Sexual Objectification, What is it?


Cross-posted at Ms.Caroline Heldman’s Blog and Sociological Images

This is Part 1 of a four-part series on sexual objectification–what it is and how to respond to it.

The phrase “sexual objectification” has been around since the 1970s, but the phenomenon is more rampant than ever in popular culture–and we now know that it causes real harm.

What exactly is it, though? If objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like an object, then sexual objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another’s sexual pleasure.

How do we know sexual objectification when we see it? Building on the work of Nussbaum and Langton, I’ve devised the Sex Object Test (SOT) to measure the presence of sexual objectification in images. In it, I propose that sexual objectification is present if the answer to any of the following seven questions is “yes”:

1) Does the image show only part(s) of a sexualized person’s body?

Headless women, for example, make it easy to see them as only a body by erasing the individuality communicated through faces, eyes and eye contact:

We achieve the same effect when showing women from behind, which adds another layer of sexual violability. American Apparel seems to be a culprit in this regard:

Covering up a woman’s face works well, too:

2) Does the image present a sexualized person as a stand-in for an object?                                                                                                       

The breasts of the woman in this beer ad, for example, are conflated with the cans:

Likewise the woman in this fashion spread in Details, in which a woman becomes a table upon which things are perched. She is reduced to an inanimate object, a useful tool for the assumed heterosexual male viewer:

3) Does the image show sexualized persons as interchangeable?

Interchangeability is a common advertising theme that reinforces the idea that women, like objects, are fungible. And like objects, “more is better,” a market sentiment that erases the worth of individual women. The image below, advertising Mercedes-Benz, presents just part of a woman’s body (breasts) as interchangeable and additive:

This image of a set of Victoria’s Secret models, borrowed from a previous Sociological Images post, has a similar effect. Their hair and skin color varies slightly, but they are also presented as all of a kind:

4) Does the image affirm the idea of violating the bodily integrity of a sexualized person who can’t consent?

In this “spec” ad for Pepsi (not endorsed by the company), a boy is being given permission by the lifeguard to “save” an unconscious woman:

Likewise, this ad shows an incapacitated woman in a sexualized position with a male protagonist holding her on a leash. It glamorizes the possibility that he has attacked and subdued her:

5) Does the image suggest that sexual availability is the defining characteristic of the person?

This American Apparel ad, with the copy “now open,” sends the message that this woman is open for sex. She presumably can be had by anyone.

6) Does the image show a sexualized person as a commodity that can be bought and sold?

By definition, objects can be bought and sold, and some images portray women as everyday commodities. Conflating women with food is a common sub-category. This PETA ad, for example, shows Pamela Anderson’s sexualized body divided into pieces of meat:

And this album cover shows a woman being salted and eaten, along with a platter of chicken:

In the ad below for Red Tape shoes, women are literally for sale and consumption, “served chilled”:

7) Does the image treat a sexualized person’s body as a canvas?

In the two images below, women’s bodies are presented as a particular type of object: a canvas that is marked up or drawn upon.

The damage caused by widespread female objectification in popular culture is not just theoretical.  We now have more than 10 years of research demonstrating that living in an objectifying society is highly toxic for girls and women. I’ll describe that research in Part 2 of this series.

Cross-posted at Ms., Caroline Heldman’s Blog and Sociological Images

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social 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. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on November 26, 2012, in body image, feminism, gender, objectification, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. First of all I want to say I’m totally in agreement with this post.

    But having said that, I’ve never liked how the term ‘objectification’ is given an automatically negative meaning. To me this word implies that to focus on the physical form exclusively is inherently demeaning. But why should it be? Isn’t that concept itself demeaning?

    These pictures are (obviously) dehumanising but to me it is the context (or you could say the ‘narrative’) which is insulting and demeaning, not the objectification per se. I know that will probably sound pedantic but really do think the distinction is important to make because I think it can lead to confusion.

