Objectifying and Desiring Aren’t the Same Thing?

Objectification: she's just a body with no thoughts or feelingsWhen I was younger I wondered why feminists complained about sexual objectification. What’s wrong with finding someone attractive, I wondered? 

Now I know that objectifying and desiring aren’t the same thing. But I’ve also learned that plenty of people are confused, like I was. When I talk about objectification I get reactions like:

  • Women do it too!
  • Women check out men!
  • Girls drool over boy bands!
  • Playgirl exists! (Well, it used to.)
  • What’s wrong with desire?!

Sexual attraction is healthy and normal, right?

Right. But attraction is not objectification. To objectifiers a person is more like an object that exists for others’ purposes. Objects have no annoying thoughts or feelings you have to worry about. 

And therein lies the problem. People with this mindset more easily treat others in harmful ways. For instance, I’ve heard men insist that women should do what men want sexually, even if it is emotionally or physically painful. See what I mean?

When I’ve asked my students to write, anonymously, about whether anything like this had ever happened with them one young woman recalled:

I had a boyfriend who constantly begged me to have a threesome. I told him I didn’t want to and that the thought of seeing him with another woman was emotionally painful. But he just kept on and on about it. I kept trying to get him to be empathetic and asked him to try to imagine how hard it would be for me. He never seemed to understand my feelings. I finally proposed having a threesome with me and a cute guy who sometimes flirted with me. I actually had no interest in doing that but acted like I’d be really into it. I just wondered how he would react. Well, that was just horrifying to him. He finally let up about threesomes, but I was shocked at how unable he was to imagine how hurtful it felt to me until it finally occurred to me to turn it around for him.

When discussing a different topic, body image, another woman wrote that:

An old boyfriend of mine sometimes told me I wasn’t sexy enough. If only I had bigger boobs. Maybe I could lose weight. 

He thought she didn’t meet a sexual standard that he thought he was owed to him and he didn’t care at all about hurting her feelings. Only his feelings mattered.

Crimes like rape and sex trafficking also stem from sexual objectification. Her trauma doesn’t matter. Her hopes and dreams are of no account. His gratification or expression of hostility is all that counts.

Unfortunately, women learn to self-objectify too. We are all bombarded by objectified images of women which get embedded in the unconscious, teaching us ever so stealthily that our job is to please men, sexually. That’s probably why so many of us end up agreeing to our partners’ painful requests. Or we can get distracted worrying about how we look, because it’s our job to be visually arousing — even if we are supposed to enjoy sex with partners who do not visually arouse us.

This is what happens in cross-sex relationships when men are taught to objectify and women are taught to be objectified. 

Lusting after your partner is fine. But these harmful behaviors are not.

The first step to stepping out of this damaging pattern is gaining awareness of what objectification is and how we might be — consciously or not — engaging in it.

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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 5, 2020, in objectification and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. This article is quite interesting and is something I have thought about before. Ever since I can remember I have always been quiet and reserved. I like to keep to myself and I am always lost in thought. I would have people telling me I should smile more, or to look alive, or wake up girl. Once I got older, I started to notice most of the people telling me those annoying comments were men. Every job I had, I had some random man comment on me and my “lack” of expression. Male coworkers would be rude and never smile and they never were complained about or commented to smile. I started to wonder if that was a form of objectification, because I was not there to make them happy, I was there to help them find items in a store. This article put things in perspective for me and I realized that I was being emotionally objectified, and I guess physically because I was not smiling pretty for them. I also remember a time I was helping a gentleman look for the right battery for his car keys and when he approached me and got my attention, I responded by saying yes. I remember the man told me, “wow, I like it when a woman says yes to me.” That comment threw me off and I was speechless. I ended up laughing it off awkwardly and saw a fellow coworker and asked him to take over cause I had to use the restroom, but really, I was just feeling uncomfortable. Innocent comments to some can be considered offensive to others and at that moment I just felt…icky. I guess there are different types of ways someone can feel objectified and not know it right away.

