Hypersexualization in the age of social media

[Vues sur la Bourgogne, Vol 6, no 3 – Fall 2017]

Being a teen girl has always come with a unique mix of pressures and expectations. For today’s teens, social media is amplifying those pressures like never before. From music to fashion, girls are already immersed in a culture saturated with sexualized images of young women. With social media, girls have an instant public platform on which to share their budding identities with the world. Add in a toxic mix of peer pressure and low self-esteem, and you have the ideal conditions for a girl to start posting explicit pictures of herself online.

For Tala Sabbath, it’s an issue that’s increasingly become a reality in Little Burgundy. Sabbagha is a community worker at BUMP (Burgundy Urban Mediation Project) led by Prévention Sud-Ouest. From what she’s seen, this hyper sexualization starts early through imitating dance moves from music videos or racy looks they see online, well before girls hit their teens.

“I don’t know to what extent they know what they’re doing,” she says. “But they will mimic sexual behaviours. They’ll start putting themselves on the internet. Their body’s not even developed, but they still wear bras and things that aren’t for their age.”

Precocious sexual behaviour is nothing new, but in Little Burgundy, there are other factors at play. In a neighbourhood where large families are short on time and resources, it can result in little parental supervision; there often isn’t much guidance to navigate this hyper sexualized culture safely. Sabbagha says that some girls develop issues with body image, resulting in low self-esteem, eating disorders and depression.

“These girls often look for violence in their relationships,” she adds. “Through the sexuality that they learn so young, they get a view of relationships that is tinged with violence and is reflected through social media, [so for them] it’s almost like it’s okay.”

Who do you talk to?

Within this context lies a real danger: older men who lure underage girls with money and gifts, with the end goal of trafficking them into the sex trade. “A simple meal at McDonald’s can be enough sometimes,” says Sabbagha.

This is also an issue that community workers at BUMP have witnessed. Girls are sometimes accosted by men on the street, but are increasingly are meeting them through social media. “They talk to a lot of people that they don’t know online,” Sabbagha says,

The issue has become so widespread that workshops are now offered in local high schools and youth centres several times a year. These are organized by BUMP and the SPVM, and encourage girls to think critically about their choices on social media: Who do you talk to? Who do you add? Girls can write questions and put them in a box anonymously before the workshop starts, allowing questions to be answered without identifying the asker.

What to look out for

Sabbagha advises parents to be a continuous presence in their daughters’ lives so they know who they’re interacting with, and how. That includes on social media. “Always be discreet; don’t comment [on photos], but keep an eye out.” Offline, sudden changes in behaviour (picking fights, struggling in school, extreme dieting) can also be indicators of an underlying problem.

Ensuring a strong sense of belonging is also crucial, says Sabbath. She explains the dynamic: “If I’m feeling rejected at home, and I find somebody else who’s going to give me that attention, I’m going to jump on that attention. But if I’m whole at home, and somebody [online] gives me attention, I’ll feel less tempted to go there, because I’m already whole.”

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