The American Psychological Association (APA) has just released this report from the APA’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. The report claims that girls are being “sexualized” at younger ages and that this is harmful because, for females 18 and older, “sexualization” has been linked to “three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.” The report admits that there haven’t been any systematic studies of young girls - although that is the putative concern in a lurid press release that has been picked up by the national media. The press release invites exactly the sort of anecdote-based fear mongering in evidence in the WaPo’s Goodbye to Girlhood.
The APA report claims that advertising and entertainment media (TV, movies, videogames) intrusively “sexualize” young females, producing feelings of inadequacy and self-image. The report uses charged terminology, no doubt to conjure up the image of something akin to rape by media. The reader is skillfully led to conclude, despite some carefully worded qualifying language buried in the report, that a vast bulk of research indicates that “sexualization” results in more risky sex, less condom use, more out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and a higher incidence of STD’s.
There are many reasons why one should be skeptical about the claims made by this report, starting with the term “sexualize”. The definition is so nebulous that there doesn’t seem to be any methodologically consistent way of operationalizing it. Thus, two different researchers looking at identical data but applying differing assumptions about what constitutes “sexualization” will draw completely different conclusions. Even if we were to accept that “sexualization” is a well characterized phenomenon that can be studied objectively, there is no reason to assume that “sexualization” harms females 18 and over.
Before I continue my discussion about this latest offering from the APA, it is instructive to look at the organization’s previous campaign of science by press release directed against violence in popular media, with special focus on videogames. The APA enjoyed great success with this campaign, convincing most of the American public that there is a direct correlation between violence in the media and violence in society. The APA intends to accomplish the same goal with “sexualization” as it suggests in the report’s Executive Summary:
In 2005,APA adopted the policy resolution on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media, which documented the negative impact of exposure to violent interactive media on children and youth and called for the reduction of violence in these media. These resolutions and reports addressed how violent media and advertising affect children and youth, but they did not address sexualization.
Here, for your edification, is the link to the 2005 APA policy on violence in video games. This policy provided everything needed by censors on the extreme right and left to restrict, regulate, and/or control videogames and provide a wedge against First Amendment protections. Among the politicians at the head of the censorship mob was the junior Senator from New York, Hillary Clinton. The following is from a report by CBS News:
Clinton said through a spokesman that she was developing legislation to make the ratings systems of video games better enforced. Clinton justified her stance, saying, “I am emphasizing that ratings should have meaning and they should be enforced. A 7-year-old should not be able to walk into Wal-mart and buy Grand Theft Auto.”
Clinton added, “There have been four decades of research on the effect of media violence on our kids and it all points to the same conclusion — media violence leads to more aggression, anti-social behavior and it desensitizes kids to violence” [emphasis mine].
Not even close to being true but this, after all, is the woman I like to describe as Lady Macbeth without a conscience. The reality is that TV and movie violence
may have increased in terms of the way psychological researchers operationalized it – media violence may have even increased in ways that most non-psychologists would agree upon – but it has had no effect outside of the laboratory. If someone wants to claim an effect, then it has been negative: since the mid-1970’s, the trend in violent crime has been down. I wrote about this in Crime and the Drug War: The Politics of Hysteria, quoting from Samuel Walker’s criminology text, Sense and Nonsense about Crime and Drugs: A Policy Guide (1994):
The news media constantly run stories about “soaring” crime rates. This characterization is inaccurate. The idea that violent crime is constantly rising is a myth. In fact, serious crime has been declining for over 15 years. The National Crime Survey’s victimization data … indicate that robbery declined 17.2 percent between 1973 and 1991; rape fell by 11.6 percent; household burglary dropped by 42.1 percent. Violent crime against the elderly fell by 61 percent between 1974 and 1991. This is one of the longest and most significant declines in the crime rate in American history [emphasis in the original]. Much of the public hysteria about crime is misplaced.
Psychologists, when they bothered to address actual social problems, claimed exactly the opposite. Media Violence and the American Public: Scientific Facts versus Media Misinformation, in the June/July 2001 issue of American Psychologist, asserts that there is a connection between “reel” violence and “real” violence – that is, excessive violence in media is associated with increased violence in society. Notice figure 1, which shows violent crime steeply rising and then dropping somewhat starting in the early 90’s. This is flatly contradicted by these violent crime statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The graph shows violent crime declining until the mid-1980’s, rising until the early 90’s and then precipitously declining to what is described as the “lowest level ever” rate in 2005. Why do these two sets of statistics disagree? The cynical answer is that a long term decline leading to the “lowest ever” violent crime rate in 2005 at a minimum eliminates all sense of urgency for controls or legislation on media depictions of violence. The decline in “real” violence, even as “reel” violence is increasing, might also lead to more government scrutiny of federal research grants in this area, in the manner of former Democrat Senator William Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece” awards.
