What’s Wrong With Objectification?

obectification 1I can’t appreciate an attractive woman without objectifying her? Because I don’t see her as a whole person? Because I don’t know her likes and dislikes? Her hopes and dreams? If she owns a dog?

A man asked me that question when I made a distinction between “sex object” and “sexy.”

Sexual objectification isn’t about being sexy or sexual so much as being sexy for someone else while you don’t matter.

What’s objectification?

To translate Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, sexual objectification is a problem because:

  1. a person is seen as existing for someone else’s purposes, who feels a sense of ownership
  2. the person lacks agency, autonomy, self-determination and voice
  3. boundaries aren’t respected
  4. the person’s experiences and feelings aren’t taken into account
  5. the person is interchangeable
  6. looks are all that matter and the person is reduced to their body, or body parts

So you notice an attractive person

So you notice someone walking down the street. You glance over, find her attractive, and feel great appreciation. You are not thinking about her inner life or her thoughts and feelings.

Have you just objectified by doing #4-6?

Actually, no. That’s simple human desire. Objectification facilitates harm because the person is just an object, and no one worries about hurting objects:

4. the person’s experiences and feelings aren’t taken into account — as you do harm

5. the person is interchangeable — and hurt because she or he does not want to be seen as interchangeable

6. looks are all that matter and the person is reduced to their body, or body parts — and harmed because s/he wants to be seen as more

Here are examples of going beyond mere desire and causing harm because it’s all about the package. An object’s thoughts and feelings don’t matter:

Not caring about feelings: Cat-calling and Ogling

A woman walks by and a man stares, making her feel uncomfortable as his eyes take ownership of her. Or he cat-calls. Either way, he’s unconcerned for her feelings and fails to respect her boundaries. She will likely feel threatened and uncomfortable. And harm is done.

Or you ogle (stare at) “other women” and your partner is hurt. But you don’t care that you hurt your partner. Her feelings don’t matter. Harm is done.

Not caring about feelings in bed

In another scenario a man charms a woman into bed, realizing that she might want more than sex, but they don’t have a conversation to find out.

obectification 2Or, maybe “she” yearns for connection but “he’s” so distracted by her body parts that he isn’t sensitive to her needs. She’s just an interchangeable thing but she wants to be more.

Or, a guy meets a girl and “scores” so that he can brag to the guys. He doesn’t care if she’s likely to be hurt by being slut-shamed — he does it anyway.

Pressuring or forcing sex acts

Sometimes a man pressures his partner to perform sex acts that she dislikes, hates, feels uncomfortable with… If he pressures her then he is seeing her as existing for his own purposes without concern for her experiences and feelings. He expects her to bring him increased pleasure even if it brings her increased pain.

Worse, a man might force a woman to perform acts that she hasn’t consented to. In that case she lacks agency, autonomy, self-determination and voice. And he doesn’t care about her feelings.

Women objectifying themselves

Women can objectify themselves, too, often without realizing it.

Maybe she’s solely focused on “his” pleasure, with no concern for her own enjoyment. She’s focused on: How she looks to “him.” If she’s doing it right. She’s so distracted that she can’t enjoy anything. (Sorry to say, been there done that, myself. 88% of my students have, too.)

You could switch gender around… But 

The gender roles of all of the above could be reversed, but usually they aren’t. And that’s probably because our culture strongly objectifies women — much, much more than men.

Our culture does not eroticize the male body by:

  1. selectively hiding and revealing body parts, which creates tension
  2. hiding a body part because it’s “so sexy” and then telling people, “Don’t look at it,” which creates tension
  3. culturally obsessing over the body part. (Cameras rarely focus on men’s butts or linger on their chests. Or anything else.)

It’s all about harm

Objectification is all about harm. Whether creating harm in the moment or creating the conditions that harm — like depicting women as just a body or just a collection of body parts, which work to create a mindset that makes harming women more likely.

But if you just notice and appreciate an attractive person without causing harm — then no harm done. That’s not objectification.

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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 16, 2015, in feminism, men, objectification, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. I think it would be easy to tell, in a way, when some men would only want sex and others a longer lasting, emotionally-connected relationship. You make the man wait before having sex. Everybody seems to be so rushed to have sex, which is fine, but you can also wait and get to know the person first.

