Sexual harassment training is more than completing the California State University system’s “Not Anymore” module and forgetting about it for the next four to six years.
More importantly, it is also about understanding the difference between a person expressing their own sexuality and being sexualized. With 81% of women reporting having experienced sexual harassment, according to an online survey from a nonprofit called Stop Street Harassment, and sexual harassment becoming a social norm in different facets, women are left objectified and forced to suppress their sexuality.
Women should be allowed to embrace their sexuality without concerns of sexist comments and bigotry hovering over them. Combatting sexualization starts at home and in schools. The past can’t be changed, but there is an opportunity for our children carrying the future to have a better understanding of sexuality.
Tara Suwinyattichaiporn, a Cal State Fullerton human communications studies assistant professor said, the differences between being sexual and being sexualized is that being sexual is an internal process, while being sexualized is an external process.
Being or feeling sexual comes from a source of empowerment and self-trust. It has nothing to do with the way others view you, Suwinyattichaiporn said.
On the other hand, being sexualized is based on how the outside world views you.
“Being sexualized, overly sexualized, it's based on hundreds of years of feminine norms. And of course, some sexists believe that women are nothing unless they're hot,” Suwinyattichaiporn said.
When someone is sexualized it means that the person’s experiences are obsolete, reducing the individual to merely an object for another’s sexual pleasure.
The sexualization of women and young girls in the media is linked to mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders and low self-esteem. As for young girls, it also affects their sexual maturation as they are likely to develop a negative sexual self-image of themselves as they get older, according to a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association.
Hypersexualization affects women and young girls, but it also affects the way they are perceived in society, reinforcing male dominance and perpetuating rape culture.
While men can also be sexualized, it’s women who are labeled as nurturing “good girls” or promiscuous “bad girls.” The polarization of these two mutually exclusive options, known as the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy, a term coined by neurologist Sigmund Freud, upholds the patriarchy and reinforces male dominance, according to a 2019 study featured in the Psychology of Women Quarterly.
Sexualization of women has continued to be normalized in society through advertising, video games, pornography and even in academia.
Ratemyprofessors is an online review platform where college students rate their professors on their ability to teach, their assignments and any other helpful information for other students searching for courses.
One of these so-called helpful tips that was proudly displayed on each professor’s profile was a chili pepper symbol representing how physically attractive a professor was, completely undermining the professors’ expertise and hypersexualizing their teaching efforts.
“This is especially damaging for female professors, especially women of color, who tend to be judged more harshly in student evaluations anyway, and have to work harder than male professors to be taken seriously,” said Carrie Lane, Ph.D., a CSUF American studies professor.
Along with the since-removed chili pepper evaluation, Ratemyprofessors has published blog posts showcasing the hottest professors of the year based on the chili pepper ratings.
Another failure regarding educational institutions is the abstinence-only education that many American students receive, depriving them of learning about sex in a healthy and appropriate way.
The United States school system, based in a Christian nation, taught youth abstinence until marriage instead of teaching a sex-positive curriculum, Suwinyattichaiporn said. Yet, time and time again research has shown that abstinence-only education causes more harm to youth, with reports calling it “ineffective” and “unethical,” according to a 2017 NPR article.
When the school curriculum fails and parental communication is sparse, where else are young students supposed to turn to when they want their questions answered than other clueless peers and pornography?
Though pornography deals with sexual interactions, it does so while shifting the youth’s perceptions of what a healthy sexual relationship looks like.
Pornography fills in the gaps where parents and education have left empty. It leaves individuals to develop sexist attitudes, self-objectification and body shame, according to a 2020 article from The Conversation, a nonprofit organization.
Under increasingly common circumstances, adolescents who watched violent pornography were more than six times more likely to engage in sexually aggressive behavior, with women more likely to engage in submissive practices, according to the same article.
Whether it’s academia or consumed media such as pornography, these different variations of the sexualization of women continually contribute to false realities that objectify them and force them to believe their sexual expression is wrong.
While changing society and culture is challenging, beginning at home is a start toward generational change.
“That is a lot easier than changing the institutional system,” Suwinyattichaiporn said. She tells her students, “I truly believe everything starts at home and, like, you're gonna be such good parents, like we're gonna change a whole generation of people.”
It’s not enough to depend on society to teach future youth — everyone saw how that turned out. The responsibility lies on the shoulders of parents to teach their adolescents about safe sexual interactions.
Stopping the normalcy of sexualization starts with the deconstruction of tabooed sexual communication.