The non-cynical answer is that criminologists long ago recognized that relying exclusively on police data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (the source for the graph in the article) understates the actual crime rate – not all crimes are reported to the police for a variety of reasons. Police arrest data are also subject to phenomenological effects. As more police are added to a jurisdiction they “detect” more crime. If measured in this fashion, crime rates can appear to increase against a steady state or declining background crime rate. Thus, criminologists developed the victimization survey in order come up with crime rates more reflective of reality. I won’t get into the methodology of the victimization survey except to point out that the federal government now relies on it as the best estimate of actual crime rates available. Psychologists should be aware of what’s going on in a related field but the combination of academic insularity coupled with a strong dose of cognitive dissonance produces what can only be described as salutary ignorance: knowledge might derail the funding gravy train.
There is a lot more I could say about this, given my background in the social sciences and the research I did when I was on the ICLU Board back in the 1990’s. Even though I have my problems with the ACLU, the organization is spot on when it states that there has never been empirical research showing a connection between media violence and violence in the overall society. All of which brings us back to the APA’s “sexualization” report.
As I noted in A plague of parasites, a variety of sources, including Planned Parenthood, agree that the trend in teen pregnancy rates has been down over the past 20 years. STD rates are trending down as well. The authors of the “sexualization” report don’t mention this inconvenient truth (to coin a phrase) as they call for more research into early pregnancy and STDs (Report, p.43, point 4).
Because the report expresses concern about increased rates of depression among young females, presumably attributable to “sexualization”, one would expect that it would address teen suicide rates. Yet the word “suicide” appears nowhere in it. This is not surprising because female suicide rates aren’t going up. Here are the female suicide rates per 100,000 from 1995 to 2003 for the ages of concern in the report (source, 2007 Statistical Abstract of the United States).
1995=3.6; 1996=3.5; 1997=3.4; 1998=3.3; 1999=3.0; 2000=3.0; 2001=2.9; 2002=2.9; 2003=3.0
There is no upward trend to be seen – overall the trend is slightly down, leveling off in recent years.
If the trends we see in important social problems like teen pregnancy, STDs, and suicide among young women are generally downward then what is the point of the APA report? Logically, one could argue that more rather than less “sexualization” is desirable because it produces healthier sexual (and other) behavior in the society as a whole.
About the only bad social trend I could find was this comparison of male/female suicide rates for ages 15-24 from 1900 to 2000 (p. 4), followed by the ratio of male to female suicide rates (p. 5). The claimed increase in “sexualization” of young females seems to match a major increase in the ratio of males to females ages 15-24 committing suicide. Perhaps the “sexualized” young females are becoming so adept at presenting themselves as attractive “sex objects” that they are forcing young men into intense competition for their favors, thereby increasing male stress levels and causing more to commit suicide. Silly, right? Sadly, it makes more sense than the conclusions the APA report wants us to reach.
How is it that so many people with three letters after their names can be so consistently wrong about what is behind a particular set of social problems? It’s important to understand that psychology, which studies the behavior of individual humans, may not always generalize upward to sociology, criminology, and related disciplines that study the behavior of humans in groups. Extrapolating across system boundaries, as the APA has done, can lead to error and must be validated with socioeconomic and demographic data. It turns out that whatever may be going on inside the laboratory, when subjects walk out the door their behavior changes. More violent stimuli don’t produce more violent behavior in the real world; more sexual stimuli don’t produce more risky sexual behavior in the real world.
The final explanation for the APA’s inability to get things right is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance – a phenomenon elucidated by psychologists – occurs when conflicting ideas arise. One way of dealing with the conflict is to suppress one of the ideas – to literally not see it. Many psychologists believe that depictions of sex and violence should have an effect on society, therefore, they fail to see clear evidence that their assumptions are wrong. Added to this is the fact that psychologists have an organization, in the form of the APA, whose primary function is to act as a professional voice for psychology as “big science”. This is the body that generates public support for the activities of the profession, lobbies the federal and state governments for money and influence, and otherwise keeps the gravy train on track. The APA is more about politics than it is about science. A political body like the APA also tends to promote ideological conformity within the discipline, at the expense of free scientific inquiry. For example, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, the APA pushed the idea that homosexuality was a mental disease for decades, only finally acknowledging it was wrong in the mid-1970’s. Cognitive dissonance plus political orthodoxy is a lethal combination.
APA junk science has been used in the past to fuel a groundless panic about violence in media, which in turn led to assaults on the First Amendment by unscrupulous politicians. Now the APA has begun to engender a whole new panic about “sexualization”. Which politicians will be the first to call for hearings and propose legislation to deal with the problem? My bet would be that Hillary will jump on this if the APA report begins to get any traction. Keep watching the skies.