    • I was reading a book by a professor who studies men and masculinity and he said that when fraternity guys are competing to see how many Women each can have sex with, the guy’s lie and tell women how amazing they are. It seems to work with at least some of them, So I guess you can’t always tell. (And people do want to believe the best about themselves.)

  2. I thought this was a fantastic entry because I think, fairly often, there are people that don’t truly understand what it means to objectify women. Maybe they feel the cat-calls or ogling is “flattering” or some odd form of a compliment, which is a conclusion come to without actually considering the woman’s feelings. Would a man stop this same woman and ask her how her day is or how she’s doing? In this case, no. The harm is done is just seeing her as something nice to look at. Women are people, not things, and what’s worse is women are supposed to somehow see this in a positive light, however, this is where the line between appreciation of a woman’s beauty and objectification of her features becomes more blurred. In regards to objectification in sex, I think that many women are objectified without realizing it, and even allow it, because the “goal” is to please your partner. As mentioned above, just because some women may subconsciously objectify themselves, it doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

  3. I liked this article because it made me think how important it is to differentiate what objectification is. I think as the internet has become part of our culture, quickly a lot information has come with that. I think that in general a lot of time in modern culture the line of what is objectification is blurred. I know personally as a young women I have felt objectified and I think it should be more common knowledge that certain things are inappropriate and shouldn’t be acceptable in modern society. I think my worst experience with objectification was anytime I would go running in my college for some reason college age boys found it okay to catcall at a women running on the streets quite frequently. I obviously don’t want to make excuses for them and definitely think they were being rude. I do however know that actions such as catcalling aren’t shined in a negative light in media a lot, which can lead youth to thinking that it’s acceptable. So I think it’s important to start making it known what objectification is and not to glorify it in the media.

  4. This is a subject that confuses many. There is a big difference between objectification and flirting. It is ok to flirt, to let someone know that they look nice or acknowledge their beauty. But it is not ok for women to be afraid to walk down the street, to get intimidated by aggressive sexual comments, to be seen as mere sexual objects, to be someone’s property or to simply be dehumanized. It is not hard to know the difference between complimenting someone, having a flirty conversation or harassing them. Most human beings should be more than capable of distinguishing between the two, yet some feel that it is ok to objectify women, men or anyone for that matter. Objectification is a very selfish and narcissistic way to see others, it focuses on the desires and wants of the moment, rather than taking into consideration the other person’s feelings. When you objectify someone you don’t even think about their value but what they can do for you or make you feel in the immediate present. Objectification dehumanizes and decontextualizes the person.

  5. I feel that male objectification is equally as damaging as female objectification. You point out that male bodies are not selectively covered to create sexual tension, however I can think of many instances of this. I would say that this image of Adam Levine is a clear example: https://pmchollywoodlife.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/010611_adam_levine_naked_4.jpg?w=544 (nsfw). In the image, his genitals are being provocatively concealed with a woman’s grabbing hand, rather than clothing and I think this is absolutely made to create a sexually tense reaction. His chest, a commonly sexualized part of the male body is also being grabbed at by a woman’s hand.
    Another point that worries me is that a common notion that is constantly reiterated in the popular documentary series Miss Representation, that male objectification is not as large of an issue because men are sexualized as powerful beings, and women are portrayed as weak. Firstly, this diminishes the issue of males who suffer from eating disorders. More than that though, why I feel this should be a feminist issue is because objectifying men in this way enforces the notion that men are sexual powerful beings. I feel that this wholeheartedly contributes to the hegemonic masculinity that focuses on having power over women and over men. That leads to physical violence against men, and violence both physical and sexual against women. While it is absolutely wrong that women are portrayed as objects, we should also start discussing how men are objectified as strong men entitled to those objects.

  6. Good point Georgia. It’s good to know the difference between objectification and just looking. I know when I notice an attractive person, male or female, it’s rarely desire that has me looking, but rather an appreciation of beauty.

  7. It’s interesting how patriarchy can make it seem as if being objectified is the way to go – I know that’s how I felt when I was younger not realizing how damaging that was to me and other women.

