Objectification involves viewing and/or treating a person as an object, devoid of thought or feeling. Often, objectification is targeted at women and reduces them to objects of sexual pleasure and gratification. This tendency has stirred much debate and reform over the years, mainly on the part of feminists and other civil rights advocates, although much work remains to be done in this area.
Objectification Among the Sexes
While both men and women are prone to being seen and treated as objects, women are most commonly victimized in this way as a minority group. From magazine ads to television shows and commercials to movies and more, it does not take much digging to see that the sexual objectification of women is pervasive. In fact, some believe it is such a deeply ingrained aspect of modern society that most do not realize the full extent of its prevalence nor its negative effects on the psychological development of young women and men.
Several feminist perspectives have emerged on the subject over the years. One of the most well-known is Martha Nussbaum’s list of identifying features of sexual objectification, which she established in 1995. These include treating a person:
“as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes … as lacking in autonomy and self-determination … as lacking in agency … as interchangeable with other objects … as lacking in boundary-integrity … as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold) … [and] as something whose experiences and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account” (Stanford, 2010; 2011).
In addition to this list, Rae Langton added in 2009 that objectification also involves reducing a person to a body or body parts, reducing a person to having no value outside of his or her appearance, and silencing a person by refusing to acknowledge that he or she has a voice and is capable of independent thought and speech (Stanford, 2010; 2011).
Regarding the objectification of women, in particular, Rae Langton has written that when men’s desires and beliefs dominate a situation, society, or relationship, women are forced to submit to their whims and become the desired object (Stanford, 2010; 2011). Some would add that pornography and prostitution reinforce and, in some cases, create the notion that women should be seen as sexual objects having no value beyond their physical appearance and potential to provide sexual pleasure.
Psychological Impact of Objectification
For example, children who endure sexual abuse often have a difficult time viewing themselves as anything more than sexual objects designed for the pleasure and satisfaction of another. With personal boundaries broken and no one to encourage or guide the development of a healthy sense of self-worth, these children often grow up with significant mental health issues surrounding self-esteem. They may also develop destructive habits involving substance abuse and self-harm.
For those who have not experienced abuse but are simply members of a society that bombards them with images and messages of objectification as a social norm, the effects are more subtle. Issues associated with body image and eating disorders often stem from a desire to attain the largely unattainable level of physical attractiveness and apparent perfection reflected in the media and advertising industry. When people are repeatedly conditioned to believe they should look a certain way and that way is out of reach by natural or biological means, this can lead to a host of challenges concerning self-acceptance and self-esteem.
According to some, “the experience of being female in a sociocultural context that sexually objectifies the female body” infuses women with a host of unique psychological difficulties. Researchers cite self-objectification, appearance anxiety, body shame and dissatisfaction, and disordered eating as being among the issues that present themselves in the lives of these women, especially adolescent girls (Szymanski, Moffitt, and Carr, 2011).
Is Positive Objectification Possible?
Recently, dialogue has emerged regarding the potential for objectification to be seen as a positive thing. Sexual objectification of oneself is viewed by some as a form of creative expression that should not be dismissed as wrong or inappropriate. In this context, pornography has also been deemed an acceptable form of objectification. This argument centers on the idea that some people truly enjoy and excel at sexual play and should be free to lead careers and support themselves doing as they please without being shamed by society (Stanford, 2010; 2011). According to Stanley Siegel, LCSW, many of those who have worked or continue to work in the porn industry are currently making strides to “place sexual pleasure in a meaningful context” within pornography, so that “sexual healing and transformation” may take place, rather than the degrading and demeaning objectification—of both women and men—that is characteristic of the bulk of erotic film in its present form (Siegel, 2013).
- Siegel, S. (2013, May). The next sexual revolution. Psychology Tomorrow magazine, Issue 6. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytomorrowmagazine.com/the-next-sexual-revolution-stanley-siegel-intelligent-lust/
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010, March 10; 2011, June 28). Feminist perspectives on objectification. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-objectification/
- Szymanski, D. M., Moffitt, L. B., and Carr, E. R. (2011). Sexual objectification of women: advances to theory and research. The Counseling Psychologist, 39(1), 6-38. doi: 10.1177/0011000010378402. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/education/ce/sexual-objectification.pdf
Last Updated: 08-12-2015
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Linda W.May 20th, 2015 at 6:55 PM
This is an excellent article, explaining objectification in plain and simple terms. I was unaware of the recognition of this problem in the writings of Kant, though objectification, especially of girls and women, is as old as history itself.
DougApril 25th, 2017 at 7:23 AM
I think this article was lacking because it didn’t go into enough depth and because it was too political. There are plenty of gentlemen like myself and personally, I feel like I am a victim of objectification. I have been constantly lied to by my girlfriend and when I try to call her out on it, I’m made to feel like a chauvinist and that I’m rejecting her fully as a person, rather than her considering my feelings. I am sick of everything that paints men as bad for having sexual desire for women and it being called sexist or objectifying. Women truly don’t in general understand us. While there are men out there that have issues, most of us are compassionate and care a lot about women. We are protective and faithful to our woman and would do anything for them. So sick of seeing one sided “feminist” comments that assume that men are bad for desiring women. If men do go to strip clubs and watch pornography, yes it’s a bad thing but it’s also because they are sexually frustrated because women make them feel inferior for having desire and not loved and appreciated. Most men want what women want to be in a passionate, monogamous relationship but society wants to discourage this and create a rift to push a political agenda
Philip M VJanuary 13th, 2018 at 12:48 PM
Respectfully, I think feminist thought gets a bad wrap in the media, when in reality it agrees with many of your points. The purpose of feminism, generally speaking, is not to flip the gender power in society, but to help end problems like the ones you had with your girlfriend. Sorry to hear about the relationship struggles there; I’ve been there before brother!
