Does Porn Objectify? Experts Disagree

Playboy_Bunnies_2011[1]When men view porn do they see women as mindless objects? Psychologist, Kurt Gray and his colleagues wanted to know.

Humans have needs, goals, emotions, the ability to act, and hopes and dreams for the future. Mere objects don’t.

So the researchers showed men pictures of women in various states of dress and undress and asked how much “agency” they had, meaning self control and the ability to plan and act. They also asked about their ability to feel fear, desire and pleasure.

The study focused on these two areas because research on the mind shows that that’s how we categorize humans.

Turns out, the more skin women reveal, the less they seem agentic, but the more they are thought to feel.

Men seem to see nude women as a completely different sort of human from themselves. Naked women are “feeling” but not “thinking.” More “animalized” in nature. Interesting that sexualized women have been portrayed as bunnies, pets, cougars and sex kittens.

The researchers conclude that women are not mere objects, after all.

Yet “objectification” isn’t always understood as “unthinking and unfeeling.” It often means seeing people – usually women — as one-dimensional beings that are ALL about sex. If a man is getting off on a woman’s pain or pleasure, that’s a part of the porn experience. He may be drawn to her pain, and at the same time have no empathy for her desire to make it stop. So long as he is aroused, that’s all that matters. Sex objects exist to serve the desires of others.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines objectification as: treating someone as lacking agency, autonomy and self-determination, and as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes; treating a person as something that is owned and whose experiences and feelings needn’t be taken into account.

Even men who use porn a lot frequently describe it as objectifying women.

Fortunately, many — probably most — men can still make a distinction between objectified porn stars and the multi-dimensional women in their lives. And as the researchers point out, it’s fine to be all about sex and feeling if you’re in bed with your lover. Just not when that’s ALL women are about ALL the time. But some women complain that when they’re trying to make love they feel more like objects that are just being used. That’s another symptom of the problem.

As Scientific American concludes, “There is, it turns out, more than one kind of ‘objectification.’”

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on September 2, 2013, in feminism, objectification, pornography, psychology, sex, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I have 4 brothers and the boy talk about naked photos isn’t pretty! :)

    Boys will be boys. When someone makes love to you? That’s when you know how they truly feel about you. They can’t hide behind anything. Loved your post. Hope you had a great weekend. Hugs to you. Paula xxxx

    • I’m sorry, but boys will be boys is a very naive approach. This article seems benign in that they’re studying subjects that may view porn to “get off” here and there. What’s the harm? Everything in moderation right? Now apply this article to who’s really at risk. The average age is 11, of when boys first view porn. And it’s not your grandpa’s porn anymore. Women are brutalized. Anal sex (and of course women in porn “love it” ) is a common knowledge subject among 5th graders. Porn addiction is abundant. Boys are becoming so desensitized they can’t even have a normal sexual relationship when they get older. Girls are complaining that boys want rough, degrading and dangerous sex and if they don’t find a porn star in one girl, there’s a line of willing girls next to her. Girls feel if they don’t live up to the fantasy, they will be discarded and unloved. Kids can see porn on Facebook and YouTube now. To say boys will be boys is not only naive, it is devastating to hear.

  2. I’m glad to see someone talking about these types of issues. Too many folks just don’t want to think about or address them. Sexuality can be the “make or break” factor in our general happiness – whether purely for self or as part of a relationship. The recent Miley Cyrus thing is on point here. In the video I’ve seen, Ms. Cyrus LOOKS like she’s having a good time – she’s wearing a big grin and her eyes are definitely smiling as well. But is she enjoying a sensual experience or digging the shock value of her actions and thus viewing herself “out of body” as noted in your post? I’d be happy for her if she showed that type of reaction to a private session of lovemaking, but to do it on stage for millions of people seems to be accepting objectification and porno-fication of herself. She may well think she’s powerful in this instance to be affecting such a large number of people, but that certainly wasn’t the feminine sexual power I was hoping would come out of the “sexual revolution”!

  3. Thank you for your analysis about this issue. I have always wondered what men really think about porn and other sexy representations of women all over the place. So the following issue never bothered me much until I found the love of my life … now that I’m spending more time with my boyfriend and I am noticing how many times throughout a day he is exposed to sexy, semi-nude, nude – pictures, videos, representations and in-person females. Like internet advertisements all over the place. Like 10 feet tall Victoria Secret model posters in malls. Like skimpy waitresses. Like every HBO show or most movies have topless girls like its a necessity. And girls like going topless here and everywhere in the summer. But focusing primarily on media, I find that females are used way more than males in sexy ways. Part of me gets excited by the females too (like you talk about cultural programming), part of me gets annoyed/angry/jealous, part of me is frustrated that I don’t get to see men candy as much. I have started daily going online to try and find sexy nude males to look at in hopes of gender equalizing the sexual exposure my mind gets. I would like to know your opinion on this issue.. like what will happen to me if I continue to daily expose myself to as much male sexualization as I feel society exposes me to female sexualization? Will this balance out my frustrations/annoyance/anger/jealousy? I hate how my heart sinks every time I see my boyfriend admiring sexy girls .. I know its natural for men to do so and I don’t want to be getting on his case about what he is looking at .. I just want to know how I can change my feeling about all this.

