of this phenomenon.  It looks at what research has been conducted so far into its effects, and what steps are needed to address the problem.

The Rise of Porn Chic in Western Culture

What is Porn Chic?

We can say that the appearance of the Porn Chic phenomenon refers to a number of processes which are occurring in our culture. Porn Chic signals the “postmodernization of the pornosphere” but it is different from what Leon Hunt coins the “permissive populism”1 of the 70s (McNair, 2002, p. 64).
McNair defines Porn Chic as follows:

Porno-chic is not porn, then, but the representation of porn in non-pornographic art and culture; the pastiche and parody of, the homage to and investigation of porn; the postmodern transformation of porn into mainstream cultural artifact for a variety of purposes including, as we shall see, advertising, art, comedy and education. But…porno-chic has provoked nearly as much criticism as the expansion of the pornosphere itself. (McNair, 2002, p. 61)

In the author’s opinion, Porn Chic can be more succinctly defined as describing “the infiltration of representations of pornography into mass culture, thereby becoming an accepted, even idealized, cultural element of the mainstream” (cited by Harvey, 2007, p.68).  Or to be even more concise, we can say that “porn-chic is always culture which refers to the pornographic, while not being pornographic” (McNair, private correspondence, December 6, 2004).

Why does Porn Chic exist?

The reasons for the pornification of our culture are manifold and complex interdependencies exist, so that to even attempt to name all would be an impossible undertaking. However, certain factors are repeatedly referred to in literature:

  • More liberalness: In America, this was attended by the striking down of the Community Decency Act 1996 as being unconstitutional (Justice consultant Bruce Taylor cited by Goodale, 2002).  Innovations in the area of communication have led to a less regulated, more pluralistic and commercialized sexual culture (McNair, 2002, p. 11).  This has resulted in more opportunities to access all means of sexual expression, such as accessing hardcore pornography by anyone who has access to the internet (McNair, 2002, p. 12).  Sørensen also mentions the fragmentized merging of pornography into mass-culture (Sørensen, 2003).
  • More media:  This aspect is closely linked to the previous.  New technologies (for example video, DVD and the internet) enable amateurs to produce their own pornography (McNair, 2002, p. 38) and is increasingly used in the private domain. It is an easy way to supply pornography to a wide, undifferentiated market, and effectively eradicates the negative associations linked to pornography with its furtive world of peep shows and adult book stores (McNair, 2002, p. 38; see also Taylor cited by Goodale, 2002).  This essentially boils down to: “Amount and accessibility of porn” (Sørensen, 2003).
  • More public interest in pornography:  McNair states that the rise of Porn Chic reflects “a legitimate public (as opposed to merely commercial) interest in the pornographic and its transgressive, taboo-breaking qualities” (McNair, 2002, p. 61 f.).  Neither the expansion of the pornosphere nor the advent of Porn Chic would have occurred had there not been a popular demand for it. (McNair, 2002, p. 97).  Sørensen calls this the “‘clean up’ or ‘taboo-challenging tendency’” which is “characterised by the growing interests in pornography by the mass media.” (Sørensen, 2003).
  • The growth of the porn industry (cf. Schlossman, 2001): More generally this can be called “[t]he expansion of the entertainment marketplace” (Taylor cited by Goodale, 2002).

Origins of Porn Chic

Reference to the concept of Porn Chic was first discernable in popular literature a good half a decade before any formal research into the phenomenon was published.  However, the last few years have seen the publication of an increasing amount of literature on the sexualization and pornification of Western culture (Attwood, 2009).

Required reading on the topic of Porn Chic is Brian McNair‘s Striptease Culture, published in 2002.  In 2007, another relevant book was published – Hall and Bishop: Pop-Porn: Pornography in American Culture – a compilation of essays with different perspectives on the various manifestations of pornography in American culture and its fascination with pornography.  From that time on, a large amount of research has been published, the most notable of which are Grenzfurthner, Friesinger and Fabry’s “Pronnovation?: Pornography and Technological Innovation” (2008), Sarracino and Scott’s “The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture” (2008), and at the end of 2009, Attwood released a compilation of essays, “Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualisation of Western Culture”.2

Sex in Second LifeStriptease Culture

McNair’s Striptease Culture (2002) in many ways parallels the findings of the author’s doctoral thesis (Steffen, forthcoming 2010).  According to media researcher McNair, Porn Chic is a sub-trend of a phenomenon which he calls “Striptease Culture” (2002, p. ix).   The term ‘striptease’ has “both literal and metaphorical meanings, embracing a range of texts and images including pornography, the sexualized art of the body, documentaries about strippers and confessional talk shows” (McNair, 2002, p. ix). McNair also refers to documentaries and “docu-soaps”, print media, television and the internet – anywhere that people talk about their own or other people’s sexuality (McNair, 2002, p. 88).  In our present culture, voyeurism, exhibitionism and sexualized looking are encouraged more than ever before (cf. McNair, 2002, p. ix).

As a result of this growing trend, the mainstream media has not only become “more sexually explicit, but also more sexually deviant, perverse, radical” (McNair, 2002, p. 147).  And yet, Striptease Culture is mainly not about pornography (McNair, 2002, p. 12).  In fact, the words, texts and images of Striptease Culture, with “their focus on the discovery and explanation of sexual phenomena”, are closer to anthropology than they are to pornography (McNair, 2002, p. 88).

Another significant author in this field, Feona Attwood, also believes that “sexualisation” is a broad term (2009).  In her opinion, sexualization manifests itself in the form of conversations about sexuality, as well as Porn Chic (which she describes as “texts that borrow from pornography”), and also in a form that reflects the public fascination for pornography (Attwood, 2009). This latter category encompasses writing (for example blogs), exhibitionism such as pole dancing and burlesque performances, and recreational pursuits where communication technologies are coupled with sexual practices, as with the OhMiBod iPod Vibrator, or the infinite sexual possibilities inherent in Second Life (see photo, above).3  Sexuality can now be considered “a form of recreation” (Attwood, 2009).

