Though we may not have personally experienced it, I think many of us have at least witnessed the objectification of female bodies.
Perhaps you’ve seen a friend on social media post a sexy photo, one with her cleavage as the clear focal point, or where she’s wearing very little clothing for whatever reason (maybe it’s for an event, or maybe that’s just what she felt like wearing for this photograph), and you can’t help but notice a disturbing trend in the comments section.
A trend of her male friends making highly sexualized comments toward her.
Some of these men are just there to drool over her, making the typical “nice legs, honey” comments. Some of these men make it clear that they’ve already imagined her in situations that she may not have even wanted to be in, saying “there are so many things I’d like to do to you”. And while you may not see it directly, it may not come to you as a surprise when I say that some of these men have privately messaged her explicitly sexual comments, invitations, or dick pics as a result of this photograph that she publicly shared.
Perhaps you’ve had female friends who join dating apps like Tinder, or maybe you’ve even joined yourself, just to see the amount of disturbing responses that women receive there.
The amount of men who perceive a woman’s mere presence on the app as consent to immediate and extremely sexualized comments is in many ways astounding, and in many others completely predictable. Knowing little more about her than that she is an attractive female, they automatically reduce her to little more than a body and her sexuality, without even considering that she might be a person as well.
Or perhaps you’ve borne witness to catcalling on the street. All you see is a woman walking in a public space, maybe heading home or to work or to a strip club (really, who the hell cares?), and all of a sudden, she finds herself being approached or shouted at by a complete stranger—one who makes it very clear that they see her only as a body available for their convenience, sexualizing her or telling her what she can do for them.
And if you need evidence to prove that these men do not see women as people, but as objects available only for their use and gratification, then look at how they respond when they get turned down or ignored.
In many instances, these men will turn from being sexual to being cruel. They start calling her words like “b*tch” or “stuck up”, punishing her for impressing her will upon the situation. Because she dared to feel differently than him.
And there are some people who don’t really see this as a problem.
They see a woman dressing in even-just-slightly revealing clothing, entering in certain spaces, or behaving in a certain way, and say, “Well, if she didn’t want this kind of attention, then she shouldn’t have done that in the first place”.
Personally, I disagree with this statement, however, and for a couple of reasons:
1) It ignores the fact that, maybe, she didn’t dress or act this way for men.
Whenever people see a woman presenting themselves as a sexual being, they always seem to assume that she’s doing it specifically for the purposes of the entire community of straight men, which feeds into this vicious cycle that we’re talking about: she’s doing this for men, therefore it’s alright for men to talk to her however—or send her whatever pictures—they like.
But women don’t necessarily have to have had men in mind to take a sexy photo or dress a specific way.
Maybe she just got a new outfit that she’s pleased with, and she wanted to show it off.
Maybe she feels like she looks particularly pretty in that photograph.
Maybe representing herself in a sexualized manner makes her feel confident and powerful.
Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with men at large—maybe she just wanted to wear that outfit today.
And at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what her intent was. Even if she did post the photograph with the intent of impressing general, non-specific men, that does not mean that she consented to sexual advances, nude pictures, and the abuse that comes when she doesn’t respond the way the men targeting her would like.
Even if she is intentionally representing herself as a sexual being, that is only because many women are sexual beings. Women have desires and attractions, and if they feel comfortable expressing that in a public setting, then they should feel safe to do so without being hounded by men who only want to tell her the ways that she can gratify them.
A woman isn’t “inviting” anything by the way she dresses. She isn’t an object who exists only for your pleasure—she is a human being who should be considered much more complex and varied than that.
2) Sexual objectification doesn’t just happen to women who are dressing or acting sexual.
The best example that I can think of that’s been on many people’s minds lately is breastfeeding. A woman’s breasts are not, inherently, sexual objects. They are a part of her body, and sometimes, they can be used to feed small children. But many breastfeeding mothers have been forced into shame and seclusion directly because a part of their body, that they cannot help having, has been deemed sexual by other people.
I have heard from people who fear what might happen if a child walks by and witnesses a woman feeding her baby in a public space, as though the sight of a breast is a fearful thing that might contaminate the young and pure of heart. But at the end of the day, it is just a breast, just a part of the human body, and no child who sees one will be worse (or better) off for it.
The only reason that people think of it as a dangerous and sexual thing is because they’ve decided that it’s a dangerous and sexual thing.
The same thing is true for essentially all nudity. Nude photography, for example, is something that we’ve often been taught to view as fearful or inherently sexual. If one poses nude, then they are forced to take into consideration things like what people at work will think if they ever find out, or what their children will think if they ever stumble upon the pictures.
But, nude photography does not inherently have to be sexual, and if you want evidence of that, I urge you to look up some of the late, great Leonard Nimoy’s work. Some of it is just celebrating the beauty that is the human form.
