THE NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES OF SEXUALIZATION: ONE WOMAN’S STORY AND WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM IT

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The difference between healthy sexuality and sexualization

Before we get to the interview, it’s important to understand the differences between healthy sexuality, sexualization, and early sexualization:

Healthy sexuality means being confident that God created us either male or female. He created our sexuality, and we can live out His life-affirming vision either in lifelong marriage between one man and one woman, or in celibacy as a single. Healthy sexuality also means age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.

Sexualization is unhealthy sexuality. Sexualization happens when a person’s value comes only from sexual appeal or actions, when someone is sexually objectified, or when sexuality is imposed on them.

Early sexualization (also called premature sexualization or hypersexualization), happens when adult sexuality is forced on children, preteens, and teens. It’s when children are influenced or pressured to behave in the context of adult sexuality — but without having the maturity of an adult to understand consequences.

A 2007 study by the American Psychological Association highlights the effects of sexualization on girls (effects that have only become more obvious in years since the study):

Research evidence shows that the sexualization of girls negatively affects girls and young women across a variety of health domains:

  • Cognitive and Emotional Consequences: Sexualization and objectification undermine a person’s confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to emotional and self-image problems such as shame and anxiety.
  • Mental and Physical Health: Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women — eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.
  • Sexual Development: Research suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences on girls’ ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.

That background helps set the stage for Rob’s interview.

Interview with a woman recovering from an addiction to pornography

Rob Jackson (Rob): Many people I talk to who are addicted to pornography had childhood experiences that “sexualized” them sooner than they might normally have experienced. Did you have any sexualizing events early in your life?

Anonymous: Yes, several different types, in fact. First of all, my family did not practice much modesty or personal boundaries. I regularly was exposed to my mom completely undressed and my dad wearing only his underwear. I remember in third grade even drawing a picture of my mom naked and getting in trouble at school. Quite often I was asked to bring toilet paper to my dad as he used the bathroom, and I used the sink and mirror as he showered behind a translucent shower door. There were many other instances like this, which aroused a great deal of curiosity in me about the human body.

Rob: Did your parents give you any teaching about sexuality?

Anonymous: None at all. The subject was taboo and made them very nervous. I learned quickly that you didn’t ask questions about sex at our house. This lack of information coupled with my curiosity seemed to fuel in me a compulsive search for sexual information.

Rob: Where did you find information about sex?

Anonymous: At first I would look up the words sex or reproduction in every dictionary and encyclopedia I could get my hands on. Then I discovered a stash of explicit romance novels at my grandmother’s house. Whenever I would spend the night over there, I’d stay up all night just overwhelmed at the feeling I got when I read those passages.

Rob: How old were you at the time you were reading the novels?

Anonymous: About 9 or 10, I guess. Some of it I didn’t understand, but there was enough I did understand that I could kind of put the rest together in context. I had grown up seeing my parents and one grandmother watch soap operas religiously every day, so the dramatic, romantic stories in the books already had a familiar appeal to me. I was an advanced reader, so I just took to them like a fish to water.

Rob: Did this material lead you to look for pornography in other forms or places?

Anonymous: By the time I was 11 or so, I started babysitting. Every single house I went into, I would search to see if there was any explicit material. Whether it was a medical dictionary at a doctor’s house or more romance novels, I would find them.

Rob: Were those the worst things you found?

Anonymous: Unfortunately, no. I mean, these were all families from our church, so you would think they would be pretty safe, but I found everything from sex manuals and toys to soft-core pornography. The pornography was incredibly exciting since I now had pictures of what I had formerly just imagined. The sex manuals taught me how to masturbate, and that added another level of intensity in the process. Many of the houses had HBO, which also added the visual enactment of sexual situations instead of just reading about them.

Rob: Did you ever try to act out the things you were seeing?

Anonymous: When I was about 11, I was approached by an older teenager in my youth group who was kind of a misfit and happened to be overweight and adopted like me. And now I know he was also looking at pornography. He started telling me how beautiful I was and would offer to “teach” me about sex. I wanted more than anything to be adored like those women in the novels, and, even though I fought off his advances because I knew it was “wrong,” I kept wanting to be with him because I wanted to feel loved.