    • Hello. Thanks for writing in.

      Regarding “I hate how my heart sinks every time I see my boyfriend admiring sexy girls .. I know its natural for men to do so and I don’t want to be getting on his case about what he is looking at .. I just want to know how I can change my feeling about all this.”

      Of course it’s natural for men to notice attractive women – and for women to notice attractive men. I see the problem more in terms of how it’s done. A glance is okay in my book. But lingering too long can be a problem for both the women who are being looked at and for the man’s partner. You might want to see this:

      Is Your Partner’s Ogling a Turn-Off?

      http://broadblogs.com/2011/06/15/is-your-partner%e2%80%99s-ogling-a-turn-off/

      And here is part of a response that I wrote to someone who asked me a related question on a different blog post, which I’ve altered a bit for you:

      I have always just left guys in the past who have behaved that way because it annoys me too much. And most men that I’ve been with haven’t actually behaved that way. And in fact, most men don’t behave that way. See “Ogling: Boys Will Be Boys?” http://broadblogs.com/2011/08/15/ogling-boys-will-be-boys/

      Of the guys I left, only one of them wanted me more than to ogle women, and he changed. I’m not sure if it takes a motivation like being left to get someone to change. But he was very determined to do so because he didn’t want to lose me.

      It’s not that uncommon that men who ogle don’t even realize they’re doing it, and they feel they have no control over it. They kind of get into an altered state. It’s similar to what guys can experience when they watch porn — because they are having a pornographic experience watching these women – and I will write a little bit about this in a blog post sometime, but here are a few paragraphs that might help you to understand it. I’ve simplified some of the wording. And you can go to the link at the end to read more:

      Pornographic images seem to activate a man’s visual system in a manner that goes beyond just looking at trees or even people. It’s almost like a high-definition signal compared with a standard signal. Once this signal—Tori Black in the nude, say—hits the male antenna, the brain’s reward system kicks in, producing a rush of feel-good dopamine. This can reinforce the behavior much in the same way that drugs like cocaine would.

      At the same time the part of the brain that makes judgments is shut off. 

Essentially, the decision-making system is turning itself over to the experience; it’s almost like the men are hypnotized. This is the classic male stereotype: When men think with what’s below, they don’t make good decisions. Or, the decisions are made for them.

      http://www.menshealth.com/sex-women/porn-debate?fullpage=true#ixzz2C51rt6US

      That said, most often you can’t really change people and so if you want to stay with this guy even if he ogles, you may have to deal with it by changing yourself.

      I’m not sure how successful you will be at appreciating the male body more by watching more porn. What happens with men is an unconscious process, but what you want to do is deliberate, so I don’t know if that will change how things work. Also, men tend to be drawn by things you’re not supposed to look at — that’s a huge part of the draw. And there’s not a whole lot that you’re not supposed to look at on guys. No reason not to give it a try though.

      So you could just try not to let it bother you if “ogling guys” doesn’t end up working for you. Or you could find a relationship with someone else. Or you could talk to him and see if he could be more polite. Notice, appreciate, don’t stare. He likely won’t think that he can change. If he wants to badly enough, and the stakes are high enough, he probably can.

      • Thank you so much for your response. I read your links and some of the links in those links and I think I understand this issue better.. including my own feelings about it. I have one more question and that is about strippers. I used to be fine with them and was even okay when my boyfriend said he was going to a bachelor party that would have a strip club tour and a private stripper in the limo. I said the thought of naked girls being around him in a sexual way bothered me but I wanted him to experience the experience with his friends since that’s how men celebrate getting married. But then he told me that since we’ve been dating he’s been to a strip club and had a lap dance and didn’t think I’d think it would be a big deal since his dad did it and his mom was okay, but not overjoyed, with it. I freaked out cause the image of a naked girl grinding on him just hurt my feelings. We had a massive fight. I tried to be okay with it all and said he should still go to the bachelor party cause I didn’t want to be a prude girlfriend that his friends would make fun of. This was followed by weeks/months of crying. He ended up forgetting about going to the actual wedding .. this made me feel even worse. He says he hasn’t gone since and I see he has been assertive to my feelings and I appreciate him so much for that. Anyways, I know strippers will be around always everywhere .. he will be invited somewhere where they are, they will at some time just be somewhere he is, and he might be tempted into participating. Where we live, there are no male strip clubs. I’m bothered that women have no access to easy safe sexual experiences. I don’t know if I would even want to go. But I am bothered by the thought of him having sexual stripper experiences on the side of our relationship .. while if I were to try experiencing that it would involve me doing so with a friend or stranger and most people would call that cheating …. double-standard? Most posts on the internet say, just be okay with it, or tell him how I feel and see if he stops … him and I have talked a lot about it already and while he is assertive to me not wanting him to go I know he will want me to be assertive in once in a while being okay with him enjoying a party for what it is. How can I resolve my feelings about this? What can I do, as a girl, to feel sexually liberated in a way where I can have fun and let my boyfriend have fun and have our relationship stay strong instead of degrade?

