My actions, I believe, result from the sum total of my past experiences and my current understanding.
Because of this, I know exactly why I frowned when the keynote speaker told a story about a naked female butt on stage at a conference. And a month later, when a different man told a dirty joke while on a panel discussing legal issues, I frowned again. Neither speaker’s topic had anything remotely to do with sex, but they still shared anecdotes laden with innuendo.
Most people in the audience laughed. Obviously, my frown offered a minority opinion. Should I, I wondered, lighten up?
Once, in the seventh grade, I borrowed a friend’s too-short skirt and paired it with a tight crop top. I snuck the outfit out of my house and changed at school. I knew what I was doing.
All my life ads and TV shows depicted women in these outfits. They got lots of attention. I wanted to try the idea of being “sexy” on.
But the attention didn’t make me feel good, quite the opposite. The boys didn’t want to get to know me, they wanted. . . something else. I didn’t feel like a person, I felt like a thing.
Which is not to say I wasn’t a normal teenager. I wanted to flirt and kiss boys. I wanted to be pretty.
But, more than anything else, I wanted to be liked as a person. I wanted to have actual conversations with interesting people. This wasn’t likely in high school, though I kept trying.
Later, when I was in college, my roommates and I hung out with a few frat boys who labeled me a “feminazi.” To this day, I find this strange. I didn’t do anything particularly radical, at least not that I remember.
Maybe it wasn’t what I said or did exactly. Maybe I just didn’t laugh at the sexist jokes they often made. Or I left the room when it all seemed too ridiculous. Perhaps that was enough to earn me the name.
Now, twenty years later, my dislike of the casual sexual references doesn’t surprise me. But maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe I am taking this whole thing too seriously.
To answer this question I dove into the Internet. Then, eyes bleary from hours and hours of research, I emerged with an answer. But first, let’s define what we’re talking about here; it’s called “objectification.”
Objectification, in this context, means to remove agency. An object does not think or act for itself. Others prescribe an object’s role and purpose.
Objects do not have feelings worthy of consideration. They are ACTED UPON. Conveniently, English grammar illustrates this point.
According to Grammar Girl, “The subject is the person or thing doing something, and the object is having something done to it.” (emphasis mine)
For example, when I go for a haircut, my stylist sees my hair as an object. She acts upon my hair by cutting it. In a sense, my stylist objectifies my hair as a means to an end–her getting paid and me being happy with my haircut.
But, objectification goes wrong when the whole is reduced to a part. To clarify, if my hair stylist thought of me only as a head of hair, not a person with hair, that’s closer to what academics and researches mean when talking about the effects of objectification.
Obviously, parts of our bodies are “acted upon” during sex. But we sexually objectify a person when we equate the value of that person to their appeal or function as a sexual object. Full stop.
To begin my analysis of whether or not I should turn my frown upside down with respect to these casual, public innuendos, I wanted to know two things. First, is sexual objectification normal? And second, is it beneficial?
Is Sexual Objectification Normal?
The argument for “normal” places the focus on simple biology. Men are more visual than women. The continuance of the human species requires sexual congress.
Physical attraction for all genders is normal. Wanting to have sex with someone one finds attractive is normal. Finding a particular body part attractive is normal.
And, the argument goes, women benefit from a male’s attraction in the form of increased tips and gifts. It is, says some, a source of feminine power.
Is Sexual Objectification Beneficial?
Next, I tackled the second, harder question. Significantly, I found only one study showing empirical evidence of sexual objectification as a potential benefit to women (aside from tips and gifts). This study looked at 113 newlywed couples. The researchers published their finding in a paper called, Women Like Being Valued for Sex, as Long as it is by a Committed Partner.
Specifically, lead author Andrea L. Meltzer notes, “Women can benefit from sexual valuation in the context of a relationship — as long as their partners are committed to the long-term.”
Normal? Maybe. Beneficial? No.
So, in summary, attraction to a part of the whole can be normal. Certainly, sexual attraction overall is normal. But only or primarily seeing and valuing a part of the whole seems problematic.
The evidence for this is in the lack of data supporting any benefit from the general, and obviously pervasive sexual objectification of women. Although Meltzer, and her colleagues from Northwestern University, point out how committed relationships–implying trust and equality–do result in benefits for women. This, in turn, points to the fact that the committed partners in the study value all of their wives’ parts, including, but not limited to, the sex ones.
Interestingly, as I searched for “benefits of sexual objectification” most of the results the engine spit back to me led in the exact opposite direction.
