The sexualization of teenage girls

body image_Willow Yang
Willow Yang/Staff

Every Friday, the girls and boys at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School used to play a “game.”

The rules of the “game,” which was called “Slap Ass Friday,” should be self-evident in the title: When the end of the week came around, the boys would approach any girl and slap her ass without her consent.

Although Liana Thomason, who graduated from Berkeley High School in 2015, now recognizes that the game was a form of sexual harassment toward her and her female friends, she recalls that they felt expected to brush aside their discomfort at the time.

“That’s the age when, as a girl, you don’t really know how angry you’re allowed to get at the boys around you,” Thomason said. “If it did happen to you, then you just had to laugh it off.”

Now a college sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, Thomason hasn’t had to play the game in years, but her encounters with more overt forms of sexual harassment have since grown more pronounced.

The “game” soon grew old, but things only got worse when she began attending Berkeley High School. Boys would make sexual comments at Thomason in class and catcall her in the hallways. Male classmates would approach her friends asking to perform sexual acts with them.

It is a sweeping problem that goes largely unmoderated in schools like Berkeley High School and is reinforced by administrations that fail to lay out effective punishments for sexual harassers, Thomason said. According to Thomason, if a girl informs her teacher she was sexually harassed by a male classmate, the student will typically receive little more than a “slap on the wrist.”

Some students, however, are choosing to take legal action against this practice. In November, a 16-year-old Berkeley High School student sued the Berkeley Unified School District for negligence, alleging that officials did not adequately address her sexual assault case when she became the victim of stalking and harassment by a classmate.

This type of response, or lack thereof, has a marked effect on victims. How people address repeated incidents of sexual harassment — which begin as early as elementary school — shapes how victims feel about themselves, their sexuality and their relationships with their bodies in the long run, Thomason said.

“This goes on, and then the teachers completely ignore it. It becomes the norm, and girls internalize that this is how they should be treated, and boys learn this is how they should be treating girls,” Thomason said. “Small incidents build up into this culture where there’s an epidemic of rape on college of campuses.”

“There’s so many micro-aggressions reminding women that they’re not not entitled to their own bodies and men are entitled to their bodies,” she added.

Moreover, disregarding incidents of sexual harassment constitutes a kind of erasure, where teenage girls feel like their experiences are invalidated, said Renee Revolario Keith, a senior at Berkeley High School and member of BHS Stop Harassing.

At a Berkeley Unified School District board meeting in 2016, members of Stop Harassing presented a series of stories to board members describing the experiences of those who had been sexually harassed at Berkeley High. Revolario Keith said one board member chalked up the collection of incidents as an anomaly, saying that the issue hasn’t been this extensive in past years. This response represents the all-too-common typical attitude exhibited toward those who try to speak out about their experiences, she added.

“When you report something that happens with you, I think sexual harassment is special in that way because oftentimes, the real stories of people are swept aside like they didn’t really happen,” Revolario Keith said. “The worst way to treat a victim is to act like they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

In 2014, a group of Berkeley High male seniors created a “slut account” — an Instagram page called “Team 15” which depicted sexually suggestive photos of female Berkeley High students accompanied by captions listing sexual acts the girls had supposedly done. After security guards at the school were informed, one guard said he couldn’t address the account unless the girls provided proof that the descriptions were false, according to Revolario Keith.

Although the school administration ultimately shut down the page, a similar account called “Team 18” surfaced in December 2016, run by a different group of boys in the form of a chain of group messages.

“I think it’s really telling — the fact that they used the same name,”  Revolario Keith said.

Social media offers a space with wider audiences for perpetrators of sexual harassment but limits the repercussions for their actions, Revolario Keith said, perpetuating an attitude of rape culture that is largely embedded in the sexualization of girls and the lack of accountability for those responsible.

“There’s a specific way that it creates victims, because so many people have seen it that it not only affects their friend group (but also) maybe the whole school sees it,” Revolario Keith said. “Especially when no one calls it out, it’s a lot scarier, because it feels like no one is behind you.”

Besides facing sexual harassment, teenage girls are up against a number of other stressors that can interfere with their conception of their self-worth, according to UC Berkeley psychologist Stephen Hinshaw, who studies the psychology of female adolescents.

When influenced by stressors such as poverty, uncertain environments and growing up with a negative family life, teenage girls may feel compelled to engage in a “fast cycle” of life, in which they participate in “early and more frequent sexual behavior” in order to cope with an overwhelming environment signaling the shortness of life, leading girls into potentially dangerous sexual situations.

Revolario Keith said that in her own experience, the belief that she needed to be secretive about her sex life, combined with the idea that women should serve men sexually, led her to find herself in unhealthy sexual relationships with men — something she said she hasn’t experienced with her female sexual partners.

Risky sexual behavior in teenage girls is also linked with poor school performance and increased cases of self-harm. And rates of self-harm are rising, notably in girls, Hinshaw said. According to the the World Health Organization, the leading cause of death worldwide for girls aged 15 to 19 is suicide.

It is a collective experience shared by many teenage girls who are at the receiving end of victim shaming and must learn to cope with feelings of denigrated self-worth. By the time teenage girls get to college, these experiences will have played a substantial role in carving out their self-image.

“I think the biggest long-term effect is the normalization of sexualizing women and also objectifying women and normalizing sexual harassment and even … that girls should be grateful when they’re sexually harassed — I think it feeds into your perception of yourself as a vessel for the male gaze, that sexuality validates you as a human being,” Revolario Keith said.

When girls are shamed for the way their bodies look, they may respond by trying to restrict their natural body weight, said Elizabeth Scott, co-founder of The Body Positivean organization that works to help those suffering with eating disorders cultivate healthy body image. Girls are also often told through cultural messages that they should be ashamed of their own sexuality, while still maintaining their sexual availability for men.

“Our bodies are considered dangerous, insatiable and dirty,” Scott said. “That’s communicated in a lot of different ways — around puberty, I think girl’s bodies are more approved of because they’re pretty and more vulnerable, which is less threatening. Around puberty, it gets to be more spooky. … Women are supposed to be supportive and helpful to men.”

In order to unlearn these messages, Scott said more spaces must be provided for girls to learn “what their truth is and get validation for their experiences.”

Through her work to raise awareness about sexual harassment with Stop Harassing, Revolario Keith said she has found solidarity with other victims. She feels more confident about the issue going into college and is aware of more resources available to help support her if she experiences sexual harassment in the future.

“I think that’s important is to have that kind of support — without it I wouldn’t know who to go to,” Revolario Keith said.

At Berkeley High, BHS Stop Harassing put on a sexual harassment training last year — knowing that their senior classmates would soon be entering college — that was designed to teach their peers about how to recognize and prevent sexual harassment.

Revolario Keith is planning to attend college this fall, and for now, Thomason is thriving at Bryn Mawr College, an all-women’s school in Pennsylvania. The school is part of a larger consortium of co-ed colleges, so she still has opportunities to interact with male students. But for Thomason, the gender makeup has allowed her to feel more in control of the environment in which she studies.

“There’s always a space I can go to where there will be no men,” Thomason said. “That’s so important for my self-actualization.”

Contact Cassandra at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cass_vogxz.

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  • nobody

    Maybe if girls would stop acting like street corner workers or stuck-up female dogs they would have no reason to complain when they are treated accordingly.

  • Puffin

    It’s up to all of us to start to change the K-12 breeding ground for college sexual violence. The free online video “Sexual Harassment! Not in Our School!” should be required viewing for all K-12 students, families, and teachers. Find the video + action plan at ssais.org/video.