In the wake of the Women's March protests all over the world, in which women and men stood up against oppression of every kind, it feels like kind of a downer to talk about sexual objectification of women and the negative effects it has on their treatment in society. However, it's an important conversation to have, particularly in light of new research that conclusively links sexually objectifying attitudes about women in young American men to their likelihood of assaulting them. It's not the first of the studies in this area, but it does mean that it needs to be at the forefront of our attention, particularly in an environment where the rights of women seem to be under threat of erosion with every passing day.
The definition of sexual objectification is a bit more specific than just "ladies being props." In Femininity & Domination, one of the founding texts for the way in which we talk about objectifying women, Sandra Lee Bartky defines it as what happens when “woman’s sexual parts or functions are separated out from her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or else regarded as if they were capable of representing her."
Groundbreaking work has shown that being sexually objectified leads to body shame, self-objectification, and body surveillance among women, and that women who have these experiences are at elevated risk of sexual violence. Alongside its impacts on women's experiences of their own bodies, it also leads to violence, and it's important that we understand why.
It Establishes The Concept Of Woman-As-Object For Male Gratification
You may be wondering why the sexual objectification of women has anything to do with violence if it doesn't explicitly depict violence itself. If nobody's suggesting overtly that rape or violence against women are a good idea, surely objectification can't be to blame? Well, not really. Research indicates that it doesn't just end with women being depicted as objects without humanity, needs or rights; it's about what they're objects for. The message, unfortunately, is often for gratification of dudes. And that approach can lead to some serious problems for women's safety.
An extensive and terrifying study published in Archives Of Sexual Behavior in 2016 points out how this link tends to work. According to the scientists behind it,
"the more men are exposed to objectifying depictions, the more they will think of women as entities that exist for men's sexual gratification (specific sexual scripting), and that this dehumanized perspective on women may then be used to inform attitudes regarding sexual violence against women (abstract sexual scripting)."
The study itself looked at college men who were attracted to women, and found that men who'd been exposed to a lot of material about women as objects were more likely to have "attitudes supportive of violence against women." If something is in the world purely for your benefit and isn't depicted as having its own agency or needs (including any that need prioritizing over your own), you're not going to feel too bad about breaking it.
How We Know Objectification Leads To Violence
One of the first ever direct links between objectifying attitudes and actual violence against women has just been found in a study released by the University of Kent this week. This is, needless to say, hardly charming news. (The study itself took place among adolescent British kids in an area of London that has a bit of gang activity, which may lead people to #NotAllMen it, but the researchers took care to include both gang members and kids who'd never been near one in their lives.) And across both groups, the "objectification-aggression link," as the researchers called it, persisted: exposure to objectifying material about women was a significant predictor of aggressive behavior towards girls. And these kids were between 12 and 16 years old.
Unfortunately, this study isn't alone. A 2014 study of alcohol use and sexual violence against women in adults found that objectifying views of women were a "mediating factor;" in other words, the more objectifying views male participants had, the more likely they were to make unwanted sexual advances (or worse) while drunk. And another study from the same year published in the Journal of Sex Research found that young men who read men's magazines (which frequently feature objectified women in ads) had "lower intentions to seek sexual consent and lower intentions to adhere to decisions about sexual consent," though cause and effect there is a bit less clear.
Objectification Affects How Men Treat Victims Of Assault, Too
Perpetration of violence isn't the only thing that can go wrong in objectification of women; it also heavily influences how we react to people who've been the victims of violence themselves. Several studies have found that people who have sexually objectifying views of ladies tend to be less sympathetic towards them after violence. One, in 2013, showed 60 undergraduates in Britain images of objectified or non-objectified women, and then informed them that she'd been a victim of sexual violence. The objectified woman was given more responsibility for the assault, and subjects showed less moral concern for her or her mental state.
Another, in 2005, found links between degrading images of women displayed in fraternities and attitudes supportive of rape, while a third in 2012 discovered that playing video games with serious sexual objectification of women and anti-female violence increased male acceptance of rape myths. (The standard for assessing this is the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale, which asks participants how much they agree or disagree with statements like, "If a guy is drunk, he might rape someone unintentionally.") A lot of these studies were about short-term thinking after seeing objectified images, but it's something for men to remember: even if sexual objectification doesn't lead to violence, it can still hurt the victims.