According to McNair, Striptease Culture and Porn Chic have both been nurtured by the same economic, technological and political processes which led to the expansion of pornography.  And yet, Striptease Culture differs from Porn Chic in one key respect: in contrast to pornography and Porn Chic, Striptease Culture is not the preserve of professionals, but rather of “‘ordinary’ people” (McNair, 2002, p. 88).  McNair emphasizes that there is a big difference between the current notion of Porn Chic and the tradition of aesthetic transgression of, for instance, a Marquis de Sade.  Porn Chic, in McNair’s opinion, has no discernable intention to shock or cause offence.  Rather:

Porno-chic aims to transfer the taboo, transgressive qualities of pornography to mainstream cultural production, but in the knowledge that if media audiences are in general less easily shocked than in the past, mainstream culture remains a zone where real pornography is not acceptable. (McNair, 2002, p. 70)

The boundaries between Porn Chic and pornography, as well as the boundaries between pornography and other cultural areas, are very fluid. This is largely down to the gradual organic growth of the phenomenon and numerous interdependencies between the various cultural areas.

Porn Chic and the Entertainment Industries

Porn Chic in Popular Culture

Erotic films have flourished since the early 80s (Bauer & Volk, 1990). In 1987, Andrea Dworkin pointed out that the popstars of the time began dressing like “professional whores”. (1987, p. 11).  An early example of Porn Chic in art, which McNair places into the category ‘celebrity erotica’, is Jeff Koons’ series, Made in Heaven (McNair, 2002, p.64).  These show, amongst other things, Koons and his former wife, porn star Ilona Staller, engaging in sexual intercourse. 

Some researchers credit popular female role models such as Madonna, Sharon Stone and Demi Moore, with bringing sex into the mainstream (cf. Wadham, 2002).  According to McNair, Madonna‘s ‘striptease’ in particular encouraged all sorts of “writers and artists working in all modes, in every medium, to incorporate the pornographic as a source of inspiration, and to reject the negative associations traditionally associated with the form” (McNair, 2002, p. 67).  After the publication of Madonna’s book SEX in 1992, two main categories of Porn Chic emerged: “texts, modelled on the example of Sex, which flirted with the aesthetic and narrative conventions of pornography; and texts which talked about pornography in various discursive modes (including the academic discourses of history, philosophy, art criticism, and sociology)” (McNair, 2002, p. 69).  Parallel to this development, the entertainment industry promulgated images of aggressive masculinity in the shape of film figures such as Rocky and Terminator which some commentators considered to be a reaction to the successes of women’s liberation (Scott & Sarracino, 2008).

These trends continued into the 90s and pornography quickly grew to be a popular cultural phenomenon, although not yet explicitly present in the mass media.  However, towards the end of the 90s, predominantly in England, the media started to explore pornography in earnest, and it was from this time on that the phenomenon of Porn Chic began to be increasingly noticed by journalists (for example, Kupfermann, 1996).

In the course of the following years, the trend was reinforced and spread across a whole range of popular and avant-garde forms of culture (McNair, 2002).  According to New York Times’ journalist Alex Kuczynski, sexualization was especially prominent on the internet, and also in television and print advertising (Kuczynski, 2001). Jane Buckingham, executive of Youth Intelligence, a think-tank based in New York, also cited examples of Porn Chic in the lewd sexual phrases and raunchy images on jewellery and clothes, commercials which suggest rape and group sex, as well as explicit sexual allusions to pornography in teenage movies (Goodale, 2002).  Similarly, Leah Schlossman observed that Porn Chic had expanded into everything; from pop music to fashion (2001).

Annette C. Anton remarks:  “Every one [of those examples] on its own is surely harmless.  But in that combination I don’t know why the average person would have the need to endorse himself like a porn star” (n.d., 2008). For communication researcher Katherine Kinnick, this “mainstreaming of pornography” is most apparent in pop music videos (Kinnick, 2007, p. 8), which is perhaps unsurprising in light of Barbara Lippert’s findings that pop stars such as Britney Spears and the late Michael Jackson have commissioned porn film directors to direct their music videos (Lippert, 2005).

The influence of pornography is especially apparent in rap music:  “Women in rap videos are rarely presented in any role other than sexual objects, and are routinely referred to in terms normally reserved for prostitutes and canines” (Pritts, 2006, p. A17).  A 2003 study showed that of rap song lyrics studied, 100% referred to intercourse or oral sex. The equivalent count for hip-hop lyrics was 80% (Miller & Kinnick, 2005), and the lyric themes often borrowed from porn set pieces include shower scenes, schoolgirl themes, one man with several women, and nymphomaniacs (Kinnick, 2007, p. 14).

In some cases, rap and pornography come together.  As a producer and narrator of pornography, rapper Snoop Dog has succeeded in uniting his two big passions – money and a “pimp lifestyle” (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 99).  Further hip-hop artists who have applied themselves in the porn-industry, although not as performers, are Ice-T, Mystikal, Too Short, Yukmouth and Digital Underground. Interestingly, R. Kelly’s Sex-Video is a notorious and quite possibly unintentional exception (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 101).

Porn Chic and Porn Stars

Scott and Sarracino assert that the average person and the porn star are increasingly becoming synonymous (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 10).  They suggest this is evidenced by people trying to imitate the physical appearance of porn actors (for example by going to the gym, and undergoing plastic surgery), copying their language (‘fuck patois’5) as well as their anonymous, noncommittal way of having sex (Scott & Sarracino, 2008).  Nowadays, it is everyday practice for many to trim or shave their pubic hair, and this, according to Scott and Sarracino, also has its origin in the porn industry (2008, p. 132).