    In general I would rather men be honest (and aware) when they are objectifying women (ie valuing women purely for their looks). Acknowledging that you’re just valuing a woman’s body as an object actually reinforces the fact that women are people as well as objects (just as men are). Admiring a horse (or a picture of a horse) purely for its looks is not automatically demeaning to the horse! Why should it be any different for women (or men)?

    ***I think the distinction needs to be made between ‘object’ and ‘possession’. Objects can be admired, revered, respected and even worshipped, whereas possessions are owned and used.***

    That’s why I think the term ‘objectification’ is potentially confusing.

    FYI there’s a HUGE collection of very disturbing fashion photos (with analysis) at …. or just google ‘symbolic pictures of the week’ (they’re all from mainstream fashion magazines, pop videos etc – nothing X-rated or anything)

    Also if anyone’s got the time to spare the work of Michael Tsarion really gets into the deep psychology of modern culture, media and symbolism. Fascinating stuff. In fact this post immediately made me think of his own critique of advertising (see linked video).

  2. I could not read this, the images are far to triggering. Really, did you have to use these examples? I have seen far too much of this soul-eroding garbage in my lifetime already. It’s like a [usually male] film director who justifies a graphic rape scene by claiming he’s trying to “raise awareness” about the brutality of rape.

    • I’m sorry that you had this reaction. Interestingly, Ms. Magazine, the mother of all feminist magazines which I reposted from, didn’t have a trigger warning, yet they usually do use them. Maybe because these images are so widespread that they are impossible to protect oneself from.

      But yes, I do think the images were necessary. I find that a lot of my students and blog readers think that sexual objectification is the same thing as, “sexy.” They will say things like, “Well men are objectified too.” Actually, they are not and these images helped to show the difference. How many images of men have you seen like this?

      I actually learned from the images myself. After hearing about objectification for years in an abstract way the images helped me to see that man who objectify women actually treat them exactly the way these images appear, and I plan to write about that in the future — using these sorts of images again.

  3. I agree that education is most important in mitigating the effects of advertisements depicting sexual objectification of women. People should start to be consciously aware of the messages they are receiving, instead of being blinded and swept in our consumer-driven culture. It would be an impossible feat to try to stop people from buying the products, and therefore these negative images will continue to be circulated. From the business perspective, these companies increase their profits by releasing controversial material and garnering the public’s attention. However this does not mean that societal behavior of treating women as sexual objects should prevail. In my view, people can choose to buy whatever products they wish. Also people can be free to voice their opinions and protest. Personally, I thought the most distasteful ad was the man strangling the woman with his tie as it blatantly seems to promote violence against women. There is nothing appealing I find in viewing such an image and I hope most people would share my sentiment.

  4. We have cops that control the streets but who controls media? They have no control on what their doing to teens and adults and models that can work the run way . I mean how many lives have been taken so that they could live the life as an American in this society it’s so sick. We see people who get bullied, commit suicid just trying to fit in. Girls may say they don’t care but deep down inside who know’s what is really wrong? would it be wrong to pick on a guys body parts? Or is it even media’s fault ? I really don’t know but I feel bad becuase I myself dress to impress and somtimes it’s not enough.

  5. I didn’t become aware of this problem until I took Marketing during my freshman year of college. Now that I have become aware of it I can’t look at any advertisements involving women without realizing its focus on her body or just a part of it. As a nanny for a 5 year old girl named Sofia it saddens me because I see Sofia in her innocence of kindergarten, not worrying about her body or how she looks. The sad part is I know that will soon be over. I know she will soon be bombarded with these advertisements that misrepresent women and objectifies them. I hope by the time she is in High School things will have changed but I don’t know if that will happen.

  6. Yes correct, Promise Keepers is a conservative Christian organization. However, there are other organizations and programs that help men and are against sexual objectification of women.
    is another organization that is more liberal from an “eastern mysticism” hindu perspective but nevertheless is against objectification of women.
    Here is a link for a very good book that may help some men in this area.