  2. The line between objectifying and desiring has always been quite blurred (if that’s the right term for it) in my life as I grew up. As an Asian girl growing up in a county with a very strong white presence, the ideology of “Yellow Fever” was very familiar to my friends and me. The concept of Yellow Fever in a sociological context (rather than medical) is rooted in Asian fetishism. Or rather, objectifying Asian people by degrading them to the status of their own race. Of course being Asian wasn’t an “object,” but in this context, it really did feel like it. Whenever it was brought up that a non-Asian boy had a crush on me, it never sit well that his history would consist of only Asian girls. They did not like or desire me for me as a person with a personality of my own, but rather because of their baseless assumptions of stereotypes of Asian women.

    • Yeah, the main division is that one disregards the persons thoughts and feelings, treating them like their thoughts and feelings don’t matter. One can desire and care.

  3. Very intriguing question, because it got me to think of definitions and human emotions. Desire is definitely a part of human nature and biology and in a sense objectifying in a very broad scope is just this ~ but when you define objectification as you have done here (and done very well), the difference is clear. Attraction is not objectification. Wonderful post, Georgia.

  4. Well, since I’m posting the day before Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving, hope you and your family have a nice time but you and everyone stay healthy. Ok so back to my post. I’ve thought I’ve been this before, but it just confirmed what I swear I’ve know before. I for whatever reason randomly wondered like I think many people do and google questions. It’s interesting how, (I’m generalizing) men are able to have sex without a relationship or more purely for sex compared to women. But yet, even though women are the “emotional, more feeling sex”. It’s men who say I love you in a relationship much quicker than women. https://thevidaconsultancy.com/blog/how-long-does-it-take-to-fall-in-love/#:~:text=Reader%27s%20Digest%20claim%20that%20men,of%20time%20(132%20days).

    Maybe women are more careful because of the hurt whereas men are more impulsive to let g into the relationship, idk. It’s interesting though because it’s almost feels like a contradiction with men. Like society has men in two halves. One side shows men seeming to have less feelings and more about sex physically, the other side shows men are just as much with feelings, love and emotionally connected as women and in some ways more so, yet women are the emotional sex. Men fall in love faster, say they love a woman and remarry faster or harder for men to not be in a relationship after a break up than women. That’s alot of feelings right there

    • First off, happy Thanksgiving! Yes we are being safe and not meeting with other family members this year. but we actually often do that so this is nothing new.

      Actually I have written a bit on this topic. Let me know what you think: https://broadblogs.com/2011/10/17/who-falls-in-love-faster-men-or-women/

      • Yes, but the remarry part too seems to show the emotional side men have or wanting to be connected even more than women. Perhaps because women have more social support too, and men who break up feel more lonely could also be a reason why it’s harder for men to be single after a divorce or break up. But in some ways, it seems like guys are as emotional and romantic as women or have more feelings in other ways

      • Yes, women and men are both human and both have equal emotional needs I believe.

        After divorce women do have more emotional support because their friendships tend to be more emotionally attuned and deeper. When women socialize they are more likely to do face-to-face, going out to lunch or dinner and that sort of thing. Men are more likely to socialize side-by-side, watching or playing sports. Apparently Covid and the inability of men to watch and play sports together is signaling that men need deeper male relationships than they have traditionally had.

        And men are also more likely to lose their entire family when there is a divorce. Most judges award custody based on what is best for the children and because women are more likely to sacrifice careers for their children (as we are seeing a great deal with Covid — women are much more likely to drop out of the workforce to help homeschool their kids) the children are typically closer to their mothers. Which is why “mom and dad” is one of the few times that the female comes before the male in language. Typically it’s men and women, boys and girls, brothers and sisters…

        But one Big reason for divorce is that men have also learned not to listen to women. Wives are unhappy and tell their spouses that they need something different and the men don’t pay attention. And then 80% of divorces are initiated by women. And then like I was saying the men tend to lose their whole families and not have a lot of male support.