And even if it is sexual, so what? Many of us are sexual beings, and what’s so wrong with that? What about that is so fearful? Yes, there are certain people in our lives who we may not want to know that side of us, but if someone feels comfortable expressing it, then they should be allowed to without fear of being stripped of their humanity in the eyes of others.
3) The primary way that we understand female sexuality and gender identity is through objectification.
While this is true for all women, this is especially clear when applied to women whose gender identity and sexual preferences do not comply with society’s “norm”.
Think about lesbian or bisexual women, and the way that they are often represented in the media. Often times, when we do see these sexualities represented in movies or television that is not specifically oriented toward an LGBTQ+ audience, their relationships are reduced to privileging sex over love—and it is often a sort of sexuality that is clearly intended to be appealing to the male audience.
This is a problem that has ben improving in recent years, as we see more and more representations of queer women, but that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely gone. The FOX series Gotham––currently in its third season—has featured multiple lesbian or bisexual women, but all of their relationships with women have been poorly established or explored. The only way that we really know about their queer identity is that they sometimes kiss other women in highly sexualized scenes, where the attractiveness of these women is clearly foregrounded.
This implies that their inclusion in the series is not for the purposes of real-life queer, female viewers, hoping to identify with them, but for men who simply want to view hot women acting sexually toward one another. In other words, these women are not being explored like women, but rather displayed like objects for the pleasure of male viewers.
The objectification of female bodies is clear when it comes to gender identity, as well. Often times, when a transgender celebrity is being interviewed, the topic of their genitals is inappropriately brought up. A transgender woman is asked, flat-out, if she still has a penis, leading some celebrities, like Laverne Cox, to refuse to answer the question altogether. And while there are many reasons why this question is on the forefront of so many people’s minds, one of them seems to be that we cannot understand or accept a female body unless it meets our standards. It reduces the person to their body, leaving our understanding of their femininity hanging on the anatomy.
We rarely allow these people to speak for themselves. We ignore the personal experiences of queer women to make it easier for men to exploit their sexuality for their own purposes, and we take our understanding of a person’s gender identity more from their physical body than from their words, thoughts, and feelings.
But LGBTQ+ women are not the only ones whose sexuality is only understood through objectification. Straight women, too, are not seen as possessing their own individual sexuality, but rather, as existing for male sexuality. Women are expected to avoid being too sexually forward or aggressive, lest they want to be described as “sluts”. And, on the other hand, women must also be sexually available to men, or they’ll be labelled a “prude”. This virgin/whore complex in our society is so complete that women are not sexually defined by their own desires, but rather, by how they fail or succeed to fulfill male desires.
4) Objectification can, very simply, be pretty damaging.
Unfortunately, there are some men who respond to rejection by verbally attacking women, calling them “fat” or “ugly”—quite possibly repeating insecurities that she, herself, has thought at some point.
They aim to tear them down, and to make themselves feel better about the rejection in the process. Sometimes, these men will even threaten violence, tell women that they should “kill themselves” , or that women like them “shouldn’t exist”.
I don’t think I need to point out why comments such as these are not okay.
They’re cruel and degrading. Even if we ignore the possibility that these men might be tapping into insecurities or suicidal thoughts that these women have already experienced, these still aren’t the sort of things we want to be told and it is not the way that we deserve to be treated, as human beings who have only committed the crime of asserting our own autonomy.
And the more frequently that women hear comments like these—the more that rejected men tell them that they’re ugly, that they’re worthless, and that they deserve to die for being so “stuck up” and having such a high opinion of themselves (which really means, that they recognize that they don’t need this sort of abusive man in their lives)—the more women are going to be inclined to believe it.
So, not only do we as a gender have advertising agencies and media constantly telling us how we should look and what we need to buy in order to “fix” our inherently flawed appearances, we also have comments such as these dragging our self-esteem down whenever we reject men who do not know how to handle rejection in a healthy way.
I know that the question many men will be asking at this point is, “What is the appropriate way to respond to a woman who is behaving in a sexual manner then?” And, truth be told, I don’t know if I can entirely give a blanket answer to this question, because a lot of it has to do with the individual—particularly, it depends on your relationship with the person as well as the setting.
All that I can really say is that, if you are considering making a sexual comment toward someone, you need to take a second beforehand to ask yourself, is this warranted? Is my relationship to this person one where I am totally justified in responding to them in this manner, and is their behaviour undeniably suggesting that a sexual response is proper? A lot of this is something that is going to require judgement on your part, because it’s difficult to broadly describe in which scenarios it’s appropriate and in which it isn’t.
After all, treating a woman as a sexual being, with her own sexual agency, is not a bad thing. It only becomes twisted and ugly when you treat her as a sexual object, with the expectation that she exists for and should be flattered by your pleasure.
Author: Ciara Hall
Editor: Erin Lawson