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Sexual objectification is objectification of a person. It occurs when a person is seen as a sexual object when their sexual attributes and physical attractiveness are separated from the rest of their personality and existence as an individual , and reduced to instruments of pleasure for another person. The concept of sexual objectification and, in particular, the objectification of women, is an important idea in feminist theory and psychological theories derived from feminism.

Many feminists regard sexual objectification as objectionable and as playing an important role in the inequality of the sexes. Some social critics, however, argue that increased sexual freedom for women and gay men has led to an increase of the sexual objectification of men. The idea of sexual objectification has also been an important area of discussion and debate in the area of sexual ethics and the philosophy of sex.

Sexual objectification of women

Feminist scholars say that the objectification of women involves the act of disregarding the personal and intellectual abilities and capabilities of a female, and a woman's reduction to an instrument of sexual pleasure in the mind of another person, generally assumed to be a man. Examples of phenomena seen by some feminists as objectification of women include sexually oriented depictions of women in advertising and media, women being portrayed as weak or submissive through pornography, images in more mainstream media such as advertising and art, stripping and prostitution, men brazenly evaluating or judging women sexually or aesthetically in public spaces, and the presumed need for cosmetic surgery, particularly breast enlargement and labiaplasty.

Historically, feminists believe women have often been valued mainly for their physical attributes. Some feminists and psychologists argue that such sexual objectification can lead to negative psychological effects including depression and hopelessness, and can give women negative self-images because of the belief that their intelligence and competence are currently being, or will not ever be, acknowledged by society. The precise degree to how objectification has affected women and society in general is a topic of academic debate. Such claims include: girls' understanding of the importance of appearance in society may contribute to feelings of fear, shame, and disgust that some experience during the transition from girlhood to womanhood because they sense that they are becoming more visible to society as sexual objects; and that young women are especially susceptible to objectification, as they are often taught that power, respect, and wealth can be derived from one's outward appearance.

Pro-feminist cultural critics such as Robert Jensen and Sut Jhally accuse mass media and advertising of promoting the objectification of women to help promote goods and services.

Sexual self-objectification

Feminists such as Ariel Levy contend that Western women have begun to sexually objectify themselves by choice, by wearing increasingly revealing clothing and engaging in lewd behavior. While these women see their own objectification as a form of empowerment, critics of this behavior contend that it has led to greater emphasis on a physical criterion for women's perceived self worth.

Levy discusses this phenomenon in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Levy followed the camera crew from the Girls Gone Wild video series, and argues that contemporary America's sexualized culture not only objectifies women, it encourages women to objectify themselves. In today's culture, Levy writes, the idea of a woman participating in a wet T-shirt contest or being comfortable watching explicit pornography has become a symbol of feminist strength; she says that she was surprised at how many people, both men and women, working for programs such as Girls Gone Wild told her that this new "raunchy" culture marked not the downfall of feminism but its triumph, because it proved that U.S. women have become strong enough to express their sexuality publicly.

Sexual objectification of men

Feminist authors Christina Hoff Sommers and Naomi Wolf write that women's sexual liberation has led many women to view men as sex objects. Research has suggested that the psychological effects of objectification on men are similar to those of women, leading to negative body image among men.

Instances where men are being presented as sex objects include movies and television shows, beefcake calendars, women's magazines, male strip shows, and clothed female nude male (CFNM) events. Also, more women are purchasing and consuming pornography (especially, adult videos).

There are also gay pornograpic magazines such as Blueboy, Honcho and Manscape and physique magazines including Men's Workout, Exercise for Men Only and Men's Exercise which appeal to the gay male demographic. Gay male pornography makes up 1/3 of the adult film industry. Some male strip clubs cater to a gay male clientele.

Views on sexual objectification

While the concept of sexual objectification is important within feminist and masculist theory, ideas vary widely on what constitutes sexual objectification and what are the ethical implications of such objectification. Some feminists such as Naomi Wolf find the concept of physical attractiveness itself to be problematic, with some radical feminists being opposed to any evaluation of another person's sexual attractiveness based on physical characteristics. John Stoltenberg goes so far as to condemn as wrongfully objectifying any sexual fantasy that involves visualization of a woman.

Radical feminists view objectification as playing a central role in reducing women to what they refer to as the "sex class". While some feminists view mass media in societies that they argue are patriarchal to be objectifying, they often focus on pornography as playing an egregious role in habituating men to objectify women. Other feminists, particularly those identified with sex-positive feminism, take a different view of sexual objectification and see it as a problem when it is not counterbalanced by women's sense of their own sexual subjectivity.

Some social conservatives have taken up aspects of the feminist critique of sexual objectification. In their view however, the increase in the sexual objectification of both genders in Western culture is one of the negative legacies of the sexual revolution.These critics, notably Wendy Shalit, advocate a return to pre-sexual revolution standards of sexual morality, which Shalit refers to as a "return to modesty", as an antidote to sexual objectification.

Other feminists contest feminist claims about the objectification of women. Camille Paglia holds that "Turning people into sex objects is one of the specialties of our species." In her view, objectification is closely tied to (and may even be identical with) the highest human faculties toward conceptualization and aesthetics. Individualist feminist Wendy McElroy holds that the label "sex object" means nothing because inanimate objects are not sexual. She continues that women are their bodies as well as their minds and souls.

Objectification and sexual fetishism

Sexual objectification may also be considered a means of realizing a sexual fetish; in which a person is assigned, or adopts the status of a fetish object. This may provide erotic humiliation for the person so regarded. As with most BDSM-related activities, it is not considered abusive when engaged in consensually. Allen Jones' "Hat Stand and Table Sculpture", which show semi-naked women in the roles of furniture, are clear examples of the depiction of the fantasy of sexual objectification.

