Are You Sexually Objectifying Yourself?

July 7, 2017

sexual objectificationEver since the second wave of feminism in the 70s, we’ve heard a lot about the “male gaze,” which is defined as “the way in which the visual arts and literature depict the world and women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasure.” The phrase was coined by film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975. It is perhaps more commonly referred to as the sexual objectification of women.

But what about women who consciously present themselves as objects of sexual pleasure? Some claim to find it empowering. Others use it as a strategy to attract men. They are disappointed when they have trouble securing a relationship, or find that they are in a relationship with a jerk.

Professor Gary Lewandowski, founder of the excellent blog The Science of Relationships, addresses the effects of sexual objectification on relationships in a new article: Want a satisfying relationship? Don’t present yourself as a sex object.

How common is sexual objectification by men?

Using the definition of “men checking out women and staring at their bodies,” one study found that women experience it personally once every two days. But they reported seeing other women objectified 1.35 times per day.

Lewandowski offers a more comprehensive definition:

“Objectification occurs when one person treats another like a thing or commodity, ignoring his or her humanity and dignity. Objectifying a woman reduces her worth down to her physical appearance. It reflects the view that women’s bodies are objects of sexual pleasure without regard for the living, feeling, thinking people inhabiting them.”

One prime example is the recent debate around catcalling, which men defend as a compliment. (It is not – it’s predatory and scary.) Many women also experience sexual objectification in class, at work, or anywhere men seek to diminish their accomplishments.

How common is sexual objectification by women – of themselves?

Obviously, most women do not enjoy being dehumanized and reduced to a means of sexual gratification. But some like it and consciously objectify themselves. Lewandowski offers the fictional example of Joan on Mad Men – she wields her body as a weapon to get what she wants, so the male gaze is critical to her achieving success. (Remember when she had sex with a client to make partner?)

Popular culture is filled with examples of women sexually objectifying themselves as an offering to men. In return for that offering they expect special treatment and privileges. From Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life to Marilyn Monroe to modern porn actresses, we see women inviting the male gaze in photos and film.

There’s been a longstanding debate in the feminist community about sexual objectification. For feminists, it’s not degrading if the woman has the power. For example, if she chooses to dress like a sex object, she is empowered, because a man cannot turn her into a sex object for himself without her consent. That seems clear enough. However, there is a strategic consideration as well – if she wants a meaningful relationship, what does her overt sexual display communicate about her objective?

One of the most common questions I receive from women goes something like this:

“I met this guy and we really connected. We both agreed we wanted to keep things casual, and it’s been going great. He’s really opened up to me and we see each other pretty frequently. Do you think he might be interested in me as more than a FWB? I just think we have great potential for something more!”

In this case, the woman communicated her desire for casual sex verbally, even though it’s likely that was never what she was after. She’s inauthentic.

Sometimes I hear from the writer after the arrangement has blown apart, when she angrily claims she has been used and f*cked over. I always offer tough love in response to these emails – she got exactly what she said she wanted, and failed to inspire a 180 in the guy. That’s on her.

When you focus your dating efforts on looking like a sex object, you’re likely to meet your stated objective, which is sex.

How does sexual objectification work in relationships?

A group of studies: Sexualized, objectified, but not satisfied set out to explore what the dynamics are in committed relationships. How happy are women in relationships where the focus is on the woman’s sexy body?

“Across three studies of heterosexual women in relationships (N = 114, N = 196, and N = 208), results showed that those who enjoyed sexualization tended to feel more objectified by their partner, which in turn related to lowered relationship satisfaction.”

Even the women who said they enjoyed being sexually objectified by their partners reported lower relationship satisfaction than other women.

It’s important to note the difference between sexualization and objectification. Sexualization is the attention a man gives to a woman’s body. Women in relationships want their partners to find them sexually appealing – after all, sexual attraction is the basis for reproduction. It’s a question of whether the woman feels valued for anything other than her body. If her partner sexualizes her to the exclusion of other aspects of who she is, she’s going to feel badly about herself, and ultimately her relationship.

“One study has shown that the extent to which heterosexual men value their partner’s body is related to lowered relationship satisfaction, unless he also values other nonphysical attributes (Meltzer & McNulty, 2014).”

The more women enjoyed being sexualized the more likely they were to feel objectified. The dynamic is a vicious cycle – women who make themselves sexual objects attract men who see women primarily as sex objects. In the short term, her strategy is effective, but over time she begins to crave emotional intimacy and wants to be valued for her other qualities – this is the conundrum of the women who pretend to be OK with casual early on.

“Women who enjoy sexualization may be more likely to feel objectified by their romantic partner for a number of reasons:

  • A woman who enjoys sexualization may seek out a mate who objectifies her so she can receive sexualized attention within the relationship.
  • The reverse may also be true; enjoyment of sexualization may be a particularly attractive quality to men who tend to objectify women.

This association appears to have negative consequences for heterosexual women in relationships because those who feel objectified by their partner tend to be less satisfied in their relationship.”

Dating Strategy

The only dating strategy that makes any sense is WYSIWYG. Pretense and lack of authenticity sends you down a dead-end road, because you’ve agreed to terms up front that you cannot maintain over time without making yourself miserable.

Making yourself a sexual object for the male gaze is an excellent strategy if you want frequent casual sex and to remain emotionally disconnected from men. For some women, this is a choice, and they may well find it empowering.

For women who seek a great love and all that entails, serving yourself up as a sexual tidbit is going to bring the wrong boys to your yard. Most men – and 100% of relationship-oriented men – will reward you for saying “I don’t do casual” in the way you present yourself. Men won’t have permission to view you as “good for one thing” if you don’t view yourself that way.

Let’s discuss!