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Old 09-14-2019, 09:50 AM
Max S. is offline
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What is sexual objectification?


Philosophically, psychologically, and morally speaking, what is sexual objectification and what are the consequences of such objectification?

I did a quick web search for some primers, and found the following:
Inspired by the recent thread in ATMB, "Misogyny and Moderation, again".

~Max
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Old 09-14-2019, 09:53 AM
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Max's opinion


To start, after reading the primers I would take a gender-neutral variant of Bartky's definition: sexual objectification occurs when a person's body or body parts are singled out and separated from him or her as a person, and he or she is viewed primarily as a physical object of sexual desire.

I agree with Szymanski et al. in that sexual objectification of women is widespread. This includes "everyday commonplace" objectification, "immersed forms" like modeling or cheerleading, and "extreme forms" such as rape or sexual harassment. I also agree that the stereotypical standard of women's physical beauty in the media is narrow and often unattainable. It has been so in this country since the Gibson Girls if not earlier. I didn't bother checking their citations for those claims. The basic postulate that sexual objectification can contribute to a number of psychological disorders is mostly agreeable to me, although I am bound to be unsatisfied with the methodology of their citations (it is admitted that most of them use "convenience samples of White, heterosexual, upper middle class, undergraduate women").

I don't agree with their proposed criteria for a so-called sexually objectifying environment. They list five core criteria (Szymanski et al, 20-21):
  1. traditional gender roles exist
  2. a high probability of male contact exists (physically speaking, a male-dominated environment)
  3. women typically hold less power than men in that environment
  4. a high degree of attention is drawn to sexual/physical attributes of women's bodies, and
  5. there is the approval and acknowledgement of male gaze
Of these I would throw out all except (a) and (d), then remove gender-specific references. As a counterexample, a group of schoolgirls at an all-girl school could conceivably constitute a sexually objectifying environment, despite the notable absence of males. The girls might bring sexism from home or other environments, and perpetuate the objectification on school grounds.

Hopping over to philosophy, I have more than a few issues with Kantian sexual objectification. Particularly, I do not think the act of sex itself dehumanizes a person; it is possible and hopefully common to have sex without treating one's partner as a mere object of sexual desire. Nor do I believe women necessarily lose their humanity if they freely choose to become prostitutes or concubines (acknowledging that such a free choice is almost certainly extremely rare); nor do I believe that prostitutes are necessarily to blame for their objectification.

I also have many disagreements with MacKinnon, starting with her definition of gender. I can understand and accept the distinction between gender and biological sex. I do not subscribe to the redefinition of the male gender as the objectifier of females, nor of the female gender as she who is objectified by males; surely it must be possible for a male (gender) to respect a female (gender). Using MacKinnon's definition of gender, advocating for a world without sexual objectification is advocating for a world without gender. I am not willing to bend language to that extent. Personally I would rather think of females as those who for the most part act typical of the female sex, and males as those who for the most part act typical of the male sex. Gender identity is like racial identity: to me, an African American or (American) black is a person who for the most part acts typical of Americans descended from Africans. I consider a person's self-identification to be the single most important and accessible "act" in determining race or gender, but self-identification is only one factor.

Perhaps the typical male objectifies females, but there is a lot more to being a male and it is quite possible to do so without objectifying females. Neither would I say being objectified directly determines one's gender: if one behaves like a biological male but is sexually objectified by others, he is still a male. There is a feedback loop in that being objectified can influence one's behavior, but that influence is indirect (even if pervasive and substantial). I do not argue that gender differences in opportunity or outcome are justified by existing societal feedback. But it does not necessarily hold that objectification causes gender. This is all a dispute of terminology.

I do agree with parts of what she calls "dominance" theory, especially as it applies to race. I just would use dominant and subordinate instead of redefining male and female, because ultimately, there are differences in biology between the sexes that produce inequality under a "difference" theory. As I said above, it's a terminology issue, but it took me a good hour and more than a few double-takes to get past the terminology and understand her dominance argument. Critically, I cannot identify this theory with legal egalitarianism, which would be the difference approach; thus, I see a contradiction between dominance theory and the equal rights amendment. That makes for a major contradiction in MacKinnon's position.