MaggieMay 12th, 2018 at 10:10 AM
It seems there is a lack of self-responsibility and accountability, when it becomes (blame) the womans fault that a man is sexually frustrated.
AbdulJanuary 18th, 2021 at 4:39 PM
Dear Doug, I have a lot to say regarding your comment and quite frankly am not sure where to even begin. First of, the whole point of the article was to disclose the effects objectification may have among the sexes, hence the title ‘Objectification’. Secondly, society does not detest men for experiencing sexual desire towards women as that alone is not a sexist act, demeaning and degrading a woman’s worth to merely her physical appearance, dose, however, classify as objectification. Requesting that women stop generalising instead of reprimanding men who refuse to acknowledge or take responsibility for their actions is ignoring the problem altogether. Also, seeing as though you generalised women as constantly mistreating men and being unable to fulfil their desires I’d say you aren’t at liberty to call anyone out. Thirdly, no one said that women entirely understand men, since that was not the topic of conversation, however, if you’re mad about that then I suggest you take that up with society who also doesn’t happen to understand women. Fourthly, men are not shamed for watching porn, visiting strip clubs or experiencing any ounce of sexual desire and are in fact encouraged to by society, besides if men weren’t to visit strip clubs where would they receive income (if that is the job in which they choose to pursue). As a “gentlemen” your self, you would know that women do not intend to push blame onto those who aren’t guilty, rather expect all to reevaluate their behaviours, self-evaluation being something everyone needs to undergo on a regular basis. And lastly, Doug, mate, why are you reading articles on objectification at 7:23 am? With all that being said I hope you’ve gotten out of that relationship, probably for the best and have found someone good for you.
AbdulJanuary 20th, 2021 at 8:19 AM
Dear Doug, I have a lot to say regarding your comment and quite frankly am not sure where to even begin. First of, the whole point of the article was to disclose the effects objectification may have among the sexes, hence the title ‘Objectification’. Secondly, society does not detest men for experiencing sexual desire towards women as that alone is not a sexist act, demeaning and degrading a woman’s worth to merely her physical appearance, dose, however, classify as objectification. Requesting that women stop generalising instead of reprimanding men who refuse to acknowledge or take responsibility for their actions is ignoring the problem altogether. Also, seeing as though you generalised women as constantly mistreating men and being unable to fulfil their desires I’d say you aren’t at liberty to call anyone out. Thirdly, no one said that women entirely understand men, since that was not the topic of conversation, however, if you’re mad about that then I suggest you take that up with society who also doesn’t happen to understand women. Fourthly, men are not shamed for watching porn, visiting strip clubs or experiencing any ounce of sexual desire and are in fact encouraged to by society, besides if men weren’t to visit strip clubs where would they receive income (if that is the job in which they choose to pursue). As a “gentlemen” your self, you would know that women do not intend to push blame onto those who aren’t guilty, rather expect all to reevaluate their behaviours, self-evaluation being something everyone needs to undergo on a regular basis. And lastly, Doug, mate, why are you reading articles on objectification at 7:23 am? With all that being said I hope you’ve gotten out of that relationship, probably for the best and have found someone good for you
VicMarch 17th, 2021 at 4:50 PM
Good article. I would like to understand how men are supposed to act. I find it confusing and want to do right but the lines seems to change so frequently and from what I see it seems to be determined by the female’s feeling toward the ppl who talk to her. Some men can’t pay a compliment without being called creepy or objectifying…while another person can say the exact same thing and its taken as it was meant.Where does that leave men? I am just trying to understand. I have been married for 35 years and couldn’t be happier but I feel for the men who don’t understand.
TimJuly 29th, 2021 at 3:53 AM
Society is and always has been sexist….and what that creates is a population of men….and women that are oblivious to it. Its so engrained in us that its become second nature. I am a 50 year old man and my best freind….my soul mate, is a 30 year old woman. I never gave sexism much thought for most of my life until i met this person. I love her with all my heart. Ive never felt closer to another human being and theres nothing i wouldnt do for her. She feels the same about me. Oh yeah, i guess i should mention that she is a lesbian. So sex is not nor ever will be an issue between us. However, she is very attractive and when we first met i had a tendancy to say flirtatious things now and then not realizing that these subtle remarks were not only unwanted but hurtful to her. Fortunately she chose to talk to me about it instead of distancing herself from me. The conversations that followed opened my eyes to problems in our society that most of us are oblivious to. Ive always been a flirt, and as an attractive man myself most women did not have a problem with that…. but what about the ones who did. How did i make them feel. I thought i was boosting their self esteem. I think most of us has had some person come on to us that we really were not into. Thats not a good feeling…its…creepy, and since we dont wear signs around our necks saying what we find attractive…. how do you know how that person feels. I have 5 daughters the oldest of which is 30 years old. You would think that i would have thought about these issues before meeting my freind, but its so engrained in us that we are oblivious to it. I hope some other person reads this article and has their “aha” moment. We all need to have more conversations about it.
SeanOctober 13th, 2021 at 7:38 AM
Tim, I understand your position and how easy it is to feel an attraction to a beautiful young woman that be almost half your age. I have a similar situation with a female friend of mine and I can’t resist the temptation to flirt with her. She is a law student and recently divorced and other than sexually compatibility we are a perfect match. I love chatting with he about world problems and political chaos. If I were a younger man, I would want to make her my wife and we could have a family together. I must add that she is white and I am black making the dynamics much more complex . I just wanted to add to your message and let you know that you are not alone in your journey on being confused about relationships.
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