If We Want to Fight Sexual Harassment, We Have to Fight Our Sexualized Media

We can’t keep ignoring the obvious.
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Mary Rose Somarriba
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We can’t keep ignoring the obvious.

Recently it was reported that Selena Gomez is the most-followed person on Instagram with more than seven million followers. On her feed, viewers will find a slew of images featuring the singer and actress with sultry facial expressions and lots of skin. Gomez, who has been trying to overcome the Disney-friendly image that launched her career, appears to be succeeding at rebranding herself. She starred in the raunchy movie Spring Breakers in 2013, she posed looking like a sexy babydoll in a 2015 issue of V Magazine, and she posed naked on her latest album cover, Revival. If you saw her on TV recently, it might be a rerun of her SNL performance this past January when she pranced on a bed while crooning how she “can’t keep my hands to myself.”

I remember three years ago, I was stunned to see that Gomez was listed among the top two of Maxim’s sexiest women alive. “Sexiest woman?” I thoughtShe looks like a preteen—how is that sexy?” Gomez wasn’t the only young-looking one on the list, as Miley Cyrus joined her at number one. That’s when I realized the sad truth. Younger equals sexier in today’s cultural vernacular, which—I’m just going to say it—is gross.

I don’t want to put a spotlight just on Gomez though because the young-sexy trend is a bigger phenomenon than just one woman. Just as when Cyrus adopted her much-talked-about sexed-up image in 2013 or when just-turned-18-years-old Kylie Jenner of Keeping up with the Kardashians posed in Interview magazine in skintight pants with a circular cutout strategically placed for her bare butt to stick out, this isn’t a reflection on the individual person as much as the cultural atmosphere where sexualized imagery is everywhere. Young people are being fed the script that it is not only OK but also cool to be seductive. We’re living in an age when at least 20 percent of teens surveyed say they have sexted—that is, they’ve taken nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves and sent them to someone else.

Unforgettable Traumas

Some might say I’m reading too much into all this—I should just live and let live. But the grossness of sexualizing young girls hits close to home for me, and I truly believe it’s an issue we must address.

When I was about 15 years old (and looked probably 12), I was staying with a sister in the D.C. area for a couple weeks one summer. One day as I aimlessly strolled from antique store to antique store looking for trinkets and treasures, I came across one particular Asian wall hanging. After a while of staring at the beautiful tableau, the clerk decided to make me an offer I’ll never forget.

“I’ll give you it for free,” he said, “if you’ll take off your clothes and let me masturbate looking at you.”

I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I had never heard something so disgusting in my life.

“I won’t touch you, just look at you,” he said, apparently trying to sweeten the deal. “And you can take this $80 piece of art for free.”

I nervously declined and promptly left the store—but not before having to manually unlock the bolted door on the way out.

How I got out of that situation unscathed I’ll never understand. (Someone somewhere was praying for me, I’m convinced.) But it disturbed me so much that I called and reported it to the local police. I was filled with a sense of duty to make sure this didn’t happen to anyone else. They could send by some police to check it out, they said. But they couldn’t convict him because technically he hadn’t committed a crime.

Yes, he wasn’t successful in convincing a minor to acquiesce to his sexual satisfaction; if he had, he’d be guilty of indecent exposure at the very least. At worst, him giving me something of monetary value could equate with partaking in a commercial sex act with a minor, which in the U.S. meets the definition of sex trafficking. But it baffled me that he would not be convicted for soliciting me. Did I have to be successfully violated for his activity to be criminal? Just because I was lucky enough to escape, to me, didn’t seem to make him any less guilty of a serious offense.

Ignoring the Real Issues

It’s horrible to be harassed at any age, but especially when you’re young. It happened to me, and I know it happens to countless other young girls. Some people work to end it with media campaigns aimed at bringing greater awareness to the issues. One in particular was last year’s global hashtag #firstharassment. This trend got women all over social media to share stories about the first time they experienced harassment on the street simply for being a woman. Examples often include their age and a brief summary of the incident: “7 y/o. 40ish male teacher, in empty room, told me I was sexy,” one reads. “Started at 13 when a certain man in my family feels the need to always comment on how I have developed,” reads another. Yet another describes being 13 and “alone when a man started yelling across the road, saying I was hot. When I ignored him, he called me a bitch.” But despite a few small movements like #firstharassment, we still seem to have no major qualms about mainstreaming sexualized imagery of young people.

To me, this reveals a huge hypocrisy.