After several weeks, he forced himself on me even though I was crying and telling him to stop. Even then I continued to see him because I thought being loved was worth performing sexual acts for him. Of course, some of the sexual behavior created pleasurable responses in me, so I almost felt betrayed by my own body because I didn’t want him to do these things to me, but I liked them.

Rob: How did all this influence your relationships when you started dating?

Anonymous: I was very hungry for love due to the emotional climate at our house. And, I think being adopted played into my love hunger. I was also already addicted to food, and had a weight problem, which of course is a very big deal when you are entering your teens. So there was this constant conflict inside me of wanting food but wanting to be thin, wanting sexual experiences, but wanting to please God.

Rob: Was there anyone you could talk to about your conflicts?

Anonymous: I’m sure there were people who would have tried to help if I had reached out to them, but one of my main goals in life was to win everyone’s approval. I was a performer. So I ended up leading this double life, where I was the star of the youth group and the school clubs, but was just melting down inside, driven by these uncontrollable compulsions.

When I was about 15, I confided in a youth minister from a church in a nearby town. He responded by not only sharing his own story of sexual trauma and depression, but he came on to me sexually. Even though he didn’t force himself on me, there was a huge feeling of betrayal for being sexualized by this adult.

Rob: Did your stress cause you to have trouble coping with the challenges of being the star student?

Anonymous: Oh, yes. You can only keep so many plates spinning at once without dropping some. I was very depressed in private — isolating in my room and having trouble keeping my grades up. I was suicidal at times, and my parents would actually use the idea of “getting me some help” as a sort of threat. You know, “If you don’t shape up we might have to get you some help or something …” As if that would just be mortifying to them.

Rob: How did you finally get the support you needed?

Anonymous: Well, fortunately I married a very grounded, supportive Christian man, and with his encouragement I sought therapy from a number of different professionals, and also found a Christian twelve step recovery group which has been very effective, too. Even though it is an OA (Overeaters Anonymous) group, the principles apply well to any compulsive behavior because they point you inside, to your spirit.

I’ve also found that medication for my depression was essential for certain periods of time, to support my mood enough to build the behavioral coping skills I was trying to work on. Basically, though, I learned that when I work with Christ to see that my spiritual and emotional needs get met, that makes it possible to change the behavioral stuff.

For the reader: Support for you and your children

I’ve had some of these experiences. How do I know if I’m an addict?

Not all of life’s struggles rise to the level of addiction. The truth is that all people experience brokenness and cope differently.

If something you’ve read here triggered a reaction, call us for a free over-the-phone consultationOur licensed or pastoral counselors would welcome the chance to hear your story and help you sort through your emotions and experiences. It would be our privilege to walk with you toward a healthier future.

Our team can also suggest referrals to qualified counselors and Christian therapists in your area. In the meantime, you might want to look at the recommended resources at the end of this article.

How can I stop my son or daughter from being sexualized?

Children are sexual beings from the moment of conception; they are biologically male or female from the moment the sperm and egg combine. That’s part of healthy sexuality. And from that point on, they will experience life uniquely from the perspective of male or female unless their sexual development is damaged or interrupted.

Here’s the reality: Even the youngest child will learn about sex, either in a negative or positive way. And as a parent, one of the most difficult truths to accept is that we can’t protect our children from everything bad in the world. Sadly, culture does promote damaging, early sexualization (unhealthy sexuality):

  • Sexualization is on the rise in music, videos, gaming, and literature.
  • Online sexual predators continually develop new ways to reach and deceive our kids.
  • Indecent and seductive images on the internet and social media are on the rise. Net Nanny reports that “most statistics on pornography use say the average age of a child’s first exposure to pornography is 11 years old.”
  • Girls, especially, are often hypersexualized by seductive fashions designed for adults. Culture, media, and peers encourage highly restrictive standards of beauty. And immodest clothes change how a young girl sees herself and how others perceive her.

So how can you nurture your child’s natural interest in sexuality and still do your best to shield them from inappropriate material, speech, or media?

Make every effort to understand how your child develops. Approach the topic of sexuality relationally during early childhood development and as they grow. When both Mom and Dad keep up ongoing dialogue about the blessings and responsibilities of healthy sexuality, children are spiritually and emotionally empowered to make better choices as adolescents and adults.

By Rob Jackson

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