Researchers measure increasing sexualization of images in magazines

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on December 21, 2013.

In a 2011 photo spread for French Vogue, models stretched and slinked on an array of exotic animal furs. Their bodies were covered in jewels. Their faces were flush with rouge. They stared seductively into the camera. Nothing about these scenes would be out of the ordinary in the haute fashion magazine, except that in this case, the models were as young as 10 years old.

The controversial spread caused a flood of criticism from media watchers and feminist bloggers alike — especially here in the U.S.A. But in a culture where sexuality is more accepted, had the French finally gone too far?

In response to the Vogue controversy, the French Senate opened an investigation into whether there was a problem with hypersexualzation affecting French children and if so what to do about it.

And here in the United States a growing body of research has also taken a more critical look at the sexualization of our society.

Social psychologist Sarah Murnen has studied the hypersexualization of women in media for more than 25 years. The research that she and her colleagues at Kenyon College conducted over the last several years found a steep increase in the pervasiveness of images in magazines that show young women in highly sexual ways. The American Psychological Association defines hypersexualization as “occurring when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics.”

“We’ve seen three trends associated with these images,” said Sarah Murnen, “It’s now common to see more parts of the body exposed. There is more emphasis on the size of women’s breasts. And easy access to all these images has made it all more acceptable to us.”

In Murnen and her team’s recent analysis of Seventeen magazine’s advertisements and articles, they found that the average number of sexualizing characteristics almost tripled over three decades. In particular, depictions of low-cut tops and tight fitting clothing increased.

In a 2008 study of 1,988 advertisements from 50 well known American magazines, researchers from Wesleyan University found that half of them show women as sex objects. A woman was considered a sex object depending on her posture, facial expression, make-up, activity, camera angle and amount of skin shown.

In images where women were shown in victimized roles, the study found that most of the time they were also portrayed as sex objects. The authors noted that such images may function to normalize violence against women.

Sociologists at the University of Buffalo reviewed more than 1,000 Rolling Stone cover images published over four decades. They found that sexualized representations of both men and women have become more common over time. In the 1960’s 11 percent of men and 44 percent of women on the covers were sexualized while in the 2000’s, 17 percent of men and 83 percent of women were sexualized. However, they concluded that women were much more likely to be “hypersexualized” — showing a combination of multiple sexualized attributes.

“It’s the intensity and extent of being sexualized — not just one or two elements, but much more — that we are seeing increase in the portrayals of women.” said Erin Hatton, coauthor of the study.

Researchers from these studies used their own coding systems to rate the images for sexualizing traits. Those traits vary from study to study but include: body parts shown, body pose, facial expression, activity, camera angle and clothing. Some studies, like the analysis of Rolling Stone covers, assigned a sliding scale of points for each coded trait in order to get a more accurate rating of images. For example, exposure of body parts is usually coded high for sexualization, but does not always register. In the absence of other traits, a woman wearing a bathing suit might not be coded as a sex object while a fully clothed woman in a suggestive pose could be considered a sex object.

To get an idea of how the coding systems work, we decided to put it to the test. While reporting our story in France on the subject of hypersexualization, we picked up a selection of women’s fashion magazines that were on display at an everyday newsstand. From those magazines, we picked out a sampling of representative images of women in photo spreads and advertisements.

We asked experts Sarah Murnen and Erin Hatton to analyze these images using their research methods. Hatton clarifies that her coding system isn’t perfect and was intended for images in American social context.

“Sexuality is very much a social construction and, thus, a product of a particular socio-cultural environment,” said Hatton. “What we deem to be appropriate to “wear on the street” is likely not the same in other countries, including those in which women are expected to be fully covered and those in which women are not.”

We also want to hear what you think about these images, and the trends towards hypersexualization? What are your thoughts on the increasing sexualization of people depicted in popular culture? Let us know in the comments.

For more on the research behind sexualized images in American media, read the full study “Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone.”

Also of interest:

Low-Cut Shirts and High Heeled Shoes: Increased Sexualization Across Time in Magazine Depictions of Girls

Women as Sex Objects and Victims in Print Advertisements

Western Sahara: the world’s forgotten refugees


Located in the sweltering desert of south-west Algeria, the refugee camps of the Sahawari are home to more than 200,000 people, displaced from Western Sahara in 1979 when Morocco annexed the disputed territory in a conflict the world has long since forgotten. A new generation is growing up in the camps – eager to return to their homeland by whatever means, and frustrated by the Polisaro movement’s slow dealings with Morocco and the UN.

Why Three Syrians Fled to Lebanon

This story was published on PBS NewsHour on June 7, 2013.

Boys stand outside a camp settlement of 35 Syrian families in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Photos by Saskia de Melker.

BEIRUT — The odds that you’ll see a Syrian refugee in Lebanon are high. Nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees reside in this country with a landmass the size of Connecticut and a population of just over 4 million.

