Notes on a Sex Object

by thethreepennyguignol

What does it mean to objectify somebody?

It’s a conversation I’ve been having, on and off, for a long time: because, as a feminist who writes about the media and also a human being with eyes, it’s hard to miss the fact that women are, consistently, in media and in real life, reduced down to the way that they look (side note: there’s some really interesting writing on what the objectification of men looks like and the impacts it can have, and this article isn’t an attempt to deny that it exists, but, as someone who’s basically a woman, I’m focusing on what I know and can back up from my own experience here).

And I guess that it’s something that I’m really just exhausted by at this point. Because, to me, it’s not just about what it means in a break-it-down-to-the-syllables sense: it’s what it means in a visceral one.

It’s hard to explain the bone-deep tiredness that comes from dealing with this for as long as you can remember having a body – the first time someone offered sexual commentary on my body was when I was eleven years old, and it’s happened pretty consistently ever since then. Online, in real life, reflected in the versions of the people who are meant to represent me in the media, these constant questions that have me broken down to cuts of meat: how big are your tits, how long are your legs, how thick are your thighs, how tight is your pussy, do you shave, are you hairy, are you a virgin, do you take it in the ass? Most women I know have dealt with the same thing, in various different shades. I’m tired. We’re tired.

And I think that the exhausting aspect of it is something that is hard to convey to people who haven’t consistently dealt with sexual objectification their whole lives. I wish people found me that attractive, they tell me. Everyone likes to be objectified sometimes, don’t they?

And I actually think that this just represents a fundamentally pretty tragic misunderstanding of what positive sexual relationships and interactions look like. Sexual objectification of women is so widespread that the notion of attraction existing outside of that has become impossible: the distinction between objectification and positive attraction has blurred to the point of becoming unrecognisable. There’s some debate over what the term sexual objectification actually means, but for me, to objectify is to reduce someone down to their individual parts, and how those individual parts can be used for your pleasure with no thought of theirs.

Finding someone attractive is not inherently objectifying them; when you strip their own desires out of the question and entirely remove their wants from the equation, that’s when you get into dangerous territory. Thinking “I find that person attractive” versus “I find that person attractive and their position as an object of sexual desire to me supercedes anything else they might have going on”. Someone can be the subject of your desires without being the object of them, is what I’m saying.

But what actually is the impact of objectification? I think understanding this a little better is perhaps a good way to explain just why it’s such an exhausting thing to have to deal with – it’s not just the fact that it happens, but that it happens so constantly to women as a gender almost everywhere we turn, to the point where that message has begun to invade the way women actually view themselves.A 1997 theory that has served as the basis for much research on objectification put forward the notion of self-objectification – the idea that women begin to view themselves through this same lens of external sexualisation and objectification that they are frequently exposed to through the media and interactions with people around them.

Studies have connected this notion to decreased sexual agency and a sex life that “may be more of a performance done for the pleasure of one’s partner rather than oneself”,  higher levels of substance abuse in women, and increased instances of depression and eating disorders. And even men who are consistently exposed to objectifying material and engage in objectification themselves may struggle to form satisfying intimate relationships with women, as well as being more prone to coerce and sexually pressure their sexual partners. When it feels like the effects of objectification invade so many corners of our lives, it’s more than just that instantaneous moment of discomfort about being treated a certain way; it’s these long-term, pervasive effects that make the weight of it so constant, such drudgery.

When we ask, what does it mean to objectify someone, I think that it’s a query worth answering, I do. But I think, more broadly, we should be looking at what that objectification does to the people who know they are experiencing it. I understand why establishing the parameters of objectification matters but, to me, by now, I have to admit that I am tired with trying to come up with the answer to a question that I feel has been answered a million times before. And now, I’m more interested in finding out what we can do to fix the damage it has done.

(header image via tumblr)