Even more telling is the rise of amateur pornography which, according to Scott and Sarracino, is becoming the most popular form of pornography (Scott & Sarracino, 2008).  Attwood considers that the main reason for this is an exponential increase in sophistication and affordability of modern technology (Attwood, 2009). This has resulted in an enormous expansion of pornography, as well as its differentiation into subgroups which has proved to be especially beneficial for alternative pornography and (sexual) subcultures. 

The operating modes, functionality and structure of the porn industry are in the process of changing dramatically as a result of these developments (Attwood, 2009).  The perception and reputation of porn actors has seen an immense improvement; a 180 degree-turn so to speak – from ‘outlaws’ to entertainers and, in some cases, even mainstream celebrities (Scott & Sarracino, 2008).  This shift may explain why it is now considered acceptable, and even ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’, to wear t-shirts with ‘porn star’ written on.

The Sexualisation of Women

These examples of Porn Chic in modern culture exacerbate the trend in which the female population is especially affected by sexualization, in the same way that they have been by pornography.  The APA (American Psychological Association) is of the opinion that the sexualization of girls and women is both pervasive and increasing. Singer et al. (2007) believe that girls are being given the message through products and the media “that their only value is in their sexuality” (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 193).  The result is self-objectification: they see themselves as others do – as “objects of desire” (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 193).  These and other findings of the Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (Singer et al., 2007) will be discussed in more detail later on.

According to Kinnick, there is general disagreement concerning the possible consequences and effects of this trend, although Kinnick is convinced that the results of thirty years of empirical evidence clearly suggest that sexual content in the media has harmful effects for the individual as well as for society as a whole (Kinnick, 2007, p. 17).  Similarly, Singer et al. list various sources which claim that the increasing sexualization of girls is harmful to them (Bloom, 2004; “Buying Into Sexy,” 2005; Dalton, 2005; Lamb & Brown, 2006; Levin, 2005; Levy, 2005a; Linn, 2004; Pollet & Hurwitz, 2004; Schor, 2004, after Singer et al., 2007, p. 2).

Amongst the concerns raised was that a continuous attention to physical appearance left girls devoid of cognitive resources for other mental and physical pursuits (Singer et al, 2007, p. 22).  This sexualization may also lead to eating disorders, low self-esteem and  depression (Singer et al, 2007, p. 24), and it may possibly contribute to unhealthy or even violent intimate relationships.  (The author is currently researching this possibility with the aid of a GEXcel fellowship.)  

Singer et al. claim that objectifying women and sex in general “is integral to masculinity beliefs” (Singer et al., 2007, p. 29; cf. Connell, 1987; Kimmel, 1996; Tolman, 2002; after Singer et al., 2007, p. 29), but they fear that these beliefs may interfere with men’s capability to form and maintain intimate relationships with women (G. Brooks, 1995; Kindlon & Thompson, 1999; Pollack, 1998; after Singer et al., 2007, p. 29) as objectification virtually rules out the ability to empathise with the person involved (Herman, 1992; after Singer et al., 2007, p. 29).  Singer et al. conclude that the sexualization of girls and women therefore not only reflects sexist attitudes, society’s tolerance of sexual violence as well as the exploitation of girls and women, but also contributes to mental health issues (Singer et al., 2007, p. 3).

Goodale, too, raises concerns with regards to where these developments will lead, particularly as the audience is getting increasingly younger (Goodale, 2002).  Rush and La Nauze also sound a note of caution: “given the difficulty of obtaining strong evidence in such areas, and given that children are among the most vulnerable citizens in the community, the sexualising of children should be avoided” (Rush & La Nauze, 2006, p. 40).  According to their research this “is the prevailing view among both experts and commentators” (Rush & La Nauze, 2006, p. 40).

Feminism and Raunch Culture

McNair cannot find any evidence that supports the claims of many authors that the cultural sexualization, in all its manifestations, is bad for the family in particular, and for society in general (McNair, 2002, p. 8).  He argues that in Islamic countries where pornography is forbidden, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran, rape statistics are not any more favourable than more liberal societies, and generally, women have fewer rights (McNair, 2002; see also Pally, 1998, p. 109).  In fact, in societies where sexuality is censored, women (and also homosexuals) tend to experience a proportionate degree of oppression.

Girls Gone WildThe pro-pornography line of argument, which refutes assumptions made regarding its dangers, can however only partly stand as one that counters the concept of cultural sexualization, particularly as certain forms of sexualization seem to undermine and taint feminist achievements. Levy remarks:  “All the things that feminism once reviled – Playboy, strippers, wet t-shirt contests – all are currently being embraced by young women as supposed symbols of personal empowerment and liberation” (Levy, 2004, referring to the Girls Gone Wild series, see photo, right).  Kinnick too, has noticed that the American culture, interspersed with pornography, has caused girls and young women to act in a way which they think will impress boys and men, like simulating oral sex and kissing other girls (Kinnick, 2007, p. 22),  a phenomenon which is called ‘bisexual chic’ or ‘lesbian chic’ (Levy, 2005).  Levy stresses that similar behaviour on the male side hardly exists (after Kinnick, 2007, p. 22).  The crucial point is that all this happens as a reaction to or in defence of pornography.  Sexualization, like pornography, seems to be gender specific, first and foremost constructed from a male perspective (“gendered sexualisation”, Ringrose, 2009).

