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!
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