What’s wrong with sexual objectification? Hint: it’s not the “sexual” bit

// 1 July 2012

Cartoon of a female string puppet.jpg“Objectification” is not a synonym for “attraction”. It refers to treating someone as an object, less than fully human, a means to an end, rather than as a person. Suggesting that sexually objectifying men might “empower women”, or otherwise further the cause of gender equality, seems to me to (perhaps wilfully) misunderstand objectification.

Consider non-sexual forms of objectification: for example, the phenomenon underlying the media furore over “Tiger Mothers”. As a Chinese woman, I would give a small queendom never to hear this deeply annoying term again. Nevertheless, leaving aside the nonsensical racialisation, some parents, of a range of ethnicities, essentially view their children as computer game avatars to be “levelled up” (+10 Academic Ability; collecting Wealth Hit Points; unlocking the heteronormative Marriage & Grandkids Bonus Achievement; and so forth). They make decisions motivated less to help their children fulfil their own individual aspirations and develop into their own people, than to promote conformity to parentally defined notions of success or normality, often with a view to keeping up appearances. (The poignant title of Jeanette Winterson’s recently published memoirs, echoing a line her mother said to her, comes to mind.) Kids are treated as trophies: a textbook case of objectification.

Following the recent delivery of my first child, I’ve become aware of how children can be objectified even as newborns. You might think all adult interaction with a few-weeks-old infant, completely incapable of language, necessarily involves an interpolation of the adults’ interpretations and motivations, so that it’s hard to speak of levels of respect for the baby as an individual person. But conduct I’ve witnessed has shown me otherwise. We might not be able to obtain verbal confirmation of a baby’s wishes, but there’s a difference between making an educated guess, based on behavioural cues, that zie is seeking cuddling or feeding, and (for example) prodding or tickling hir or subjecting hir to noise because you, the adult, want to see open eyes or a smile. Regarding a baby as a toy for the entertainment of adults: again, objectification.

Other instances of non-sexual objectification abound. A heterosexual person who declares a desire for a “gay best friend” is treating queer people like some kind of Pokemon creature (gotta catch ’em all!) And I’ve seen someone make a Facebook post about their domestic worker, describing her, metaphorically, as a faulty vacuum cleaner which needed to be returned to a store. It’s hard to get a more explicit example of treating a human being as a thing.

Why does confusion surround sexual objectification specifically? “What’s wrong with finding someone sexually attractive?” goes the cry. “It’s a compliment!” What this misses is context. The problem is not any given individual’s private feelings about whether they find any given woman attractive. The problem is the widespread assumption that these feelings always matter.

The all-pervasive assessment of women and girls for sexual attractiveness obscures the rest of our identities. We’re told about the opinions people have of our looks in all kinds of settings, with the assumption that we always care or always should: that whether we are visually pleasing to others is always relevant. But why should it be? In education, we seek to learn; our jobs are performed to meet individual financial and/or vocational aims; social connections give us all kinds of satisfaction; we pursue sports and other hobbies because we find them interesting. But evaluations, in every one of these spaces, of our “hotness” or lack thereof, send the repeated message that people can’t conceive of us exploring these varied human goals for their own sake and on their own terms, without reference to whether we’re also suitably decorative. ‘Prettiness,’ this tells us, ‘is… a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.’ We’re impeded from putting our ornamental value to others fully aside. In short, our other aspirations are downgraded and we’re made into objects. Doing the same to men (or anyone else) improves nothing. We don’t need to objectify a wider range of people: we need to stop doing it at all.

Image shows a cartoon of a female string puppet. Shared by The Thinking Doll under a Creative Commons license.

Comments From You

Lisa // Posted 1 July 2012 at 8:58 pm

“Doing the same to men (or anyone else) improves nothing.”

It’s also pretty much impossible to do this to men qua men (purely on the quality of them as men, without taking into account any other qualities). It’s not individuals who objectify, it’s an *entire society* including many powerful mechanisms as well as individual actions which, summed, cause objectification. An objectification machine does not exist with men qua men as its target.

sian norris // Posted 2 July 2012 at 9:41 am

well said! xx

Jolene Tan // Posted 2 July 2012 at 12:33 pm

Lisa, thanks for your comment. I agree with you that whether individual behaviour results in “effective” objectification depends very much on the power structures and systems surrounding the behaviour, and I’m now thinking that point really wasn’t made clearly enough in my post! That said, I’m not sure it’s true that the machine/society/system couldn’t shift toward objectifying men in addition to women – or perhaps to put it more accurately, since I think societal masculinity standards already contain elements of objectification, evolve to include more sexual objectification of men as well.

Lisa // Posted 2 July 2012 at 1:27 pm

If that is the case, you have to call it something else apart from objectification and hold a hard line. Otherwise men will make it impossible to ever talk about the objectification of women through comparisons like “men are success objects, women are sex objects”. This is a patriarchy, not a mixed-patriarchy/matriarchy. The situations of men and women are different.

