This post has been floating around in my “Drafts” folder for a while, and I’ve been starting and stopping it because I couldn’t really get to a good explanation of what sexual objectification is, but lucky for me the discussion has cropped up elsewhere (Skepchick brought it to my attention) and a TED Talk does the hard work for me about why sexual objectification is a problem.
So that’s the resource I am directing you to, and if you have problems with the analysis in this resource, please address them at the YouTube site. I didn’t make the video and don’t want to argue about it. If you think have a better resource for people about sexual objectification, leave a link in the comment section.
But then I hear things like this: “I’m not sexually objectifying her–she’s sexually objectifying herself!” and that’s a misunderstanding I want to clear up. Women do not sexually objectify themselves. Women make choices for themselves that may result in other people sexually objectifying them (homework: read up on the “Patriarchal Bargain”), but that is not their responsibility if someone else sexually objectifies them. The responsibility for sexual objectification falls on the person doing the objectifying. And this is a lot of what feels like talking in circles, so let me try to make it clearer with examples from grammar class and sentence construction.
Remember the lessons about how it’s not a complete sentence if there’s not a subject and a predicate? Well, the subject is the part of the sentence that is doing the action. Objects are the part of speech that have actions performed to them, with no input. The action affects them–they do not affect it.
She (subject) bought (action) the book (object).
The dog (subject) ate (action) his barf (object).
The car (subject) hit (action) the garage wall (object) at what I swear was essentially zero miles per hour.
He (subject) objectified (action) her (object).
But! But! But! they say. But, but, she was in a low-cut blouse! She WANTED to be sexually objectified. I did it, yes, but she did it to herself, first. This is a misunderstanding of what has happened. Once more for emphasis: A woman does not sexually objectify herself. She is the subject of the sentence that is her life, not the object..
She (subject) wore (action) sexy clothes (object).
When a woman is being sexually objectified, someone else’s sexual dreams/goals/desires are being projected onto her. These dreams/goals/desires have everything to do with the subject of that sentence and nothing to do with the woman being gazed at or objectified. It’s all in the subject’s head. All of it. The woman is a stand-in for what he (almost always a he) wants in this (metaphorical) sentence, and her dreams/goals/desires are totally irrelevant. She doesn’t matter beyond the point of what she can deliver to him for is own purposes.
What gets overlooked so often is that the woman has made decisions and has dreams/goals/desires of her own. There is a chance that her dreams/goals/desires overlap with the man objectifying her, but that still doesn’t mean she’s an object. She decided to wear those clothes in order to portray an image that suits her purposes. She has agency. She is acting. She is hoping to gain some personal benefit with her actions, and she has used her brain to think up a strategy that will help her meet her goals.
So this woman wearing sexy clothes to a bar? She is probably seeking a certain kind of attention that she wants (woman as subject). She’s not there to make the bar more fun for you by giving you something to look at (woman as object). This woman working as an underwear model? She is probably trying to earn a living and garner some security using skills and assets she worked hard to gain (woman as subject). She’s not there so you can jerk off to the catalog she appears in (woman as object). You want to have fun by seeing women in sexy clothes or jerk off to pictures of them in their underwear? Fine. Be the subject of your life! But don’t make the HUGE mistake of forgetting that you only have these women around performing these actions that you find personally beneficial because they had something to gain from the interaction. They aren’t there to serve you; they are serving themselves. They don’t dress or undress to make your life better; they are making their own life better.
Women are subjects, not objects. If you forget that… if you forget all that context in which women are making decisions that help them navigate a world that is structured to diminish their agency… if you fail to see them as people doing their best to get by just like you are… if you persist in assuming that women with goals that coincidentally match yours were working to meet your goals and not their own… you are developing bad habits and causing great harm.