Pornification of culture is of course a key feminist issue.  However, the ideals of the third feminist wave differ greatly from those of the first two movements, as many feminists are now following suit in embracing raunch culture.6  Janice Turner narrows down what, in her opinion, third wave feminism is about:  “Feminism 2009 means acting out male masturbation fantasies — because you want to” (Turner, 2009). 

The Beauty Ideal

Today’s notion of beauty is very rigid and strongly influenced by celebrity culture.  The beauty ideal for women is characterized by skinniness and athleticism, the feminist explanation for this being that if women have more power in society, they need to be thinner (commonly referred to as ‘internalized corset’).  On this note, it makes perfect sense “that porn-inspired media imagery of women is proliferating at a time when women have reached new heights of power in the workplace, in politics and, arguably, in family dynamics” (Kinnick, 2007, p. 14).  At the same time, ample, shapely breasts are highly significant for the current beauty ideal.  Psychoanalyst Ingrid Olbricht is of the opinion that the female breasts are attributed with such significance “because they are the only thing from the female body which is allowed to be” (Olbricht, 2000).  Olbricht has the clear view that

[t]his development will lead to the devaluation of the female body on the one hand and, on the other hand, to the overvaluation and flaunting of the few body parts which are still tolerated, namely the breasts.  At the same time the breasts are strongly sexualized.” (Olbricht, 2000, p. 23 f.) 

The beauty ideal is taken to the extremes by encouraging extreme physical exercise and dieting, as well as cosmetic procedures including “hormone cosmetics” (taking hormones to maintain youthfulness) and “therapeutic cloning” (“baby on demand”) (Antoni-Komar, 2001, p. 85 f.).

With such pressure on women it doesn’t come as a surprise that eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are on the rise.  McDermott reports that, disconcertingly, the age when girls develop these disorders is continuing to fall: even children of primary school age, are now plagued by body concerns and eating disorders (McDermott, 2009).  A recent English study showed that 52% of twelve to thirteen year old girls claim they would like to lose weight.7

Loaded Magazine CoverThe Role of Gender in Sexualization

The developments that occurred towards the end of the twentieth century, such as the introduction of new media communication, led to the proliferation of more commercialized forms of sexual representation.  And because of the economic interdependence with emerging sexual communities (such as homosexuals), society was forced to look again at numerous limiting and patronising stereotypes of that time and consider new definitions (McNair, 2002, p. 206).  These ‘less defined’ gender roles permitted the expansion of phenomena like gender b(l)ending, metrosexuality and a general ‘camping up’ of mainstream culture.  Displays of homosexuality among heterosexual men are now tolerated – new terms such as ‘man crush’, ‘bromance’ and ‘bromantic’ reflect this.  Men too are undergoing cosmetic surgery and the proportion of men who suffer from anorexia or bulimia (“manorexia”) is rising.  A new male complaint is ‘bigorexia’ – muscle dysmorphia – the opposite of ‘anorexia’.  These challenges to the male identity have led to some men reverting back to more traditional gender roles.  But for others, the ‘New Lad’ who likes ‘beer, birds and football’ presents “a provocative, aggressively marketed alternative” (McNair, 2002, p. 159). ‘Lads’ mags’ such as Loaded (see photo, left), Nuts and Zoo cater for these interests.  In this context, McNair speaks of a crisis in masculinity (McNair, 2002, p. 19).

Increasingly, there are claims that men, too, are being sexually objectified and even discriminated against in advertising (Schmerl, 1983, p. 12; Rohlinger, 2002).  There is also evidence that over time, boys may become subject to the pressures of sexualization too.4

However, men in advertising are generally speaking depicted as autonomous and self-reliant.  Sexuality is definitely present in men’s advertising but it is not seen as essential, as it is in the case of women’s advertising.  And when it is present, no opposite is required for affirmation and man´s depiction and appearance seem effortless and nature-given.

Gender Stereotypes

The media, especially advertising, is interspersed with stereotypes. Stereotypes serve to simplify orientation.  On a cognitive level they are generally immune from change, and even conflictive experiences do not undermine them (Bauer & Volk, 1990, p. 23).  According to Bauer and Volk, changes in stereotypes are slow to occur and lag behind social reality (Bauer & Volk, 1990, p. 23).  Sociologist Teresa Perkins takes the view that:

[t]he strength of a stereotype results from a combination of three factors: its 'simplicity'; its immediate recognisability...and its implicit reference to an assumed consensus about some attributes or complex social relationships. Stereotypes are in this respect prototypes of 'shared cultural meanings'. They are nothing if not social. (Cited by Betterton, 1987, p. 68.) 

Women in the media, more so than men, are forced to fit certain stereotypes.  Some common examples which Bauer and Volk name are:  “the woman’s libber”, “the prostitute”, “the nurse”, “the housewife”, “the politician”, “the film star” (Bauer & Volk, 1990, p. 42 f.).  A new female type has emerged in the media (predominantly film) which dates back to the sinister women of ‘film noir’ – the “Phallic Woman”, women such as “Ellen Ripley” (Alien), “Lara Croft” and “Xena” who have male characteristics and accessories, but still rely on attractiveness.

According to Bremme, pornography is only the tip of the iceberg in a society which is laced with sexist and pornographic stereotypes (Bremme, 1990, p. 79).  Sørensen draws attention to the current pornification whereby a major part of the male and female gender stereotypes depicted in hardcore pornography have now entered the cultural mainstream.  This consequently influences the way in which gender is represented (Sørensen, 2003).  These are stereotypes such as “the whore”, “the savage woman”, “the lesbian”, “the hunter and conqueror”, “the effeminate man”, “the phallus”, “the homosexual” (Bremme, 1990, table of contents) and also “the virgin”. The latter is a very telling stereotype for Bremme:

Like no other stereotype does ‘the virgin’ shed light on the rootedly prudish and puritan cultural origin of the pornographic depiction of woman which is to be found in both the virgin cult and Marianism of the Catholic church as well as the sexual hostility of the Victorian norms (Bremme, 1990, p. 19).