The thing about the #firstharassment campaign is that it’s not just bringing attention to any harassment, it’s bringing attention to the first time a person was harassed. In other words, to a time when they were young. To a time when they were probably younger than 18 and were sexualized by another person against their will.

How is it that we’re quick to say it’s wrong when a man on the street sexualizes a young woman, yet in the pages of a magazine or on the big screen, sex sells, and we’re the ones buying? We have no problem publishing sexualized imagery of women who are intended to look young, which to the countless adolescent viewers normalizes this behavior. When I see an 18-year-old Kylie assuming suggestive poses in a photo spread that I know millions of people—men, women, boys, and girls—will see, I can’t help but ask: Why is this happening? How is this attractive? It would seem that everything on TV, radio, and online music videos is like a lulling soundtrack to a real world of traumatic sexual encounters.

The Role of Porn in an Over-Sexed Society

Sure, men have been calling out to women in the streets for all of time, even before our media was spewing pornified imagery. Sex with young women may have even been a male fantasy for all of time, but now it’s perpetuated by porn in a big way. Now it’s everywhere. It’s not just in select magazines, it’s in all of them; it’s all over TV and movies; it fills our social media feeds. And one of the biggest risks associated with this is the protection of young girls.

There’s a lot of demand for younger and younger-looking girls in porn. The entire market is dependent on providing stimulating images for sexual arousal. Neurologically, porn brings a rush of dopamine to the brain, and, as the phrase goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” After continued dopamine overload though, the brain shuts down some dopamine receptors to get a handle on things; this is when things that used to excite now seem dull. What researchers find is that over time, porn viewers ultimately need to seek more stimulating images to reach the same height of satisfaction. The Jared Fogles of the world who end up with a child porn problem often started with addictions to porn depicting adults interacting. But now promotional language on porn sites such as “Barely Legal!” is so common as to become cliché.

As sex-trafficking survivor Brenda Myers-Powell wrote for Verily not long ago, “pimps often target very young girls who have low self-esteem” on purpose—the younger they are, the more vulnerable and impressionable, and therefore the easier to manipulate into thinking this is desirable.

All of this ties into the Selenas, the Mileys, the Kylies of the world because there’s incentive for even the young starlets of Hollywood to be drawn into scenarios of undressing in front of the camera: It grants immediate attention in a world where any news is good news.

What gets me is that somehow in the public eye or the media this is seen as OK, but we seem to know that in everyday life sexualizing young girls is not OK. So, which is it? And how do we not see a connection between the two?

Perhaps it’s because we’re unaware of how much we’ve become conditioned by this imagery. We already know that the way we see our bodies is significantly influenced by the images we see. In this case, we see sex presented a certain way so many times that we come to think it’s OK . . . that it’s normal. Men everywhere are having their distorted fantasies validated on the basis of sheer availability—there’s no shortage of young, sexy imagery for them, so it must be acceptable, right? Given the current climate, it’s apparently not clear that the answer is no. Right now we have a disturbing cycle of people getting scarred early and continuing to scar others early. But we can change that. We can acknowledge it was wrong, work to heal from it, and reroute.

Not every porn user may act out their sexual fantasies with real people, but the growth of sex trafficking in this country (populated mostly by girls and young women) and men seeking to buy sex tell us something. And while not every child-porn user will act out with children, nearly every sexual predator today is addicted to porn. As Ariel Castro, responsible for keeping Amanda Berry and two other girls in captivity for years in his Cleveland home told the court, “My addiction to pornography and sexual addiction in general has taken a toll on my mind. I would like to state I was a victim as a child, and it just kept going.” Fogle, former Subway spokesman who has been revealed to be a child predator, told the judge, “I became dependent on alcohol, pornography, and prostitutes.”

We may not be able to know for sure to what extent porn and hypersexualized images in media affect the number of women getting harassed on the street in real life, but it certainly can’t help with decreasing the objectifying women carbon footprint. To think they’re completely unrelated is more than a bit naive.

I remember my #firstharassment clear as day. Is there anyone who would say there was no relation between that clerk propositioning me and pornography? This was not the pseudo-compliment of “you’re looking beautiful today” on the street. It was a request to masturbate to a naked girl, like one onscreen but in real life.

Yes, I can see the connections between early harassment of girls and sexualized images clear as day. For all the trouble that #firstharassment caused me, at least it seems to have provided clarity enough to see this, in a world where so many others appear blind to it.

Photo Credit: www.selenagomez.com