Is sexual objectification bad?
There’s a lot of stuff that counts as sexual objectification: rape, molestation, prostitution, one-night stands, sexual fantasies, and scantily-clad models in advertisements are all examples of people treating others as a means to sexual gratification (and nothing more). If you’ve ever checked out someone of the opposite sex, no matter how discretely, you’ve indulged in a bit of sexual objectification. What do these things have in common that make sexual objectification so terrible?
Some claim that sexual objectification is bad because it’s non-consensual. This is tautologically true for things like rape and molestation, and arguably true for well as sexual fantasies and checking-people-out. On the other hand, one-night stands are consensual. Bikini clad models are consenting to have their bodies be used as a means to sell beer. Sex workers consent to have sex in exchange for money. Sexual objectification is not inherently non-consensual.
Another theory is that it harms those who are objectified. Once again, this is obviously true for rape and molestation. On the other hand, people we fantasize about, or check out, are often blissfully unaware of our actions, so it’s hard to see how they’re harmed. Meanwhile flings, models, and sex workers seem to benefit from being objectified, whether sexually or monetarily. Sexual objectification doesn’t necessarily harm someone.
A third theory is that it is indirectly harmful. Men, the theory goes, see women being treated as sex objects in porn films and billboards and start thinking of all women as mere sex objects. This leads to all kinds of negative consequences, like rape. This is an interesting theory, but the data doesn’t support it. Pornography is a fairly stark example of sexual objectification. If the theory is true as the amount of porn available increases, we should see an increase in rape. The availability of pornography has exploded since the advent of the internet, and yet rape rates have fallen. Studies closely tracking the spread of the internet show that porn leads to less rape, not more. Similarly, researchers have found that legalizing prostitution reduces rape*.
Why doesn’t porn lead men to think of women as mere sex objects? Answer – men aren’t idiots. They’re smart enough to realize that some women are sex objects in some contexts. Examples: porn stars in movies, prostitutes on the clock, one night stands on the night in question. In other contexts, meaningless sex is off the table, for example when one is among colleagues, neighbors, or girlfriends. A man who fails to learn this will receive a sharp shock – rejection at best, jail at worst. A man who only thinks of women as sex objects will barely be able to function.
An interesting argument is that treating people as a means to an end is just wrong. Such an act dehumanizes the person by making him an object to be used. Such objectification is inherently degrading. Most people would agree that this makes total sense. Until it starts raining, at which point they call a cab.
When someone hires a cab, they’re using the driver as a means to an end – getting from point A to point B. The driver is also using them as a means to an end – making money. And yet neither the driver nor the passenger feel demeaned or diminished in status by being used. In their day to day lives, people constantly use strangers as a means to an end, without disrespecting their humanity in the process. Objectification is not inherently degrading or wrong.
But there’s a big difference between driving a taxi and having sex – no-one regards driving a taxi as shameful. A great many people seem to regard casual sex as somehow dirty. For these people, to have meaningless sex with someone is to disrespect them. I can totally understand such folks having a problem with sexual objectification.
But it’s not the prudish traditionals who write elaborate essays about the horrors of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. It’s the “sex positive” progressives. Is there some deep philosophical theory that enables them to see sex as alright and objectification as alright, but sexual objectification as inherently awful?
Nope – they just haven’t thought it through. The idea that sex is degrading is deeply ingrained, even inside people who see themselves as having escaped such ideas. If you take offense to the question “are you gay?” you’ve probably got a few homophobic ideas lying around. If you take offence to the question “wanna have sex?” you’ve probably got a few sex-negative ideas lying around. Far too many progressives think being sex positive merely means not calling sexually active women “sluts” or arguing for the legalization of prostitution; the more subtle weeds remain unpruned.
If you want proof that opposition to sexual objectification comes from the belief that sex is dirty, you just have to look at how often sex workers are dissed in these discussions. Look at io9 being outraged by a comic book publisher “putting beloved superheroines in positions reserved for porn stars.” Look at Pando getting angry about Uber posting an ad “treating women who may choose to drive cars to make extra money like hookers.” Look at the Feministing contributor who was “embarrassed and humiliated” by a joke that “marked [me] as a stripper.” These aren’t religious conservatives who think that prostitution is sinful, but their unstated (perhaps unconscious) beliefs are clear – sex workers are low-status and no respectable woman should be tainted by association with them.