Other icons in contemporary visual culture are “the henpecked husband”, “the executive”, and “the alien” (Schroeder & Borgerson, 2003, p. 77).

It is crucial to distinguish between pornographic and sexist stereotypes. The pornographic image refers explicitly to sexuality; the sexist image is found across all areas of society. (Kappeler, 1988, p. 34).  For instance, the diminution of woman to the role of housewife is a sexist stereotype, not a pornographic one (Bremme, 1990, p. 3).  Bremme comes to the conclusion that the expression ‘sexism’ is thus a category “under which all patriarchical role pressures and patterns can be subsumed”, whereas the term ‘pornography’ encompasses a sub-area (Bremme, 1990, p. 4).

Up until 1978, most analyses of sexism in the media looked at written content only.  The visual arrangement was occasionally referred to in a summarized manner, but was rarely actually analysed.  Therefore Butler and Paisley called for an equal emphasis on both written and visual contents in future (Butler & Paisley, 1980, p. 62).  This is even more important nowadays as the visual elements of sexism are more pronounced than ever before.  This paradigm shift towards a culture of primarily visual orientation is described by Mitchell as “pictorial turn” – as a “post-linguistic, post-semiotic rediscovery of the image of visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies and figurativeness” (Mitchell, 1997, p. 19).

In Das Bild von Mann und Frau in der Werbung (1980), Hastenteufel states that advertising is dependent on the current social order and therefore shapes the differentiation between genders that lies within.  Advertising is attributed with a fundamental need to support this order.  Also, because of the need for it to be easily understood, advertising is rife with gender stereotypes.  Advertising is everywhere and virtually every member of society is subject to its ideas of masculinity and femininity (Hastenteufel, 1980, p. 13).  According to Schmerl, the emphasis on sexual clichés plays a crucial role in advertising.  This manifests itself not only in the accentuation of ‘signalising accessories’, but also primarily in the accentuation of “genital-symbolic objects of analogy” (Schmerl, 1983, p. 72). 

The Sexualization of Young People

New Media and Socialization

Besides family, peer groups and the educational environment (Antoni-Komar, 2001, p. 54), new technologies are named by many authors as a crucial agent of socialization for children and teenagers.  Children are spending substantial periods of time using new media: recent research suggests they spend an astonishing average of 1.7 hours a day online, 1.5 hours on games consoles and 2.7 hours watching TV (John Dunford cited by The Times, March 8, 2010; see also Nielsen Media Research, 1998, after Singer et al. 2007, p. 5).  Not only do children and young people “use more media for longer periods of time at younger ages,” but it is clear that sexual content has increased in the period from 1985 to 2005 (Rich, 2005, p. 329). From a socializationist theoretical perspective, new media are considered highly relevant for identity development, for “the growing into social roles according to certain normative expectations” (Saxer, 1988, p. 215), and for “the figuring out of social relationships generally” (Saxer, 1988, p. 215).  Moreover, they provide clues for unconscious desires and longings (Beinzger, Eder, Luca, & Röllecke, 1998, p. 86).

According to Miko and Kugler, the search for identityin our postmodern world is a frequently discussed variable in academic discourse (Miko & Kugler, 2001, p. 96).  As the relaxation of institutional forces has resulted in increased individuality, so the quest to find one’s identity is consequently sought in private life rather than work life.  A huge amount of identity development is necessary and subjectivity is becoming ever more important.  The influence of new technologies on young people is therefore more critical than ever, as the mass media is often the first, and sometimes only, source of information for children and teenagers (see Schmerl, 1983, p. 113).

Information communicated via the media has a high significance, especially in the context of gender stereotypes (Bauer & Volk, 1990, p. 28).  With regards to the media‘s impact on socialization, this is an area of special interest (Hastenteufel, 1980, p. 13) which has been confirmed by various media analyses (Bauer & Volk, 1990, p. 30).  It is common consensus that the media have the ability to produce profound changes (Beck, 2002, p. 6).  Because the media is a male-dominated arena, it is no surprise that media content predominantly depicts male attitudes and experiences (Bauer & Volk, 1990, p. 30).

Gender plays a crucial role in the development of identity as it is key in determining one’s social position.  It is, as social psychologist Gudrun Axeli-Knapp puts it, “a positional phenomenon which says something about the specific placement of men and women in the context of a hierarchical system” (Knapp, 1988, p. 21).  Elsewhere she states:

This “placement” by gender is not a simple act of direct necessity but an elaborate and conflict-laden interaction of constraints and motives, of violence and acceptance, of material preconditions, of cultural systems of interpretation, normative regulations, self-perceptions, self-projection and expression (Knapp, 1988, p. 12).

Research on media effects is a neglected area in sociological media research (Luca, 1998, p. 23), and so far it has failed to make undisputable and definite statements about the exact nature of the media’s effects on socialization.  This is because countless factors of influence exist, and effects on socialization cannot be scientifically measured (Bauer & Volk, 1990, p. 40).  In the long term, effects are assumed, even if not verified, in individual cases. However, this should by no means be interpreted as the media having no effect (Armbruster, 1994, p. 34).