        Sorry this is long and a bit off topic .. altho I guess strippers are just a live version of porn and I guess a lot of the articles that you’ve already linked me to do shed some insight into the male-female dynamic.

        Thank you again!!

      • Well, you could go about this in various ways. One is to encourage him to alter his behavior and change the nature of the relationship. Another is to change yourself. Another is to find someone who better matches you and your needs.

        Regarding the first point, you might want to have a conversation with him as to what he wants out of the relationship and what’s possible when he is constantly distracted versus when he is “present” with you. Is it possible that his behavior affects the way he sees you? If it does, it’s more of a problem. If it doesn’t, it’s not so much. I ask because I was once in a relationship with a man where we noticed that this behavior affected how he saw me and his ability to be present with me. He became even more aware of this after he changed and was able to be REALLY present with me.

        It’s also important to make sure that you have a partner who has the capacity for empathy. It’s difficult to have healthy relationships with people who don’t have empathy. Empathy would be revealed by a willingness to make at least some changes to his behavior so that you will feel less pain. If he is unwilling to do that I would be concerned.

        Some women pretend that they are okay with this sort of thing. Others actually seem to be okay with it. They are often women who like to look at men themselves. Others feel like men can’t help themselves so they just give up.

        Given how much this bothers you I’m not sure what to say to help you to just live with it. You could try noticing that it happens and just let it be. If you do meditation you will have more of a sense of what I’m talking about. Maybe you should check out some books on meditation. If you feel like his behavior has nothing to do with you, personally, you could remind yourself of that – and again, let it be.

        On the other hand, if you find this really troubling you may not be able to have a healthy relationship with this person. You may need to find a partner who is more monogamous in his outlook and more devoted to you. Actually, you would be doing both yourself and him a favor if you cannot find a way to be okay with it.

        I wouldn’t be able to be in a relationship with this sort of guy. Yet I know a lot of women who would be okay with guys like him. You need to know which kind of person you are.

  4. This is just a question, and not necessarily my opinion, and it needs no answer, but does claiming that women in porn are just creating objects of themselves for mens pleasure actually a sexist position in itself (“a woman doing porn must be objectifying herself”) and demeaning to those women that may actually feel empowered by their chosen profession?

    • An individual woman’s choice may have effects on other people, whether she wants to or not. And what might be empowering for her could be disempowering to others. A woman who works in media is more likely than others to make choices that affect other people.

      So a woman who objectifies herself could have disempowering effects on other women, if men begin to see women as objects without minds. And some men say that happens. A male student also told me that women enjoy rape — he saw it in a porn flick.

      But also, some feminists like porn and others don’t. Here’s a debate on that:

      Porn: Pro and Con

      http://broadblogs.com/2010/12/27/porn-pro-and-con/

      My own opinion is it depends on how it’s done. See the post above.

      And as I said in the post you commented on, just because women objectify themselves on screen doesn’t mean that that’s how men will see the real women in their lives. So part of the equation lies with men. Can they separate out fantasy from reality? Can they still manage to see the real women in their lives in multidimensional ways? Can they enjoy their partner’s body even if she’s not “porn-perfect”? Can they be polite in their relationships and not stare at women who objectify themselves? (See the girl’s response just above yours.)

      Also, see these:

      Does Sexual Objectification Lead to Bad Sex?

      http://broadblogs.com/2011/07/27/does-sexual-objectification-lead-to-bad-sex/

      Anything Good About Being A Sex Object?

      http://broadblogs.com/2011/05/23/anything-good-about-being-a-sex-object/

      And the post that comes out tomorrow is also relevant.

  5. Interesting how objectification has become a complex term. Seems like we need a new vocabulary to discuss what men do to women through media and pornography. It would be interesting to see how women feel about the men they view in erotic media.

  6. Martin Buber in his book I-Thou and I-It, gives a vivid description of these two relational dynamics discussed in your article. In the I-it experience there’s never ‘whole’ subjects involved, it’s always limited to parts. Like when the woman is being used as an ‘it-object’ merely as a source for gratification there is no subjectivity or creativity. In the the I-thou relationship, the two enter the infinite universe of ‘being’ with one another. Melanie Klein in her discussion of depressive and paranoid-schizoid positions, also differentiates between whole and part interactions. In the I- It realm there’s no relationship, it’s all observations and experiences with no relatedness. Agency is a by product of the Thou. when one is allowed to be the creator, the owner, one can feel real and alive. This facilitates self reliance, creativity, responsibility and self fulfillment.

  7. I find it interesting that men view porn stars and consider them to be “objectified”, while women who are not porn stars seem to have the same issue but they view themselves as being objectified. The only difference that I can see other than the person who’s perspective is of the objectified, is that porn stars are in this specific business to make money while the more common woman is not. Just as women should be viewed in more dimensions then the single of “thinking” and “feeling”, we should also consider that possibly all women struggle with the same issue of “objectification” and all the different dimension that is attached to that single word.

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