More substantially I do not fully agree with her views on sexuality and pornography. While I agree that sexual violence can in fact be sex to some, I do not generalize this phenomena to all males. Personally I think violence is incredibly un-sexy. I think sexual dominance/subordination is un-sexy. I don't think it is unheard of to think of non-violent and respectful sex as sexy. She didn't have any cites for her claims that men by and large think it's sexy to dehumanize and objectify women. I tried looking up some statistics but lost heart (it seems every press release on sexual desires makes some sort of conclusion that isn't supported by the underlying survey). Anyways, my gut feeling is that a good number of people prefer respectful sex, myself included. We don't fit anywhere in MacKinnon's framework of sexuality, and therefore I refute its validity.

Having rejected the above framework of sexuality it does not follow that all pornography must depict violence or sexual dominance, although I cannot deny that some or possibly most does. The pornography which depicts respectful sex does not propagate the objectification of women as objects to be abused, although such pornography may be a product of it. Therefore a blanket condemnation of pornography as contributing to a cycle of gender inequality and objectification in other settings is not in order. Nevertheless, I agree that pornography by definition constitutes sexual objectification. Whether that objectification constitutes a harm to the actress's humanity depends on the particulars.

I do not subscribe to Dworkin's idea that the woman's humanity is injured when a man watches her pornographic media; nor the idea that sexual objectification necessarily causes harm (though it may usually do so). The media is not itself a person, even if the consumer imagines it to be. Any rights that the woman had over her appearance were forfeited when she consented to the production of the media. Therefore the mere consumption of pornographic media, which entails objectification of a woman's image, does not constitute direct harm to the woman herself...

Unless she didn't truly consent. I have no doubts that some pornographic actresses are basically sex slaves. This is one of the reasons I do not watch pornography. I do think that is a problem and I could support more regulation of the pornographic and prostitution industries, and taxes to pay for such regulation. Perhaps decriminalization of prostitution, a law requiring written consent to appear in a commercially distributed pornographic film (and automatic injunctions unless such consent is produced upon victim request), support for unions, and a fast-track for restraining and protective orders and actions against pimps. I would confiscate and destroy pornographic materials depicting nonconsenting women. There are concerns about truly destitute women (I am not assuming poverty is their fault) who feel it is necessary to prostitute themselves, and I don't have an answer for that right now. Such women might find themselves made into sex slaves, but not all pornography is as evil as 1972's Deep Throat. There are today a number of amateur exhibitionists and professional pornographic actors/actresses who are not sex slaves and enjoy what they do. I've heard professionals give interviews on the radio and in lobby-room magazines. They often speak out against sexual violence and how they have and continue to work hard to defend human rights in the pornographic industry. I believe it.

Then there is pornography which depicts women (or men) enjoying pain or humiliation. In these pictures the sex act being shown is itself sexual objectification. That vile pornography which shows actual rape is beyond contempt. Pornographic media depicting imagined rape or humiliation is untasteful in my opinion, but I guess some people are into it. Remember the furor over 50 Shades of Grey?

Some people say that such imagined violence carries over into the real world. I don't know about that one. I couldn't access Assiter or Langton's papers, but I would like to see their rationale (and possibly citations) behind such a claim. Most adults recognize that violence on the cinema screen does not make it OK to commit violent acts in real life. Similarly, I believe most adults can recognize that pretend rape (consensual) is entirely different than for-real rape. Young children of primary school age may not recognize the distinction between reality and fiction but we don't show children violent movies. Hopefully we aren't showing young children violent pornography, either. I sympathize with those who say pornography isn't a huge influence on men's sexual objectification of females, compared with other sources such as television media or peer pressure.

I also agree that females can objectify themselves. This is as common-sense to me as males objectifying females. Sometimes it seems to me that diets and plastic surgery are the tight-laced corsets of our day.

Finally I am sympathetic to the possibility that not all sexual objectification is bad. That is not to say all sexual objectification is good; I disagree with that statement. It's just that it's not necessarily all bad. I'm not much for evolutionary psychology but thinking of someone's body as an object for sex could be natural mating strategy. Temporary objectification while actually having sex isn't necessarily wrong, for example calling for a partner's body part does not necessarily mean you think they are sub-human, and in the context of immediate intercourse you might be forgiven for thinking of your partner as an object of sex. Even couples inflicting pain and humiliation during sex can do so with love, or so I am told.

