Sexual objectification

"Sex object" redirects here. For other uses, see Sex object (disambiguation).

Sexual objectification is the act of treating a person as an instrument of sexual pleasure. 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. Many feminists regard sexual objectification as deplorable and as playing an important role in gender inequality. However, some social commentators argue that some modern women objectify themselves as an expression of their empowerment.

Sexual objectification of women

Female sexual objectification by a male involves a woman being viewed primarily as an object of male sexual desire, rather than as a whole person.[1][2][3] Although opinions differ as to which situations are objectionable, some feminists[4] 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.[5] Objectification in the media can range from subtle forms, such as the lack of main female characters, to very explicit forms such as highly sexualized dialogue and provocatively dressed female characters.

Some feminists and psychologists[6] argue that sexual objectification can lead to negative psychological effects including eating disorders, depression and sexual dysfunction, 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.[3] 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).[6][7] 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. One study found that men exposed to media content in which women were objectified were more likely to accept those behaviors than men who were exposed to content where women were not objectified.[8] How objectification has affected women and society in general is a topic of academic debate, with some saying girls' understanding of the importance of appearance in society may contribute to feelings of fear, shame, and disgust during the transition to womanhood,[9] and others saying 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.[10]

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.[4][11][12]

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?"[13]

The issues concerning sexual objectification became first problemized during the 1970s by feminist groups. Since then, it has been argued that the phenomenon of female sexual objectification has increased drastically since its problematization in all levels of life, and has resulted in negative consequences for women, especially in the political sphere. However, a rising form of new third-waver feminist groups have also taken the increased objectification of women as an opportunity to use the female body as a mode of power.[14]

Female self-objectification

Further information: sex-positive feminism and feminist sex wars

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".[15]

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.[16] 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.

Sexual objectification of men

Feminist authors Christina Hoff Sommers and Naomi Wolf write that women's sexual liberation led women to a role reversal, whereby they viewed men as sex objects,[17][18][19] in a manner similar to what they criticize about men's treatment of women. Psychologist Harold Lyon suggests that men's liberation is a necessary step toward woman's liberation.[20] This was especially apparent during the girl power era of the 1990s and early 2000s. Men are often objectified by other men.[21] Research has suggested that the psychological effects of objectification on men are similar to those of women, leading to negative body image among men.[22]

Instances where men may be viewed as sex objects by women include advertisements, music videos, films, television shows, beefcake calendars, women's magazines, male strip shows, and clothed female/nude male (CFNM) events.[23] Women also purchase and consume pornography.[24][25][26][27][28][29]


Men's bodies have become more objectified than they previously were. It is known as "Six-pack Advertising," where men are seen as sexual objects. Because of society's established gaze on the objectification of women, the newfound objectification of men is not as widespread. Even with this increase of male objectification, males are still seen as the dominant figures and so the focus is still primarily on women.[30]

Male sexual objectification has been found in 37% of advertisements featuring men's body parts to showcase a product.[31] These advertisements are a form of sexual objectification. Similar to the issues of sexual objectification in women, it is common for said objectification to lead men to body shaming, eating disorders, and a drive for perfection. Men in the media are especially pressured to take part in steroid use in order to meet the standard of beauty set by body evaluation. The continued exposure of these "ideal" men subject society to expect all men to fit this role.

Male actors featured in TV shows and movies are oftentimes in excellent shape and have the "ideal" bodies. These men often fill the leading roles. When society is subjected to men who do not have ideal bodies, we typically see them as the comic relief. It is rare to see an out of shape man have a leading role. "There are temporal, cultural and geographical ‘norms’ of gender and other aspects of identity, which are often incorrectly considered to be inherent or natural."[32]

In the media, the ideal version of a man is seen as a strong, toned man. The idealized version of a woman is thin (Aubrey, pg. 7). The concept of body evaluation is more common in criticizing women. However, body evaluation revolves more towards nonverbal cues for men. It is more common in women because sexual, sometimes offensive, verbal remarks are directed towards women. Men, on the other hand, experience more body evaluation through gazing and other nonverbal cues. Gazing is simply the way in which depict men from an idealized perspective. Men tend to experience this from other men, whereas women experience it from both sexes.[31] The Interpersonal Sexual Objectification Scale (ISOS) is a scale that shows sexual objectification of respondents, both men and women. While experiencing sexual objectification it creates the need to constantly maintain and critique one’s physical appearance. This leads to other things like eating disorders, body shaming, and anxiety. The ISOS scale can be related to objectification theory and sexism.[31] Self-objectification is concentrated more on women, which is the way in which we evaluate ourselves. Men typically experience it through media display, but the difference is men do not experience the negative effects at the extent to which women do.[33]

Views on sexual objectification

See also: Gaze

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,[34] 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 the visualization of a woman.[35]

Radical feminists view objectification as playing a central role in reducing women to what they refer to as the "oppressed sex 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.[36]

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.[37][38][39][40][41] 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.[38][42]

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.[43] 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".[44]

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.[45] 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.[46] 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.[47]


Self-objectification can increase in situations which heighten the awareness of an individual’s physical appearance.[48]:82 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.[45] 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.[48]:90–95 Self-objectification in girls tends to stem from two main causes: the internalization of traditional beauty standards as translated through media as well as any instances of sexual objectification that they might encounter in their daily lives.[49] It is not uncommon for women to translate their anxieties over their constant sense of objectification into obsessive self-surveillance. This, in turn, can lead to many serious problems in women and girls, including "body shame, anxiety, negative attitudes toward menstruation, a disrupted flow of consciousness, diminished awareness of internal bodily states, depression, sexual dysfunction, and disordered eating."[50]

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.[45] The purpose of this recognition is to bring enjoyment to others, or to serve as a sexual object for society.[2] 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.[6] 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.[51] 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.[6] These include increased self-consciousness, increased body anxiety, heightened mental health threats (depression, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and sexual dysfunction), and increased body shame.[52] 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.[6][48] 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.[6] 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.[6] 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.[6] 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.[6][51]

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' Hatstand, Table and Chair sculptures incorporates semi-naked women into furniture, in a show of exaggerated sexual objectification.

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sexual objectification.


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Further reading

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