Feminism 101: Objectification & Sexualization vs. Sexual Desire

Merely experiencing desire upon beholding someone is not to necessarily objectify. To wit:

I’ve been objectified by men when I’ve worn frumpy sweatshirts and baggy straight jeans: my butt was groped when I was arrayed that way at a hole-in-the-wall eatery. I’ve been objectified by men while I was wearing long, loose tunics and skirts topped by carefully-draped headscarves: I was asked if I was a “total freak under that thing”, the last word punctuated by an unmistakable gesture towards my scarf. Hell, I’ve been objectified by men for being a virgin who mostly stayed at home: a much-older man online told me that he found it titillating to think about me “locked away” and insinuated that if we got together, he’d rescue me to a liberated life of constant sex and nudity at his apartment.

Notice a pattern here?

Well, besides the fact that I wasn’t dressed or positioned in the way that people assume would attract a pervert, and the fact the these men were attracted to me. Their desire alone was hardly the issue.

Nor is the problem that they expressed desire. Expressing desire in a way that treats the person like a full human being (or at the very least allows for the desired person to gracefully extricate themselves from the situation) is not objectification.

The problem was that they made their attraction to me the sole focus of their interactions with me with a sense of entitlement that precluded my full humanity. None of them considered my consent and ensured that my ability to respond was hampered. Groper never said a word to me and took advantage of the fact that I wouldn’t want to make a scene and that he had plausible deniability in the form of his female partner, a woman far more conventionally attractive and attractively-dressed than me. Freak Boy used the fact that I was clearly a wide-eyed first-year with her nose buried in a book to catch me by surprise and throw me off my guard. Wannabe Liberator knew very well that I was as young and as insecure and as inexperienced as could be, so I didn’t know how to respond.

These are micro-level examples of objectification, where I, as a female person, was reduced to being a sexual object for the sexual gratification of a man. Nothing was considered about me other than my crotch-stiffening properties, least of all my willingness to participate in their expressed desires. I wasn’t a person, I was an object of fappery (or perhaps mockery, in the case of Freak Boy, though that’s irrelevant).

Taken to a macro level, objectification can become sexualization, where things are valued merely for their presumed ability to titillate rather than anything else about them. Bellydancing is one example. It certainly is sensual and can be incredibly sexy, but there is certainly more to it than the male gaze gives it credit for. It’s a way by which men and women express themselves, it’s an art form, and it has cultural history behind it.

Being turned on by something or someone is not objectification, it is sexual desire, something experienced by everyone but the asexual. Treating the thing or person in question as if they solely exist to turn you on is objectification. Taken to a societal level, where things are collectively considered to be worthwhile merely for their ability to turn people on (or inability thereof) is sexualization.

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Feminism 101: Objectification & Sexualization vs. Sexual Desire

16 thoughts on “Feminism 101: Objectification & Sexualization vs. Sexual Desire

  1. 1

    I am a bit older than you, and I was not “online” in a real way (although I did love BBSes) until I was about a Senior in High School. While sexism was obviously a problem long long long before the internet, it feels like the faux-interaction with other people is a powerful tool for objectification. Sometimes when I look back, it seems that the internet helped a subset of people transcend in some ways and set a different subset all the way back to square one when it comes to objectifying the other.

    1. 1.1

      I don’t know. I prefer the gross weirdos online (if I have to have any at all) rather than in meatspace. All the interactions I described were afk and I felt very physically uncomfortable and intimidated. Online, I can block and/or ignore people far more easily.

  2. 2

    That’s fair and understandable, but in my completely anecdotal and unscientific feeling, I think the online component has emboldened people offline. To those whose formative social experiences are with a nickname in a chat window, I suspect it’s far easier to tend towards objectifying people in real life. Then again, I mention my age precisely because I am well aware that this might be 100% subjective (and a little bit “get off my lawn!”).