In early 2010, the results of the study commissioned by the British Home Office – The Sexualisation of Young People – were published (British Home Office, 2010).  For this study, Psychologist Linda Papadopoulos was asked to examine to what extent sexualized images influence the development of children and young people.  She also looked at the link between sexualization and violence (British Home Office, 2010).  Not only has the depiction of violence against women in TV risen by 200% since 2004, but Papadopoulos also highlights the habituation effect by which the “previously unthinkable becomes widely acceptable” (British Home Office, 2010, p. 25).  The investigation was part of British government’s efforts to address violence against women and girls.  In the course of the study, 36 recommendations were given in handling sexualization (see British Home Office, 2010, p. 75 ff.).4

In Australia, the discussion paper by the Australia Institute, Corporate Paedophilia (Rush & La Nauze, 2006), called attention to the sexualization of childhood which is also noticeable in Australian culture. It analyses the sexualization of children (defined as aged 12 and under) with regards to girls’ magazines, advertising (print and television), and television programs (including music videos). These types of material are said to be interlinked by their participation in celebrity culture.

In a recent content analysis of three leading girls’ magazines, aimed at girls aged 5-12, approximately half the content was considered sexualized in two of the magazines.  In the case of the third magazine, 75% of content was considered sexualized, whilst merely one fifth of that magazine was “developmentally appropriate for the target audience” (Rush & La Nauze, 2006, p. 16).  With regards to advertisements, Rush and La Nauze differentiate between ‘Child-selling-to-child’ advertisements (CC ads) and ‘Child-selling-to-adult’ advertisements (CA ads), “the implicitly paedophilic connotations” of which seem “even more disturbing” (Rush & La Nauze, 2006, p. 11).  However, it is the premature sexualization of children that is the major concern here, not just sexualised advertising.  It is feared that children are being ‘groomed’ for paedophiles: (see also Singer et al., 2007, p. 35).  In the case of girls’ magazines, girls of primary school age are actively encouraged to have crushes on adult male celebrities. The risk is that when these girls fantasize “about dating adult men, they will be more inclined to see adult sexual advances as flattering” (Rush & La Nauze, 2006, p.21).

Another ‘area of slippage’ the APA report draws attention to is that of consent.  From a legal point of view, children are not able “to give consent to sexual activity with an adult” (Singer et al., 2007, p. 35).  But when girls are dressed up and made up to look like adult women, is it possible that adults may not only project adult motives on children, but also “an adult level of responsibility and agency” (Singer et al., 2007, p. 35).

The APA report scrutinizes the psychological theory, research, and clinical experience relevant to the sexualisation of girls. Singer et al. define sexualization, and also examine the prevalence and examples of sexualization on various levels ranging from society to intra-physicality.  They evaluate the evidence that indicates that sexualization has negative implications, not only for girls but for the rest of society, and they conclude by making suggestions for positive alternatives to counteract the effects of sexualization (Singer et al., 2007, p. 2).

Singer et al. also highlight the paucity of research in this field. They therefore draw on research on the sexualization of women on basis that this is highly significant for understanding the sexualization of girls, as girls often model their identity on what the older girls and women do (Bussey & Bandura, 1984, 1992; Lips, 1989, after Singer et al., 2007, p. 4) and on how women are depicted in the media (Huston & Wright, 1998, after Singer et al., 2007, p. 4).  There are also methodological arguments for adopting this approach (cf. Singer et al., 2007, p. 4).

The APA report focuses on the media, for obvious reasons: as a result of its “cultural contribution to the sexualization of girls and women”, this area offers an abundance of research possibilities (Singer et al., 2007, p. 4).  In addition, other than school and sleep, there is no other activity children and young people engage in more (D. Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005, after Singer et al., 2007, p. 4).

Sexting ExampleTeenagers and children

From Schmerl’s research, it is clear that teenagers and children are confronted by sexual innuendo on a daily basis (Schmerl, 1983; see also Lautmann, 2002, p. 184).  Not only are teenagers subjected to this, they themselves also produce pornographic material.  A fairly recent development is the swapping of self-produced pornographic images and video clips amongst peers (e.g., ‘sexting,’ see photo, right). And with the expansion of mobile phone usage and advances in technology, another uncomplicated method of accessing internet pornography is at their disposal. 

Teenagers are also avid users of social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo which allows them to express and describe themselves.  Increasingly, they seem to portray themselves as sexually promiscuous (Kornblum, 2005, after Singer et al., 2007, p. 10).  Some girls pose dressed up in provocative clothing and advertize their sexual availability (Singer et al., 2007, p. 10).  For example, the profile page of a 15-year old girl who goes by the username of “slut” states:  “Hi Im Daniella And ii Like It UpThe Bum .. Just Like Your Mum! And I Suck Dick For £5” (Ringrose, 2010).  According to Singer et al. research needs to be done on “how dangerous this practice is” (Singer et al., 2007, p. 10).

And Porn Chic even targets children.  In her essay “Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power”, fashion historian Valerie Steele describes how children in the USA as young as five wear clothes which, in her opinion have been directly inspired by the porn industry.  Steele mentions corset-style items of clothing, high heel shoes and boots, the materials leather, rubber and fur, certain colours such as black and red, as well as visibly worn underwear (Steele, 1996).  Such items of clothing are thought to have entered the mainstream via strip clubs and porn films of the 80s.  According to Hall and Bishop, G strings too, are an invention of the porn industry (Hall & Bishop, 2007, p. 48), as is the ‘thong bikini’. G strings are marketed to children as young as seven (Kleinhans, 2004, p. 18). 

The sexualization of children also manifests itself in clothing and poses that - in adults - draw attention to sexual differences between men and women, like the broad shoulders of a man, and the wide hips, narrow waist and breasts of a woman. Lastly, the appliance of cosmetics mimics secondary signs of sexual arousal, such as flushed cheeks, red lips, and pupil dilation (Rush & La Nauze, 2006; p. 10; see also Singer et al., 2007, p. 16).