Scattered throughout the country, people are settling wherever they can. They often are living among Lebanese families, many of them poor themselves, and are at the mercy of local municipalities to welcome them into their communities.

With rents very high, families cram as many people as possible into small spaces. They build tents out of found materials and donated plastic and turn dilapidated buildings into makeshift shelters.

Unlike Syria’s other neighbors, Turkey and Jordan, there are no official camps in Lebanon and no plans to build them. Lebanon is still haunted by memories of an explosive refugee crisis a generation ago when Palestinians fled north. They never left and those teeming camps have become permanent neighborhoods.

Lebanon also is deeply divided over its relationship to Syria. The government has an official policy of disassociation from the conflict, and some factions worry that building camps would send the wrong message to the Syrian regime.

Whether conditions in a large-scale camp like Zaatari in Jordan are actually better is debatable. However, without a centralized camp structure in Lebanon, there are long delays to register refugees with the United Nations and many are unsure where to go for assistance when they arrive.

Even those who were not poor in Syria now find that the money that would buy them food for a week back home barely lasts a day in more expensive Lebanon.


Eleven-year-old Ali arrived in Lebanon just two weeks after being shot in the face. Fearing reprisals on their families back in Syria, most refugees don’t want to reveal their last names and many cover their faces to protect their identities.

A sniper shot through the window of his father’s car in Daraa, Syria. The bullet went through his nose, his eye and out the right side of his head.

When the fighting in the southern Syrian city intensified, his family had no choice but to take him out of the hospital prematurely and flee. Now 20 family members are living in a windowless back room of an upholstery shop owned by a Syrian friend.

Ali is blind in one eye and still has fragments of shrapnel in his chest and face. “I can feel the shrapnel in my chest and my nose when I breathe. It hurts,” he said.

He needs to have surgery to remove the rest of the shrapnel, but the family is having a hard time finding the money to pay for it. Aid agencies, they’ve been told, need to use their limited medical resources for life-threatening cases. So the family is considering moving onto the street temporarily to save the rent money for his procedure.


Nasser came from Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria located outside Damascus, where he said he had a nice house and a good job as a businessman.

When the camp was bombed in December and gangs tried to kidnap him and his son, the two fled — leaving his wife and other children behind — to find work and a house for all of them in Lebanon.

They spent their first month in Lebanon sleeping under a bridge and have had difficulty finding work or receiving assistance.

Nasser feels because he is Palestinian, he is being discriminated against in his job hunt. Fed up and frustrated, he has joined a group of other Palestinians from Syria in camping out for the past several months on a highway in front of the Beirut office of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which is tasked with helping Palestinian refugees across the Middle East.

“I came here needing help, and I realized that the Palestinians in Lebanon need help as much as I do,” he said.


Tawasseef, 29, was pregnant with her third child when she and her husband fled Homs, Syria, after their house was bombed eight months ago. Her son was born shortly after arriving in Lebanon and she spent the last months of her pregnancy sleeping on a bare floor of their hastily made tent.

They have since taken out debts to build a tent out of scrap wood, cardboard, and plastic in a settlement in the Bekaa Valley, where 35 Syrian families have taken up residence. There is no clean water or plumbing in the settlement and her children are frequently sick.

Like each family in the settlement, they must pay $200 a month to the Lebanese landowner to use their plot of land.

Tawasseef said she isn’t sure what her family would do if the rent is raised. They are relying on vouchers from the U.N. refugee agency and other aid organizations for food.

“We used to talk about how poorly the gypsies lived back in Syria,” she said. “Now we are living worse than they were.”

Tawasseef said she has found some comfort in sharing her experiences with other women in the settlement, and despite the hardships, at least her family is safely out of Syria.




Trouble in the Water: Coral Reefs and Shellfish Battle Acidifying Oceans

Coral Reefs and Shellfish Battle Acidifying Oceans | PBS NewsHour | Dec. 5, 2012 | PBSThis story was broadcast in two parts and was published as a single multimedia story online on PBS NewsHour in December 2012 as part of the Coping with Climate Change series.

Slip beneath the water’s surface and you’ll find a world teeming with life. Schools of yellowtail fish dart through colorful coral reefs. Spiny lobsters emerge from the crevices of ocean rocks searching for a tasty meal. And sea anemones nestle in the nooks of oyster beds.

But there is trouble in the world’s ocean.

Scientists are learning more about how carbon dioxide is dramatically changing the makeup of the oceans and the communities that depend on them.

“Over the last 200 years, 550 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been absorbed by the oceans,” said Richard Feely, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That’s enough carbon dioxide to fill enough train cars to wrap around the world seven times each year.

Feely, one of the world’s leading researchers on ocean acidification, has been studying this uptake of carbon dioxide for the last 30-some years. Feely and other scientists once saw an upside to the ocean acting as a carbon dioxide sink: it kept the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. But over the last two decades, they’ve discovered that it’s having an unprecedented effect on the chemistry of the oceans.