Jolene Tan // Posted 2 July 2012 at 3:41 pm

I think the “success object”-type line taken by some men is extraordinarily silly. However, I think the fact of patriarchy (involving a hierarchical privileging of men/boys/things coded masculine over women/girls/things coded feminine) is consistent with a recognition that a) patriarchy also treats men dehumanisingly and b) not every single last gendered phenomenon advantages men in every single conceivable way. I definitely don’t buy the nonsense that there is any kind of “matriarchy”, but I don’t think occupying a higher rung on the patriarchal ladder necessarily actually enhances the welfare or autonomy of men, compared to if the entire hierarchy was abolished to begin with. That being so, it seems to me to make sense to speak of society objectifying women “more than” it does men – in that it does so with greater force and less wriggle room, in more numerous and wide-ranging facets of life etc.

Lisa // Posted 2 July 2012 at 3:47 pm

I basically agree. I just think that the “more than” is also “in a huge number of different ways than” and that the sum of these is so significant that it’s not meaningful to use the same word/concept to represent the two things. So many of the ways that women are objectified are unique to women with no equivalent in how men are treated, except when men are being treated like women.

Anyway, I’ve talked enough about men now; great post, and it’s very closely related to a short thing I wrote the other day: radtransfem.tumblr.com/post/23793789013/about-objectification-what-does-it-really-mean

Kat // Posted 2 July 2012 at 9:14 pm

I find this article too tame actually. Too vague. How about this for what I thought this article was missing:


(and yes, that is of course my own personal opinion)

LauraB // Posted 2 July 2012 at 9:34 pm

Great Post, yes. Lisa, I enjoyed reading your post too, thanks for the link.

TRIGGER WARNING (eating disorders, sexual violence).

I was bulimic/anorexic for some of my teens and early twenties. The reasons were more complicated than, ‘slim=pretty’ and wanting to pass as sexy, in fact, I think it was more to do with having *been* objectified – I was raped, and mistakenly blaming my own body for how it made men treat me. I blamed myself for that for years and punished myself accordingly.

Sometimes if I chat with people about how I dislike the portrayal of women as sex-dolls which is everywhere they say that I am taking it too seriously or that it’s just a bit of fun/fantasy. But that is naive and ignores the subtle ways in which power and privilege flow through all kinds of mediums to create a subtle oppression that can be too slippery to pin down convincingly with people who have no desire to admit it exists. It also assumes that fantasy and reality are distinct and do not affect one another which seems an absurd, groundless assertion?

The other thing that people often say is to chill out, ‘you don’t have to do that, but some women like being objectified’. Well, yes, but that does that mean that I have to pretend I support their choice as wise or even feminist? We don’t live in vacuums, our choices affect other people. If countless women in all kinds of media are presented as objects, some men will view all women as objects, which contributes to women getting really hurt.

Holly Combe // Posted 3 July 2012 at 3:02 pm

@Kat. I disagree that Jolene’s piece is somehow missing the explanation contained in the Society Pages piece, as she makes it very clear that she is focusing on objectification in a wider sense. I think this is a helpful distinction to make when addressing common interpretations and misunderstandings of what it exactly means to be objectified.

The question of definitions is something I often get stuck on myself. If we define objectification as something that is all-encompassing and entirely dehumanising, we can surely conclude that objectification is just plain wrong. No ifs, no buts, no turning of the tables. However, it seems to me that things become less clear if objectification can be seen as something potentially transitory: the idea that switching between subject and object in different circumstances is all part of the negotiatory push/pull of life as we know it. But maybe that’s the thing? Life “as we know it” is pretty fucked up. I guess the answer lies in radically critiquing dominant ideas about work/workers and sex/power (to name just two key areas).

@LauraB. IMO, those men who view all women as sex objects are entirely responsible for any consequences or abuses stemming from that. The choices or otherwise of those women who like being objectified are not. The same surely applies if we take both the gender and sexual elements out. People who consent to being objectified in some transitory way for financial gain are not responsible for the behaviour of exploitative businesses that strip workers of their rights and view them as nothing more than machines for profit.

LauraB // Posted 3 July 2012 at 5:55 pm

Holly Combe,

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to claim mitigated responsibility for men that abuse women. I do think, however, that our culture objectifies and sexualises women as the norm, and that representations of women as whole human beings are rare. In this atmosphere, our individual choices are either supporting or challenging that societal norm.

Holly Combe // Posted 4 July 2012 at 12:31 am

I agree our culture objectifies women as the norm insomuch as we still tend to be represented as “other” in popular culture (resulting in the lack of wriggle room Jolene mentions) but, of course, that very atmosphere means there are social consequences for challenging such societal norms entirely. IMO, this sometimes makes it hard to pin down whether an individual choice can conclusively be said to support or challenge those norms. It also means the reality for many women in terms of support/challenge is a complex picture full of twists, turns, ruses and compromises.

Frank // Posted 26 December 2012 at 2:53 pm

Thank You, Jolene Tan, for this insightful article. This is the best one on the subject of objectification i have read. It is not hostile to men (imo as a man) which makes it easier to agree with you. Thanks, i hope to read more of your articles.

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