Research published yesterday by the Department for Education shows a rise in mental health problems among teenage girls. As highlighted by Nick Harrop from Young Minds, the sexualisation of girls is likely to be one of the drivers for this trend. 

I think it’s important not to under-estimate the harmful impacts of the sexualisation of culture (or ‘sexualised sexism’, a term which perhaps more accurately reflects the phenomenon, as discussed by Maddy Coy). Throughout popular culture, from music videos to advertisements, women are endlessly sexually objectified and depicted as available for men’s gratification. Far from being expressions of ‘girl power’, this messaging has been proven to be harmful to girls’ self-image and healthy development. The American Psychological Association found links between sexualised sexism and low confidence, emotional and self-image problems, shame and anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression as well as negative consequences on girls’ ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image. 

And as highlighted by Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) organisations, there’s also a strong connection between these messages and those that underpin instances of VAWG. The notion of male sexual entitlement is inscribed and reinforced by sexualised sexism, creating a ‘conducive context’ for VAWG, and indeed the resulting mental health impacts. With one in three girls aged 13-17 in England, Wales and Scotland reporting some form of sexual violence from partners, it is evident that we need to challenge the messages which support this.

What can be done? It emphasises the pressing need for compulsory Sex and Relationships Education in schools to enable both girls and boys to questions sexualised sexism and to understand what healthy, positive sexual relationships look like. This is being called for by the End Violence Against Women Coalition, and recently championed by Harry Potter Star, Emma Watson.