Carbon dioxide decreases the pH of the water. The lower the pH, the higher the acidity. Oceans have acidified by 30 percent from pre-industrial levels, and scientists expect that number will climb to 100 percent by the end of this century.

“Ocean life had not seen a significant change in pH for 800,000 years or more, said Sarah Cooley, a chemical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.“So marine life has been accustomed to conditions being consistent, and what we’re doing is we’re changing the game significantly.”

Slight changes in pH levels can have dramatic effects. Consider this: the pH of the blood running through your arteries is between 7.35 and 7.45. A drop of .2 pH units can cause seizures, heart arrhythmia or even send a person into a coma.

“That change in direction toward more acidic conditions is very important to your biological systems,” Feeley said. “It’s the same thing for many marine organisms.”

Watch the video report on how acidifying waters are impacting the U.S. shellfish industry

Producer/Writer: Katie Campbell and Saskia de Melker, Camera: Katie Campbell and Saskia de Melker Editor: Saskia de Melker  Narrator: Hari Sreenivasan

We can already see ocean acidification at work in the oceans. In recent years, oyster larvae on the northwest coast have been dying off by the billions. The seawater is so corrosive that it eats away at the young oyster shells before they can form.

Renee Carlton of NOAA’s Coral Health and Monitoring Program, compared the effect that acidification has on marine mammals to osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones in humans. As acidity increases, animals like scallops, oysters, and clams have a harder time extracting the calcium carbonate they need to build their essential shells. Shells become thinner, growth slows down, and death rates rise.

For coral reefs, the challenges presented by increased carbon dioxide are even greater.

Watch the video report of how Florida’s coral reefs are impacted by ocean acidification.

Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker, Camera: Saskia de Melker, Underwater camera: Frazier Nivens, Editor: Saskia de Melker, Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan

Reefs are extremely sensitive to both warming and acidification.  High water temperature causes corals to ‘bleach’ or expel the colorful algae that live in their tissue, exposing their skeletons. When pH dips, they have a harder time generating sturdy skeletons, and evidence shows that it’s harder for corals to reproduce when the ocean acidifies.

“If a coral dies, there is less likelihood that a baby coral is going to be able to replace it in the future,” said Chris Langdon, a coral biologist at the University of Miami. He has been conducting lab experiments to see how corals will cope with future conditions and found that the one-two punch of carbon dioxide and warmer waters aggravate their effects on the reefs. “That means that the corals can show signs of bleaching at a lower temperature than they would have before the increased carbon dioxide,” Langdon said.

This leaves the animals more vulnerable to disease, pollution, and predators. And that has cascading effects for the rest of the ecosystem, all the way up to human communities, said Paul McElhany of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center studies the effects of acidification on marine species.

Shellfish and corals are the foundation of marine ecosystems. Reefs provide habitat for thousands of other animals, and more than a quarter of all fish live in coral reefs at some point in their lives. And many shellfish are at the bottom of the marine food chain and are eaten by fish and other animals.

“We’ve seen that these increases in acidification can really reorganize these food webs, both directly and indirectly,” McElhany said, adding “What happens in the marine environment is likely to affect you.”

Reporting contributed by Heather Goldstone of WGBH and Katie Campbell of KCTS9.


Two Texas Towns Run Out of Water


This report was aired/published on PBS NewsHour in March 2012 as part of the Coping with Climate Change series.

 Mark Twain said that ‘Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting’ – that adage is becoming increasingly true in Texas as demand continues to outweigh supply and scrambles for water intensify.

As drought and record temperatures across the Southwest put an unprecedented strain on water resources in Texas, we went to the state to see how residents of two dry towns were coping. In Robert Lee, we showed how residents were trying to cope with a dramatically reduced reservoir by building a $1.2 million pipeline to a neighboring town. In Spicewood, where the wells have run dry, we showed how people now depend on water brought in on trucks.


Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera: Dieter Kaupp and Saskia de Melker
Editor: Saskia de Melker
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan


Two Texas Towns Run Out of Water | PBS NewsHour | March 20, 2012 | PBS

Protecting New York From Future Superstorms as Sea Levels Rise

This report aired on PBS NewsHour in November 2012 as part of the Coping with Climate Change series.

NYC Sandy
See the full report at PBS NewsHour



Superstorm Sandy pummelled New York City, leaving millions without power for days, destroying thousands of homes and businesses along the coast and the New York harbor and causing billions of dollars in damage.

As thousands of residents continue to clean up from Hurricane Sandy, many are anticipating future disasters and considering how New York will cope with rising seas and potentially more devastating flooding.


Producer/Writer: Saskia de Melker
Camera: Brian Dentz and Saskia de Melker
Editor: Saskia de Melker
Correspondent: Hari Sreenivasan]