How sexuality influences girls’ experiences with the justice system

Sexuality has far-reaching effects on girls’ development, relationships, and experiences of discipline. Much of this can be attributed to sexualization of girls, a process where girls are taught that their primary value as a person derives from their sexual appeal or behavior and/or girls’ bodies are prematurely viewed through a sexual lens not chosen by them.[]American Psychological Association (APA), Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (Washington, DC: APA, 2007), 23-24,  Thus, even at a very young age, girls receive conflicting messages from society about their sexuality—they are simultaneously flooded with suggestions from the media and culture at large that to be liked or successful, they should dress and act in sexually provocative ways.  But all too often, girls are punished for this very behavior or for otherwise expressing their sexuality, labeled “promiscuous” or “slutty” by parents, other adults, their peers, and even strangers.

The experience of sexualization is linked to low self-esteem, depression, and other mental health challenges.[]Ibid. at 2.  Sexualization and “adultification” is often more pronounced for girls of color because of racial stereotypes, particularly for black girls, who are perceived as more sexualized and more promiscuous than their white peers, leading to increased school discipline.[]Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake, and Thalia González, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood (Washington, DC: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017), 5,

Girls’ sexuality or perceived sexuality is often a source of tension and conflict with their parents, caregivers, teachers, or those who work in the juvenile justice system. When girls are involved in the courts, their sexuality often becomes a focal point, shaping decisions judges and other actors make about their behavior. One study of probation officers, for instance, found that many viewed girls as “sexually promiscuous” and as “liars and manipulators.”[]Emily Gaarder, Nancy Rodriguez, and Marjorie S. Zatz, “Criers, Liars, and Manipulators: Probation Officers’ Views of Girls,” Justice Quarterly 21, no. 3 (2004), 547-78, 556. Also see Francine T. Sherman and Annie Balck, Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls (Portland, OR: National Crittenton Foundation, 2015), 11 (in Arizona study, some probation officers perceived girls as “manipulative, whiny, promiscuous, and not truthful”),