Issues Magazine

“Here’s Looking at You”: Psychological Perspectives on Sexual Objectification

By Michelle Stratemeyer

Social psychology has created a rich area of study looking at the causes and consequences of sexual objectification.

Sexual objectification is the act of viewing someone else as an object rather than as a person. Objectification has a long philosophical history, starting with the musings of 18th-century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant, who viewed extramarital sex as the reduction of an individual to an object of sexual gratification.

This concept was reinvigorated almost two centuries later with the rise of second-wave feminists; for them, objectification is a product of patriarchy, which affords men certain privileges and rights over women. Feminists consider forms of objectification from everyday instances in the media and language usage to the reduction of women to the role of mere erotic objects within a larger system of gender inequality.

Sexual objectification as a social psychology field originated from the ideas of feminist scholars. Psychologists are interested in exploring these ideas empirically and providing statistical support for them. Here I will take you through some of the work that has investigated why sexual objectification occurs and the consequences of being objectified by others. In the process you will see that some aspects of these feminist theories are correct, but that there are more variables at play. Although I will focus on the objectification of women by men, there is a much richer story to be told that includes the increasing sexualisation of men and the effects of self-objectification across all genders.

In what ways could we consider another person as an object? We might value a person only for the sexual gratification they offer us. We could perceive one lover as much the same as another, interchangeable if they can offer the same satisfaction. We might deny others agency and autonomy, viewing them as lacking their own thoughts, hopes and dreams. In the worst cases, we might view another person as a thing we possess or own, or as an object that can be broken and violated.

The preceding examples were given by American philosopher Martha Nussbaum; within psychology, we reduce these down further to a two-dimensional structure. First, we might focus on a person purely for their objective use. This is reducing a person to the mere status of a body or an instrumental object. Second, we may view the target of our objectifying gaze as lacking certain qualities. This is the dehumanisation dimension, and is characterised by viewing a person as lacking attributes that divide humans from animals and objects. It may also mean seeing a person as lacking the capacity for agency, planning and action, or experiencing less sensation and perception when compared with a non-objectified person.

Consequences of Objectification

Let’s consider how some of these theoretical concepts might apply in real life. After all, if nobody is harmed, then why should we concern ourselves with abstract musings?

There has been a lot of discussion, especially in recent years, about portrayals of women in the media and what effect this might have on young women and girls especially. For instance, there may be greater numbers of girls and women being partially or fully exposed in film and television in our current age compared with previous eras. This has led to fears that girls will feel pressured to become sexually active at younger ages and “grow up too fast”. Additionally, the increasingly slender models that adorn magazines and runways have been the centre of many critiques of the fashion industry. These criticisms suggest that exposure to these unrealistic and uncommon body shapes creates anxiety in women over their own body shapes, affecting their self-esteem, intimate relationships, perceptions of food and diet, along with a range of other factors.

Psychology has sought to explore whether these fears are well founded. The results so far are not reassuring.

Women who objectify themselves are more likely to objectify other people and are also more likely to have a poor relationship with their own body. For instance, women who self-objectify suffer greater body shame and feel more anxious about how they look. Shame and anxiety have been linked to eating disorders and a higher likelihood of suffering depression.

The consequences of objectification are not just limited to individuals who objectify themselves. An individual who sexually objectifies another may hold negative beliefs towards their target of objectification, which then influences the way they treat that target. Psychological studies consistently demonstrate that changing the clothing that a target is wearing can change how much he or she is seen as fully human. A woman presented in lingerie or a body-revealing outfit tends to be considered less human, have less mind and be seen as less warm and competent compared with the same woman who is wearing clothing that covers her body. Similar effects have been found for men – sometimes the effect is even greater for men clad in underwear when compared with the reduction in humanness in female lingerie models.

Other studies have focused not on the amount of clothing a model wears but instead on the amount of face that a target shows. The rationale is that a higher face-to-body ratio will be more humanising. The face is the most expressive part of a person’s body, the component that gives us uniqueness as individuals. It is also the body part most likely to humanise a person to others. The more of somebody’s face we see, the more familiar, likeable and relatable they seem. The less face we see, the less individuated and unique that person appears. This line of thought has serious implications for many types of media, such as advertising, in which models are often reduced to mere bodies, with faces either partially or completely out of frame, or turned away from the viewer in a depersonalising stance.

