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Sexual objectification

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Sexual objectification

"Sex object" redirects here. For other uses, see Sex object (disambiguation)
An example of sexual objectification of women on a wine menu

Sexual objectification is the act of treating a person as an instrument of sexual pleasure, making them a "sex object." Objectification more broadly means treating a person as a commodity or an object, without regard to their personality or dignity. Objectification is most commonly examined at the level of a society, but can also refer to the behavior of individuals.

The concept of sexual objectification and, in particular, the objectification of women, is an important idea in feminist theory and psychological theories derived from feminism.[1][2] Many feminists regard sexual objectification as deplorable and as playing an important role in gender inequality.[3] However, some social commentators argue that some modern women objectify themselves as an expression of their empowerment over men, while others argue that increased sexual freedom for women and for gay and bisexual men has led to an increase of the objectification of men.[4][5][6][7][8] The idea of sexual objectification has also been an important area of discussion and debate in the area of sexual ethics and the philosophy of sex.[9]

Sexual objectification of women

The objectification of women involves the act of disregarding the personal and intellectual abilities and capabilities of a female; and reducing a woman's worth or role in society to that of an instrument for the sexual pleasure that she can produce in the mind of another.[1][10] Although opinions differ as to which situations are objectionable, some feminists[11] see objectification of women taking place in the sexually oriented depictions of women in advertising and media, women being portrayed as weak or submissive through pornography, images in more mainstream media such as advertising and art, stripping and prostitution, men brazenly evaluating or judging women sexually or aesthetically in public spaces and events, such as beauty contests, and the presumed need for cosmetic surgery, particularly breast enlargement and labiaplasty.[12]

Some feminists and psychologists [13] argue that sexual objectification can lead to negative psychological effects including depression and hopelessness, and can give women negative self-images because of the belief that their intelligence and competence are currently not being, nor will ever be, acknowledged by society. Some have argued that the feminist movement itself has contributed to the problem of the sexual objectification of women by pushing for an end to the so-called oppressive patriarchal marriage and promoting "free" love (i.e. women choosing to have non-reproductive sex outside of marriage and for their own pleasure).[14][15] Such promotion has increased the average number of lifetime sexual partners for men, which in turn has caused some men to devalue sex, which in turn has caused men who objectify women to devalue women. The precise degree to how objectification has affected women and society in general is a topic of academic debate. Such claims include: girls' understanding of the importance of appearance in society may contribute to feelings of fear, shame, and disgust that some experience during the transition from girlhood to womanhood because they sense that they are becoming more visible to society as sexual objects;[16] and that young women are especially susceptible to objectification, as they are often taught that power, respect, and wealth can be derived from one's outward appearance.[17]

Pro-feminist cultural critics such as Robert Jensen and Sut Jhally accuse mass media and advertising of promoting the objectification of women to help promote goods and services.[11][18][19]

The objection to the objectification of women is not a recent phenomenon. In the French Enlightenment, for example, there was a debate as to whether a woman's breasts were merely a sensual enticement or rather a natural gift. In Alexandre Guillaume Mouslier de Moissy's 1771 play The True Mother (La Vraie Mère), the title character rebukes her husband for treating her as merely an object for his sexual gratification: "Are your senses so gross as to look on these breasts – the respectable treasures of nature – as merely an embellishment, destined to ornament the chest of women?"[20]

Female self-objectification

Ariel Levy contends that Western women who exploit their sexuality by, for example, wearing revealing clothing and engaging in lewd behavior, engage in female self-objectification, meaning they objectify themselves. While some women see such behaviour as a form of empowerment, Levy contends that it has led to greater emphasis on a physical criterion or sexualization for women's perceived self-worth, which Levy calls "raunch culture".[21]

Levy discusses this phenomenon in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Levy followed the camera crew from the Girls Gone Wild video series, and argues that contemporary America's sexualized culture not only objectifies women, it encourages women to objectify themselves.[22] In today's culture, Levy writes, the idea of a woman participating in a wet T-shirt contest or being comfortable watching explicit pornography has become a symbol of feminist strength; she says that she was surprised at how many people, both men and women, working for programs such as Girls Gone Wild told her that this new "raunchy" culture marked not the downfall of feminism but its triumph, because it proved that U.S. women have become strong enough to express their sexuality publicly.