~Max
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Old 09-14-2019, 10:03 AM
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Treating a person as a thing is bad.
Treating a person as a thing for your sexual satisfaction is a specific type of bad.
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Old 09-14-2019, 10:50 AM
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If a definition can actually be agreed upon consequences could be discussed. I have a feeling that the condition is impossible to satisfy. I think we live in a physical universe and that procreation is what biological organisms do in order to propagate genes. So I donít see the fuss about desire.

Are there folks who have anti-social or harmful behaviors and thoughts that are strongly influenced by sexual attributes? Of course.
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Old 09-14-2019, 12:56 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Max S.
sexual objectification occurs when a person's body or body parts are singled out and separated from him or her as a person, and he or she is viewed primarily as a physical object of sexual desire.
Good definition, certainly good enough to anchor a discussion.

Quote:
Originally Posted by DrFidelius View Post
Treating a person as a thing is bad.
Treating a person as a thing for your sexual satisfaction is a specific type of bad.
I would backtrack on that a bit. Cautiously.

I think it is not necessarily an across-the-board bad thing to sexually objectify a person. There may be a time and a place for it. I would make the same point about power within a sexualized interaction: it's possible that when it is circumscribed to a play space in which is isn't destructive, it doesn't constitute a political / social problem.

BUT:

What seems self-evident to me is that it's a pervasive problem in our society that female people are sexually objectified perpetually, in every time and place; that many have had the experience of being treated as if the entirety of who and what they are is "sex object". Do male people also get sexually objectified? Undeniably. Do male people also get sexually objectified to the point that they are stripped of being viewed as anything other than a sexual consumable? Maybe some do, or at least maybe some do in some certain contexts. That is is less of a problem overall for males doesn't mean it's irrelevant to the male experience, that it isn't a political social issue for some males. But it has been an overarching and defining problem for female people.
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Old 09-14-2019, 04:39 PM
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IMO it's very closely related to consent. Treating someone as an object, even with just words, is wrong unless they're a consenting adult. So don't use objectifying language (or actions, quite obviously) with/against someone unless you're sure they're a consenting adult.
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Old 09-14-2019, 05:08 PM
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Picking DrFidelius's brain


Quote:
Originally Posted by DrFidelius View Post
Treating a person as a thing is bad.
Treating a person as a thing for your sexual satisfaction is a specific type of bad.
Thanks for stopping by. If you have a few minutes I would love to explore your position. I gather that you define objectification as "treating a person as a thing", and sexual objectification as "treating a person as a thing for your sexual satisfaction".

Do you approach this from a position of virtue ethics? What are your thoughts on the soliciting of prostitution and pornography, for both parties involved? Would you make exceptions in certain cases?

What about fictional characters? Is it possible to sexually objectify a fictional character, who never really was a person to begin with? What do you think about fantasies about real people, where the image of the real person is treated as a thing for one's sexual satisfaction, but the real person themselves is none the wiser? To you, does that count as sexual objectification?

~Max
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Old 09-14-2019, 05:14 PM
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Originally Posted by iiandyiiii View Post
IMO it's very closely related to consent. Treating someone as an object, even with just words, is wrong unless they're a consenting adult. So don't use objectifying language (or actions, quite obviously) with/against someone unless you're sure they're a consenting adult.
Things can't consent. So if you're taking into account someone's consent, you aren't treating them as an object (at least not entirely).
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Old 09-14-2019, 05:23 PM
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Re: Consent


Quote:
Originally Posted by iiandyiiii View Post
IMO it's very closely related to consent. Treating someone as an object, even with just words, is wrong unless they're a consenting adult. So don't use objectifying language (or actions, quite obviously) with/against someone unless you're sure they're a consenting adult.
First the semantics: if consent is present, is it still sexual objectification? Or are you saying that sexual objectification is not wrong if done with proper consent?