Porn Chic also manifests itself in written form on clothing.  ‘Conversation t-shirts’ (t-shirts with insinuating slogans on them) are marketed to girls as young as eleven (for instance by Holllister). For older children, there are t-shirts by the fashion brand fcuk with slogans on them such as “fcuk me” or “too busy to fcuk”.  Sarracino and Scott have termed these provocatively worded items of clothing as “slutwear” which meaning extends to other items of provocative dress (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 124 f.).   

The world of children’s toys is also full of sexist stereotypes. According to Czurda, Barbie perfectly embodies the ambiguity of lady and slut, mother and whore (Czurda, 1996, p. 89).  Czurda comes to the conclusion: “Barbie’s body…displays all the characteristics of a fetish” (Czurda, 1996, p. 87).  Bratz (see image below), the current funky opponent of Barbie with even more grotesque body proportions, is present in the childhood of many girls today: some parents have said that it seems to them as if pornography itself is pursuing their daughters (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. XI).

As early as 1984, sociologist Barbara Kavemann and lawyer Ingrid Lohstöter considered in Väter als Täter – Sexuelle Gewalt gegen Mädchen how men’s magazines, and even some mainstream magazines, almost invite child abuse.  In magazines such as Playboy, Lui, Penthouse and Cosmopolitan, sexual intercourse is presented as an erotic challenge, and according to Bremme “often under the smoke screen of pseudo-scientific research – the ideology is spread that not only do children prompt adults to sexual contact they also enjoy this” (Bremme, 1990, p. 21).  Rush considers the success of films such as Pretty Baby, Taxi Driver and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane at the end of the 70s, where young girls are portrayed as prostitutes or nymphomaniacs.  According to Rush, depicting children as sexual corresponds with the infantilising of women in pornography and in the media: “Today our society either makes the child look like a woman or the woman look like a child” (cited by Bremme, 1990, p. 22).  It is therefore clear that anyone (girls, boys, men and women) can be sexualized. But when young girls are imbued with adult sexuality, it is usually imposed upon them rather than chosen by them.

Bratz Babies


The Child as Adult

This co-mingling of childhood, sexuality and womanhood has alarming consequences.  According to Mc Dermott, danger looms when childlike attributes are imposed on grown women. He claims that when men see women depicted with childlike attributes, this conditions them to view children in a sexual manner, even when there is no sexual context (McDermott, 2009).  However, there is virtually no experimental research to validate this, with only a few exceptions.  A study by B. Paul (2004) was designed to evaluate the effects of looking at child pornography. ‘Barely legal’ pornography (i.e. women made to look like children) was used as the stimuli for men, and the result was a “stronger mental association between neutral (nonsexual) images of children and words related to sex (e.g., arousing, sexy)” (Singer et al., 2007, p. 35).

According to Scott and Sarracino, the twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, known popularly as the ‘Olsen twins’, “became the fuel for an online porn engine that combined paedophilia and kiddie porn with twin and sister porn” (2008, p. 24).  The Olsen twins are not the only teenage stars which have cultivated an erotically appealing image.  Singer Bill Kaulitz from the German band Tokio Hotel has been a sex symbol since he was fifteen years old (he is now rumoured to have anorexia), and Britney Spears (see poster, below) was just sixteen years old when she débuted as a sexy school girl in her video “Baby One More Time” (1998).  More recently, Miley Cyrus (born November 1992), a former Disney star like Britney, incorporated some pole dancing routines into her performance at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards.

In the past, age was generally a good signifier of what part an individual played in society, and roles were clearly assigned on that basis.  Nowadays, ten year olds may wear the same clothes as 40 year olds (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 35).  Age is just a number, it is argued (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 37).  The notion of what childhood means differs greatly according to cultural region, society and community (McDermott, 2009).  According to media theorist and cultural critique Neil Postman, the concept of childhood as an independent phase of life emerged in the middle ages shortly after the invention of the printing press mid 15th century (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 31; cf.  Postman, Neil, 1982). With this recognition of childhood came a certain level of protection to children not previously granted.  The influence of pornography and the developments in the media have contributed to sexualized teenagers becoming the norm, “thanks in large part to the barrier-breaking influence of pornography…on Hollywood mainstream movies” (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 22).  Scott and Sarracino wonder what consequences there will be if the innocence of childhood were to be lost.  They refer to the apprehensions of Neil Postman that our culture might soon revert to a pre-Gutenberg social model where children are no longer granted the protection which they traditionally received (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 33).

Britney Spears

What the future holds

For the future, Scott and Sarracino dare to predict: “Porn will have become our cultural wallpaper” (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 47).  They also believe that amateur pornography will be the next step for pornography in America, which could, they believe, mean the end of pornography in the traditional sense (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 46).  Sexual researcher Gunter Schmidt predicts a disappearance of perversions, and with this also the “backbone of normalism” (after Lautmann, 2002, p. 457). Extramarital sexuality, masturbation, homosexuality, oral sex and contraception are the norm nowadays; they take the place of the original collective sexual morals of society, and now everything is down to the negotiations of the partners involved (Lautmann, 2002, p. 453). 

Paedophilia is one of the few sexual taboos that remain in our society.  In the not so distant past, the distribution (but not the production) of paedophilic erotica was permitted in some European countries.  Lautmann believes it will only be a matter of time until this, and another of the “last taboos”, incest, will disappear as well (after Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 86) Advances in media technology facilitate access to children - a 2005 report draws attention a new trend in the recruitment of children into pornography whereby paedophiles and “johns” search online chat rooms for teens with web cameras, in order to persuade them to perform sexual acts in from of the camera (Eichenwald, 2005 after Singer et al., p. 35).

