Objectifying and Desiring Aren’t the Same Thing?
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.