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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 more likely than men to be judged by a perceived sexual attractiveness. Presenting women as sexual objects is often found in media and in advertising. A classic example is the marketing of alcohol to men, often showing only select bodily features. Another classical example are female characters in television or movies who have no name (other than a first name, or "babe"), no background character, no lines to say who they are, and why they are on the screen (and are often topless in the case of premium channels).
Sexual objectification is not synonymous with sexual attraction where the individuality of the desired person is acknowledged. So if a male such as Jim Carrey acknowledges that a woman is a bit air-headed (which some individual women are... see Jenny McCarthy), but he is O.K. with overlooking that due to physical attraction, does that mean he objectified her? The answer to that question depends on who you ask.
HistoryEarly examples of the sexual objectification of women include strip tease shows, brothels, and pornographic art.
Prostitution 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 casual robe.
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 1] monogamous marriage magic and keeps objectification at bay: "the two persons become a unity of will". Another precursor was Alexandre Guillaume Mouslier de Moissy's 1771 play The True Mother (La Vraie Mère) where the female protagonist rebukes her husband for focusing on her breasts. The idea of sexual objectification being a problem became popularized by feminist groups in the 1970's.
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."
According to this philosophical perspective, 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. Porn is criticized by some feminists as promoting this dehumanizing attitude. 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.
A different philosophical perspective is that heterosexual males are no different than homosexual males, and, just as Christian Conservatives are wrong to criticize homosexual males for their sexual predilections, feminists are wrong to criticize heterosexual males for their sexual predilections. For example, why should feminists feel entitled to impose their will onto another person who wishes to watch porn? The view some feminists hold on this issue is not much different than that of Christian Conservatives...
Psychological and sociological consequences
Seeking to live up to social standards of beauty is a source of anxiety and depression in some women and a driving factor in the purchase of beauty products. The perception of female beauty is also a driving force behind sexual harassment and rape. Given that physical attraction has a strong biological component to it, it is unlikely that feminist philosophy will change the idea that certain women (or men) will be perceived as more attractive than other women or men. It is also questionable whether it is healthy to ignore what one is physically attracted to. Is the homosexual better off for trying to be heterosexual? Not likely... For such reasons, perhaps the greater aim should be encouraging relationships based in more respect for another person's other attributes. Then again, the question needs to be asked is it right to criticize those men or women who prefer to have purely physical relationships? Or are those who criticize such objectification wrongly seeking to impose their will onto the private spheres of other people?
It should be noted that women are not the only ones sexually objectified. Sex sells. Sexy calender's can also depict hot dudes to satisfy some woman (or man's) fantasy. According to the YouTuber Karen Straughan, men tend to be objectified by women for their utility. The way she put it, if men view women as decorations, then women view men as appliances and that is no less objectifying.
- Stand tall, Bartoli.
- If men posed like women(broken link): Images that show the actual absurdity of objectifying men the way women are.
- I'm a sexy woman, so stop objectifying me! (for an antifeminist take)
- 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
- Karen Straughan I'm a sexy woman, so stop objectifying me!