    1. 2.1

      See, I feel like people who didn’t spend their formative years online are more prone to dismissing things as “just the Internet” and are more likely to respond to reports of misogyny and other forms of abuse online with “Well, why are you even on the Internet? Just don’t go online. Do you have to be online? Spend more time in real life instead.” That inability to see people online as real people and online experienced as real experience can also lead to dehumanization.

      And I know you’re speaking anecdotally, but I really would like to see even a bit of evidence that the Internet generation objectifies people offline because we are so connected online.

  3. 3

    It’s also easy for some people to forget that objectification can occur in the absence of desire, as well. Someone who says “oink oink!” instead of “nice tits!”, or says “She’s a four” rather than “she’s a ten” is still reducing the woman they target to an object – in this case, deciding she’s unsatisfying as a sex toy, and thus unworthy of respect.

  4. 4

    This is unfortunately not a very clear boundary for those who objectify. Some people don’t get it at all, and for people like myself who do, a lifetime of encouragement to objectify makes it the default lens through which I view the world. Then I have to be very careful of my intentions and words. Some misdeeds are obvious & easily avoided (the things you mentioned above), others are easy to slip into on accident.

    By that I mean ogling. If I’m checkin’ somebody out, I’m trying not to be noticed. But if I am seen, there’s a harm done that has been scientifically measured. – http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/01/12/how-objectification-silences-women-the-male-glance-as-a-psychological-muzzle/ – So I’d be better to avoid checking people out, but damn that is hard because it’s a really easy thing to do. It’s like if smoking a cigarette was something you could do unconsciously in a split second at any time.

    The harm that could be caused if I was noticed is worse than usual because I am most attracted to people who (coincidentally) are victimized by society for their appearance, and will probably think I’m being disgusted & have that reinforce body image issues. I suspect in a magical world free from the damage of patriarchy and body policing, this would be a non-issue. But here & now, I gotta keep my peepers in check.

    1. 4.1

      I’m fairly confident that the study you cited used a directed and intense stare at someone’s body rather than the sort of quick glance that your unchecked peepers slip into on accident.

      Seems to me that the difference between glancing and the sort of intense ogling described in that study is that only the latter form of behaviour is “treating the…person in question as if they solely exist to turn you on.”

  5. 5

    I am a male, and in 10 years never approached a female in any form. The reason is because of all the confusion feminism creates in society. If you don’t do it, you are called insecure, need to “man up”, but if you do. You are rejected at first clance, some woman in university who was sitting alone back then, I wanted to join her with my coffee and start a conversation, totaly rejected me, saying she dont want me here, because she is a feminist. Some women brag about the humiliating ways they reject guys who approach them and call it rapy. if you like a woman, she wants to play hard to get, I hate it, but female friends say if you really like he you will fight for her, and when I do she tell every one I am her stalker (Criminal) to shame me because she was not playing hard to get, she just didn’t like me.

    10 years ago I realized it is a dead-end trying to meet a woman anymore, and Im not fat, many say I have beautiful eyes, Im well spoken and a professional engineer, non-aggressive, hardly ever swear. But I realized that online is the only way. The fact is, women are now just making impossible for men to know how to approach them each have their own expectations to the letter. Any approach can be seen as objectification, womanizing, sexualizing, rapy, stalking, harassing just for doing it wrong, and not just wrong, but wrong relative to the way she wants it at the right time. As a result I stopped and never to bother talking to a woman again by means of making the first move. I just stopped, most of my friends did, then people ask me why I am single. The fact is women made it impossible and confusing and even incriminating. so why should I approach women still. Even this article I hoped would perhaps bring some clear light on the subject, show the difference like black and white, wrong or right. But no, it is still just a grey area open for interpretation.

    1. 5.1

      I think the confusion comes more from the mentality that all women want and agree with the same things. If you stop thinking of women as a monolithic entity and instead as human beings with as much variety in perspectives, experiences, desires, opinions, and preferences as men, you’ll see why what you call “a gray area” and consider to be so confusing and upsetting is actually just being human with all that comes with it.