        Meanwhile, we encourage boys to keep their emotions close to themselves and not express them. This may have to do with, from the beginning of time, men taking on the hunter and warrior roles. I guess it helps men to act courageous rather than talk about their fears when they are assigned those roles, and to not have sympathy for those they are hunting or warring with.

  5. This is such a great topic to talk about. When it comes to women being an object, this is sorting that many men have done for centuries. They tend always to put women to the side, making them feel like objects, and the fact that they will go ahead and objectify them makes it even worse for us women. For many years they’ve been seen as just someone to please everyone’s needs, even if that means sexually. Whatever feelings they had or felt were always put to the side. This is the reason why in many Latino households, “machismo” happens. As a woman, you aren’t there to please the men and care for his children. You aren’t doing your job as a woman. This is a topic that has been seen for years. And even then, if women were to express themselves in sexual activities, they are looked down upon. Women had to learn to quiet down because if they spoke up, it wasn’t considered “ladylike.”

  6. I think this article was very helpful because when it comes to discussing attraction there are a lot of grey areas between what is objectification and what is not. It is important to mention (as you did) that it isn’t just men who objectify women- women do it too and it is extremely common and somewhat even natural to objectify. I think another important idea that should be mentioned as well when it comes to sexual objectification is the concept of fetishism. In the article when discussing the boyfriend wanting a threesome and pushing the idea, or the boyfriend wishing she had bigger breasts, these can be seen as forms of fetishism. This article overall does a pretty good job breaking down the basic differences and concepts of sexual interests now a days, regardless if it is lust, attraction, desires, etc. I think an important question we should ask is objectification innate or taught?

  7. Very well discussed the two issues. Sexual desire is wanting to have sex with someone. Sexual objectification is considering someone to be worthless except for their capacity to bring you sexual pleasure. Expressing desire in a way that treats the person like a full human being (or at the very least allows for the desired person to gracefully extricate themselves from the situation) is not objectification.

  8. Thank you for providing this distinction between objectifying and desiring. After reading your post, I have gathered that your definition of “objectification” is desire that is acted upon without having consideration of the other person’s feelings. Women who check out men and girls who drool over boy bands are not “objectifying” the object of lust because they aren’t acting on their desire. Am I correct?

    Also, I’m so disgusted to hear that anecdote about the threesome. I often hear stories about men trying to convince their female partners to do a threesome with two women and one man (himself). I hear less often about a woman trying to convince her male partner to do a threesome with two men and one woman (herself). I think this is unfortunately just another symptom of men being taught from birth that they should seek out sexual gratification and that women exist to fulfill their sexual desires. Women are not taught that men are there to please them, so they are less likely to think about having threesome with multiple men.

    • “Women who check out men and girls who drool over boy bands are not “objectifying” the object of lust because they aren’t acting on their desire. Am I correct?”

      No. Drooling isn’t necessarily hurtful and could even be welcome.

      Here are some examples of sex without caring for your partner:

      Why Endure Excruciating Hookups? https://broadblogs.com/2015/06/03/why-endure-excruciating-hookups/

      Why Some Guys Want to Screw You https://broadblogs.com/2014/01/03/why-some-guys-want-to-screw-you-2/

      Or the examples in the post are of one man who say hurtful things to his girlfriend because he views her as inadequate sex objects. The guy doesn’t care about the girls’ feelings.

      Or the other guy doesn’t care how hurtful it is to his girlfriend to keep insisting they have threesomes. Her thoughts and feelings don’t matter.

      Desire is fine. But it can be acted on in either a very positive way or a hurtful way.