Denying humanness to another person can have serious consequences in our behaviour towards that individual. One really important implication of this research revolves around the relationship between sexualising women and perceptions of sexual violence. A popular line of thought suggests that a woman who is a victim of sexual violence has somehow brought the attack on herself through her appearance or behaviour. One such justification is the idea that a woman who dresses seductively is inviting unwanted sexual attention.

Psychologists have tested this idea experimentally. This is often done by presenting a short description of the circumstances of a fictional sexual assault accompanied by a photograph of the ostensible victim. Half the participants in a study will receive a photo of a woman in regular attire, while the other half will receive a photo of a the same woman in sexualised clothing – for instance, she may be wearing a bikini, underwear or a low-cut and revealing dress. So far, we know that a greater tendency to objectify women is related to being sexual aggressive towards them (Rudman L.A. and Mescher K., Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2012; 38: 734–46) and that a supposed rape victim presented in a sexual outfit will be seen as not suffering as much from an assault as a more conservatively clad victim (Loughnan S., Pina A., Vasquez, E. and Puvia E., Psychology of Women Quarterly 2014; 37: 455–61).

Why not take a moment now to try out your own quasi-experiment? Spend some time finding two photographs of models from mainstream media – television, magazines or websites. One should be of a target you think has been portrayed in an objectifying way – for instance, there is a focus on her body while little or none of her face is showing, she is wearing very little clothing or she has assumed a submissive position. The other should be of a target you view as less objectified – that is, the reverse of the previous photo. Compare these two photos and think about which of these models displays more:

  • warmth
  • agency
  • experience
  • morality
  • intelligence
  • self-control
  • responsibility
  • emotionality.

These are the types of items that participants in studies about objectification will rate targets on. Consider for yourself what you would think about somebody you thought was lacking in these qualities and how you would behave towards them compared with a person whose personality closely matched these characteristics. Would you be polite to a person you perceive as low on those qualities? Would you want to be friends with them? Would you want to talk to them at a party or be their partner in a group task? Would you even go so far as to feel less pity if something bad were to happen to them? These might be some of the consequences that stem from objectifying another person.

Who Objectifies Others?

We know what sexual objectification is and what the consequences might be for targets. That leaves us with a final question: who are the people who sexually objectify others? We might think that this is quite an exclusive and limited group of people. Perhaps you’re thinking of the creepy person who catches the bus home. Or the sleazy person harassing you on a Friday night with your friends. Although this is still one of the newer areas of research in this field, psychologists have identified characteristics associated with perceivers who tend to objectify others. Two of those characteristics are sex and power.

When we talk about sexual objectification, it seems almost obvious to suggest that people who have a strong interest in sex are more invested in objectifying others. However, this is not the full story. Often, people who hold sexist beliefs or who are inclined towards coercion and violence to gain sexual gratification are more likely to sexually objectify others.

Researchers in this field take the view that, due to social conditioning, men are more likely to objectify women than the reverse. Masculinity researchers note that a traditional masculine identity often requires distinguishing men from women, demonstrating power over women and focusing on sexual conquests and prowess (e.g. Mosher D.L. and Sirkin M., Journal of Research in Personality 1984; 18: 150–63).

These ideologies obviously lend themselves towards men treating women as sexual objects. Of course, not all men endorse these ideas, and not every man who endorses them will treat women poorly as a result.

There is, however, a relationship between such beliefs and sexually objectifying actions. So, both the gender of the perceiver and their thoughts about sex can influence their inclination to objectify others.

Finally, there is a small but important body of research that looks at how the experience of power affects objectification. In experimental settings, men who are given power over a woman tend to think of her as more attractive and want to spend more time with her (Bargh J.A., Raymond P., Pryor J.B. and Strack F., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1995; 68: 768–81).

Since then, other studies have suggested that having social power over other people might lead to dehumanising others and seeing them simply as instrumental objects. This might be particularly dangerous in workplaces, with workplace leaders often given status and authority over subordinates.

Research and Discussion

The real-world outcomes of objectification are serious and deserve consideration in our wider cultural discussions as we try to prevent both negative beliefs and behaviours towards objectified people. Additionally, the research we have exploring about why people objectify others will hopefully lead to interventions that prevent sexual objectification.

Given that this is still a relatively new area of study, there is still a plethora of research to be conducted with many more ideas to be explored.