It is almost certain that sexualization causes problems.  In addition to the issues outlined above, Scott and Sarracino highlight that young women are often misunderstood by boys and men as their permissive behaviour and revealing clothing is interpreted as a go-ahead for inappropriate advances (2008, p. 214).  They also point out that young women are sexualised to such an extent that it is likely that they do not enjoy their own sexuality because it is so often used in the service of others (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 208).

With regards to the effects of sexualization on children, Rush and La Nauze identify five different categories: physical, psychological and sexual harm, the ‘opportunity cost’ of sexualization, and ethical effects (Rush & La Nauze, 2006). They name a whole range of risks which include “an increase in eating disorders at younger ages; increasing body dissatisfaction; more extreme attention-getting sexual behaviours; first sexual intercourse at younger ages; promotion of paedophilia; the undermining of other aspects of their overall development; and the absorption of ethical values that undermine healthy relationships” (Rush & La Nauze, 2006, p. 47) .

One approach to solving problems such as these is to acquire ‘media literacy’ by means of formal school education (Scott & Sarracino, 2008, p. 218). Like Papadopoulos, Singer et al. suggest an approach on several levels: working in schools and formal education (through a media literacy program, athletics, extracurricular activities and a comprehensive sex education program); working with the family (by mediation and co-viewing, religion, spirituality and meditation, and through activism by parents and families), and also working directly with girls and girls’ groups to resist, the alternative media, activism and resistance e.g. girl empowerment groups (Singer et al., 2007, p. 36 ff).

Additional research is needed, and some scholars are now studying the possible effects of sexualization on teenagers. For example, Jessica Ringrose is researching what sexualization in the media means for real life (Ringrose, 2009).  And as previously mentioned, the author is currently conducting research as to whether Porn Chic contributes to violence in intimate relationships.  Further research is needed in three areas: research that focuses on how sexualization affects girls rather than women; research that investigates how parents, schools, and peers sexualize girls; and research that deals with girls’ self-sexualization (Singer et al., 2007, p. 19).

One thing is certain.  Furthered by digital mediatisation, the disintegration of the private sphere and the appearance of sexualization is advancing rapidly.  This presents great challenges for our society, for parents, educators and scholars, especially with regards to the socialization of new generations.


1 Cf. Hunt, 1998, p. 12.

2 Further relevant publications include:
Juffer, J. (1998). At home with pornography: Women, sex and everyday life. New York: New York University Press.
Slade, J. W. (2001). Pornography and representation: A reference guide. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Brown, J. D., Steele, J. R., & Walsh-Childers, K. (2002). Sexual teens, sexual media: Investigating media's influence on adolescent sexuality. Mahwah, N. J.: Erlbaum.
Gunter, B. (2002). Media sex: What are the issues? Mahwah, N. J.: Erlbaum.
Creed, B. (2003). Media matrix: Sexing the new reality. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.
Ravitch, D., & Viteritti, J. P. (2003). Kid stuff: Marketing sex and violence to America's children. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Williams, L. (2004). Porn studies. Durham: Duke University Press.
Shapiro, B. (2005). Porn generation: How social liberalism is corrupting our future. Washington, DC: Regnery.
Paul, P. (2005). Pornified: How pornography is damaging our lives, our relationships, and our families. New York: Times Books.
Reichert, T., & Lambiase, J. (Eds.) (2005). Sex in consumer culture: The erotic content of media and marketing. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

3  This is an example of the type of virtual sexual encounter possible in Second Life. “I ended up going with the HUD-controlled supercock […]. It allowed me to "arouse" or "relax" myself on a sliding scale, plus cum or pee on command. This peen [sic!] even came with three programmed masturbation sequences, including autofellatio. The cum was voluminous, the pee torrential and sickly green. What more could any man desire? [...] I am not exaggerating when I say that the sex clubs were the most consistently populated areas I visited in Second Life. I raced through about a half-dozen, just to see if any were different. Aside from cosmetic theming, most are not. I ended up stopping at the most pathetic, a barely-constructed box housing various sex beds, racks, chairs, and toys. Casual conversation was discouraged. I asked one male figure, sitting alone and masturbating, if he wanted to talk about what he was doing here. He said he would talk if we fucked, went into an appearance-editing trance, and suddenly became a voluptuous black woman. I retreated, and he/she strapped himself/herself into a rack. As for myself, I couldn't resist trying the "giant vagina," which was something like a big pink kidney bean. You inserted yourself through a fleshy slot and writhed around inside. Brought up all kinds of buried psychology.”
(Genitals, guns, and merchandise in Second Life, 2009).

4 Firstly, through education and schools – by promoting gender equality in schools; by means of Statutory Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE); by promoting media literacy and encouraging activism; by working with young people outside of mainstream education; by promoting digital literacy with regards to the internet; by focussing on positive role models for children; and last but not least, by  providing support for children who have been abused. Secondly, on the level of media and awareness-raising, by means of a national campaign to tackle teenage relationship abuse; through forming a working group to address the sexualisation of women and girls by the media; through establishing media awards; through support and guidance for parents; by regulating the following: advertising and magazines; music videos; video on demand services; computers and networked gaming. Thirdly, by working with businesses and retailers – promoting corporate responsibility; introducing a mandatory code for ‘Lads’ mags; prohibiting vacancies in adult entertainment industry to be openly advertised by JobcentrePlus. Lastly, with regards to research, Papadopoulos calls for a multi-disciplinary approach to sexualisation and on an improvement of the evidence base. (British Home Office, 2010, p. 75 ff.)

5 “fuck patois”: using fuck as noun, verb and adjective (n.d. 2008).

6 “Feminism has been replaced by narcissism and materialism.” (Maureen Dowd cited by Turner, 2009)

7 According to a study with 32,000 10 to15-year-olds carried out by the regional Exeter Health Education Authority (Clark & Doughty, 2009)


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