          1. You are missing my point with a mile. There is no fixed way to determine wrong or right as all terms like objectification, player, stalker, womanizer, perv, rapy, some of them incriminating has no fixed definitions or boundaries to them. this means that with any women who can freely make her own interpretations and use any of it in any situation, which means that no matter how you do anything, she can deem you as wrong for her being her, and not for you doing wrong. If science and physics or engineering would work that way, we would have still ride in ox wagons because if you dont have standards and protocol all agree on you have chaos. this is exactly what you have, Chaos. Men are rational people, they need to rationalize things, “that’s men’s secret” if you cannot rationalize, then you lose the entire conversation with them, they will understand no other language. So are you only speaking to women? whats the point in that?

            There is no way of being right or having agreement. And that makes many guys just opt out. If there is no way to establish what is socially acceptable. Then how should any man know he is doing the right thing, the right way? he cannot, so he will do wrong. When a man goes and meet a woman, he does not know the “individual” as you put it until he knows her, do you understand that part at all? the entire idea that woman can be, expect, demand and do anything, want anything but if you do it wrong you are an asshole, perv, wominiser or criminal is totally irrational. Thats why you guys will never be able to solve the problem with men, they need rational guidelines which everyone agrees on. the way we have ethics, dress codes, body language, writing formats…it gets everyone on the same page and establish the difference between wrong or right. you cannot have a system where you reason, no matter what…. the woman is always right as she is the one to decide if you did it right in her opinion or not.

            What is wrong and what is right? Usual its simple, but not with feminism it is not. The whole thing that “we are all we want to be and expect you to be all on this long list of stuff and expectations I want”, but if you have it wrong then “screw you you perv or womanizer only have one thing on your mind asshole”, idea is never going to work. Face it, that’s how it is. Then if men who dont get your point must rather go their own way, then there is really no point in you writing this article is there? I write to this because I am interested in feminism, but I also write to it because it creates more confusion than answers. How do I support something so confusing.

            Its like the same way I can say all men are different so just respect the way the individual choose to meet you, if he grabs your ass, call you babes, give cheesy pickup lines, just respect him for his individuality…nonsense is not going to work. there must be a standard ethics which is both agreed by men and women as acceptable but this is nowhere to be found. I get the idea the new social contract is, whatever is wrong or right is always determined by the women and how she feels and he is always at fault. And that will never work.

          2. Its like the same way I can say all men are different so just respect the way the individual choose to meet you, if he grabs your ass, call you babes, give cheesy pickup lines, just respect him for his individuality…nonsense is not going to work

            No, because I assumed the bodily autonomy of others and their consent are both essential part of basic human respect, and it goes both ways. That you didn’t assume that was the case is frankly disturbing.

            there must be a standard ethics which is both agreed by men and women as acceptable but this is nowhere to be found.

            Don’t treat people like things. Don’t touch them without their permission.

            I get the idea the new social contract is, whatever is wrong or right is always determined by the women and how she feels and he is always at fault. And that will never work.

            Not true. Any woman who has prosecuted a man for rape will tell you that. Her whole life will be put on trial, as if her giving consent once to anything means that she isn’t allowed to say no ever.

          3. Addendum: To break part of what you said down.

            Its like the same way I can say all men are different so just respect the way the individual choose to meet you

            I can respect someone’s right to be a jerk but I’m allowed to be a jerk right back, disapprove of it, and write about it.

            if he grabs your ass, call you babes, give cheesy pickup lines, just respect him for his individuality…nonsense is not going to wor

            One of these things is not like the other. Ass-grabbing is nonconsensual touching, the rest are within his freedom to do. It’s also within my rights for me to yell at him, laugh at him, write about him, and/or say no to him for doing such things. Freedom goes both ways.

  6. 6

    Thanks for your feedback, it gets a bit clearer, Just for the record in the last quote, I was not referring to rape when I was speaking about to be “at fault” I was speaking about general social perception. But I agree with you, touching is not good, I just had to stretch the possibilities a bit to see where you draw that line.

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