  9. An old boyfriend of mine was only 100 pounds and 5’3 and me being an almost 5’4, 130 pound girl, it was hard for me to really see myself fit with him. Our whole relationship consisted of me being insecure because the girl my boyfriend couldn’t stop talking to was only 5’1 and had abs and maybe even 3% body fat. It was hard for me to feel beautiful around him, me being young had meant that I was at a more vulnerable stage when it came to my physical appearance. It was almost like he had known that and taken advantage of it, he knew of my insecurities and made me think that as long as I did whatever he wanted me to then I was beautiful. But in reality, I was already beautiful and had exactly what I needed on my own but because of this relationship it had taken me a long time to realize that.

    • Yes, that is some major objectifying behavior on the part of your boyfriend, not caring about your feelings.

      Luckily, life has many lessons and some of them teach us who to avoid. Relationships are so much happier with non-objectifying men.

  10. my reference to touching i’ll give an example. I was sitting in class next to a girl many years ago and our hands touched although we didn’t grasp hands her hand brushed my wrist playfully and she said” hey”? I didn’t think any of it had I thought like that then I might have been reading more into it than I probably should have but in answer about the whole flerting via touching when you can’t read body language or see facial expression that’s when there might be some form of physical flertatious behaviour to know how people come across as flerty with regards to flerty talk the only way to know for certain is to experience it face to face and in person. role play it because it’s very easy to talk about it and not comprehend it. there’s more comprohention when you experience it I’ve never used terms of endearment even if somebody uses them with me i’m probably more hung up about appropriate time and place i’m probably overthinking things more than I should and i’m making it difficult by what I come out with because this shows serious lack of experiences.

    • Yeah, when you are blind you would need to use things like tone of voice to flirt and to understand if someone else is flirting. And you may be much more attuned to that than someone who has sight.

  11. I’ve heard women insist that men should do what women want in house chores, even if it is emotionally or physically painful.

    Women will never accept the same rules when turned around.

    I’ve heard women insist that women should not do what men want sexually, even if it is emotionally painful for the man.

    Now what?

    Anytime one partner wants X and the other wants NOT X, that’s emotionally painful for one partner, yet you immediately jump to the conclusion that the man is in the wrong. How does that work? Female supremacy? Matriarchy?

    And how come these conversations about “objectification” center around the sacrosanct status of women’s bodies, with never a mention about where 90% of objectification happens in society… women using men as their ATM while never giving any care for their feelings.

    • Doing housework isn’t actually emotionally or physically painful. And another big difference is that the work has to be done and so it should be shared equally. With sex you should both be able to find something you mutually enjoy. And if you don’t, she will lose interest in sex entirely. And leave you.

      But thanks for being “exhibit A” illustrating a man with an objectifying attitude.

  12. I have questions here as I always seem to do with regards to many posts that go up on this topic. I myself have a pretty good idea of what objectification is but desire can go both ways right? we may have good desires but sometimes we might get ideas of desiring something within our heads unhealthy desires? Another question is love and lust to me or what I’ve heard lust has a negative connotation right? My final question before I go and yes i’m sorry but this comment isn’t exactly a comment but it’s full of questions. what is classed as flerting or flertatious behaviour? actions? words? actions being physical? mind play?

    • I really don’t think that lust, it’s self, is a problem. I’m more concerned with whether someone is being hurt.

      Flirting can be a mental thing or physical as far as sending signals is concerned. And really it’s all about whether you’re hurting someone or not.If you are harming — you don’t care about their feelings or thoughts — that is objectifying.

      But I realize I’m not really sure what you mean by physical. Not touching. One might give a look that indicates interest so there is a physicality involved in that , but you could do non-physical things like use tone of voice, or say sweet flirty things, to flirt.

  13. The subject is indeed topical. Desiring and objectification are different aspects. The former is often characterised by finer emotions whereas the latter is an offshoot of baser sentiments tending to treat women as chattel. Perversions insisting on threesomes or sex without regard to partner’s comfort are all extensions of the same crassness. Proper upbringing and grooming of girls and boys from formative age may be the way forward to healthier adult attitudes in later life.

  14. This is a great way to explain it, I particularly like the part about objects having no annoying thoughts or feelings.

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