I ran into a conversation online in which a man was claiming that men are objectified in the same way that women are.
I want to start out by saying that this guy is probably saying this fully believing that it is true, because he doesn’t suffer the kind of objectification that women do, and because objectification is so common in our society that we are socialized to it and it seems invisible unless you’re looking for it.
Second, I want to say that objectification and sexual attraction are different; nobody is trying to make a villain out of a man who is sexually attracted to women or vice versa.
Third, yes, men can be sexually objectified, but the objectification that women face is far more pervasive than the relatively isolated and few situations in which men are objectified, and since men are assumed to have power they do not suffer the same kinds of negative effects of objectification that women experience.
So what is objectification, where and how does it happen, and what are the impacts?
Objectification is when women are presented as objects, with their autonomy and agency stripped away. In most cases, women are objectified for the sexual enjoyment of heterosexual men.
And it happens almost everywhere.
Advertisements are a huge culprit. It’s obvious that sexualized images of women are used heavily in ads, because hey, sex sells. Women are presented in advertising as interchangeable, without identity, sexualized, sexually available, subject to violence, unable to consent, and sometimes even as stand-ins for objects or products.
Women are also objectified in television and film; often portrayed as sidekicks (sometimes interchangeable, such as with “Bond girls,”) who have no motivation that doesn’t begin and end with the male protagonist, given out as prizes for a job well done, with few lines of dialogue and little to no agency.
It is also rampant in video games, and presents itself across all genres of fiction. You even see it at almost any kind of convention in the form of “booth babes,” intended to be attractive to men, decorative, and interchangeable.
So what’s the problem?
This objectification, this stream of images and narratives that strip women of their humanity has an impact, a real, measurable impact, on how we view women. Multiple studies have shown that both women and men process images of women similarly to how they process images of objects in the brain.
This perception of women as objects leads to women being perceived as less competent, less worthy of respect, and less intelligent than men. It contributes to glass ceilings and pay disparity in the workplace. It contributes to discrimination against women of “non-ideal” body types. It feeds into rape culture and violence against women.
Moreover, it impacts the well-being of girls and women. Aside from notable disparities in the workplace, it contributes to women’s medical issues not being taken seriously (a kind of holdover from the days of “womb hysteria”). Objectification is internalized by women and girls, leading them to see male approval as their only benchmark for self-worth. Women and girls exposed to sexualized images of female bodies report lower levels of self esteem, and women who self-objectify seem to be at greater risk for substance abuse, eating disorders, and anxiety and depression.
Furthermore, when women’s value is determined by an external source and not by herself according to her goals and values, etc, it automatically places the women in a subordinate sociological position.
So what can you do?
Well, you can stop (or reduce, let’s be realistic here) your consumption of sexually objectifying media. The reason that advertisers (and television shows, and film studios, and video game studios, etc) use these images and tropes is because they pay. Reducing the amount of sexually objectifying media that you consume, whether you’re male or female, may also change the way you look at the world. I found that advertising was the most severe example; I stopped watching television and stopped buying magazines. It’s an enlightening experience to watch television for a few hours and note the number of instances of female objectification. I think the ads are worse than the shows because they’re shorter; producers can get away with way more sexism for a shorter period of time than they could for an entire television show.
You can make sure to take the things women say seriously, and foster healthy multi-gender friends groups. You can call out harassing and objectifying behavior when you see it (the tendency to call out sexist behavior is reduced in both men and women in the face of objectifying media).