Objecting to sex? Sexualization, objectification and media in preteens' identity work
29 augustus 2017
Stadscampus, Promotiezaal, Klooster van de Grauwzusters - Lange St-Annastraat 7 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus
Prof. dr. Hilde Van den Bulck, prof. dr. Steven Eggermont (KULeuven)
Doctoraatsverdediging Annebeth Bels - Faculteit Sociale Wetenschappen, Departement Communicatiewetenschappen
Abstract (in English)
The mainstreaming of sex in contemporary Western society is an indication of cultural ‘sexualization’, which has become a prominent topic of popular and academic debate. Given the role of media in spreading cultural knowledge and values, the prevalence of sexual content raises questions. Concerns intensify when the discussion turns to young people becoming increasingly sexualized. This PhD investigates preteens (9-12 year olds), and how contrasting cultural discourses of sexualization versus childhood asexuality provide them with resources for and limitations to identity work. The empirical chapters explore different aspects of the (reciprocal) relationships between cultural discourses, the prevalence of sexualization in the Flemish preteen media diet, playground culture, and the preteen subject’s identity work in interaction with peers and adults.
A content analysis of the top five most popular TV-shows among preteens reveals that 1/10 scenes contain sexual objectification. While men were sexually objectified as oftan as women, women’s personal worth was associated more often with their physical beauty. More subtle types of objectification, such as claiming ownership over someone’s sexuality, happened more frequently to women as well. In addition, the popular type of humor found in these TV-shows tended to reaffirm sexist gender stereotypes by associating masculinity with sexually aggressive behavior towards women, and femininity with setting limits and pushing back.
In terms of the reception of this content by preteens, this type of humor proved to be representative of boy-girl relationships in primary school playground culture. This mirrored the dynamic of a battle of the sexes and offered an explanation for the relevance of sitcoms in the everyday lives of preteens. An ethnography of fifteen preteens revealed how sexually objectifying humor functioned as a tool for boys who wanted to project a macho-masculine identity, and how girls were objectified through this behavior. Wanting to identify as mature and tough, some boys felt like they needed to hide their distaste for sexual content among peers to avoid ridicule. Girls, however, were likely to be caught between a genuine interest in sexual content and a fear of slut-shaming, resulting in them hiding sexual knowledge and interest. Moral panics in society tend to focus on girls becoming self-sexualizing at increasingly young ages. On the contrary, sexism leads to a playground culture where self-sexualization only offered increased social status to preteen boys, while preteen girls were wary of being called sexy.
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