  8. I think there is definitely a difference between “appreciating” and “objectifying”. Some people confusing the two words is a little scary. Appreciation does not harm, impose or demand anything from the person being appreciated. I appreciate a person’s intelligence, kindness as well as beauty, but we often don’t say that I objectify a woman when I talk about how smart or kind she is. The reason we often use ‘objectification’ for physical beauty is because the history behind the objectification of women by the patriarchal system and culture, which has lead to her safety and personhood being discarded for the purpose of the appreciation. Appreciation of a woman’s beauty have often lead to harm, has imposed on the woman and has demanded from her. Which is why cat calling is objectification. It demands the woman accept it and be thankful for it whether nor she asked for the appreciation. If she ignores or indicates she does not appreciate, often the woman is called a ‘bitch’ or a ‘slut’, or some other abuse.

  9. kellie@writingmoment

    The part about how we’ve hidden body parts, said ‘don’t look’ then obsessed over them is very interesting. It seems our culture has created this obsession but how do we reduce it now?
    When I was in Paris a few years ago I saw ladies sunbaking topless on the River Seine. Does that reduce it any? Just curious 🙂

  10. This is good ~ very good. There is an appreciation that is instinctual desire but there is so much more to admire & appreciate by being respectful. I think people are realizing this (men especially), and I think it is very necessary for society to evolve.

    Objectification is harmful, but it has been around forever. The comments of Rajagopal are very intriguing because the economic side of objectification sets many boundaries of society and it is a very powerful force.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this. But just want to point out that while desire has been around forever, objectification has not. You don’t find it in tribal societies — which constituted most of the human experience. But you do, and did, find desire.

  11. I see your point in a larger perspective. There is certainly greater objectification of women, which is mainly because they are the fairer sex. Fairer in the sense of being more beautiful and pleasing to the eye. And a market economy will objectify and commoditise anything that sells. It is more about making that fast buck than considerations of propriety or civility. I am not subscribing to it, but that is the way the world is, requiring a forward thrust on the evolutionary scale towards goodness of the soul…

    • I don’t think that women’s butts are any more attractive than men’s butts. I don’t think that women’s legs are any more attractive than men’s legs. And yet we act like they are. We objectify women more because historically men have had control over art, literature, religion, media and commerce… So when they think “Let’s make a sexy commercial” they think in terms of sexy women since about 95% of men are straight. So sexy as portrayed as women being sexy. And then we all internalize that idea.

      And I’m trying to change the world not just say, well that’s the way things are.

      But I appreciate your comment because it’s really helpful to hear a variety of perspectives to see what I’m missing. It’s always helpful to see where there are things I haven’t thought about before, or haven’t communicated well on. So I learn from my readers and my students, too.

  12. Objectification by way of ogling, cat-calls, and treating the woman as just a resource for sexual gratification is certainly unacceptable. The other kind of objectification, that happens in cinema and other visual media, is an integral part of a market economy, in which both genders participate as performers and models. It cannot be termed as exploitation, as it is mainly commercial, where all parties are beneficiaries. With more women entering various domains hitherto considered to be male preserves, objectification of the demeaning kind is sure to gradually become a thing of the past…best wishes Georgia.

    • Thanks for your comment. It inspires a new blog post that I will be writing shortly.

      Just because women join in doesn’t make it OK.

      When you live in a sexist, racist, homophobic society, everyone internalizes it – it unconsciously becomes a part of all of our consciousness. So women can unconsciously be sexist, people of Color can unconsciously be racist, and people who are LGBT can unconsciously become homophobic. Check out a test at Harvard.implicit.edu and learn more about your unconscious biases.

      I’ve written about it a bit here: why do women fight against their own interests?

      All of these forms of objectification are harmful. The type you finding media helps to teach men that women are just objects. And it helps to teach women to object helps to teach men that women are just objects. And it helps to teach women to object to objectify themselves. And then in real life men are more likely to use and abuse women. And women are more likely to worry about how they look when they are in bed instead of enjoying sexuality or even go so far as to Become one-dimensionally focused on how they look.

      And have you noticed that sex only sells to men? (Where are all the sexy men selling stuff to women?) To the extent that sex does sell for women, it’s about making women feel bad about themselves so that they will buy a product to feel better. It’s all market manipulation.

      Plus, monetarily it is good for the companies were doing the selling but it’s not so good for the consumer pocketbook — spending money on things you don’t need just because someone has made you feel bad about yourself. And because of this strategy a lot of young women, and increasingly men, are feeling bad about their bodies and developing lower self-esteem and eating disorders.

      Just because something is good monetarily, doesn’t mean it’s good for the soul.

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