Sexual objectification of men

Feminist authors Christina Hoff Sommers and Naomi Wolf write that women's sexual liberation has led many women to a role reversal, whereby they view men as sex objects,[23][24][25] in a manner similar to what they criticize about men's treatment of women. Research has suggested that the psychological effects of objectification on men are similar to those of women, leading to negative body image among men.[26]

Instances where men may be viewed as sex objects by women include advertising, music videos, movies and television shows,[27] beefcake calendars, women's magazines, male strip shows, and clothed female nude male (CFNM) events.[28][29] Also, more women are purchasing and consuming pornography.[30][31][32][33][34]

Views on sexual objectification

While the concept of sexual objectification is important within feminist theory, ideas vary widely on what constitutes sexual objectification and what are the ethical implications of such objectification. Some feminists such as Naomi Wolf find the concept of physical attractiveness itself to be problematic,[35] with some radical feminists being opposed to any evaluation of another person's sexual attractiveness based on physical characteristics. John Stoltenberg goes so far as to condemn as wrongfully objectifying any sexual fantasy that involves visualization of a woman.[36]

Radical feminists view objectification as playing a central role in reducing women to what they refer to as the "oppressed sex Social class". While some feminists view mass media in societies that they argue are patriarchal to be objectifying, they often focus on pornography as playing an egregious role in habituating men to objectify women.[37] Other feminists, particularly those identified with sex-positive feminism, take a different view of sexual objectification and see it as a problem when it is not counterbalanced by women's sense of their own sexual subjectivity.

Some social conservatives have taken up aspects of the feminist critique of sexual objectification. In their view however, the increase in the sexual objectification of both sexes in Western culture is one of the negative legacies of the sexual revolution.[38][39][40][41][42] These critics, notably Wendy Shalit, advocate a return to pre-sexual revolution standards of sexual morality, which Shalit refers to as a "return to modesty", as an antidote to sexual objectification.[39][43]

Others contest feminist claims about the objectification of women. Camille Paglia holds that "Turning people into sex objects is one of the specialties of our species." In her view, objectification is closely tied to (and may even be identical with) the highest human faculties toward conceptualization and aesthetics.[44] Individualist feminist Wendy McElroy says, given that 'objectification' of women means to make women into sexual objects; it is meaningless because, 'sexual objects', taken literally, means nothing because inanimate objects do not have sexuality. She continues that women are their bodies as well as their minds and souls, and so focusing on a single aspect should not be "degrading".[45]

Objectification theory

Sexual objectification has been studied based on the proposition that girls and women develop their primary view of their physical selves from observing others. These observations can take place in the media or through personal experience.[46] Through a blend of expected and actual exposure, women are socialized to objectify their own physical characteristics from a third person perception, which is identified as self-objectification.[47] Women and girls develop an expected physical appearance for themselves, based on observations of others; and are aware that others are likely to observe as well. The sexual objectification and self-objectification of women is believed to influence social gender roles and inequalities between the sexes.[48]


Self-objectification can increase in situations which heighten the awareness of an individual’s physical appearance.[49] Here, the presence of a third person observer is enhanced. Therefore, when individuals know others are looking at them, or will be looking at them, they are more likely to care about their physical appearance. Examples of the enhanced presence of an observer include the presence of an audience, camera, or other known observer.

Women, girls, and self-objectification

Primarily, objectification theory describes how women and girls are influenced as a result of expected social and gender roles.[46] Research indicates not all women are influenced equally, due to the anatomical, hormonal, and genetic differences of the female body; however, women’s bodies are often objectified and evaluated more frequently.[50] Females learn that their physical appearance is important to themselves and society. As a result, females consider their physical appearance often, expecting that others will also.

Sexual objectification occurs when a person is identified by their sexual body parts or sexual function. In essence, an individual loses their identity, and is recognized solely by the physical characteristics of their body.[46] The purpose of this recognition is to bring enjoyment to others, or to serve as a sexual object for society.[51] Sexual objectification can occur as a social construct among individuals.