Second, what are your views on pornography and prostitution? Is it possible for one to be "sure" enough that the actress or prostitute is a consenting adult, as opposed to some sex slave? 1972's Deep Throat comes to mind. Do you think it is morally acceptable for consent to be given at all in those industries?

When consuming pornography at least, the person being objectified probably doesn't hear or otherwise know what any specific consumer is saying or doing. Does your moral evaluation of sexual objectification carry over to other private actions such as thoughts?

And then there is the question about fictional characters, who do not exist to give consent in the first place. What do you think about objectifying fictional characters? Is it still wrong?

~Max
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Old 09-14-2019, 05:27 PM
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Originally Posted by Thudlow Boink View Post
Things can't consent. So if you're taking into account someone's consent, you aren't treating them as an object (at least not entirely).
Consent could be obtained before you start treating them as an object; i.e. before tightening the gag.

~Max
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Old 09-14-2019, 06:02 PM
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Originally Posted by Max S. View Post
First the semantics: if consent is present, is it still sexual objectification? Or are you saying that sexual objectification is not wrong if done with proper consent?

Second, what are your views on pornography and prostitution? Is it possible for one to be "sure" enough that the actress or prostitute is a consenting adult, as opposed to some sex slave? 1972's Deep Throat comes to mind. Do you think it is morally acceptable for consent to be given at all in those industries?

When consuming pornography at least, the person being objectified probably doesn't hear or otherwise know what any specific consumer is saying or doing. Does your moral evaluation of sexual objectification carry over to other private actions such as thoughts?

And then there is the question about fictional characters, who do not exist to give consent in the first place. What do you think about objectifying fictional characters? Is it still wrong?

~Max
Pornography is fine if itís consensual for the most part. I donít think itís proper to do certain actions regardless of consent.
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Old 09-14-2019, 06:06 PM
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Re: Desire


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If a definition can actually be agreed upon consequences could be discussed. I have a feeling that the condition is impossible to satisfy. I think we live in a physical universe and that procreation is what biological organisms do in order to propagate genes. So I donít see the fuss about desire.

Are there folks who have anti-social or harmful behaviors and thoughts that are strongly influenced by sexual attributes? Of course.
It is difficult for me to understand your meaning from so few words. Please correct me if I misread you (and I suspect I have misread you).

I think you are saying it is somewhat natural to view a person as a physical object of sexual desire. What is natural cannot be immoral (?), therefore to view a person as a physical object of sexual desire is not immoral.

I had taken it for granted that acting on sexual desire, though perhaps natural, is not always morally acceptable. To act on other desires ("I want your food because I am hungry"), though perhaps natural, is not always morally acceptable.

For the virtue ethicist, it is usually immoral to reduce another human being to subhuman status. For the Abrahamic and Confucian deontological ethicist, it is usually one's duty to refrain from such desires except towards one's spouse(s). For the Buddhist, it is usually considered virtuous to refrain from all desires whenever possible. For egalitarian deontological ethicists, it is usually one's duty to treat other human beings as equals. For most consequentialists, if we assume sexual objectification causes unnecessary and avoidable harm, it's immoral.

Maybe you don't fit into any of those categories or disagree with my characterization. I would like to hear what you think.

~Max
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Old 09-14-2019, 06:23 PM
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It is difficult for me to understand your meaning from so few words. Please correct me if I misread you (and I suspect I have misread you).

I think you are saying it is somewhat natural to view a person as a physical object of sexual desire. What is natural cannot be immoral (?), therefore to view a person as a physical object of sexual desire is not immoral.

I had taken it for granted that acting on sexual desire, though perhaps natural, is not always morally acceptable. To act on other desires ("I want your food because I am hungry"), though perhaps natural, is not always morally acceptable.

For the virtue ethicist, it is usually immoral to reduce another human being to subhuman status. For the Abrahamic and Confucian deontological ethicist, it is usually one's duty to refrain from such desires except towards one's spouse(s). For the Buddhist, it is usually considered virtuous to refrain from all desires whenever possible. For egalitarian deontological ethicists, it is usually one's duty to treat other human beings as equals. For most consequentialists, if we assume sexual objectification causes unnecessary and avoidable harm, it's immoral.

Maybe you don't fit into any of those categories or disagree with my characterization. I would like to hear what you think.