Women as Lesser Beings
Clearly, images and references of women as sexual objects wallpaper our world. They’re everywhere. Because they’re everywhere we see them but we don’t always take notice of them.
However, numerous studies have shown that sexual objectification of women contributes to the perception that women are lesser beings. Nathan A. Heflick, Ph.D offers a summary of some of these findings, excerpted from his 2011 article in Psychology Today:
do people perceive sexualized women differently?
The answer is a resounding “yes.” As I have talked about in previous posts (here, here, and here), research shows that men and women rate these women as less intelligent, and even have less concern for their physical well-being.
Further, Emma Rooney, writing for NYU’s Department of Applied Psychology wrote an article entitled, Effects of Sexual Objectification on Women’s Mental Health. She says:
A sexist joke and an act of sexual violence might be dismissed as two very different and unrelated events, but they are in fact related. These two behaviors are connected by the presence of sexual objectification. Culturally common and often condoned in the U.S., the sexual objectification of women is a driving and perpetuating component of gender oppression, systemic sexism, sexual harassment, and violence against women
To demonstrate the wealth of data on the negative effects of sexual objectification, I included several studies as references below. These papers explore the impacts of removing the agency of women by calculating their worth and potential through a sexualized lens. Constant reinforcement of women-as-sex-objects seems to normalize treating women disrespectfully–whether it’s as simple as interrupting her or as criminal as sexual assault.
Change the Habit
When someone tells a joke or story that underscores the women-as-sex-object narrative, should I go along? No, I don’t think so. I think I was right to frown.
Consider this, in April 2017, the CDC found that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes. If NOT objectifying people has even the smallest possibility of impacting these numbers, shouldn’t we try? After all, no one ever said, “Yes, please take away my agency without my permission. It’s freeing and it helps me live up to my potential.”
On the positive side, in my searches I found a few essays from men reflecting on objectification behavior. Jason Gaddis here at The Good Men Project penned a thoughtful one entitled, Why Men Objectify Women. He wrote of his own experiences and those of many men and women he’s talked to.
“The next thing to note is,” he says, “that men are conditioned to objectify women. It’s ain’t just nature working here. In men’s culture, it’s acceptable to objectify women. Men bond around it.” Notably, for Gaddis, objectifying women was pain medication when he felt disconnected from himself.
By and large, I believe all genders can stop feeding this particular beast. We can change the casual habit of sexual objectification by pausing to consider our words. In particular, we can stop thoughtlessly approving those who say these things in inappropriate contexts with our laughter.
The research clearly shows the damaging effects of the women-as-sex-object narrative. In my own recent experiences, I see ample evidence that we have work to do. In the end, I think we all know, deep down, this behavior is something we can and should grow out of.
To put it another way: Change the habit. Change the world.
Szymanski, Dawn M., Moffit, Lauren B., Carr, Erika R. (2011),Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research.The Counseling Psychologist, 39(1), 6-38.
Bernard, Phillipe,Gervais, Sarah J., Allen, Jill, Campomizzi, Sophie, Klein, Olivier.(2012). Integrating Sexual Objectification with Object Versus Person Recognition: The Sexualized-Body-Inversion Hypothesis. Psychological Science, Association for Psychological Science, 23 (5), 469-471.
Awasthi, Bhuvanesh. From Attire to Assault: Clothing, Objectification, and De-Humanization–A Possible Prelude to Sexual Violence. Frontiers in Psychology, 10 March 2017.
Gervais, Sarah J., Vescio, Theresa K., Forster, Jens, Maass, Anne, Suitor, Caterina. (2012) Seeing Women as Objects: The Body Part Recognition Bias. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42 (6), 743-753.
Berdahl, J. L. (2007). Harassment based on sex: Protecting social status in the context of gender hierarchy. The Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 641-658.
Fairchild, K., & Rudman, L. A. (2008). Everyday stranger harassment and women’s objectification. Social Justice Research, 21(3), 338-357.
Gardner, C. B. (1995). Passing by: Gender and public harassment. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.
Harned, M. S. (2000). Harassed bodies: An examination of the relationships among women’s experiences of sexual harassment, body image and eating disturbances.Psychology of Women Quarterly, 24(4), 336-348.
Swim, J. K., Hyers, L. L., Cohen, L. L., & Ferguson, M. J. (2001). Everyday sexism: Evidence for its incidence, nature, and psychological impact from three daily diary studies.Journal of Social Issues, 57(1), 31-53.
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