Psychological consequences

Objectification theory suggests both direct and indirect consequences of objectification to women. Indirect consequences include self consciousness in terms that a woman is consistently checking or rearranging her clothes or appearance to ensure that she is presentable. More direct consequences are related to sexual victimization. Rape and sexual harassment are examples of this.[52] Doob (2012) states that sexual harassment is one of the challenges faced by women in workplace. This may constitute sexual jokes or comments, most of which are degrading.[53] Research indicates that objectification theory is valuable to understanding how repeated visual images in the media are socialized and translated into mental health problems, including psychological consequences on the individual and societal level.[13] These include increased self-consciousness, increased body anxiety, heightened mental health threats (depression, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and sexual dysfunction), and increased body shame.[54] Therefore, the theory has been used to explore an array of dependent variables including disordered eating, mental health, depression, motor performance, body image, idealized body type, stereotype formation, sexual perception and sexual typing.[13][49] Body shame is a byproduct of the concept of an idealized body type adopted by most Western cultures that depicts a thin, model-type figure. Thus, women will engage in actions meant to change their body such as dieting, exercise, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, etc.[52] Effects of objectification theory are identified on both the individual and societal levels.

Causes of depression

Learned helplessness theory posits that because human bodies are only alterable to a certain point, people develop a sense of body shame and anxiety from which they create a feeling of helplessness in relation to correcting their physical appearance and helplessness in being able to control the way in which others perceive their appearance. This lack of control often results in depression.[52] In relating to a lack of motivation, objectification theory states that women have less control in relationships and the work environment because they have to depend on the evaluation of another who is typically basing their evaluation on physical appearance. Since the dependence on another's evaluation limits a woman's ability to create her own positive experiences and motivation, it adversely increases her likelihood for depression.[52] Furthermore, sexual victimization may be a cause. Specifically, victimization within the workplace degrades women. Harassment experienced every day wears on a woman, and sometimes results in a state of depression.[52][53]

Sexual fetishism

Sexual fetishism can be considered sexual objectification when a person is assigned or adopts the status of the fetish object. In BDSM activities, even though it is consensual, subjecting a submissive to erotic humiliation can be regarded as sexual objectification. Human furniture is a form of fetishism and sexual objectification. Allen Jones' "Hat Stand and Table Sculpture" incorporates semi-naked women into furniture, and are regarded as sexual objectification.