If you think there’s nothing wrong with hiring someone to drive a cab, and nothing wrong with casual sex, but something inherently wrong with hiring someone for casual sex, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.
To be fair, some people have taken a sporty shot at explaining. They’re not against sex, nor against mundane objectification, nor against every single form of sexual objectification. What they’re against is people being treated as mere sexual objects and having other aspects of their humanity ignored or denied, especially in art and literature.
Taken literally, this claim is absurd. In a movie, a porn star may be a tool for sexual gratification. This doesn’t mean that she is merely a tool for sexual gratification. Porn stars have hobbies, write essays, attend college and socialize like everyone else. It is even less true that porn reduces women outside the film to the status of mere tools. Female CEOs, athletes, and doctors are not mere means to anyone’s sexual pleasure. They know it, and so do the men around them.
Of course, maybe it’s not a literal statement about the world, but rather criticism leveled against a film’s aesthetics. But why is being a sex object so much worse than being (say) a violence object, as so many thousands of henchmen are? Or bystander objects, as so many extras are? Might it be because sex is seen as dirty and low-status, while shooting poorly and sitting at a restaurant isn’t?
Furthermore, people aren’t reduced – and reduced is the important word here – to mere sex objects as often as critics claim. Take the recent controversy over this Spider-Woman cover. It’s highly unlikely that the main character of a comic series will spend her inaugural issue doing nothing but sticking her ass in the air, so it’s unlikely that Spider-Woman will be “reduced” to a sex object. And yet people lost their shit. Why? That’s kind of a hard question to answer without invoking the idea that sex is dirty and sex-objects are low-status.
Sexual objectification is a really really confusing topic on the internet.
Part of this is grammar. George Clooney doesn’t turn into a walking dildo when you fantasize about him. It can be confusing to hear that you’ve “sexually objectified” him, as if you’ve literally transformed him into a sex object.
Also, people don’t want to have sex with objects; they want to have sex with people. It can be confusing to hear a prostitute being referred to as a sex object, as if she were a rented Fleshlight™ [NSFW].
Information networks muddy waters further. Activists and intellectuals learn about “sexual objectification” through their friends, mentors, blogs, books, or classes. They then use the phrase casually and without explanation, bewildering listeners outside their circles.
When you ask what, exactly, objectification is, you’ll be told that it’s when you treat a person like an object. But there are a lot of ways to treat someone like a object. You could treat them like they were a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. (This is the definition I’ve been using in this essay.) You could treat them like they have no autonomy. You could treat them like they have no subjective point-of-view. You could treat them like they have no voice of their own. You could just be treating them disrespectfully. All of this makes discussing objectification hard, unless the people you’re talking to understand exactly what you mean by “objectification”.
How do you avoid this confusion? Clearly define objectification, and explicitly state why you think it’s a bad thing. Productive discussions can now begin.
If you don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with sex, should you feel free to proposition people willy-nilly? Of course not. Rightly or wrongly, most people do think there’s something inherently wrong about sex, if only at a subconscious level. The pain they feel at being objectified is real and, as a good human being, you should seek to minimize the suffering of your fellow men and women. Don’t objectify someone unless you know they’re okay with it†.
On the other hand, feel free to engage in all forms of sexual objectification that are consensual or harmless. Watch A Tale of Two Titties, hire that red-headed sex worker, fantasize about Brad Pitt, whatever. It doesn’t lead to rape nor a decrease in the status of women. It turns out that people vastly overstate how evil sexual desires are. Who saw that coming?
* There are those who believe that legalized sex work provides a cover for sex slavery and trafficking. This may or may not be true. But it has no bearing on whether availability of prostitutes lead men to think of non-prostitutes as sex objects.
† This can sometimes be tricky, because seeking permission to sexually objectify someone – by, for example, proposing a one-night stand – can itself cause offense. Having honest, open conversations about sex is an elusive goal.