    Sexual objectification of women is wrong and thankfully at least some men are getting that message today and utilizing resources to help them.

  7. “The damage caused by widespread female objectification in popular culture is not just theoretical. We now have more than 10 years of research demonstrating that living in an objectifying society is highly toxic for girls and women”

    Agreed, as a man I who has succumbed to and been conditioned by society to objectify women, sexual objectification has had damaging effects on women. All around us heterosexual men are bombarded with images from advertsing and the media that treat women as sex objects to titillate men because “sex sells”. It is also about greed.
    The Pornography industry which still primarily caters to males. is a multibillion dollar industry, and feeds off the sexual objectification of women from the mainstream media.

    However, on an optimistic note there is a solution especially for men in our society to try to stop objectifying women sexually. Many are turning to spiritual solutions to help them in life. Whether a man practices Buddhism, Christianity.Judaism, or whatver a lot of spirituality does speak about the dangers of lust and how living more of a pure life can help men overcome lust. Many spiritual traditions either encourage celibacy or a loving monogamous relationship.

    So while society wtill sexually objectifies women, on a good note many men ( and women) are seeking spiritual answers in life as life is increasingly stressful these days. There is a Christian mens movement known as “The Promise Keepers”. They encourage men not to look at women as sexual objects but as human beings, not to watch porn but love their wives and girlfriends authentically. A great book I read that helps men not to sexually objectify women is called “Everymans Battle” by Stephen Arteburn

    Inasmuch more and more men are getting the message from some women about how degrading and wrong it is to sexually objectify a women, many men are choosing to do otherwise. For example, in the book “Everymans Battlle, it tells men to look at a womens eyes in public not at her cleavage, to see every woman as a human being, someones daughter, wife, and for men to look away not lust.

    The article was very good and we as a society still have a long way to go in terms of eliminating the mass sexual objectification of women. On a positive note, more and more men are getting the message to try not to sexually objectify women, to say no to casual sex, and try to live a “purpose driven life” filled with love, spirituality, and joy. As men can seek “spiritual” solutions to overcome their sex drive, women can then be seen as human beings not as sex objects.

    • Thanks, I appreciate hearing from a man’s perspective on this.

      Promise Keepers? Aren’t they into male leadership over women? I advocate egalitarian partnerships instead.

  8. I am constantly being told off for commenting and including stuff that’s “gonna be in the next post”. So I’ll try hard…
    Fungible – I love this word and in using it you made my day!
    Perhaps one test ‘missing’, if you replaced the model with a man would it still “Work”.
    And finally. Shit, that victoria secrets ad actually made me queasy. It is not healthy, and it’s not attractive.
    More please. When I see a catwalk full of women with real tits, stretch marks, cellulite, minimal make-up and at a healthy weight I’ll know we’re half-way there.
    (F*king hate catwalks altogether!!)

    • Thanks. You comments are always entertaining.

      Re “Perhaps one test ‘missing’, if you replaced the model with a man would it still “Work”?

      Yes and no. The pics would be objectifying. Yet men are so rarely portrayed in these ways that the objectification wouldn’t have the same effects. At least not yet.

  9. Really interesting post! Just shows how sick the world of marketing is, that advertisers will simultaneously abuse our natural and positive sexual drives to sell us crap we don’t need (which is out and out bullying) and at the same time warp both men and women’s perception of sexuality and their body.

    I’m all for erotic art and photography and BDSM engaged in consciously and safely by consenting, healthy adults, but the very un-consensual and damaging images that are shoved in our faces daily are just wrong. We are forced to be exposed to bad psychology day in and day out, that can’t be good for us.

    Edward Bernays has a lot to answer for.

    Good job posting this, thanks for sharing 🙂


  10. I boycott American Apparel by refusing to shop there. Which is easier said than done sometimes!

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