See also


  1. ^ a b Barry, Kathleen, Female Sexual Slavery (NYU Press, 1994), ISBN 978-0-8147-1069-2, p.247
  2. ^ Goldenberg, Jamie L., and Tomi-Ann Roberts, 'The Beast within the Beauty: An Existential Perspective on the Objectification and Condemnation of Women' in Jeff Greenberg, Sander Leon Koole, Thomas A. Pyszczynski and Tom Pyszczynski (eds) Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (Guilford Press, 2004), ISBN 978-1-59385-040-1
  3. ^ Bartky, Sandra Lee, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (Routledge, 1990), ISBN 0-415-90186-3, p. 26
  4. ^ "Men As Sex Objects (turnin' the tables)". Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  5. ^ Study: For Israeli women, going on vacation means more sex Irit Rosenblum, Haaretz, 26/02/2008.
  6. ^ Botting, Kate and Botting, Douglas. "Men Can Be Sex Objects Too". Cosmopolitan. August 1996.
  7. ^ No more faking: "Sex isn't over until we've had an orgasm...," say Melinda Gallagher and Emily Kramer, founders of the outrageous Cake sex empire for women. But is their love of porn and lapdancing breaking new ground, or is so-called 'raunch feminism' setting the cause back? Sharon Krum The Guardian, Monday May 15, 2006.
  8. ^ Simpson, Mark. "Speedophobia: America's Fear and Loathing of Budgie Smuggling". Retrieved 2012-08-14. 
  9. ^ See, for example – Soble, Alan (ed). 1997. Sex, Love and Friendship: Studies of the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love 1977–1992. Amsterdam: Rodopi. ISBN 90-420-0227-1. Chapters 13–16.
  10. ^ LeMoncheck, Linda, Loose Women, Lecherous Men: A Feminist Philosophy of Sex (Oxford University press, 1997), ISBN 978-0-19-510556-8, p. 133
  11. ^ a b Jhally, Sut (dir) Dreamworlds II: Desire, Sex, Power in Music (Media Education Foundation, USA, 1997)
  12. ^ Yeung, Peter. "The female artists reclaiming their bodies:". Dazed. It is through this prism of patriarchal control that much exploitation of women has been enacted: commonly phallocentric portraiture has been used to permeate the rest of society...The fetishisation of womens’ bodies and their regular reduction to breasts is something that New York artist Cindy Hinant is acutely aware of. 
  13. ^ a b c Fredrickson, Barbara L.; Tomi-Ann Roberts. (1997). "Objectification Theory: Toward understanding women's lived experiences and mental health risks". Psychology of Women Quarterly 21(2):173–206. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x. Retrieved on 2014-4-16.
  14. ^  
  15. ^  
  16. ^ Lee, Janet. 1994. Menarche and the (hetero)sexualization of the female body. Gender & Society 8(3):343–362. doi:10.1177/089124394008003004
  17. ^ APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (2007-02-19). "Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, Executive Summary".  
  18. ^ Jensen, Robert, 'Using Pornography' in Dines, Gail, Robert Jensen and Ann Russo (eds) Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (Routledge, 1998), ISBN 978-0-415-91813-8
  19. ^ Frith, Katherine, Ping Shaw and Hong Cheng 'The Construction of Beauty: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Women's Magazine Advertising' in Journal of Communication 55 (1), 2005, pp.56–70
  20. ^ Simon Schama. Citizens. A Chronicle of the French Revolution, p. 147. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1989. ISBN 0-394-55948-7.
  21. ^ 'Save the males': Ho culture lights fuses, but confuses, By KATHLEEN PARKER, NY Daily News, June 30th 2008. Based on "Save the Males" by Kathleen Parker, Copyright 2008, Random House, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group.
  22. ^ Dougary, Ginny (September 25, 2007). "Yes we are bovvered". The Times (London). Retrieved May 23, 2010. 
  23. ^ Sommers, Christina Hoff. 1994. Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York. Simon and Schuster (pp.264-265), ISBN 0-671-79424-8 (hc), ISBN 0-684-80156-6 (pb)
  24. ^ Wolf, Naomi. 1994. Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It. New York: Fawcett Columbine (pp.225-228), ISBN 0-449-90951-4.
  25. ^ Friend, Tad. Yes (feminist women who like sex) Esquire. February 1994
  26. ^ Neimark, Jill. "The Beefcaking of America". Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  27. ^ "Female Friendly Advertising". Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  28. ^ "Sports, Gym Classes, Team Initiations and Events". 1998-01-26. Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  29. ^ "Tale of the Dancing Bear". Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  30. ^ McElroy, Wendy. 1995. XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. New York: St. Martin's Press (p.36)
  31. ^ Dulcie Pearce (2009-04-01). "66% of women watch porn". Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  32. ^ "A 'Playgirl" for Adult TV". Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  33. ^ Taormino, Tristan (2008-05-13). "Girls Love Gay Male Porn". Retrieved 2012-08-16. 
  34. ^ Scott, Lisa (2008-10-15). "Women who like to watch gay porn". Metro, Retrieved 2012-08-17. 
  35. ^ Wolf, Naomi. (1992). The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow and Co. (Reprinted, 2002. New York: Harper Perennial) ISBN 0-06-051218-0
  36. ^ Stoltenberg, John. 1989. Refusing to be a man: Essays on sex and justice. Portland, OR: Breitenbush Books. (Reprinted, 2000. Oxford: Routledge) ISBN 1-84142-041-7
  37. ^ MacKinnon, Catharine (1992). Only Words. Harvard University Press.  
  38. ^ "Dr. James Dobson". 1997-01-12. Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  39. ^ a b Shalit, Wendy. 1999. A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-684-84316-1 (hc), ISBN 0-684-86317-0 (pb).
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  41. ^ Holz, Adam R. 2007. Is Average the New Ugly? Plugged In Online
  42. ^ Coalition, National. "Subtle Dangers of Pornogaphy". Retrieved 2012-08-01. 
  43. ^ Shalit, Wendy. 2000. Modesty revisited. Boundless webzine.
  44. ^ Paglia, Camille (August 20, 1991).  
  45. ^ McElroy, Wendy. 2006. A feminist overview of pornography, ending in a defense thereof.
  46. ^ a b c Bartky, Sandra Lee. (1990). Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-90186-4. p 26.
  47. ^ Kaschak, Ellyn. (1992). Engendered Lives: A new Psychology of Women's Experience (Basic Books). ISBN 0-465-01349-X. p 12.
  48. ^ Goldenberg, Jamie L., and Tomi-Ann Roberts. (2004). The beast within the beauty: An existential perspective on the objectification and condemnation of women. In: J Greenberg, SL Koole, T Pyszczynski (eds), Handbook of experimental existential psychology; p 71–85. (Guilford Press). ISBN 978-1-59385-040-1.
  49. ^ a b Fredrickson, Barbara L. and Kristen Harrison. (2005). Throwing like a girl: Self-objectification predicts adolescent girl's motor performance. Journal of Sport and Social Issues 29(1):79–101. doi:10.1177/0193723504269878. p 82.
  50. ^ Fredrickson and Harrison (2005), p 90–95.
  51. ^ LeMoncheck, Linda. (1997). Loose Women, Lecherous Men: A Feminist Philosophy of Sex (Oxford University Press). ISBN 978-0-19-510556-8. p 133.
  52. ^ a b c d e Fredrickson, Barbara L. and Tomi-Ann Roberts. 1997. "Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women's Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks." Psychology of Women Quarterly 21(2):173-206
  53. ^ a b Doob, Christopher, B. 2013.Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society.1st ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
  54. ^ Moradi, B., & Huang, Y.-P. (2008). Objectification theory and psychology of women: A decade of advances and future directions. "Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32", 377-396. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00452.x