~Max
I don’t think it’s wrong to think of someone as desirable due to physical attraction. I don’t think it’s wrong to express interest and work to achieve a relationship. I think it’s naive to argue that humans are not animals and largely governed by biology.

I do think where morality comes in is that in a society like ours we have recognized that individuals have certain intrinsic rights and most of our brains have the structure to learn to navigate that environment. Even if those particular rights are difficult to articulate precisely we still generally recognize they exist in some form. So my interpretation of how to act, in so-called meat space, is that one should err on the side of treating others how a normal person would like to be treated.

Example. You are walking with a friend and notice someone with a nice physical feature. You whisper to your friend “hey she has a nice booty!” No harm.

Example 2. You walk up to a woman in a setting where a sexual advance is completely unexpected and invade her personal space and say “hey you got a nice booty!”

I personally think that’s problematic. And in most cases I wouldn’t think that a woman’s approach would be as problematic. Which is probably technically sexist. But that’s ok.

Last edited by octopus; 09-14-2019 at 06:24 PM.
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Old 09-14-2019, 07:29 PM
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What is sexual objectification?


I know it/her when I see it/her.
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Old 09-14-2019, 07:55 PM
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Things can't consent. So if you're taking into account someone's consent, you aren't treating them as an object (at least not entirely).
My point is that "objectifying language" is okay with consent. So is "objectifying action". Such folks don't truly think of each other as objects, because they valued obtaining consent... but they might pretend they do, if that's what they're into. And that's fine, as long as consent is present.
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Old 09-14-2019, 08:58 PM
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For the virtue ethicist, it is usually immoral to reduce another human being to subhuman status. For the Abrahamic and Confucian deontological ethicist, it is usually one's duty to refrain from such desires except towards one's spouse(s). For the Buddhist, it is usually considered virtuous to refrain from all desires whenever possible. For egalitarian deontological ethicists, it is usually one's duty to treat other human beings as equals. For most consequentialists, if we assume sexual objectification causes unnecessary and avoidable harm, it's immoral.

Maybe you don't fit into any of those categories or disagree with my characterization. I would like to hear what you think.

~Max
I think what happens between two or more consenting adults in the privacy of their own lives is none of anybody's business. Even with that stipulation plenty can go wrong. Interpersonal dynamics are not always a level playing field. People get hurt. People experience regret. People's emotions are often complex and unpredictable. Trying to classify people's attitudes about sex into well defined philosophical behavioral categories is folly. They may think they are one thing only to discover they are something else under variable or unpredictable circumstances.

To quote Bill Maher: "Doesn't anybody just fuck anymore?"
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Old 09-14-2019, 09:08 PM
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Originally Posted by Max S. View Post
To start, after reading the primers I would take a gender-neutral variant of Bartky's definition: sexual objectification occurs when a person's body or body parts are singled out and separated from him or her as a person, and he or she is viewed primarily as a physical object of sexual desire.
Which is, of course, natural. It's what the animal sex drive is all about. We have to work to overcome it and appreciate our sex objects as people.

Last edited by kirkrapine; 09-14-2019 at 09:09 PM.
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Old 09-14-2019, 09:14 PM
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What seems self-evident to me is that it's a pervasive problem in our society that female people are sexually objectified perpetually, in every time and place; that many have had the experience of being treated as if the entirety of who and what they are is "sex object". Do male people also get sexually objectified? Undeniably. Do male people also get sexually objectified to the point that they are stripped of being viewed as anything other than a sexual consumable? Maybe some do, or at least maybe some do in some certain contexts. That is is less of a problem overall for males doesn't mean it's irrelevant to the male experience, that it isn't a political social issue for some males. But it has been an overarching and defining problem for female people.
Many years ago, I once was riding my bicycle with my shirt off and a group of young women in a passing car hooted and hollered at me. It did not embarrass me -- but I can well understand how it would have been different if the genders were reversed.
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Old 09-14-2019, 09:19 PM
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XKCD on catcalling.
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Old 09-14-2019, 09:24 PM
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I think what happens between two or more consenting adults in the privacy of their own lives . . .
. . . has commercial possibilities yet to be exploited!
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