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Objectification is a term to describe seeing human beings as objects. Representations show people not as individuals, but as things to be owned, sold, used, etc.
Sexual objectification is the objectification of persons generally based on their sexual attributes. Women are far more likely than men to be objectified and judged by a perceived sexual attractiveness rather than values such as intellectual ability. Sexual objectification of women is found in media, in advertising, and not surprisingly, even in news.
A classic example is the marketing of alcohol to men, often showing only select bodily features – a non-person. Another classical example is the endless characters in television or movies who have no name (other than a first name, or "babe"), no background, and no lines to say who they are or why they are on the screen – they exist merely for the pleasure of the male character or to provide some plot point to demonstrate the male character is strong, kind, sexual, and heroic.
The objectification of women goes hand in hand with the overall male gaze found in media, news, and general culture.
Compare and contrast with Object relations theory in psychoanalysis.
Objectification of women has existed for as long as women have been used for men's sexual pleasure – at their own expense.[note 1] Early examples of the sexual objectification of women include strip tease shows, brothels and pornographic art. Sexual objectification is also a standard in nonpornographic art to the point it's expected or even encouraged, especially through academic art's frequent depiction of Venuses. Passive, reclining nude women are such a common standard that Manet received a negative response in his Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a depiction of an unidealized, indifferent woman who gazes back at the viewer, suggesting her own agency, and making the critics uncomfortable. Manet received an even stronger negative response with Olympia and Olympia's defiant, rather than coy, gaze. Olympia's precedents highlight the differences.
Prostitution itself is almost always a way of objectifying the prostitute, especially if she is a sexual slave or is being pimped out. However high class courtesans often had greater social
rights privileges than other women, such as the secular sector Greek Hetaira, Chinese Yiji, Japanese Oiran or the religiously employed sacred prostitutes. Goddesses and other powerful female spirits – like Yakshini or the angels of sacred prostitution – are often depicted in the forms of statues with rockin' tits of rock. Alternatively, Greek gods were all sculpted as having the ideal bodies; and in later centuries, the brides of Christ would often depict their spiritual husband Jesus as looking particularly dreamy eyed, with his six pack abs framed by a casual robe.
Even the term "sex object" – coined by men, not women – displays the awareness that these images are not about women but about objects.
A precursor to the concept of sexual objectification can be found in the thought of Immanuel Kant, who wrote, "sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts away a lemon which has been sucked dry." But, to Kant, this kind of "objectification" only occurs outside the context of monogamous marriage, and appears as part of his argument against prostitution and concubinage, and in favor of his predetermined position to support monogamous marriage. "Coverture", the mystic union of husband and wife – or something very much like that – is what makes legally enforced[note 2] monogamous marriage magic and keeps objectification at bay: "the two persons become a unity of will".
As feminism and feminist authors begin opening up discussions about women, about agency, and overall equality, the issue of objectification became a serious topic for academics. De Beauvoir's groundbreaking work The Second Sex is in no small part predicated on exploring the idea that women are mere objects for men's manipulation and not, themselves, agents in the world – even if they are in their own life.
According to philosopher Martha Nussbaum, sexual objectification of women positions them in relation to men:
- as a tool for another's purposes (instrumentality);
- as if lacking in agency or self-determination (denial of autonomy, inertness);
- as if owned by another (ownership);
- as if interchangeable (fungibility);
- as if permissible to damage or destroy (violability);
- as if there is no need for concern for their feelings and experiences (denial of subjectivity)
Catharine MacKinnon relates sexual objectification to the Marxist idea of alienation: "Objectification in Marxist materialism is thought to be the foundation of human freedom, the work process whereby a subject becomes embodied in objects and relationships. Alienation is the socially contingent distortion of that process, a reification of products and relations which prevents them from being, and being seen as, dependent on human agency. But from the point of view of the object, objectification is alienation."
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 which she can produce in the mind of another. This is ubiquitous in culture, permeating advertising and popular entertainments, as well as of course being present in porn. Objectification contributes to women's body image and all the issues therein. It also is a large part of the problem with rape culture, and why it is so hard to see rape culture in society. In general, there is significant adverse effects on women who are alleged to be surrounded by dehumanizing propaganda.
That's not to say men aren't negatively affected either. In a study by the University of Padova, men exposed to sexually objectifying media were more likely to engage in sexual harassment afterwards and endorse anti-female stereotypes..
Are women the only victims of objectification? Of course not. Sex sells. Sexy calenders can also depict hot dudes to satisfy some woman (or man's) fantasy. There are even ads specifically designed to flip the "male gaze" on its head and objectify men. These ads, of course, are largely tongue in cheek, and are often done fully aware of the objectification – intending, successfully or not, to highlight the absurdity of ads for men that do the same to women. And even in instances of male objectification, there is still an awareness of the man. Rarely is his face removed, rarely is he shot from the back showing only his butt or his chest.
Men are also objectified and marginalized by media outlets. YouTuber cartoon critic John Enter, better known as "TheMysteriousMrEnter", once made a video noting that media often portrayed males as horny, sex-driven creatures and women as being asexual. He also noted that people are disgusted by man to woman harassment, but that it is perfectly acceptable and even amusing for a woman to harass a man. He also mentions that it makes men ashamed to take care of children for not being seen as a pedophile and that this mentality justifies prison rape. It also gives an inherent bad image about women, specifically that women only have sex because of procreation or are abused by their husbands, putting abortion definitely into question.
- Where women are fully part of the sexual encounter, active and agent in the encounter, they are not being used, and are not mere objects, even, ironically, in submissive role playing where the desired intent is to be an object.
- Kant defines marriage as "sexual union in accordance with law".
- Dawn M. Szymanski, et al. Sexual Objectification of Women: Advances to Theory and Research. The Counseling Psychologist, 39(1) 6-38. 2011.
- FAQ: What is Sexual Objectification?
- Thought Catalogue - Why Men Objectify Women
- Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, Louis Infield (trans.), (Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 162 - 68.
- Martha C. Nussbaum, “Objectification”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, v. 24 no. 4 (1995), pp. 279–83.
- Catherine MacKinnon, "Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State," in Feminism and Sexuality: A Reader, Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott, eds., (Columbia, 1996; ISBN 0231107080), p. 187
- Janet Lee, "Menarche and the (hetero)sexualization of the female body," Gender & Society, v.8 no. 3 (1994), pp. 343–362.
- Objectifying Media: Their Effect on Gender Role Norms and Sexual Harassment of Women
- TheMysteriousMrEnter. (Jan 17, 2017). Further Thoughts on Peter-Assment. YouTube. Retrieved December 27, 2017.