Further reading

  • Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1990. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-90185-5 (hc), ISBN 0-415-90186-3 (pb).
  • Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books. ISBN 0-563-12244-7 (BBC), ISBN 0-14-021631-6, ISBN 0-14-013515-4 (pbk).
  • Brooks, Gary R. 1995. The Centerfold Syndrome: How Men Can Overcome Objectification and Achieve Intimacy with Women. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-0104-0.
  • Eames, Elizabeth. 1976. Sexism and woman as sex object. Journal of Thought 11(2):140–143.
  • Holroyd, Julia. 2005. Sexual objectification: The unlikely alliance of feminism and Kant (conference paper). Society for Applied Philosophy International Congress 2005, Oxford, UK.
  • LeMoncheck, Linda. 1985. Dehumanizing Women: Treating Persons as Sex Objects. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0-8476-7331-6 (hc).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. 1995. Objectification. Philosophy and Public Affairs 24(4): 249–291. doi:10.1111/j.1088-4963.1995.tb00032.x. (JSTOR link.)
  • Papadaki, Evangelia. 2007. Sexual objectification: From Kant to contemporary feminism. Contemporary Political Theory 6(3):330–348. doi:10.1057/palgrave.cpt.9300282. (PDF)
  • Shrage, Laurie. 2005. Exposing the fallacies of anti-porn feminism. Feminist Theory 6:45–65. doi:10.1177/1464700105050226.
  • Soble, Alan. 2002. Pornography, Sex, and Feminism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-944-1 (pb).
  • Paul, Pamela. 2005. Pornified: How Pornography Is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-7745-6 (hc).

External links

  • "Feminist Perspectives on Objectification" by Evangelia Papadaki, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 10, 2010.
  • "Feminist Perspectives on Sex Markets: 1.3 Sexual Objectification" by Laurie Shrage, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 13, 2007.
  • "FAQ: What is sexual objectification?" by Tigtog, Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog, March 23, 2007.
  • "Comes Naturally #5: On Sexual Objectification" by David Steinberg, Spectator Magazine, March 5, 1993. – Sex-positive feminist perspective on sexual objectification.
  • "Women Like Seeing Men as Sex Objects". Interview with Janet Anderson by Petronella Wyatt, Daily Telegraph, October 5, 1996.
  • John Berger's Ways of Seeing, Episode 2: The Female Nude. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. (Archived on YouTube.)
  • "Sexual Suggestiveness in Online Ads: Effects of Objectification on Opposite Genders" by Sriram Kalyanaraman, Michael Redding, and Jason Steele, Media Effects Research Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, 2000.
  • "Bikini-Clad Women Make Men Impatient" by Bram Van den Bergh, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Marketing & Consumer Science Blog, June 11, 2008.
  • Needs More Gaze: A Critical Analysis Of Hot Babes
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