See also


  1. LeMoncheck, Linda, Loose Women, Lecherous Men: A Feminist Philosophy of Sex (Oxford University press, 1997), ISBN 9780195105559, p. 133
  2. Barry, Kathleen, Female Sexual Slavery (NYU Press, 1994), ISBN 9780814710697, p.247
  3. Goldenberg, Jamie L., and Tomi-Ann Roberts, 'The Beast within the Beauty: An Existential Perspective on the Objectification and Condemnation of Women' in Jeff Greenberg, Sander Leon Koole, Thomas A. Pyszczynski and Tom Pyszczynski (eds) Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (Guilford Press, 2004), ISBN 9781593850409
  4. Bartky, Sandra Lee, Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (Routledge, 1990), ISBN 9780415901863, p. 26
  5. Study: For Israeli women, going on vacation means more sexIrit Rosenblum, Haaretz, 26/02/2008.
  6. Botting, Kate and Botting, Douglas. "Men Can Be Sex Objects Too". Cosmopolitan. August 1996.
  7. No more faking: "Sex isn't over until we've had an orgasm...," say Melinda Gallagher and Emily Kramer, founders of the outrageous Cake sex empire for women. But is their love of porn and lapdancing breaking new ground, or is so-called 'raunch feminism' setting the cause back? Sharon Krum The Guardian, Monday May 15, 2006.
  8. Speedophobia by Mark Simpson, Out
  9. See, for example – Soble, Alan (ed). 1997. Sex, Love and Friendship: Studies of the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love 1977–1992. Amsterdam: Rodopi. ISBN 9042002271. Chapters 13–16.
  10. Lee, Janet. 1994. Menarche and the (hetero)sexualization of the female body. Gender & Society 8(3):343–362.
  11. Jensen, Robert, 'Using Pornography' in Dines, Gail, Robert Jensen and Ann Russo (eds) Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality (Routledge, 1998), ISBN 9780415918138
  12. Jhally, Sut (dir) Dreamworlds II: Desire, Sex, Power in Music (Media Education Foundation, USA, 1997)
  13. Frith, Katherine, Ping Shaw and Hong Cheng 'The Construction of Beauty: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Women's Magazine Advertising' in Journal of Communication 55 (1), 2005, pp.56–70
  14. 'Save the males': Ho culture lights fuses, but confuses, By KATHLEEN PARKER, NY Daily News, June 30th 2008. Based on "Save the Males" by Kathleen Parker, Copyright 2008, Random House, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group.
  15. Yes, we are bovvered - Times Online
  16. Sommers, Christina Hoff. 1994. Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women. New York. Simon and Schuster (pp.264-265), ISBN 0-671-7924-8 (hc), ISBN 0-684-80156-6 (pb)
  17. Wolf, Naomi. 1994. Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How to Use It. New York: Fawcett Columbine (pp.225-228), ISBN 0-449-90951-4.
  18. Friend,Tad. Yes (feminist women who like sex) Esquire. February 1994
  19. Shirtless Scene
  20. Female Gaze
  21. Sports, Gym Classes, Team Initiations and Events
  22. McElroy, Wendy. 1995. XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. New York: St. Martin's Press (p.36)
  23. 66% of women watch porn
  24. Wolf, Naomi. (1992). The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: William Morrow and Co. (Reprinted, 2002. New York: Harper Perennial) ISBN 0060512180
  25. Stoltenberg, John. 1989. Refusing to be a man: Essays on sex and justice. Portland, OR: Breitenbush Books. (Reprinted, 2000. Oxford: Routledge) ISBN 1841420417
  26. National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families. 1997. Subtle dangers of pornography. NCPCF in Action Special Report, July 1997. (Archived at Pure Intimacy (website).)
  27. Shalit, Wendy. 1999. A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. New York: Free Press. ISBN 0684843161 (hc), ISBN 0684863170 (pb).
  28. Riesman, Judith A. 1991. Soft Porn Plays Hardball: Its Tragic Effects on Women, Children and the Family. Lafayette, LA. Huntington House Publishers. ( pp.32-46, p.173) ISBN 0-910311-92-7
  29. Holz, Adam R. 2007. Is Average the New Ugly? Plugged In Online
  30. Shalit, Wendy. 2000. Modesty revisited. Boundless webzine.
  31. McElroy, Wendy. 2006. A feminist overview of pornography, ending in a defense thereof.

Further reading

  • Bartky, Sandra Lee. 1990. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-90185-5 (hc), ISBN 0-415-90186-3 (pb).
  • Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books. ISBN 0563122447 (BBC), ISBN 0140216316, ISBN 0140135154 (pbk).
  • Brooks, Gary R. 1995. The Centerfold Syndrome: How Men Can Overcome Objectification and Achieve Intimacy with Women. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0787901040.
  • Eames, Elizabeth. 1976. Sexism and woman as sex object. Journal of Thought 11(2):140–143.
  • Holroyd, Julia. 2005. Sexual objectification: The unlikely alliance of feminism and Kant (conference paper). Society for Applied Philosophy International Congress 2005, Oxford, UK.
  • LeMoncheck, Linda. 1985. Dehumanizing Women: Treating Persons as Sex Objects. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0847673316 (hc).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. 1995. Objectification. Philosophy and Public Affairs 24(4): 249–291. . ( JSTOR link.)
  • Papadaki, Evangelia. 2007. Sexual objectification: From Kant to contemporary feminism. Contemporary Political Theory 6(3):330–348. . ( PDF)
  • Shrage, Laurie. 2005. Exposing the fallacies of anti-porn feminism. Feminist Theory 6:45–65. .
  • Soble, Alan. 2002. Pornography, Sex, and Feminism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-944-1 (pb).

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